Saturday, 27 September 2014

Habemus Episcopum

Many people across the diocese had a peculiar email on Thursday from our suffragan bishop inviting what appeared to be everyone on any kind of diocesan mailing list to Evensong at the Cathedral on Friday 'to welcome a significant Visitor'. It would be very odd, we thought, to announce a new diocesan bishop this way, so who might it be? Jesus? A former parishioner from Lamford commented 'It's me, but I wanted to surprise everyone'.                                                                                                                           In fact, as it turned out, the mystery guest was indeed our new diocesan. Andrew Watson has been Bishop of Aston in Birmingham for a bit and seems to be a sort of moderate Evangelical in the way his predecessor Bishop Christopher was a moderate Catholic. He has four children as Evangelical clergymen are apparently supposed to, although his wife is also ordained which is a bit more unusual, and ran a very big church in Twickenham. He's written a book whose title The Fourfold Leadership of Jesus makes you want to run away and hide under a stone, although another one (The Way of the Desert) offers more in the way of hope. And you do find stones in the desert.
I was very fond of our former diocesan Bishop Christopher. Although I found his keynote policy, the diocese's 'Common Purpose' statement, a bit wide of the mark, he obviously cared about the local churches and knew about the clergy, and you were aware that he knew his stuff. I was once told that Christopher's predecessor Bishop John was persuaded to allow and actually take part in the technically illegal service of Benediction at the Cathedral because he didn't know what it was, but the Dean assured him that everyone would enjoy it. 
Bishops have less influence on their dioceses than they may like to think, and thanks to the wonderfully anarchic mechanisms of the Church of England that influence can more often (sadly) be felt in making life uncomfortable for people rather than anything positive. I suppose a bishop who was really committed to making a difference could embark on a process of change in the diocesan administration, or even insist that parishes produce mission plans as many already do and we are groping in the direction of doing in Swanvale Halt. But churches are so diverse, clergy are so diverse, the work of the Church is so diverse, and the work specifically of bishops is so ridiculously disparate that it makes it a very hard thing to do.
While we were in the early stages of the business of seeking a new bishop, we were all asked what we wanted. I've only really just worked it out. As far as clergy are concerned our bishop is supposed to be the diocese's Father In Christ, and what I think I would like is somebody I can love as that without feeling too clearly fraudulent. I wonder whether Bishop Andrew will fit that bill.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

More Follies

I have for some years carried the first edition of Gwyn Headley & Wim Meulenkamp's Follies on holiday to help me locate worthwhile structures in whichever area I may be visiting. The other day I found a new edition (well, new-er - the very end of the 1990s) in a local charity shop, right beside Edward Gorey's The Gashleycrumb Tinies as it happened. It's entirely different, written as a gazzetteer rather than a narrative, and whereas the original was characterised by a fine style of writing which in some cases, I've found, is almost more fun than visiting the buildings themselves, this new version perhaps reflects another couple of decades of its authors hunting out mentally-unsound architecture, and has an edge of hysteria running through some of the entries. There are places where G & M admit this themselves, and it's very pleasing to observe. It's also pleasing to find a couple of follies I have noted before, such as Chapel House at Blackfen, making their first appearance in the pages of the definitive handbook of Britain's nutty structures. Queen Adelaide's Grotto at Rame still eludes their attention, however.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Making of Nations

What’s a nation? A group of people share a set of images and references, habits of mind to which they continually return, things which may or may not have happened to them, memories true and memories false; the only stable element in that nexus is the geology and weather of the place where they live, interacting with memory and experience. Such a group of people become a nation when they share a territory large enough to be a polity, and then the shared images and references become the means by which they debate and contest over what to do with their shared resources. That’s all a nation is. It has no stability, no coherent identity. The memories may not be true, the nexus of references has nothing that connects it except continuity. Just co-incidence.

Which is why I have an attachment to the idea of the Union and great scepticism about nationalism – quite apart from the clear havoc the idea of national identity wreaks around the world. I have Scottish friends who have been shocked and disgusted by their country’s failure to tear itself away from the Union, and sympathise with their usually left-wing aspirations which they dreamt of being fulfilled once Scotland was free of the Westminster settlement. But I do have an itch towards the truth, and if the referendum result revealed anything it was that the idea of a Scotland united in purpose and thinking, a Scotland whose population all wanted the same kind of things in the same kind of way, is a fantasy. That’s presumably why coming down from the mountain heights of the dream is so very hard. Nationalism is all about creating fantasies, about forgetting actual history and differences between people in favour of dreams and illusions. The Scots and the English, like everyone else, have essentially the same sorts of interests and needs which are pretty basic and easy to understand. The fact that the social and economic system they both belong to doesn’t really provide for those needs, or what they perceive to be their needs, is something obscured by blaming it either on the English (if you’re a Scot), or immigrants (if you’re English). Just to bring things tenuously back to religion, we once felt we were a Protestant nation, and in fact a Union of Protestant nations, something which now makes sense only vaguely in Ulster and in bits of Glasgow.

