Sunday, 21 January 2018

First Messy Church of the Year

Our Messy Church began just before I arrived in Swanvale Halt, relatively early as our then curate had worked for the Diocesan Education Department and heard about it that way: now virtually every church does Messy. Ours has waxed and waned over the course of the last nearly-nine years and now seems to be waxing again – in fact, we had more souls attending last week than ever before, nearly 90. The theme this time was Creation, and thankfully I attracted less flak for my take on the subject than I did on the previous occasion I tackled it, at Harvest Festival in October.

I’ve always taken the line that the Creation story in Genesis is pretty good guess for a Bronze Age civilization, and in fact far closer to what we know the development of the Earth was actually like than any other ancient mythological account. While thinking about what I might say for the talk, it suddenly occurred to me that the ‘creation of light and darkness’ – God’s work on the First Day – could be read as the creation of order, which is why it predates the appearance of the Sun and Moon (or, more precisely, the ‘greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night’) on the Fourth Day. The ‘separation of the waters from the waters’ on the Second Day can be interpreted as the generation of the elements, the building materials for life; and the anomalous appearance of vegetation on the Third Day makes sense if the first life-forms didn’t appear on Earth, but, as many scientists believe, were transported here by meteorites, perhaps from a vast distance, thus predating the arrival of the Sun and Moon. We might one day discover that Genesis is more truthful than it appears, albeit containing a truth garbled, bent and buckled.

Apparently several families experienced tummy upsets in the days following Messy Church. I had my usual doggy-bag of sandwiches and cake to take home and suffered no such ill effects, so I hope our kitchen will retain its star-rating from the Council. 

Friday, 19 January 2018

Distant Prospects

My dream is that once I retire I will write, at least among other things. There are in particular a couple of clerical figures who intrigue me and I would like to know more about them.

Possibly the Anglo-Catholic History Society, if it’s still going twenty-plus years hence, might be interested in one of them, the first Vicar of my home town, Bournemouth, Revd Alexander Morden Bennett. Fr Wagner of Brighton is a well-known figure in the annals of the 19th-century Catholic Revival in the Church of England, but Morden Bennett, his counterpart along the coast, is almost entirely unremarked-on. Like Wagner, Bennett was a man of independent means – he had to be, as the living of Bournemouth was so poorly endowed no clergyman would take it on for the first few years of its existence (Bennett arrived in 1845). Like Wagner, he refurbished the parish church and founded a swathe of daughter establishments which took Catholic practices further than their parent. He didn’t establish his own order of sisters, but invited some to Bournemouth. Like Wagner, his efforts were not universally popular: a schismatic evangelical church was established to combat Bennett’s principles and on one occasion he was burned in effigy as a ‘Papist’ (in Bournemouth!). He defied the boundaries of his parish to evangelise the potters of Canford Heath in open-air prayer and preaching meetings. The wheel of opinion turned, and by the time Bennett died in 1880 he was treated as a hero of Bournemouth’s early history, the church of St Stephen being built as a memorial to him. I’ve seen a portrait photo of him – a dramatically bald, stern fellow seen side-on – but can’t find it at the moment. He must have been a newly-ordained young clergyman when John Keble’s Assize Sermon of 1833 sparked off the Oxford Movement, so he was among the first generation of priests who took the Tractarian message to the parishes, changing the Anglican Church for ever.

Who might be interested in my second intriguing personality is another matter. He was another Anglo-Catholic, though a far less orthodox one: Fr Lionel Smithett Lewis, Vicar of Glastonbury between 1921 and 1953, who seems to have been absolutely central to the development of Glastonbury as a centre of weirdness, an amalgam of Christian and neo-pagan traditions. Lewis firmly believed the stories about Jesus and Joseph of Arimathea visiting the area in the 1st century, King Arthur, and the Holy Grail: he even tried to get what he thought might be the Grail moved to Glastonbury from Wales so it could be enshrined in the parish church. He was instrumental in starting the Glastonbury Pilgrimage, which is still a great jamboree for what’s left of the Anglo-Catholic movement, and was a great friend of the architect and mystical writer Bligh Bond who designed fittings for the church during Lewis’s incumbency; Bond had been dismissed by the Bishop of Bath & Wells as Director of Excavations at the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey in the year Lewis arrived, after talking to ghosts to aid his investigations. Lewis carried out the funeral of the occultist Dion Fortune, apparently accepting her own estimation of herself as a Christian of some sort. What an odd man.

