Monday, 25 September 2017


There is a school of thought among clergy, and those who train them, that you should never allude to personal circumstances in sermons for various reasons: maintaining the distance appropriate to authority, not giving the ill-disposed ammunition against you, or exercising a proper reticence over things that may pertain to other people. I don’t follow this line: you, as pastor, are a human being struggling with the business of trying to live the spiritual life just like the people listening to you, and it helps for them to know that.

On Sunday I was talking broadly about occasions when we’re compelled to reassess our relationships with others and our view of ourselves, and described, very broadly, my dealings with someone formerly very close to me, and now less so, and how my conflicted emotions had made me realise that what I thought was me responding to their need actually included a neediness of my own - the need to be useful and to imagine myself as self-sacrificing and generous.

Amanda, a member of the congregation who often gets into arguments with other worshippers about the way the church works and who can seem a bit prickly wanted to talk to me about it. ‘I think there are times when our needs meet the needs of others and something good comes out of it,’ she said. ‘I think of us being a bit like jigsaw pieces, fitting together in a way we don’t always see at the time.’ Not a surprising thing to say, but you often need someone else to tell you what you know.

Amanda looked at the people milling around and drinking tea in the church hall. ‘I know I can be argumentative, it’s the way my family was,’ she went on, ‘but I look around at the church and I see people helping each other and I think, They’re not a bad bunch.’ No, I agreed, they’re not. They can help me along in ways I don't expect.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

To Soothe the Savage Breast

The coat-of-arms of the Royal School of Church Music is fairly normal apart from the little bishop perched on top of the helm: he seems to be holding a small woolsack, for reasons best known to himself and the College of Heralds, presumably.

This occurred to me last week while I was looking at the medal I was about to hand over to one of our choristers marking his fifty years’ service with the Choir. During the notices after Mass I brought Nigel forward and he described how he’d arrived at the then thriving choir of Swanvale Halt church as a probationer, was then given his surplice a little while later, and the choirmasters-cum-organists he’d known in his earlier years and the influence they’d had on him (positive, as it turned out).

Church choirs can be a pain in the neck, frankly, as they have a habit – especially when they are in decline – of assuming they are rather better than they are. When they work well, though, they can be a force for definite spiritual good, not merely in what they may contribute to the worship, but providing an arena for spiritual development and companionship among their members.

There seems to be a proper affinity between churches and music of all kinds. At Lamford we had an enormous choir, nurtured over decades, which provided a musical training-ground for young people from across the town regardless of whether they remained within a Christian milieu or what kind of music they pursued. I remember once attending a concert in the church hall there which included a heavy-metal band of late teens all of whom had passed through the church choir at one time or another (the singer had learned how to do that growly voice metal vocalists often adopt and which can wreck your vocal chords if you don’t do it properly). We have a new organist on the rota at Swanvale Halt, a 17-year-old from the village who hardly had to do more than turn up and hit a note to make the congregation adore him but who is seriously good as well. We also host regular concerts staged by a local music promoter which tend to be in the folk-rock genre (‘old blokes with guitars’, I have occasionally teased, unfairly as sometimes a woman finds her way onto the schedule). The connection between church and music surely arises partly because churches are simply a space to be used, sometimes the biggest space in their vicinity, but it’s more than that. It reflects the lingering sense that a church is ‘owned’ by the whole of the community, even those who profess different religious beliefs or none at all; and because of that it stands dimly for the community’s own identity. We know that ‘communities’ comprise any number of different sorts of people with different and sometimes conflicting tastes, beliefs and experiences, but the church building speaks to the common humanity of all. Music does the same, and this is the link. You may not like organ recitals or folk rock or heavy metal, but there’s nothing stopping you doing so whoever you happen to be. Music of all kinds is made and sent out by its makers to the whole human race. They can’t control whose heart will reverberate to its particular sound. Music is, in that sense, neutral, in the same way a church is. It makes sense for one to shelter the other.

