Thursday, 23 June 2016

Something In The Air

Recently I decided that I don't pay enough attention to the important institutions of the parish and make myself available to them, with the exception of our Church school. So yesterday I called in at the old people's Day Centre not to do anything in particular beyond seeing who was around and what was happening. I found Audrey, the manager, in her office in a mood to complain.

"You should have been here a minute ago. I was having to deal with a group of very rude people. They came in to complain about the annual trip to Eastbourne, that they didn't know about it."

"But you don't organise that, and everyone knows it happens every year. And there's still three weeks to go."

"I know! And they were so hostile. There was no call for that. I don't know, everyone seems so bad-tempered at the moment. There isn't a lot of community spirit about."

Well, I wonder why that should be, just at this point in time. I find myself subscribing to a kind of spiritual version of miasma theory: that big events in which everyone is involved, or a community is involved, and the things that are said about them, do have an effect on the way people behave towards one another. Put like that it seems absurd that we should think any differently. Human beings do not, however much they may tell themselves they do, live their lives in a succession of discrete boxes separated by reason. When they get annoyed about one thing, they're likely to get more annoyed about others than they would otherwise be.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Praise, Indeed

‘Numbers at Shimley had slipped a bit by the time I left, I think people were just bored with me’, said Derek, the retired hospital chaplain who comes to say Mattins with us every now and again, recalling his days as a parish priest thirty years ago.

‘Perhaps that’s what’s happening here’, I suggested with a certain degree of ruefulness, calling attention to the gentle slide in attendance at Swanvale Halt over the last two years after five of gently rising support since I arrived. Derek clearly decided it was time to be supportive.

‘It seems to me that what you’re providing here as a church is a traditional model of doing things which is about thoughtful preaching, well-prepared liturgy, working with people pastorally, and faithful, dedicated prayer, and it’s good. It’s doing things properly, about consistency and faithfulness. It’s not exciting, it’s often dull, it’s hard work. But it’s what will keep the Church going when all the flummery has gone, and in the end it doesn’t matter how many people are there. That’s not what’s important.’

That was a summary of what he said, anyway. It’s all very well, and appreciated for its kindness. But in the end the bills have to be paid and you have to have at least sufficient people to provide that thoughtful preaching, well-prepared liturgy, and so on. All this is true, but can easily become an excuse for not challenging ourselves. 

Sunday, 19 June 2016


What on earth could I say at Assembly at the infants school tomorrow? Last time I happened to meet one of the children with his parents in the café and as a result of that conversation decided I'd talk about going to the beach, but that hasn't happened this week. Eventually, as I read a book to clear my distracted mind while cooking Sunday lunch, I thought: books! I will speak about books, leading into talking about what the Bible is and what it means to religious people. I looked back at my old assembly plan notes and discovered that I did this about five years ago. I must have gone through exactly the same thought processes then. It was a bit like the occasion, many years ago, when I found my own name in the visitors' book of a church I had no recollection of ever having been to before.

'Oh, it's been a long day', Trevor sighed on Friday as he sat in my kitchen with a cup of tea. 'When did you get up?' I asked. 'About twelve,' he said. 'It's 3.30,', I pointed out. 

Friday, 17 June 2016

Death and After

Police officers at the scene in BirstallAnyone who becomes known to people they haven’t met runs the risk of becoming a lightning-rod for hate and disturbance. A pop singer is shot dead in the USA; an MP in a small Yorkshire town. Rarely this happens to clergy too, although when they are killed – unless it’s as a result of the kind of random event that could befall anyone – it tends to be by someone they have met and dealt with. I sometimes wonder whether that might happen to me one day, though it doesn’t seem very likely.

You can’t stop unbalanced people being overcome by hate, and attaching it to a particular figure. You can make it harder for them to do anything very damaging with that hate. To kill someone with a knife you have to be very lucky, or really to know what you’re doing, and most unbalanced individuals don’t; guns make it so much easier.

