Wednesday, 18 July 2018

God from Both Sides


Christians think a lot about what leads people to faith: less so about what leads them away from it. There’s a silly programme on Radio 4 on which celebrities read extracts from the diaries they kept in their teenage years. While we were away at the Clergy Conference I heard bits of the episode with Pippa Evans as guest. Ms Evans is a comedian and co-founder of the secular Sunday Assembly gathering, and the diary she was reading from covered the years 1997 to 2001 (mostly just the first year or so) when she was 15 to 19, living in Ealing, and very religious indeed.

Pippa Evans’s family don’t seem to have been particularly religious but in her mid-teens she started attending an excitable Baptist church (‘there was a lot of hand-work’); her mother’s theory was that it provided a safe space for the teenager to make the transition from girlhood to womanhood. Ms Evans found an echo in the experience of the show’s presenter Rufus Hound who along with his brother also went through a Christian phase in his teens after their parents divorced: they were looking for a sort of security, he speculated.

Of course the young Pippa Evans had exactly the same maelstrom of emotional concerns as any other young person and in her spiritual setting expected that God would help her work out what to do in a very definite way. At one point, praying about her crush on a friend, she reported ‘God gave me a picture of a hot air balloon and said to me that if I want Ollie I mustn’t pull on the fraying ropes or he’ll slip away’. ‘You believed God was sending you actual visions, and this felt entirely normal?’ asked Hound. ‘If the company you keep says that’s how prayers are answered …’ said Ms Evans, ‘I do remember sometimes seeing things; this would still happen now, but … now I’d say that my brain had figured something out and made a connection – maybe “be less clingy”!’ Both presenter and guest agreed that a large factor in their teenage church attendance was feeling part of a gang, not one bounded by age but by sentiment and belief. Ms Evans’s diary petered out and her near-last entry described how ‘I don’t go to church any more due to a lack of trust and hope in God. Is he there? I think so. Does he care? I’m not so sure.’ The present-day Pippa Evans expanded, ‘he didn’t give me everything I requested, what an arse! … I was trusting a very kind of two-dimensional children’s picture of what God is.’

There are whole essays to be written opening out of this encounter. But, for now, let’s just note that it’s impossible to draw a hard-and-fast line between God and the subconscious. Only very, very occasionally will a Christian ‘receive’ a mental impression so strikingly disconnected from what they may have been thinking about that it can easily be conceived as coming out of a different place from those buried mental processes that go on constantly. A Christian would expect that God works through the unconscious anyway, and the unremarkable nature of such revelations doesn’t rule out a divine nudge behind them. Pippa Evans’s narrative shows how easy it is to shift from one paradigm to the other without any objective, observable difference in mental activity taking place. The picture stays the same, only the frame alters.

My second observation is that I find it really encouraging that, for these two people, Christianity provided a helpful clearing house for the troubles of adolescence. All right, they moved through it, but unlike, say, souls brought up within the Church who all too often, after becoming aware of the tensions, ambiguities, stresses and pains of Church life, fail to make the transition to a mature sort of faith, they have come through without any rancour or regret, at least that I could hear. They don’t seem scarred. Pippa Evans’s involvement with the Sunday Assembly certainly acknowledges something positive about the Church experience, however much those of us who believe might raise an eyebrow at the feasibility of it.

Monday, 16 July 2018

Gin Friendly

When Lady Wildwood, late of London Gothic, decided to throw a party to celebrate her birthday at the weekend she settled on calling it Gin Frenzy, and asked friends to bring along examples of gins to taste. I was all set to purchase a bottle from our local Surrey distiller, Silent Pool, until to my utter dismay she posted a picture of her drinks cabinet and there was a bottle of Silent Pool already. Disaster - but I was able to discover and source a bottle of Dorset distiller Lilliput's output instead. I found that there are two Dorset gin-makers; the other is Conker, but Lilliput has the nicer bottles.