It was a friend of mine who pointed me towards the recent furore at St-Sepulchre-without-Newgate in London, where the leadership has decided to stop non-religious music from being performed in the building. For a church long nicknamed ‘the musicians’ church’ this is quite some decision, justified by pressures on the use of the building, ‘an increasingly busy programme of worship and church activities’, so the website states. As worship seems to take place on only three occasions in the week (Sunday morning, Tuesday lunchtime and Tuesday evening), as there are only a couple of other regular bookings, and as very few people actually live in this part of London, this seems on the face of it an unconvincing explanation. The politics here relates to the approach of the vicar who was parachuted in from the great evangelical hothouse down the road, Holy Trinity Brompton, in 2013, and who clearly finds marrying his own priorities with those he’s inherited at St Sepulchre less than easy. The church has been stung by the reaction to its proposal and is ‘praying and reflecting’ (although given the way these things usually work I’d be astonished if prayer resulted in anything changing, it very rarely does). Most church communities are anxious to find ways to connect with the world around them, and music provides one; but if you come from the rarefied context of a self-confident ecclesiastical corporation like HTB, you see things differently, and policing the boundaries between Christ and the world becomes more of a priority.

One of my spiritual director’s favourite stories concerns the first occasion he opened up his cathedral to the evangelical church in town with whose vicar he had struck up an unlikely friendship. They were preparing for a special celebration service in the cathedral, and S.D. was picking his way through the speakers and cables when he met a stern elderly lady who was part of the cathedral congregation. ‘Mr Dean, what’s going on?’ she asked, tapping her stick on the paving, ‘is there going to be a rock concert in the cathedral?’ S.D. shuddered inwardly and thought he was about to have his ear bent. ‘Oh no, Mrs Simms, it’s just those dreadful evangelicals from Christ Church, they’re having a service here this evening.’ ‘Oh,’ said Mrs Simms, pursing her lips, ‘What a shame. I would quite have enjoyed a rock concert.’

Friday, 22 September 2017

Vanity, Vanity, Saith the Preacher

Someone lent me a book of old postcard views of Hornington, the small town to which Swanvale Halt is appended and with which it has a somewhat conflicted relationship. Its first words are 'Hornington, like Rome, is surrounded by hills.'

And the Romans, at least educated ones who spoke Greek, would have called that setting a new bar for hubris

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Slow Work

There are two points in the year when I find myself reviewing what’s happened in our church life. The first is the Annual Report I concoct for the Parochial Church Meeting in April, and the second comes around this time of year, close to the anniversary of my induction as Rector back in 2009. After the sermon during Mass, the churchwardens come forward with their ceremonial staves and with them, and before them, I rehearse my ordination vows. We’ve done this every year since I arrived (I think) and the churchwardens have changed and my hair is thinner and greyer. This occasion I added the prayer I devised for my induction service, an over-the-top but nevertheless valid and sincere petition for my preservation from hardness of heart and coldness of soul, sloth and rage ‘and all the malice of the Enemy’, as well as asking the prayers of the saints, including blessed Catherine my great patron, for Swanvale Halt church and its people.

The progress we make all seems so painfully slow. In practical terms, we refurbished the church rather dramatically (as you will remember) and we are now just about paying our way each year thanks mainly to more creative use of our facilities. But numerically the congregation has risen a bit and then declined a bit and we are now not far from where we were when I started. And spiritually? There are a handful of people who I think ‘get’ what I’ve been talking about for eight years, the focus on the transformative power of the Sacraments, the slow and deep motion of the Spirit in the life of prayer, the intercession of the saints (probably the element of Catholic spirituality which Anglicans find it hardest to come to terms with). They ‘get’ it either because it was what they always felt and my clear stance has given them permission to run with it, or because there’s been something, some spark, that’s caught their imaginations: but it’s very rare and very small and very slow. There is nothing of the drama of those old-time Anglo-Catholic priests who swept into their parishes and changed everything. Perhaps I should have done that at once: perhaps I’ve succumbed too far to the negative side of the genius of ‘gentle Anglicanism’, that it remains comfortable and complacent and never moves.

