Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Long View

One of the first little tasks I undertook at Swanvale Halt was to go back through the old service registers to discover what had really happened in terms of numbers attending the church, rather than what people thought had happened. I tabulated the average number of communicants in October each year, as October is the month the Church nationally asks us to look at when we do our annual returns, for as far back as we have records in the church (the older ones are now at the local archives centre). This took us back to 1965. What I discovered was a huge spike in the late '60s as my charismatic predecessor at that time finally abandoned sung Mattins on Sunday mornings and reorganised the Eucharist, reaching a peak in 1970 at about 185 communicants on Sundays. This fell off a bit quite quickly but remained at the 140-150 level right until about 1996 when it suddenly began dropping and has stuck at about 80 since 2002.

This I knew. What I hadn't done until a few weeks ago was to compare those figures with the Christmas and Easter communicants. Interestingly when I carried out the same exercise these data showed something very different. There is the same long-term decline; but, while both sets of figures show a spike during the earlier part of the incumbency of the great Father Thingy (1970 for the Easter communicants, 1971 for the Christmas ones), those spikes don't take the communicant figures much above what they'd been a few years before, and without any of the earlier data they may represent nothing more than normal year-by-year fluctuation. The Christmas and Easter communicant levels have also fallen further over the 1965-2014 period than average October ones: the latter are just under a half what they were, the former under a third. 

This all suggests two things. Firstly, if the great festival attendances represent the sort of people who self-identify as Christians but only come to worship now and again, that 'hinterland' has declined over five decades faster than the worshipping community itself, which has important implications for the church's scope to recruit people whose commitment can be increased. Secondly, the liturgical revolution of the late 1960s and the 'golden age' of Father Thingy's incumbency didn't actually have much impact on the community at large, however much it may have energised and enthused the church internally. That tells you a lot, too.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

In Memoriam

It's the beginning of the quiet summer season, so yesterday afternoon as the rain poured down across Surrey I spent an hour in the local museum trying to find out more details about some of the memorials in the church. There were two in particular, inscriptions to pious ladies and their undefined work for the people of the parish at different times. I did discover this tribute paid by the Rector in 1923 to Miss Northwood:

There is one in the thoughts of most of us this morning by whom this command to feed the lambs, tend the sheep and follow Jesus was gladly accepted. The name of Emma Northwood has been honoured and loved in this parish for many years now, and I hope some means will be found of recording to the coming generations her long service to God among the people of Swanvale Halt. There was hardly a parochial activity with which she did not identify herself, and her wonderful conscientiousness was a shining example to every one of us. Soon after I came here, it was evident that her strength was waning, but it was only with the greatest difficulty that I could persuade her to spare herself a little; and more often than we realised, it was only by the exercise of a grim determination that she carried on. As a District Visitor she was assiduous, and many a cottager today is feeling that she has lost a real good friend; but it was to the young girls of the parish that she gave most of her love and thought. I shall never forget the bright happy smile with which she greeted me a few hours before her death, and the pride with which she showed me a great batch of letters she had just received from the highest standard of our Girls’ Day School. “Look”, she said, “they have signed themselves ‘Your loving little friend’.” And before the night came, she had passed into the nearer Presence of One whose great joy it was to be the Friend of little children.

A bit sentimental for modern tastes, perhaps, but we still need these local examples of undramatic sainthood and the Rector's account of Miss Northwood will go into the little guidebook we're preparing ready for September. 

The other monument I wanted information about was the inscription at the bottom of the organ loft recording the work in the parish of Miss Forster. I eventually found a reference to her death in the parish magazine. She apparently lived for twenty years or more in the Rectory with Mr Bibling the Rector, and although they were clearly close and accepted as such - Canon Bibling's successor sent the parish's 'sympathy on his great loss' - the nature of their relationship is nowhere defined. The other odd aspect is that the inscription dates Miss Forster's time in Swanvale Halt to between 1896 and 1919; whereas her death is recorded in the parish magazine in 1918. That her work for Swanvale Halt is recorded as carrying on beyond her earthly demise speaks much both for her dedication and for confidence in the doctrine of the Communion of Saints ...

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Never Apologise, Never Explain

A few weeks ago we had a (double) baptism as part of the main Sunday service and something about the crowd of visitors there struck me that it might be worth trying to get some impression of what they thought about their experience. It's all too easy to assume you know what people are thinking when in fact you have no idea at all. I sent the parents a set of questions and asked whether they might mind forwarding them to their friends and then sending the replies to me. They were kind enough to do so and the responses have just arrived. There aren't many but the impressions that come across most strongly are:

1. People felt welcome and comfortable
2. They came out of a desire to support the family
3. They view the Church of England as staid but open-minded

The one remotely critical response was this one:

Q: What (if anything) made you feel uncomfortable about being there?  
A: One (somewhat harsh) interpretation of the sermon could be that the children were joining a club, and that those outside of the club were somehow lesser.  For instance, there was an insinuation that you could only love, understand and show compassion in a truly profound and meaningful sense if you did this through Christianity.  Apart from objecting to this idea, I also feel this verged on compelling people to join the Church.  I feel it would be better and as a consequence more appealing to present Christianity as one of the means of gaining this connection with humankind, though not the only means. 

