Monday, 20 February 2017

Well That's Nice

I'm still not confident that the schedule for our revived Junior Church has worked its way into popular consciousness (or any other kind, to be honest) so, as the third Sunday in each month approaches, I send out lots of emails and pop it on Facebook and the church website to make sure that as many people are reminded as possible. The old adage probably holds good, that people need to be told about something seven times in different forms before it finally registers. Six children turned up this Sunday, despite it being the end of half term, and that was fine. 'I think we've cracked this', said Erica, who helps out with Junior Church. 'Six children makes it worthwhile. It was - fulfilling.' I think this is one of the most encouraging things anyone has said to me in my seven-and-a-half years here. 

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Making It Real

Our Lay Reader Lillian has been co-ordinating a small group reorganising the entrance area to the church, where we display a variety of notices, on a more rational basis. We were clearing up some of the notices and discarded bits and pieces this week when we discovered a small magazine. Making It Real Part 6, it’s called, and consisted mainly of a cartoon version of part of the Gospel of St Luke and an article by Ben Griffin, a former SAS soldier who started the UK version of Veterans For Peace as a result of his experiences in the Afghanistan War. On investigation this publication turns out to have been produced by a very small collective of Christian anarchists based not at all far away in Guildford: thus Surrey continues its strange tradition of harbouring this way-out form of radicalism (shades of the Diggers at Weybridge nearly 400 years ago).

This group, it turns out, are freegans, guerrilla gardeners, supporters of whistleblowers and pacifist veterans, and altruistic organ donors, among other things. I don’t agree with a lot of their analysis. ‘We see the richest and most powerful people in the world killing for, consuming and then wasting most of the world’s resources, and destroying the planet in the process, why do we work for them in the vain hope to be more like them?’ Making It Real asks. I don’t see many people I know who are motivated in that way. They don’t want to be like the super-rich, they just want security and peace, more even for their children than for themselves. There is certainly a ratchet effect that escalates our expectations of what a good standard of living means; but basically most people are content with modest quantities of basic things – food, clothing, shelter, recreation, and self-realisation. But complaining about this group getting that wrong is a bit picky. Frankly they’ve got a lot of the big picture right.

Most of us are moderates, cavillers and compromisers; and without the occasional extremist I suspect nothing much would ever move forward. I’m not going to start foraging for food out of Swanvale Halt’s bins, but I’m not going to have a go at them for trying to live like that. I will even remember them in my prayers because that kind of extremism is what the world needs. 

Thursday, 16 February 2017

"Bishop Apologises for Accidentally Voting the Right Way"

The figures from the General Synod's vote on the bishops' report yesterday were as follows (just for those not versed in the ways of Anglican decision-making, the Synod votes by 'houses' - bishops, clergy, and laypeople):

House of Clergy: 93 for, 100 against, 2 abstentions.
House of Laity: 106 for, 83 against, 4 abstentions.
House of Bishops: 43 for, 1 against.

The one errant member of the episcopal bench was the very middle-of-the-road figure of the Bishop of Coventry. Now, it might not unfairly be commented that the Rt Revd Christopher Cocksworth not only is unaccustomed to rocking the boat, he may not be completely confident of where the boat is. It turned out that he'd pressed the wrong button when he was voting. It could happen to anyone, but let's hope a similar imprecision doesn't afflict President Trump regarding a different button which is never far away from him.

Again, for those not familiar with these things, even though the Houses of Bishops and Laity voted in favour of the report, it fails because the House of Clergy voted against it: all three have to be in agreement, on some matters with a two-thirds majority in each. I wonder whether ordained people in the Synod voted against the report more strongly because the existing practice, which it endorses, affects them more than the laity. The report justifies barring homosexual clergy from marrying (even though they do, and nothing happens to them) and prying into the sexual habits of ordinands on the grounds that clergy have an 'exemplary' role and therefore different standards of behaviour are expected of them than laypeople. I think this is ludicrous. The moral standards expected of laypeople and clergy are surely exactly the same. It makes no sense whatever to suggest that something which is right for a layperson to do is wrong for an ordained one. The difference is the sacramental nature of the ordained life: the ordained person has promised to try to live by certain standards, whereas the layperson hasn't.

The vote clearly shows how the Church of England - or at least those it elects as its representatives to Synod - is still divided about this, apparently roughly evenly. It may not be as simple as that, though. Some of those who voted to 'take note' of the report may not be opponents of further advances in the position of homosexual people in the Church, but rather supporters who felt that this was the best they could get at the moment (I might have felt like that). Some of those who voted not to 'take note' of it may not be supporters of greater rights for same-sex Christians, but rather those who are dissatisfied even with the limited concessions it makes. 

'We haven't coalesced around an end point', said the Bishop of Willesden after the vote, 'we haven't even begun to find a place where we can coalesce ... We don't know the next stage, nor when or whether we can bring another report to Synod.' Such indeterminacy will make the Bench of Bishops extremely uncomfortable, but at least this result shows them the direction they should be going in. 