I like the odd gin. I don't think I ever partook of it at the Vicarage in Sands years ago, where Fr Bombaysapphire plied all his guests with a variety of drinks and where the gin flowed freely; instead it was in Lamford that a friend who served the most lethal gins as an aperitif got myself and Dr Bones into such disastrous habits. Now it sometimes fortifies me against an evening of meetings when that has to happen. It's astonishing to see how gin has become so hugely fashionable in the last decade, to the point that supermarkets now have a whole display of the stuff where they would once have had only a shelf. Every part of the land has its artisan distillers, so I was fairly confident I would find one based in Dorset.

Lady Wildwood's party was lovely, a chance to meet up with friends old and new. We ended up discussing 18th-century garden hermits, royal titles, and the links between architecture and spirituality. Driving, I never had the chance to taste more than one gin and it seemed impolite to broach the bottle I'd bought, so I may have to buy some for myself, just for patriotic reasons. 

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Messy Communion v2.0

You may not realise it at first glance at this photograph, but the children at Messy Church yesterday were chalice-making. This was because we decided to have a go at doing Messy Communion, a form of liturgical abuse we first trialled nearly four years ago. At that time I was painfully aware how many rules we were breaking but having mentioned it in passing to our current bishop a few months ago and receiving barely a blink in response, let alone the coughing and choking and going red in the face I might have expected, I was emboldened to go for it this time and wear my proper kit, and do it all in the proper way, albeit a truncated one. There was only one child there who was present at the 2014 celebration, but once again the youngsters astonished the grown-ups with their attention, their reverence and their sense of focus. They may not really have known what was going on, but which of us truly does? I spoke afterwards to Jackie, who lives just round the corner but sings in the choir at All Saints' Margaret Street which is a proper Anglo-Catholic church. 'It was interesting to see all the motions the priest does, most of the time you don't really pay attention to that', she said, 'and George [her son] said the wafer was "yummy" '. I thought that was not the point, nor, probably, true, but at least he was happy.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Too Much of a Good Thing

S.D. has had great fun helping out at various High gaffs in the Diocese of London recently. These included preaching at St Magnus the Martyr London Bridge, an absolute citadel of trad Anglo-Catholicism whose drawbridge has been lowered to allow him, a longstanding and vocal proponent of women being ordained, in to defile its pulpit. 'We had the Silent Canon, and the subdeacon held the paten under a humeral veil. It was lovely. Mad, but lovely.'

Meanwhile at St Mary Bourne Street 'there has been great controversy as the vicar thinks it might be a good idea to thin the vestment collection out a bit. This is because they can't close some of the drawers in the vestry any more. There's one drawer labelled "Vestments not to be used".'

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

You Prays Your Prayers and You Takes Your Choice

Marion our curate is on holiday at the moment so I said I'd chair our ecumenical prayer group that brings together we reticent Anglicans and our more vocal brethren from local charismatic congregations. She warned me that the chatter has taken over somewhat lately but as there were in fact only five of us present on Monday evening there were actually some blocks of silence when the Spirit did not prompt anyone to say anything (presuming what is said is indeed at his prompting).

I did gib a bit when Alan and Vi, our charismatic representatives for the evening, began on Brexit. 'Lord, we pray for our government in this mess of Brexit ... Why can't the opposition accept the sovereign decision of the people? Because they are sovereign, Lord, that's your sovereign will ... Lord, we just pray the naysayers and scaremongers will be silent and let the government govern ...' and so on. Swanvale Halt's Anglicans, while not universally Remainers, were significantly so, at least to judge by the people who spoke to me, and probably more than the 56% voting to Remain in the South West Surrey constituency at large. I, of course, couldn't possibly comment. We got to the end of our prayer time and I summed up by saying 'Lord, we humbly offer our prayers to you this evening, aware that we are all fallen beings. Where our prayers are in accordance with your will, hear them, and where they aren't, enlighten our hearts by your grace.' Everyone murmured assent. ('Especially those of us WHO ARE WRONG' commented S.D. when I told him). 