Now, one of the problems I faced that morning was how to beat the sermon - one of my year-long series based around the Anglican Catechism, on that occasion framed around the question 'What is my duty to my neighbour?' - into a form even basically appreciable by a baptism congregation. Looking back at my notes this was the line I was apparently taking, though not using these words exactly:

You could easily argue ‘People don’t need religion to be good’ and that’s true. None of the duties in the Catechism require Christian faith in order to carry out: they make sense even from a completely secular point of view. But by insisting that we owe others these duties regardless of how they behave towards us the Catechism points beyond that idea of mutuality and towards something more distinctly Christian, based on the uniqueness of every human being and their identity in God.

The ‘duties to our neighbour’ are only the beginning, in Christian terms. The trust and mutuality they engender are what makes real love and community possible.


I discussed this with Ms Formerly Aldgate. 'Having heard a few of your sermons, you do often seem to be reminding people why they should be Christians, which makes me feel a bit left out' she said.

I suppose it shouldn't be surprising that a Christian priest would want people to be Christians: certainly if I felt Christianity was only one of a series of indifferent moral options I wouldn't want to bother with doing what I do. And I further suppose one shouldn't ask people's opinions if one is going to get huffy about what they say. Yet I have a curious discomfort about making people feel uncomfortable even if I believe in what I've said (although the visitor cited above did conclude their remarks with 'I enjoyed the service. Keep up the good work'!).

Marion the curate gave me a copy of Premier Christianity magazine a few days ago which contains an 'Open Letter to the Churches of the UK' by US-born former pastor of Westminster Chapel, RT Kendall, arguing for the Church to focus on 'the earliest message of the New Testament', 'flee from the wrath to come'. Reading this I find myself reflecting that the heart of the Gospel in Jesus's words 'repent for the Kingdom of God is near' is a positive appeal for people to ready themselves to take part in something wonderful, not a warning to avoid something bad. But perhaps I formulate it like that because, at heart, I really don't like making people upset and have to be absolutely certain I'm right before doing so (on the occasions when I'm not just careless, which are more frequent). I doubt RT Kendall bothers about upsetting people. These fundamentally different sorts of human beings shape their theology, I suspect, around those basic attitudes rather than absolute principle.  

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

That's The Way It Is

Image result for jam sandwichUnfortunately, my regular interlocutor Mad Trevor is supporting a friend through a very unpleasant legal case. Sitting in a courtroom while people and lawyers argue about horrible things isn't good for anyone, let alone someone with paranoid schizophrenia. He phoned me, this time, with a good reason to be agitated.

Trevor: Please pray for protection for me.
Me: Of course I will.
Trevor: Only, the Devil loves this sort of thing.
Me: Yes, it's his bread-and-butter, really.
Trevor: [pause] It's like him having a jam sandwich.

I know I introduced the food-related metaphor, but it's an interesting further stage to which to take it. In fact, he's not wrong. People throwing horrible accusations at each other in a court *is* a jam sandwich for Satan. There's a film title in that.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Head Above the Parapet

Image for the news resultHad I still been a liberal - and still more a Liberal Democrat - I probably would have voted for Tim Farron as party leader, normally being drawn to people who aren't 'safe pairs of hands' but who might actually cause a bit of trouble, who have a few jagged edges and unpolished surfaces. 

The decision wouldn't necessarily have been affected by his much-reported Christian faith, although in the British context it makes him even more an outsider, and therefore interesting. As Mr Farron has pointed out, in the US politicians are virtually obliged to invent a faith, while in Britain they feel compelled to deny it. 

This will bring him problems. Of course Christians vary like clouds in the sky, and for some Mr Farron's unsoundness on matters such as same-sex marriage is enough to deny him the title at all. His interview on the Today Programme yesterday gave something of the flavour of what he may be in for from rather less specialised audiences: John Humphrys gave rather a lot of time over to the MP's prayer life and how that might feed into his political attitudes. His question 'Would you seek advice from God before making important political decisions, such as whether to invade Iraq or something?' drew the response that 'this is the shocking revelation that a Christian says his prayers sometimes'. I thought Mr Farron took it all rather effectively, replying that what you pray for is wisdom rather than a particular answer, that everyone, religious or secular, brings value judgements to a decision, meaning Christians could conscientiously reach quite different conclusions about a specific matter. So why bother? Mr Humphrys insisted. 'It's what we do,' Mr Farron countered.