The character of the individual who dies, or the context, makes a difference to what happens afterwards. Years ago Phyl Saville, the President of the Priest’s House Museum Trust in Wimborne where I used to work, was stabbed on her way to church one Sunday morning. It always felt to me as though her gentle, tough, serene faith had already reached out to defuse the evil of her death long before it had taken place. Other deaths are surrounded by revenge and resentment and as a result the hatred escalates. Only lives lived after the pattern of the Cross – whether by religious people or not  – can absorb evil and transform it into hope.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

St Catherine in Dorset: Holy Wells and Wishing Chapels

Of course, I have every interest in seeing wells of St Catherine everywhere, but when I finally get going with The Holy Wells of Dorset (which curiously I’ve never done, apart from a brief gazetteer for a learned journal many years ago) I’ll have to grapple as honestly as I can with the conundrum of whether she does or doesn’t have a well dedication in the county. Once upon a time the first stop for any holy well enthusiast was RC Hope’s The Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England, an 1893 compendium of all sorts of bits and pieces gleaned from local histories, journals, and magazines. In his Dorset section we find:

On a certain day every year the young women of Abbotsbury used to go up to the Norman chapel of St. Catharine, Melton Abbey, where, after drinking the water of the Saint's well, they made use of the following invocation:
A husband, St. Catharine.
A handsome one, St. Catharine.
A rich one, St. Catharine.
A nice one, St. Catharine.
And soon, St. Catharine."

Of course the oddity that springs immediately to the attention of anyone who knows Dorset is the confusion between Abbotsbury and Milton Abbas, places which both have chapels of St Catherine, though only the Milton one is Norman in origin. It’s only at Milton, too, that one finds a well – or rather one finds a 1950s street called Catherine’s Well, rather than any actual watery site. On the old OS maps there’s what looks like a pond at the end of the lane that will one day become Catherine’s Well, but it doesn’t have a name.

Where did RC Hope get his information? He knew very little about the wells of the southern counties, especially, and often relied on bits and pieces of information sent to him. A few years ago the estimable Jeremy Harte (author of English Holy Wells: a Sourcebook) spotted where the Abbotsbury reference had come from (although in that book even he doesn’t include the whole citation). In September 1873 ‘C.W.’ wrote to the literary journal Notes & Queries as follows:

"WISHING WELLS. Can any of your readers help me to the words of the formula or charm used at the Wishing Wells of the West of England? I have heard it repeated, but can only recall the last two lines, when the young lady sums up the qualifications she wishes to find in her future husband thus:
“And rich, St Catherine,
And soon, St Catherine!” "

C.W. had to wait a fortnight for a reply. Mr Gulson of Teignmouth offered in October:

"At a recent meeting of the Archaeological Institute in Dorset, a party visited the little Norman chapel of St Catherine at Milton Abbey, where the Rev CW Bingham told us of the legend to which CW refers. On a certain day in the year the young women of Abbotsbury used to go up to St Catherine’s Chapel, where they made use of the following prayer … Mr Beresford Hope, who at these gatherings is always equal to any emergency, modestly proposed that all gentlemen and married ladies should retire from the chapel, so as to afford the young ladies present the opportunity of using so desirable a prayer."

Ho ho. You can see how this has become garbled into Hope’s account, either directly by him or by some other correspondent with no clear idea of the distinction between Abbotsbury and Milton Abbas. However, it’s peculiar that a well appears in Hope's version at all: although CW’s original query was made in the context of wishing wells, there is no mention of a well directly in Mr Gulson’s reply, still less a Saint’s well. Who added that?

The plot thickens further when we turn, as we should on such occasions, to JS Udal’s authoritative Dorsetshire Folklore of 1922. Here the author quotes The Bridport News of February 1886 itself quoting The Family Herald of September 1865, and an account therein of the Archaeological Institute’s visit to Dorset that year, to which Mr Gulson referred. This time the trip is reported as having been to Abbotsbury, not to Milton Abbas at all, although the wording is so precisely similar to the Gulson account that both he and Udal must have had the same printed words in front of them – which is most strange, given that Mr Gulson implies that he was there but clearly can’t give the correct venue. ‘A very similar custom seems to have prevailed at Milton Abbas’, Mr Udal goes on, and later on cites Rev H Pentin’s Memorials of Old Dorset (1907) in support, with a couple of rhymes which differ rather in form from the Abbotsbury one, suggesting an independent origin.