The nature of this was brought home to me years ago by a visit to the National Museum of Scotland when I was simultaneously impressed by the wonderful sandstone building and what was in it and perturbed by the tone of the captions. ‘We did this’, ‘we are such and such a people’, they told me – a race having a conversation with itself about itself, a conversation in which I was very definitely an outsider. Who are the ‘we’? Does it include Scottish people who can’t imagine an ancestry stretching back to the Picts? To synthesise the identity of a nation requires ignoring some questions.

This is the same with the English nation as with any other. I have been wondering since the referendum what Englishness may mean, and what sense it makes to be English. Our lay reader at Swanvale Halt, who has had an international career and regularly visits Spain where she has friends, said, ‘I’ve given up trying to answer that question. I think I’m a European.’ But I do feel English, and wonder what that is about.

Conservative philosopher Roger Scruton wrote England: an Elegy back in 2001. Is that helpful? The cover with its cricketer and teacup is almost a satire, and well it may be because there is much in this book to mock. At best it’s an attempt to try and identify what it is Roger Scruton values, rather than what England values: villages, hunting, aristocracy, Common Law. ‘This is not the work of an historian’, he admits, and you may think, well, fair enough, as dreams and illusions may have their own power when enough people believe them; but there’s a limit to the extent to which the trick can work when the illusion fails to match reality.

Roger Scruton’s father was Jack Scruton, the firmly Labour-supporting community activist who fought to defend High Wycombe’s green spaces against the encroaching developments of the 1960s, a fact which I think itself tells you a great deal. I used to work in the museum service in High Wycombe, and researching the history of the town remember being struck by the incredible sense of conflict and disturbance that characterised the time immediately before World War One, a period we often imagine as a sort of permanent Edwardian summer afternoon hung with bees and redolent with the scent of roses. That decade began with riots over the Education Act in 1904 which forced Nonconformists to contribute by their taxes to Church of England schools, and proceeded through footpath and land-access disturbances, attacks on an itinerant preacher which it seemed thousands of people turned up to watch, the Suffragette march through the town which resulted in violence, the 1910 Election Riot in which ten thousand people mobbed the Mayor and the crowds were charged by mounted police with about forty injured, and finally a long, violent strike in 1913 which paralysed the furniture industry. This was one modestly-sized town in a southern county across a mere ten years. This was England, the same England as Roger Scruton’s visionary land of lanes and cricket grounds.

What can it be, then, that my country is? I can’t help turning to Kate Bush:

Oh! England, my Lionheart,
I'm in your garden, fading fast in your arms.
The soldiers soften, the war is over.
The air raid shelters are blooming clover.
Flapping umbrellas fill the lanes--
My London Bridge in rain again.

Oh! England, my Lionheart!
Peter Pan steals the kids in Kensington Park.
You read me Shakespeare on the rolling Thames--
That old river poet that never, ever ends.
Our thumping hearts hold the ravens in,
And keep the tower from tumbling.

Oh! England, my Lionheart!
Dropped from my black Spitfire to my funeral barge.
Give me one kiss in apple-blossom.
Give me one wish, and I'd be wassailing
In the orchard, my English rose,
Or with my shepherd, who'll bring me home.

Oh! England, my Lionheart,
Oh! England, my Lionheart,
Oh! England, my Lionheart,
I don't want to go.

‘An insane madrigal’, I remember one writer calling this. Imagining a country as a lover, and a male lover who is the object of female romantic desire, is remarkable enough; then you have the cascade of colliding images, Peter Pan, Shakespeare, rain and orchards, Spitfires and funeral barges (from World War Two to Sutton Hoo). There’s nothing coherent here except, perhaps, a sort of lyric melancholia, a vision of something which is caught just on the brink of vanishing, like a dream as you begin to wake up: a sense of squinting back into a past you can only just glimpse, and might vanish completely without the ravens to stop the Tower falling.