In a largely secular society, this is a fair matter to inquire about. People don't understand how a person's prayer life might work because they don't do it themselves, and seem to believe:

1. That a Christian will pray and expect to receive an answer by a voice or some means that they can interpret as supernatural;
2. That prayer requires setting reason to one side (when told that Mr Farron would 'consider the evidence' in a decision, Mr Humphrys insisted 'So you wouldn't ask God for advice?') in deference to some other authority - the Bible, an ecclesiastical magisterium, or an internal concept of God. 

Believe this, and somebody in a position of power admitting to praying becomes creepy and worrying. It's not unreasonable that reasonable people should want to know more.

At times over the last 15 years or so the Liberal Democrats appeared to be turning into the political wing of the British Humanist Association, so Mr Farron's ascendancy - albeit in the circumstances of the party's shredding in the elections - is remarkable. Of course, those who are perturbed by the role God might play in his decision-making processes probably need not be very concerned, as for some time to come no Liberal Democrat MP will be taking any more momentous decision than what colour to paint his constituency office. 

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Back to Basics


Image result for ordination cartoonA few days ago a friend of mine posted on his Facebook feed that it was the 10th anniversary of his ordination:


I've marked the anniversary by doing the things I was ordained to do. Among them praying the office in church; presiding and preaching at Mass; praying with people; talking with and providing some food and washing powder for a heroine addict; a funeral/bereavement visit; and getting out and about in the community.

Ah, I realised, If young Christopher was celebrating the 10th anniversary of his ordination (and good for him), so must I have been; although I can’t remember the date itself without looking it up (he was ordained in a different diocese to me and so possibly on a different date), I must have been on holiday, so I may well have marked the day by getting up late, going shopping, and mucking about in the garden. Not quite so priestly. Or not so specifically.

Normally, then, the actual anniversary of my ordination passes me by. I do get recalled to my sense of what I’m supposed to be doing at two other points, though: the Chrism Mass at the Cathedral on Maundy Thursday, when all the diocesan clergy renew their vows along with the bishop, and the closest Sunday to the date in September when I was installed at Swanvale Halt, when it is my custom to rehearse my vows before the churchwardens as representatives of the laypeople. I don’t know whether anyone else does this, but I find it as instructive and useful for me to be reminded what I’m there for as for the congregation.

In amidst all the convincing and absorbing stuff about church management, mission planning, co-ordinating change and so on, it’s easy to lose track of what priestly ministry actually means. A competent layperson could do any of those things, and probably be better than me at them. They might well carry out the pastoral work young Christopher describes better than me, and – did only Canon Law permit them – could perhaps even perform the strictly liturgical stuff which is proper to my ordained office with greater concentration, spiritual seriousness or aplomb than I do. But they would not be a sacramental sign of God’s presence, as I am.


I – for better or worse – am surrounded by promises, mine and God’s, which is what the word sacrament means. There's a difference between doing things, and promising to do them. When I knelt before the Bishop ten years ago and he laid his hands on me I was promising to be a public, identifiable, inescapable sign of God’s presence, and God was promising that I would be too. I was promising that I would do the things our holy Mother the Church does to make God’s presence visible, those other ‘sacraments’ which form the ‘religious stuff’ I do – as I say, for better or worse, adequately or inadequately. That was the reason why it was done; looking at who I am and how far I have to go even to be a good Christian, there can’t be another one.

Monday, 13 July 2015

'Church Preparation'

When I did my time-recording exercise last year there was a category of activity, at least in my detailed listing, I called 'church preparation'. As far as Saturday morning was concerned, it was this kind of thing.


- Said Morning Prayer. So far, so spiritual.
- Set out to clean cycle tyre marks left by teenagers from the floor, and discovered the floor polish I put in the vestry had gone. Over to the Co-Op to buy more.
- Cleaned cycle tyre marks from the floor.
- Hoovered children's corner of detritus left by teenagers.
- Put hoover back together as it'd been wrongly assembled.
- Reorganised the chairs as people seem incapable of leaving them where they are supposed to be. (They were all put out again in the evening by a concert using the church, so I put them back again before the 8am mass on Sunday).
- Took down old notices in the entrance. People are very keen to put them up, less so to take them down.
- Looked for bookmarks made for use during Morning and Evening Prayer and missing for some months. Found them in the office.
- Wrote up banns book.
- Wrote up service register.
- Tidied up vestry, although to be fair it's mainly my fault if it gets untidy in the first place.
- Changed dirty altar cloths.

It strikes me that other people could very easily and profitably be doing most of these things, and also that I am very, very bad at asking them to. Mind you, Il Rettore spent an entire winter mainly dealing with the boiler, and one of our churchwardens is a whiz at heating equipment, or I have told her she is.