My challenge is how I approach the future. I still feel as though there is work for me to do here, but I can’t shield myself from the consideration that someone else might be able to do better. Swanvale Halt is terribly congenial, and there is a lot to be said for trust, continuity and digging in for the long haul: unless it turns out that it’s me that’s the blockage to progress.

. . . . . . . . 

It’s only natural – I may have said before – that in these posts I tend to concentrate on the difficult and rough edges of parish life. I want to say, in case it isn’t clear, that most of the time what has come my way over the last eight years (and a little while before, in Lamford and Goremead) has been profoundly if undramatically good, and occasionally wonderful, and the longer I go on the higher the proportion of wonderfulness seems to be. By the time I retire I might be quite cheerful …

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Under Wraps

The cooking-apple tree in the garden has produced lots of big apples this year. I took to shaking the tree on several occasions to knock some of the apples down, which I gather is a good way to ensure a smaller but better-quality crop. Despite the fairly substandard weather this Summer the fruit is a lot redder and more inviting-looking than in previous years, too (my vine is bedecked with a dramatic quantity of grapes, though whether any of these will survive to ripeness I don't know - we really need a bit more sun). I took some apples down to my mother who stewed and baked them and pronounced them very good indeed.

She advised me to wrap them in newspaper to store them over the Winter, which I've begun to do. It helps stop damp and rot spreading from apple to apple. Previously I simply popped them into tubs and hoped for the best, ending up losing quite a lot to rot or waterlogging when the rain got in. This has never really been that much of a problem as the tree fruits so heavily there have always been plenty left to be turned into purée and chutney, but picking through the bad fruit is a generally revolting process which is best avoided. We'll see what happens with these! Fifteen minutes' work this afternoon filled a tub, but there is more to come ...

Friday, 15 September 2017

A Coincidence of Days Off

It happens very rarely that I and Ms Formerly Aldgate have any time off together, but the planets were in alignment last Thursday and despite her deep reluctance to venture back into the capital that was where we went. We made use of the famed Westminster Abbey Parish Pass. Until about 18 months ago I had no idea Anglican parish churches can apply for a Pass allowing members of the congregation free entry into the great ceremonial church - which is more like a mausoleum for lots of rich people some of whom you've heard of. It was just as well we got in gratis, as the entrance fee is now £22 a head, and what you get for that isn't so wonderful an experience. Visitors are funnelled along a rope-lined route and although a wet Thursday morning outside term time wasn't especially busy that still meant we were sharing a confined space with hundreds of other people all plugged into their complimentary audio-guides, trying understandably to get as much from their visit as they could. There are a few spaces where you can pause and look around, and the chapels were relatively calm as most visitors shuffled past them. Mass for the Conception of the Blessed Virgin was just beginning as we left, a couple of visitors among the throng in the nave dutifully crossing themselves  as the absolution was pronounced. We were glad to escape, really. The Abbey allows no photography within the building, as otherwise the whole circulation system would grind to a halt. This was the last snap I could take before we plunged into the interior. Pardon the reflection.

We thought of going to Leighton House until we discovered the entrance fee there, and decided to return when Ms FA has her National Trust card with her and can reduce the charge by half. However just around the corner in Melbury Road was Tower House, the self-built home of Gothic Revival madman William Burges and now of Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, which we went past without realising what it was, and, on the High Street, the old Odeon Cinema, a gorgeous Art Deco building now in the middle of a redevelopment scheme which is not uncontroversial in the area. 

Instead we made our way south to West Brompton Cemetery where several of the mausolea were haunted by disgruntled looking pigeons, trying, and failing, to look as sinister as the crows.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Venus and Mars (and possibly other places of origin)

It says almost at the start of the Bible, in the story of the Creation, ‘God created adam [whatever adam really means]: in his own image he created him; male and female he created them’, and in Deuteronomy it lays down ‘a woman must not wear man’s clothing, nor a man wear woman’s clothing: for the Lord detests anyone who does this’. That’s pretty clear, isn’t it?