What might be the link between the outlook of evangelical Christians and opposition to the EU, I wondered? There are some ideas flying around the Internet, including the pagan nature of the statue of Europa outside the European Parliament in Strasbourg (it's a very disagreeable statue, I think, but that's about aesthetics). I remember that back at school in the 1980s one of our teachers who belonged to a little Protestant church believed the EU was part of a conspiracy by the Pope to take over Britain and that Otto von Hapsburg was one of the antiChristian prophetic figures of Revelation. This character Mr Hathaway talks about Brexit being 'an answer to prayer and a divine opportunity for this nation to turn back to God', which I suppose expresses a sense that the EU is a secular institution promoting gayness, and that kind of thing.

I don't think our friends at the prayer meeting had such strong feelings, or at least they didn't emerge. In fact the burden of their prayers was that the lawful government was being frustrated in its purpose by - what shall we call them? 'Enemies of the People?' - on what sounded like the Pauline grounds of chapter 13 of Romans, 'everyone who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted.' Fair enough, though I don't recall the same people arguing out of Romans 13 when Mr Cameron's government was taking same-sex marriage through the legislature; Romans 1 was the text then. 

Sunday, 8 July 2018

No One Expects

So far, the Diocese hasn't posted anything on its webpage about the Clergy Conference. From its Twitter feed you would certainly discover that one of the speakers was Dr Ellen F. Davis of Duke Divinity School in North Carolina, who took us through a passage of 1Kings and the book of Ruth, and you can find a picture of Fr Malcolm Guite, the poet, who spoke about the interrelationship of poetry and faith. There is a reference to the third speaker, Bishop Philip North of Burnley, but it comes from a retweeted tweet from a priest attending, not from the diocese itself. We'll see how eventually it gets reported.

Bishop Philip turned up on Wednesday morning and began unremarkably enough, talking about finding grace in unexpected places. He led us through Gerard Manley Hopkins's poem 'Felix Randal' and pointed out how the people to whom priests minister also minister grace to them, and we all smiled and nodded. We recognise that. It made us feel good.

Hopkins discovered grace among God's poor, went on Bishop Philip. That's the way God always works. Renewal and revival starts with the poor, the marginalised. It doesn't come from the centre. Neither does cultural change more generally. The poor are where creativity begins.

So isn't it a shame, a scandal, that the Church of England seems to exercise an option for the rich? It's churches in poor areas, on the margins of cities and towns, that are allowed to run down and get shut. It's those areas that can't fund clergy. Some dioceses sit on hundreds of millions of pounds of inherited assets while the newer ones - which are mainly the ones in poorer parts of the country - have pitiful resources in comparison. The diocese of London is pointed to as a model of church growth, but so it should be, not just because of immigration but because of resource: 'if you've got a church hall in London, you've got a children's & families worker because your rents will pay for one. If you've got a church hall on an estate in Stoke-on-Trent all you've got is a headache paying for its maintenance.' Our practices suck initiative and leadership out of poor communities, making them dependent recipients of charity directed at them from outside. The Church's recruitment procedures make it especially hard for working-class candidates to find their way through unless they get converted into middle-class book-learners in the process; 'we're producing a monochrome institution of white evangelical graduates'. 'God will renew the Church. Renewal is inevitable. But if we want to be part of it rather than looking in from the sidelines, we have to alter the balance fundamentally in favour of allowing the experience of the poor to penetrate to the centre.'

Well. You must bear in mind that most of the audience listening to the bishop were, er, white evangelical graduates. What he was saying was also diametrically opposed to what the Diocese of Guildford is doing: its new Parish Share system will penalise small churches in favour of large ones which are all, funnily enough, evangelical, and which will in future have a far greater role in 'helping' small churches develop - which is what else but enforcing the sort of hegemonic church culture he was complaining about. But he still got a lot of applause. Morally, it couldn't be argued with, and for the rest of the conference people wanted to talk about little else. In a Q&A session Il Rettore, attending his last conference before he retires, stood up and told Bishop Philip how his speech had redeemed his previous 34 years of conference-attendance to that point, unreconstructed Corbynite as he is. And the little knot of Catholics felt a bit less isolated. At the final plenary session our diocesan bishop set his face into a grin and chose to refer not to Bishop Philip's case in as many words but to his insistence that renewal was inevitable and people shouldn't talk about the Church 'declining'. That's a message everyone likes to hear.