What’s going on here? Jeremy Harte suggests that Hope’s record in Legendary Lore gave rise to the well-name at Milton Abbas. Certainly neither Udal nor Pentin seem to show any awareness of Hope’s book, and neither of them mention a well, so the Catherine’s Well name hasn’t come via them or any Dorset source we know about.

In the merry world of folklore study we rather blithely refer to the idea of the transfer of motifs, but that somewhat obscures the necessity of having someone to transfer them. This can happen by accident when people misremember a story they’ve heard from somewhere else; when they overinterpret some evidence before them in the light of evidence from elsewhere; or when they tell fibs. In the case of the Dorset St Catherine traditions, my guess is that there were genuine, independent wishing traditions associated with both chapels, and if they are linked, it’s a linkage which goes back beyond our records of them. As for the well, it would make sense if it had arisen from the combined misunderstandings or misrepresentations of RC Hope and whoever his Dorset informant was; but anyone actually based in Dorset would have known that Abbotsbury and Milton Abbas aren’t the same, and that the former’s spinsters are highly unlikely to have toiled all the way to the latter to wish for a husband.

There are several points about this tangled story which are hard to believe. Although RC Hope wasn’t the most careful compiler of folklore, it stretches credulity to imagine that he can have been so credulous or so careless as to make the well up by mistake. Did someone else concoct it? Looking at the root accounts in Notes & Queries, again, it seems to require something more than just error: something close to a deliberate untruth. Would a Blandford Rural District Council apparatchik in the early 1950s really have known or cared enough about Hope’s book to name a street after a well that isn’t even explicitly named in its pages? But could it be even conceivable that a holy well concocted by a mistake or an actual fib coincidentally did exist?

Monday, 13 June 2016


Last Thursday was the Bishop's Study Day, an opportunity for clergy from across the diocese to gather at a big church in a location with good transport links and marvel anew at how weird their colleagues are. Our previous bishop used to source a variety of speakers for these events, some of whom were more insightful and/or interesting than others. Our new bishop clearly feels it's part of his responsibilities to tell us what he thinks instead, so we got a couple of hours of him talking about 'Leadership styles' (what else do evangelical commentators ever think about?) 'in the ministry of Jesus', interspersed with the usual 'breaking into small groups' to talk about whatever it was he'd been discoursing on in the previous half hour. Thankfully I was sat next to Marion our curate so that wasn't painful. The bishop occasionally digressed into discussing some of his own experiences which was actually rather engaging, but for the most part it was the kind of thing any secular management guru could, and would, have told us. Christians so often dupe themselves into thinking they're saying anything very distinctive.

Marion had just bought the bishop's book on David and Goliath, and showed it to me with something of a wince. I have not, but it makes me reflect whether this phenomenon is a typically and perhaps exclusively evangelical habit - to take Bible stories and try to draw little moral lessons from them, or indeed big lessons, in areas of life to which they have strictly very little relevance. I did bad-temperedly fulminate about this tendency as 'building Jewish folk stories into vast structures to guide our behaviour, a bit like basing your life on Hansel & Gretl', which was only slightly an exaggeration. It hardly ever results in anything very startling, because, it occurs to me, the radical nature of what God has done in his relations with human beings is only visible in the vast sweep of the Biblical narrative and in the context of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not this kind of infants-school assembly approach to the spiritual life. 

The great mercy of the Study Day is that it isn't a Day any longer, but now just a morning, which, even if it's going to be repeated later on in the year, makes it much more palatable!

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Two Cheers

Dear me, at various churches in the Deanery there are manifold celebrations of the Queen's birthday taking place this weekend, although I must say that at Chapter this week I did detect a certain degree of reluctance to be quite as gung-ho about it as doubtless some Surrey parishioners would like to be. At Swanvale Halt our suggestions were gradually diluted until they amounted to a cake after tomorrow's Mass, provided by one of the churchwardens. Whether it turns out to be corgi-shaped, I'm not sure. They could be bunting, we have some in a box somewhere. 

I have carried out my threat to do a little display about the significance of the Coronation and its liturgy and am quite pleased with how it worked out - pointing out the similarities between it and ordination, and the anointings of baptisms and confirmations, the vows and rings of weddings. The point is not so much that 'the Queen is just like the rest of us', as that we, in God's eyes, are Royal.