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Sources of Wrong

When our diocesan bishop revealed that he had been one of the boys beaten by John Smyth at the Iwerne Camps in the 1970s, there was around the diocese first mild surprise and then sympathy. It seems all to the good that a Church leader can talk about horrible things of this kind openly, and a sign of how far we’ve come since the time when clergy were supposed to present themselves as impervious and distant, for the good of the flock.

Towards the end of his statement, Bp Andrew pleads that those who went through John Smyth’s abusive behaviour should not be ‘used as pawns in some political or religious game’. He surely has in mind articles like this one from the ever-reliably-outraged Fr Giles Fraser connecting Smyth’s violence to a toxic Imperial vision of masculinity underpinned by Evangelical Christianity, a visceral reaction against the poofiness of Victorian Anglo-Catholicism. Fr Fraser (as usual) paints a compelling picture, and there is no doubt that Smyth made sure his victims voluntarily submitted themselves to his ‘discipline’ by using the standard Evangelical theology of the camps. Bp Andrew’s claim that abusers operate within all religious frameworks and none is of course true, but it glosses over the extent to which religious language and ideas facilitate abuse in these cases and is even used very effectively to make the victims collaborate in their own suffering. The common elements include removing children and young people (and in other versions of this kind of thing, adults too) from contexts of normality into an abnormal one in which their normal relationships don’t count, creating circumstances in which authority is not questioned, and rearing them in an ideology which works to removal critical thinking.

In this case, more specifically, I think there is some meat to the allegation that the Imperial cult of ‘manliness’ and Christianity were connected, even long after the Empire ceased to be relevant. You can see this again and again in the biographies of public-school chaps from the late Victorian era onwards. But that was just one facet of a wider culture in which the beating of children was accepted and expected, which Christianity didn’t produce, however much it may have collaborated with it.

Our curate Marion told me that her husband (an Old Wykehamist) came from exactly the same social and educational echelon that would under normal conditions have taken him to the Iwerne Camps. ‘I don’t think he’s ever been as grateful for being brought up a Roman Catholic’. Because nothing like that ever happened in the Catholic Church, of course …

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Swanvale Halt Film Club: Fall of an Empire (AKA Katherine of Alexandria) (2014)

Oh dearie, dearie me. Apart from a lapse regarding The Turin Horse, I usually operate on the principle that if you can’t say anything nice you shouldn’t say anything at all. It is very, very hard to say anything nice about this film, which comes across like an extended episode of Xena the Warrior Princess without the laughs. You do get to see some extremely elderly ‘name’ actors like Edward Fox, Joss Ackland and Peter O’Toole who were presumably very cheap due to age, and Steven Berkoff who is just cheap anyway, while beautiful Nicole Keniheart as Katherine (Katarina? they can’t decide what to call her) fascinates by her sheer impassivity. It’s as though the director’s told her, ‘You’re a saint, you’re supposed to be serene’, and as a result she delivers her often gnomically incomprehensible lines with barely a flicker in facial expression throughout the whole 106 minutes. Actually, no, she does have two expressions: alive and dead. She really does look the part, but if only that was enough. And there, so far as criticism goes, we will leave matters.

Of course I watched Fall of an Empire because of the treatment of St Catherine, and, if ambition is in itself laudable, the film is to be lauded for that, anyway. It’s an attempt to take the Catherine story out of pseudo-history and insert it into the realities of the early fourth century. Here, Katherine, a strangely and precociously intellectual Egyptian peasant girl, is seized by loopy Emperor Maxentius and grows up in his palace in Alexandria. In adulthood she sends apparently innocent but in fact incendiary poetry out across the Empire inciting the barbarian peoples to throw off the Roman yoke, a sort of Katniss Everdeen of the mind. Tangled with her protest against imperial power is her rebellion against the Roman gods and the decision of insurgent Emperor Constantine – confusingly her childhood friend and anxiously searching for her – to abandon the old ways too. Of course it’s just as much pseudo-history as the legend it’s re-imagining, but you can see how this actually makes for rather a powerful story: it just all goes wrong in the telling in ways it would be hard to enumerate.

But there is one point where the film achieves a genuinely iconic image; and it’s not the execution on the wheel. Katherine sits before a group of senators dragged in to debate with her, the narrative’s parallel for the legend of her converting the fifty pagan philosophers, propped against a crutch after her ankles have been smashed, a crutch which echoes the cross. Battered, filthy and yet luminous, she calls the gods of Rome ‘mists and fallacies’, lies and liars: that was no more than Homer had said, after all, and with its gods goes all the authority of Rome. Here is a glimpse of what might have been, something genuinely radical and grand. All martyrs, in the end, are rebels against power in the name of a power that is deeper, greater, and more ultimate, and that idea is never less than compelling.

Friday, 10 February 2017

What It Is To Know the Truth

Do you remember us mentioning, a couple of months ago, the question of President Trump's possible status as an unwitting servant of God? The folk at don't seem to have any doubt. I'm not going to repeat the whole article. Here's just some, to give you a flavour.

