Saturday, 19 August 2017

Dahlias and Damsons 2017

The Village Show, as I've said before, is part of the church's community-building agenda in Swanvale Halt. It provides a way in for a great variety of people who would never normally come into the church building, but equally importantly it encourages a sense of common interest and endeavour, a meeting-ground for old and young, and offers an entrée for people who've come to live in the area. 

My role in this extravaganza is to take a few photographs, a representative group of which you can see here; to wander about and chat to people I know and occasionally come up with a reason to collar someone I don't; and to act as a generally supportive and encouraging presence to the team who stage the whole event. Then somewhat awkwardly, given how little I've had to do with everything up till then, I come on at the end and award the prizes. In this, I suppose, at many, many degrees of removal, I'm representing my boss, the Queen. 

In the meantime, I try to occupy myself vaguely usefully. I worked out what I might say at the Tuesday morning mass. I filled in the service register for tomorrow and prepared the bits and pieces for the baptism that's due to happen. I have to be around, present, with nothing much to do but unable to do anything else. Today I came up with the phrase 'intense inactivity' to describe it.

The gentleman with the splendid waxed moustache (worthy of The Chap) and the pith helmet didn't win anything, though I did suggest we should have a prize for Best Moustache next year, as something which is grown. He's American and only recently come to live here.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

The Internet is at least Partly Great and I will Defy Anyone who Says Otherwise

There’s a Holy Well at Hethfelton House near East Stoke, in Dorset, and I wanted to find out more about it. I know it appears on the first Ordnance Survey map of Dorset in 1811, but that’s it. Hethfelton House isn’t mentioned in Pevsner’s Buildings of Dorset, and there is no other clue in anything I have here. The assumption is that it was an 18th-  or early 19th-century garden feature.
Within a few minutes of discerning Googling I was able to find:
  •           An article from Country Life which gave a little history of the house
  •           An extract from Hutchins’s History & Antiquities of Dorset about East Stoke, with some details of the development of the Hethfelton estate
  •           Both of these mentioned Dr Andrew Bain, owner of Hethfelton around the right time and the probably creator of the Well (he ‘much improved the estate and grounds’). He was also awarded the gold medal of the ‘Society of Planting’ for planting thousands of conifer trees on the estate
  •           Dr Bain’s biography as a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh
  •           The reference to his award from, not the ‘Society of Planting’ but the Royal Society of Arts: its Transactions from the period is included in Google Books
I can't imagine how long this might have taken without the assistance of the otherwise so dreadful algorithms that rule so much of our lives; dibbing around in far-flung libraries may be pleasant, but it doesn’t half use up one’s allotted lifespan, and I might well never have found out these details at all. At such times, the tyranny of Dr Google seems benevolent indeed. 

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Making Assumptions

I see I don't have time to write the complicated blog post I planned, so here instead, to celebrate the day, is a dramatically sidelit photo of the plaque of the Virgin and Child we have in Swanvale Halt church. Made in the early 1900s by Mary Watts, it has a suitably Italianate look to it despite originating in the Home Counties. And of course, Jesus looks about as baby-like as Brian Blessed playing the Emperor Augustus in I Claudius, which is an authentically medieval/Renaissance approach.

It was the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin today, or the Dormition if you're being Orthodox in mood (for Roman Catholics, the bodily assumption of the Virgin into heaven at the end of her life is a dogma you have to believe; for Orthodox believers, it's an opinion you are free to hold or not; for Anglicans, it's a phrase that makes a churchperson either compose their face into a blank look or go into a swoon depending which bit of the Church they belong to). As Bishop Mervyn Stockwood once reportedly told an Anglo-Catholic clergyman in his diocese who remarked on the day in question, 'I'm afraid that's not an Assumption we share'.

I dragged out S.D.'s old Marian vestments for Mass this morning, and at the end we said the Angelus prayer at the statue of the BVM much to the delight of some present and the bemusement of others. They ring the Angelus here as the call to prayer before Mass and probably have done since my predecessor Fr Barlow's day, but I'm not sure how many people know the words (or, indeed, that there are any words to know). 

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Seeing the Wind

Usually when I sit down and write a sermon it ends up largely how I planned it when I started. Not the other day.

The readings set for this Sunday were from 1Kings, where Elijah encounters God in the 'still small voice' on Mount Horeb after the wind, earthquake and fire; Romans 10, in which St Paul discusses faith and righteousness; and Matthew 14, the story of Jesus walking on the water and calling Peter to come to him. I had thought of the wind - which is very present in both the Kings and Matthew readings - as a metaphor for all the things that hold us back and discourage us, which was all very well.

But like many people I'd always been befuddled by that detail in the Gospel story that Peter walks towards Jesus on the water but then 'saw the wind and began to sink'. Why is it seeing the wind that makes him realise what he's doing is impossible?

I found myself thinking this way. It seems fairly clear that, in the mists of unrecorded history, Yahweh God of the Hebrews was a storm deity: that was how they originally conceived of him. Some of the Psalms, possibly the oldest stratum of Biblical text, refer to him in this way; he makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the winds, they say. Gradually the Israelites come to read the calamitous power of the storm not as a direct sign of the presence of God but as an image for his righteous wrath, provoked by injustice and oppression. So when Peter sees the wind churning up the surface of the lake, that's what he thinks of. He remembers his own unworthiness and the awesome righteousness of God; his fears and doubts about his own acceptability are re-awakened ('go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man') - and he sinks. 'Why did you doubt?' Jesus asks him, and his doubts are not about whether Jesus has the ability to enable him to do this impossible thing, but whether he, Peter, is worthy of it. Which of course isn't the point.