I like Bishop Philip's vision of what the Church should be; my issue is that it never has been that, it's never been a place where the experience of the poor has been the organising principle. That evening I lay in my bed reading about how some of the Cistercian monasteries of medieval England and Wales, rather than setting up in wilderness and waste and colonising them as the clichĂ© is, actually achieved the spiritual 'solitude' they craved by simply clearing away the existing inhabitants of an area. I thought about the sudden upsurge in Christian adherence in the Roman Empire after Constantine converted, or the Slavs being mass-baptised at swordpoint by Prince Vladimir of the Rus. God may well always bring spiritual renewal through the poor, but where the Church has most spectacularly 'succeeded' it has often been precisely where it sits lightest to what it says it believes. It has always, always absorbed and institutionalised the organising principles and assumptions of the world around it at the same time as preaching the exact opposite.

The miracle - and it truly is that - has been that the Church also always holds within itself the radical contaminant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, forever subverting, calling to account, and undermining its own practices. Perhaps we heard an instance of that at The Hayes this year. I don't hold out much hope that the experience of the margins can become the framing principle of the centre, and it may be that the Church of England has actually served God's purpose for it: 'renewal' may well pass us by in the end. But it certainly will if that marginal experience is stifled. It can only be kept alive by acting counterintuitively, by exercising an option not just for the poor, but for the unexpected, the irrational, what does not make immediate best sense.

Friday, 6 July 2018

Grace and un-Grace

I was telling folk at the triennial Clergy Conference this week that it was my fourth - but I see from the last time I blogged about it that it is my fifth. The weather at The Hayes in Swanwick, as you can see, was splendid although that actually dissuaded me from going out for a walk as I would normally have done: the sun was far too exuberant. 

The Conference turned out unexpectedly in a way I'll talk about in a different post. More generally I arrived after a hot journey expecting to be greeted as usual with a smart-aleck remark by the Director of Ordinands, which thankfully never came. I never like this event. The talks and workshops are all very well but separated from my parish by hours of disagreeable driving (you can go by train, but unless you time it just right the nearest station you can get to is Derby, requiring a long taxi ride to take you to The Hayes); and then there's the small talk. At lunch on the first day I found my way to a table with a couple of priests I didn't know (I don't know the great majority of them):

Me: Is it all right if I join you?
Revd Anon: Of course. [Pause as I sit] And which part of Wales do you come from?
Me: Er, none actually.
Revd Anon: Ah, I thought I heard a bit of an accent ...

The theme of the conference was Traces of Grace. The opening worship included 'Amazing Grace' - but not the one you may be familiar with; it was Chris Tomlin's 2006 version, which alters the rhythm and pointlessly adds to the original lyric (or rather the original with the extra late-Victorian verse bolted on the end). What was wrong with the old version? The bishop then gave his keynote address talking about the unexpectedness of God's grace and the need to be open to it. That meant 'coming to the conference in the right frame of mind' and not staying in our chosen 'echo chambers', especially accepting that the liturgy may not be what we would choose to join with ourselves and we should be receptive.

I felt horribly angry and then angry at myself for feeling angry. 'We have this treasure in earthen vessels', went on the bishop, quoting from 2 Corinthians, and I wondered whether anyone's vessel was made of rougher clay than mine. Does anyone else here struggle with such bitterness, rage and resentment, such unwillingness to do what they should be doing? Does anyone in this room think they're anything other than basically all right, which I know I'm not? It was a long, black tunnel.

And then, slowly, it was all right again. The speakers gave me other things to think about and one of the canons of the Cathedral thanked me for something I'd done that she'd been at. A fellow member of SCP who's not having that easy a time at the moment sought me out at dinner the first evening and before long we were among a knot of Anglo-Catholics or Catholic sympathisers, an 'echo-chamber' perhaps but a soul-preserving one which made us all feel less isolated. And the following day the programme went very unexpectedly, which, as I say, I'll talk about on another occasion!