I hear the Lord say, "I have chosen you Mr. Trump, and you will be a leader to many, not just of your people, but of the world. You will not just be seen, Mr. Trump, but you will be heard, for I have released a sound in you, and that sound shall be heard around the world. It will ring true and loud, and be like a shock wave in many countries where tyranny has reigned, and they will not be able to keep it out," says the Lord.

"Hearts will rise to meet world problems based on the sound I've released," says the Lord. "Fear will be replaced with faith, doubt with optimism, for tomorrow will be greater than the former days," says the Lord. "My people will hear the sound, and they will believe it.

"America, America, I have called you in this hour," says the Lord. "To stand tall, to stand free, to stand independent and sovereign in the light of My glory. You will lead the world into a new day, My day, My vision, My heart," says the Lord.

"I have chosen Donald Trump to forerun a new model of national leader; yea, even a new form of world leader," says the Lord. "I have anointed him for this time, and his strength is not his own. I have assigned My angels to assist him in the breakthrough, to remove every stumbling block, to extract every demonic levy.

"And My kingdom will advance, My kingdom will wage war, for the battle is Mine," says the Lord!

Leaving aside any ideological points, consideration of which seems to be fairly meaningless, what strikes me is the repeated use of that phrase, 'says the Lord'. This is the terminology used by the prophets of the Old Testament to denote that they are making a solemn pronouncement in God's name, and its repetition in paragraph after paragraph hammers home the same point: we are supposed to draw a parallel between these pronouncements and Isaiah's or Micah's. And the use of 'yea', there's that, too.

Now, the Charismatic Christians I know are seldom so definitive. In fact the way the Spirit seems to 'speak' to them is exactly the same way he seems to speak to the rest of us - by our mulling over the Bible and worship, by vague impressions and images and, very, very occasionally, something more vivid and direct: the difference between them and other brands of Christian is their willingness to talk about it, and perhaps to be more trusting of intuitions and intimations. (As I've got older, I tend to agree with them a bit more.) But they haven't quite abandoned any critical faculty or, indeed, humility; they are reluctant to draw a direct and unmistakable line connecting what they think and what God thinks. I have never met anyone who gives their own utterances the status of Scripture by parroting its forms.
Is this really characteristic of some brands of Charismaticism? Perhaps I'm naive to be so thoroughly shocked that any Christian could use this kind of language. I'm only glad I merely read it on the Internet rather than heard it in person - had that been the case, I would have felt compelled to tear some item of clothing. One shouldn't blithely throw around the word 'blasphemy', but this seems to be an appropriate occasion to use it. 

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Retail Therapy

My friend Cylene had had a disastrous night out a few days before, so on my day off I took her for a meal at her favourite Ethiopian restaurant (Kokeb in North London, in case you’re interested – and don’t be put off by the astroturf bizarrely covering the front yard), and then for some retail therapy in Camden. It is a truism among alternative people that ‘Camden is not what it was’, but then that opinion has been current since about 1990. In some places, ‘gentrification’ means rising property prices and less prosperous residents being squeezed out; or it can simply mean that there are fewer drug dealers in street corners and fewer pools of body fluids around the pubs. It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good. I have never seen much that’s genuinely creative and edgy about Camden: it’s always been touristic and self-conscious.

Of course there are differences. The area seems to have decided that the late Amy Winehouse is a bit of a draw, on the slender grounds that she worked on a market stall there for a few months: her statue now stands in the Stable Market and her image graces T-shirts and memorabilia in the outlets. The one-stop Goth-shops continue to retreat and vanish, but one can’t really lament too much the loss of opportunities to buy overpriced synthetic-fabric corsets and coats that will fall apart after you wear them twice. Of the higher-end retailers, Black Rose is still there, Sai Sai is still there, Burleska Corsets are carrying on, and because Cylene wanted something fluorescent we even ventured into the Stygian pit that is Cyberdog, still plying its varicoloured wares despite the near-complete eclipse of the rave culture that it ventured into once it decided cybergoth wasn’t enough to pay the rent.

But then we found Psylo, and I thought that was genuinely interesting. Its tribal/punk fusion aesthetic clearly isn’t marketed exclusively, or even mainly, at Goths, but there was a Goth lady serving when we were there and the schmutter is at least Goth-friendly, provided your taste veers towards the punky or industrial end of the spectrum. Natural fabrics, muted colours, well-made and showing signs here and there of interesting design – although none of it is to my taste as such, I was quite impressed. None of the clothes and accessories are cheap, but there’s no reason why they should be.

I was more impressed still when I found out the background to the company – not so much the hippie-ish story of its origins in the experiences of two Westerners travelling through the developing world together or its hifalutin self-image, but its management and organisation. The design team and production is based in Bali, and the company’s major outlets are – apart from Camden – there, two in Mexico and two in Thailand, which is an unusual profile to say the least. It seems to be a conscientious employer, a developing-economy business based around exporting neither sweated bargain-basement standard Western fare nor faux-ethnic costume, but something genuinely different rather than just posing at being different. As I say, not for me, but interesting nevertheless. Cylene even made a purchase.