I sat and looked at what I'd just written a little surprised. I can't quite bring myself to believe that nobody has stumbled across this gloss on the text before, but I've never heard it.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Mutual Aid

My brilliant friend Karla casually remarks on LiberFaciorum that she’s ‘contributing voice talent to an audiobook of Kropotkin's The Conquest of Bread’, and quotes from him, in the context of a discussion about the horrors of Brexit and the divisions consequent on the Referendum; I think it precisely summarises the distinction, and distance, between representative democracy and genuine empowerment:

The people commit blunder on blunder when they have to choose by ballot some hare-brained candidate who solicits the honour of representing them, and takes upon himself to know all, to do all, and to organize all. But when they take upon themselves to organize what they know, what touches them directly, they do it better than all the “talking-shops” put together.

As I mentioned a few days ago I am ploughing through the Book of Wisdom at the moment.  This morning brought chapter 38 to my attention, an interesting passage as it’s the only point where the Bible – albeit a disputed bit of it – discusses ordinary working life at any length. It’s not entirely positive; the argument is basically ‘Nobody can be wise if they have to work too much. Artisans have a great deal of skill about particular things, but you don’t ask them to run anything, do you? You need leisure for that, to devote yourself to thought.’ But the text does concede that the labourers – the ploughman, the seal-cutter, the smith and the potter – are not only necessary for the life of a community (‘without them no city can be inhabited … they maintain the fabric of the world’), but know best about their own crafts.

Here is a point of agreement with Prince Kropotkin. Ask the people in a referendum whether the country should leave various international agreements it has entered into, and the answer they give cannot help but be uninformed because the question is too big. Gauging the impact of such an action depends on a whole series of enormous sub-questions about which there can be no agreement: there is an excess of information, pointing in various different directions; there are too many precedents. Reason breaks down because data proliferates beyond its grasp. However, ask a factory worker how to improve her environment and she’ll know a lot about that. This is why representative democracy is not the end of enfranchisement, but its mere beginning; when people begin to control the landscape around them, whatever it happens to be, is when they begin to change. And once they get accustomed to the process of self-organisation in one area, so it may develop into others.

It’s hard work, though, and it’s much easier to delegate decision-making upwards to ‘some hare-brained candidate’ who can be praised or blamed as required. Here, I’m trying to edge the church into the habit of thinking about what it wants to do as a community of Christians, but that doesn’t come easy. Even a little tick-box exercise which says ‘these are the options for action, which do you think are the most important?’ seems to be something people are very happy mentally to put to one side. It creates the possibility of disagreement and the necessity of negotiation, and that’s a bit scary.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017


There is no recorded date for the installation of the east window at Swanvale Halt church, but I suspect it dates to the late 1870s or early 1880s. There are hints in some of the other decorations in the church that its devotional practice was starting to creep up the candle at that time, but that was probably very little to do with the then incumbent, a bluff former soldier who'd been in place for twenty-odd years by then. The following rector was significantly more in sympathy with the Catholic movement in the Church of England, and this bit of High-Churchery is probably from his time.

It wasn't generally the fashion to install rood screens in Victorian churches until the 1890s, and even then only in advanced Anglo-Catholic churches which were trying to be really authentically medieval, like St Cyprian's Clarence Gate. I think our window was a sort of rood screen in glass, fulfilling the same devotional function of linking the sacrifice of the eucharist with the sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary. It looks like a rood, with Christ flanked by the Virgin and St John; and originally the altar would have stood directly beneath it. The priest would have raised the chalice at Mass right below the image of the angel receiving Christ's blood into the spiritual chalice shown in the window. It makes the point.

In reality, the window doesn't quite look like the picture above, as there are in fact three widely-separated lancets along with a vesica above showing Christ in Majesty. I thought it would be helpful to amalgamate them into one devotional image. Only been here eight years before that idea occurred to me. 

Monday, 7 August 2017

And Soothe Awhile the Harrassed Mind

In the torrential rain of Saturday lunchtime I was called down to the church to speak to someone. This is sufficiently unusual, and the voice on the phone sounded sufficiently disturbed, for me to be slightly nervous and take my big umbrella with me not so much to shelter from the rain as to provide some means of self-defence should it become necessary.

Of course it wasn't: he wanted me to see a friend, a lady living in the village who suffers from schizophrenia. I visited, picked my way through the chaos of the flat, listened, prayed and laid my hands on her head, and promised to write to the GP and the Community Mental Health Team. That was about all I could do, and it always feels very limited.

Nobody knows precisely where schizophrenia comes from, though there are all sorts of theories. The voices people with it hear are very often hostile, critical and vicious, attacking the sufferer with their own fears and sense of unworthiness. Often (though of course not always) they seem to be linked with real critical voices people have got all too used to hearing from others, especially from parents and family. Whether the voices are demonic, as some Christians would assert, I'm not sure: schizophrenia dissolves the boundaries between the self and the world outside the mind, meaning the sufferer hears thoughts (the kind of thoughts that flit through all our minds) as external manifestations, so in dealing with it you are instantly propelled into an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of deception and never quite sure what you're dealing with. Either way, the first step in combatting these horrible mental insinuations is to insist on the absolute love of God for the individual, and their worth to him, regardless of what they may have been told in the past. 

Yesterday I met the lady concerned who seemed astonishingly better: almost 'clothed and in her right mind', as it says in the Bible story. I suppose I ought not to be surprised that praying actually had a positive result (of course it may only be temporary, but it's still something), but you do get used to being completely impotent.

Trevor, on the other hand, continues to be a problem. In this lady's case, religion could come in from the outside, as it were, into her situation and supply something solid and objective to reinforce her sense of worth and self; in his, religion is built into the structure of his delusional thinking. It's part of the sickness and it's hard to see far it can help with the cure.