And talking about the clerical figures of the past gives me an excuse to mention PJ Harvey. In 2010, while recording Let England Shake at St Peter’s Eype, she drew a series of pencil sketches inspired by the radio mast which sits dramatically amid the green fields along a footpath from the church: they appeared in Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope magazine the following year, expressing, so Polly said, the way history repeated itself and wove around particular locations. One showed Edvard Munch; one, TE Lawrence. Munch made sense (one Gothy artist paying tribute to another), as did Lawrence because of the Dorset, and First World War, connection. But the third subject, framed against the radio mast? The Reverend Robert Lowman Lang. He’s an even more uncertain figure than Morden Bennett or Lionel Lewis. He seems to have served his entire clerical career in Somerset, and never reached any greater position of responsibility than Rural Dean of Taunton. What was his link to the Dorset singer? As the portraits of Lawrence and Munch are both taken from well-known photographs, the drawing of Fr Lang must be based on one as well; so where did PJH find it? And why is he wearing a pectoral cross as though he was a bishop? There’s not much material for a biography, I suspect, but there’s a mystery, albeit a little one. 

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

What Are You Looking At?

As an antidote to the miserable news last time, here's a photo from the rectory garden. I've shared images of my visiting deer before, but there's no harm in another. They must come from the woods just beyond the garden further up the hill, but I'm still not sure of their points of ingress and egress. There can't be much to eat in the garden at the moment as the piles of discarded apples from the trees are not in a very appetising state now and most of the lawn is moss!

As it is still the depths of winter I am in the throes of The Great Prune which is why the deer is framed by lopped branches from the apple tree. It never ceases to amaze me how much the plants need cutting back each year: a couple of the bushes put out shoots which can get to ten or twelve feet over the course of the growing season. It keeps me off the streets, anyway. This year my pruning activities have been expedited by the purchase of a hedge trimmer, though they seem to be taking just as long as usual even if they're more exciting.

Monday, 15 January 2018


What was I saying about paying attention to beauty? ‘We’ve had visitors’, were the words that greeted me when I arrived for our hymn practice on Sunday evening. The visitors had made their presence felt, disturbing altar cloths and smashing the coloured candle holders at the statue of the BVM and the icon of St John. Altar cloths can be rearranged and smashed glass can be replaced, thanks to the offices of Hayes & Finch the church suppliers; but then I noticed a burn mark across the icon of St John itself. I unscrewed it from the wall and took it home. Below is what it should look like:

When I bought the icon from eBay a few years ago I thought it was just painted directly onto the wood, but the damage reveals that it was made in a far more traditional manner, with a layer of gauze laid on the wood and then covered with gesso. That makes it harder to repair the picture, and increases the sense of loss.

Icons aren’t just pictures: they are sacramental, bound up within the structure of promise and covenant which keeps the Church of Jesus Christ together. God promises to hear our prayers and we promise to make them, and in the midst is the icon, an image of faithfulness made in faithfulness. To attack an icon is to attack more than the icon. Icons have personalities, and even if only I have really invested that much prayer in this one, for me, at least, our St John is linked to the nature and identity of our little group of Christians. I look at the vile blister obliterating the saint’s face and I can feel the burn. Of course the children who did this won’t have thought about it like that: they won’t have thought about it at all. This act isn’t a product of thought.