And then, inevitably, there is Polly Harvey:

Goddamn Europeans!
Take me back to beautiful England
And the grey, damp filthiness of ages,
And battered books and
Fog rolling down behind the mountains,
On the graveyards, and dead sea-captains.

Let me walk through the stinking alleys
To the music of drunken beatings,
Past the Thames River, glistening like gold
Hastily sold for nothing.

Let me watch night fall on the river,
The moon rise up and turn to silver,
The sky move,
The ocean shimmer,
The hedge shake,
The last living rose, quiver.

Imagined through the eyes of (perhaps, given the context of the album Let England Shake) a soldier thinking of home, this is a far darker and more ambiguous vision, something bitter and satiric – which acknowledges that a nation can incorporate violence, filth and loss, and yet can still be the object of love, as much love as Kate Bush’s phantasmagoria of wassailing and clover. But Harvey’s version of England still finishes with that image of the Rosa Conclusa, the Last Living Rose, the end of an experience, the sense of something passing and disappearing. Is that what Englishness is? A glimpse of ruins through the rain, an everlasting grasping at something eternally being lost? Is that all?

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Drink Drink Drink

Here's an issue. Swanvale Halt church has for some years hosted a Music Club which organises concerts (usually in the folk-rock genre, not my sort of thing but others like it) in the church. They commonly draw audiences of a couple of hundred and are increasingly successful. Now when I came to the parish this was what it said in the Parish Profile, under the 'Community' heading:
Swanvale Halt Music Club: Organised by members of the Roman Catholic congregation, this is a monthly music club that hosts live concerts at the church featuring national and international artists.  Performances take place in the church with a Fair Trade cafe bar run in the Church Room.  The profits from the concerts are donated to the church.  
You'd have thought from that that the Music Club is a volunteer-organised, not-for-profit venture. It isn't. It's actually part of the business of a local music promoter who happens to be a member of the Roman Catholic congregation, and doesn't donate all its profits to the church at all - it's just that in its first couple of years the events weren't really making a profit. Now they are, as the events and the venue have become better known. It took me quite a while to work out what the real situation was, and I remember one member of the church in my first year here getting very angry when I referred to the Music Club as 'a community organisation'. I'd forgotten what the Profile had said until I looked it up again this morning. 
Almost every time we have a PCC meeting, or any other discussion that touches on the matter, there's a real feeling of resentment at our interactions with the Music Club. We don't get enough money from it, we're being exploited, we're bending over backwards to accommodate them, people say. I suspect that some of this is down to the confusion that you can see reflected in the Parish Profile; is the Music Club just a commercial booking like any other, or is it a commercial booking which happens to form an element in the life of the community that brings us benefits as a church and which we want to support by treating it differently?
Last night we had a lengthy PCC meeting which discussed the new draft hiring policy, drawn up by me as an attempt to use theological principles to guide our thinking over what sort of organisations or events we'll allow to use our facilities. Part of this is the question of the use of alcohol, and that touches on all the raw nerves relating to the Music Club. Drink is sold at the concerts, but originally the church stipulated that it was not to be taken into the church itself. The Music Club promoter argued very strongly that his customers couldn't understand this and strongly resented it, and said that he would arrange for plastic tumblers to be used for drinks and pay us extra per concert for cleaning, as this seemed to be what people were most concerned about. He pointed out that many other churches which host music events don't make this distinction. We eventually, but certainly not unanimously, agreed to allow his customers to take alcohol into the church space for a trial 3-month period. There weren't any obvious problems at the end of that, so the new arrangements carried on. 
However trying to work through the hiring policy last night threw up deeper ideological issues. Several PCC members feel very strongly that allowing alcohol which has been purchased to be brought into the church space is 'turning the church into a pub'. The trouble is that they can't really work out why they think this. In the hiring policy I tried to work through the matter and suggested that the sacramental space of the church should be considered separate from the hall adjoining, and that because of the problematic role alcohol plays in society and the idea of the church as a place of peace and serenity we shouldn't allow alcohol to be sold in the church space though we would allow it to be consumed. This doesn't seem to be enough for the PCC. However a couple of weeks ago a baptism family offered to bring some champagne for refreshments after the service: because the hall was out-of-action due to decorating we had the refreshments in the church itself. Everyone seemed OK with that. Furthermore, only one of the PCC is a teetotaler, and to make a big point out of alcohol as a church when you drink in your private life makes it pretty hard, it seems to me, to make the case to outsiders. 
This is the thing that worries me more than anything else. The concerts are arguably the most high-profile point at which the church interacts with non-churchy people, and what we decide has to make sense to those secular concertgoers in terms they can understand, or we risk simply being seen as bigots. I am not sure what I think: instinctively I don't have a problem with alcohol in the church space, although I can see how you could put together an argument against it, and that's what I seem to be doing. I find myself acting almost as a kind of ecclesiastical therapist, trying to help the church work out what they feel and why. 