To attack an image of a human being isn’t that far from attacking a human being themselves. And this morning as I thought about what had happened and the burning seared into my imagination again a thought came into my heart, This is what your sins do. The aggression and desire and fear you direct towards souls made in God’s image leave scorches and burns on you and on the world. You are implicated in this. So God have mercy on me, too.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Details and Distractions

In a world of seeming madness paying attention to the beauty around you is therapeutic. Some beautiful forms are natural, others artificial; some are produced by collaboration between the hand of nature and of humankind. This door ambushed me halfway down the hill towards church this morning, embraced by its wisteria (I think) which awaits the Spring. The door is caught between stripping and repainting, and just for the moment it shows its loveliest face: it won't be anything like as charismatic when finished.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Stress Points

Between Christmas and New Year, Mad Trevor went to A&E at the Royal Surrey Hospital. He had a very low-level, if painful, medical problem which anyone else would have lived with, but because he has essentially a child's impulsiveness and lack of perspective which magnifies any misfortune into a cosmic calamity (I am not exaggerating) and any pain into the worst suffering anyone has ever had, he had to have something done about it. It would have taken a while to see his GP, so he took himself to the hospital. Once there, and seen by a nurse, he was told it would then take a few hours before he could consult a doctor who might attend to him; he was besieged by his usual obsessional and paranoid thoughts which made sitting in a waiting room absolutely impossible, so he came home without any treatment, and had to live with his problem the way an average person might have done anyway.

I don't know whether poor Trevor's visit to A&E would have made it into the figures, figures which show the NHS straining to meet its targets and obligations. He does reveal some interesting themes, though. I remember a few months ago talking about the state of the health service to a local GP who was barely able to conceal his resentment at the resources being poured into general hospitals rather than the lower tiers of healthcare where they might prevent patients having to get as far as hospital. Trevor needed to see a GP, or someone at a GP practice, rather than go to hospital. He needs to have his mental illnesses treated more imaginatively than by a kaleidoscope of drugs which are all more or less ineffective. He needs, perhaps most of all, to have people around him, perhaps even in some sort of residential setting, who can respond to his obsessional thinking and remind him of what's reasonable and sensible, to introduce the degree of perspective which he isn't capable of providing for himself. Along the lines of the support workers the local council used to provide for a couple of years, who took him out for coffee and shopping and helped him tidy his flat; until the council decided they couldn't fund that anymore, and he had to pay for them himself with money he hasn't got, partly because the mental disabilities the support workers were intended to alleviate mean he can't manage his money in the first place.

Put more resources into those aspects of health and social care and it would go some way to alleviating the pressure on acute health care. I'm hearing some voices on the radio today suggesting this, but I doubt it will happen. Instead more money, if more money there is to be, will be directed towards hospitals, towards the aspects of health care that TV dramas are made about, and more and more patient time will inevitably be sucked towards them. The stress points will simply become more and more sore if that happens. 

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Provoking Wrath

It's been a while since I had young men calling at my door selling domestic bits and pieces from a bag, claiming to be ex-prisoners on a work-creation programme. I've long since decided that I won't buy anything from door-to-door hawkers, having done so frequently in the past. It's surprising that you can find little unequivocal advice on the matter, and that what is out there - at least online - seems to cut-and-paste one particular statement made by some body, at some time. But whenever the police have made any kind of pronouncement about it, the consensus has been that, whatever the truth about the young men with the bags of dusters themselves, the 'scheme' they are part of isn't being organised by any official body but by criminals who are, at the very least, exploiting them, and buying their wares helps no one. Since I started turning the hawkers away, they've stopped turning up, which does suggest there is some sharing of information between groups about who will hand over money and who won't.

One hawker came around yesterday, and I refused quietly and definitely to buy anything from him. Imagining, for a moment, that his story may have had some truth to it, it might have been good to have something positive to offer than just refusal to take part in the structure he's part of, but I hadn't worked that out. He went off cursing me, quite literally, and calling me the Devil. I doubt he would have been quite so vehement about someone who wasn't visibly a clergyperson. People are always taken aback and sometimes angrily resentful whenever I refuse to do something they want, I suppose because at some level they see a priest as an index of reasonable goodness and, if the priest won't go along with their desires, it implies that those desires might not be either reasonable or good.