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Pack Up Your Troubles

We don't normally do a great deal for Heritage Open Day at Swanvale Halt: the church is mid-Victorian and not exactly of startling architectural quality, so it's never seemed that we will get hordes of visitors come to marvel at the ingenuity of our 19th-century forebears. This year, however, to tie in with the World War One centenary, we decided to do something a little different and have a display of relevant memorabilia. A local antiques dealer lent us a cabinet to put things in and I knew I at least had the bronze memorial plaque, issued to the next-of-kin of casualties, which my grandparents dug up from their garden forty years ago, even though I had no idea what else might come in.

In the end the range of stuff we were loaned, from congregation members and general local residents alike, was really rather interesting. It wasn't all directly Swanvale Halt-related, but I decided that didn't matter. As well as the expected range of medals and embroidered postcards, there was:

- a photograph of a local man who enlisted as a Royal Engineer and was then shifted to the Royal Flying Corps, receiving a Military Medal. I've never seen a photo of a medal-awarding ceremony like this: he and three other chaps are lined up in front of the whole squadron arranged around them, with the planes behind;
- a photograph of a group of chaps in their barrack room, presumably having just scrubbed and cleaned it spotless, with a decorative stack of buckets and brushes in the centre;
- a pair of cavalryman's boots bought in a local charity shop;
- an entrenching tool found in a garden shed when the current owner moved into the house, presumably brought back illicitly from the War and then used in the garden for fifty years;
- records of three West Yorkshire brothers, one of whom joined the Royal Army Medical Corps, and the other two of whom were wounded and passed through his ambulance post at different times. One survived and the other died.

Having been a museum curator - and even more, having worked for the Royal Engineers in their museum - this was a bit of a step back into the past for me. It was fun to do, and people enjoyed lending things and telling me about them, and seeing what was on display, even if we still didn't get hordes of visitors from outside the church community.

We had an envelope with Open Day publicity including nice bright pink bunting bearing the logo which I strung along the church fence. On Sunday morning it had disappeared. I wonder what anyone found to do with it.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Modern Ways of Death

A few days ago I mentioned the peculiar sudden rush of funerals in Swanvale Halt. In one of the three I somehow took over the course of the week, one included only one hymn ('Abide with me' - haven't sung that for ages), and another none at all. Instead the music was provided by various popular singers, as I understand Jennifer Rush and Robson & Jerome are, or have been. I know some of my old colleagues would tut at this, at the mawkish sentimentality of pop intruding itself into the solemn business of life and death. But it's another symptom of the mutual estrangement between society and cultural Christianity. Once upon a time the old hymns, and Christian imagery and narrative more broadly, were the language in which English people thought their deepest and most meaningful thoughts, the lexicon of love and hope for which they instinctively reached; what an achievement that was. Some of those lyrics, in truth, were scarcely less sugary than the pop songs which have replaced them, but replace them they have. They are the medium through which ordinary people now express what they want to say, even at the most serious moments. It's not self-indulgent or particularly maudlin: it's just where we are. 

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Out of the Box

Back in Lamford I was given a beautiful Victorian home-communion set which had been owned by a previous incumbent of the parish, but that got stolen. So I bought another from eBay, slipping out of a meeting to bid for it on the church office computer. I've never mentioned it before so thought I would post a picture of it. The paten is engraved: 'Presented with a cheque to THE REV. E.C.HAYWARD, B.Sc., A.T.C.L., by the Congregation & Parish of ST. BARNABAS' CHURCH, HEATON, BRADFORD, as a sincere token of affection & high regard for his FAITHFUL MINISTRY, 1936-1941'. I rather like the idea that the set was rescued from potential collectors and restored to use.

I used it yesterday, in fact, going to take the last rites to a member of the church who very probably only has a couple of days to live. I'd been to take communion to Jeff many times at home since he became unable to get to church, and he was able to receive the sacrament again, though not to speak. We do what we can, and leave the rest to God.