Or at least so the Rowes think: if you keep up with the news you will know that they are the parents of two young children and have now, on different occasions, withdrawn each of them from their local Church of England primary school because of disagreements with the school’s approach to gender. The current quarrel concerns a six-year-old pupil who has sometimes come into school wearing male clothing, and sometimes in female. Their son, the couple say, was ‘distressed’ and ‘confused’, and ‘as Christians’ they objected to what they perceive to be the influence of ‘an agenda’ to abolish sexual difference. On the Today programme they suggested the cross-dressing child’s issues should have been dealt with ‘privately, in the home’ before being made public, and refused to accept that children who perceived themselves as transgender (that is, not conforming to standard gender norms – no one is talking about six-year-olds undergoing surgical sexual reassignment) were being bullied.

Children are, indeed, very concerned with sexual difference. They become aware early on that there is such a thing as male and such a thing as female, and that it’s one of the great organising principles of the world, affecting not just human beings but animals too. They want to find their place in this binary structure, and having devised a model of how it works, can get confused when the world turns out not to fit it. I have a friend whose small children were not just confused but morally outraged when they discovered that she was a whole six months older than their father. ‘The man should be older!’ they both protested, having developed a whole nexus of concepts which connected maleness, age, and authority, a bit like the medieval system of correspondences. Like that system, too, children have to grow out of their grand, all-encompassing notions of sexual differentiation if they are to make sense of the world as it is.

I also think the Rowes are not wrong in that the proposition that sexual difference doesn’t really exist is one of the governing ideas, ideals perhaps, of our time. The parallel insistences that people can, and should, ‘choose what they want to be’ and yet also ‘express who they really are’ strike me as an incoherent attempt to hold together determinism and voluntarism. For my part, too, I think ‘male’ and ‘female’ do exist, objectively, as something more than just differential physical bits and pieces, although I’m not quite sure what constitutes either of them. It’s one of the considerations which affect my views of whether two people of the same sex can celebrate the sacrament of matrimony. And yet I think back to my own experience, which is this.

My dad was a car mechanic, a roughty-toughty masculine line of work if ever there was one (I know girls who are dab hands at stripping an engine, but mechanicking has never been coded as a female occupation). His attempts to get me interested in football, too, were pretty much a dead loss, although I did develop some boyish concerns like space exploration and model aeroplanes.  I knew from when I was tiny that there was a great gulf fixed between my world and my dad’s, and dimly that what I was separated from was a specifically male world of experience, epitomised by Harvey’s Garage in Hamworthy where he worked, redolent with the scent of motor oil and the sound of metal and whistling men. I never thought of myself as a little boy, as such. But I never really identified with girls, either: I was just me, a somewhat sui generis small person not easily fitting into any particular category beyond my own.

That continued into adolescence. Of course I had sexual feelings, but still not a very clear sense of my own identity as a male, and being in the relatively repressed atmosphere of an all-boys secondary school made it easier to let that question slide. I never cross-dressed or explored any sort of unusual sexuality (or any kind at all), but still sort-of conceived of myself as separate from the whole business of binary sexual identity. I think this sense of not being anything very much even continued into university. There, my first girlfriend told me ‘You’re very feminine, but very male’, and though I’m still not entirely sure I know what she meant, it did make me reflect.

As time has gone on I’ve recognised more and more stereotypically male traits in the way I think and act, from not being able to talk on the phone very readily, to having a bent for categorisation and ordering things. And middle-age has brought inescapably home to me my physical maleness, as hair sprouts enthusiastically everywhere except where I want it and gravity gets more and more of a grip on my pitiful frame. Eventually, I will reach the point where my sex, again, makes as little difference to me as it did when I was a child: the chief factors governing my life will be trying to put one foot in front of the other without falling over, medicine, and how I deal with more-or-less acute sensations of pain. But, for the moment, I’m reconciled with being male. I do have the strange sense, however, that I am wearing my maleness – my body, and even my masculine mind, being a sort of garment that I have a slightly distant relationship with. It leads me to reflect that my truce with my gender identity is probably partly to do with dress, as well: as over the years I’ve become more and more comfortable with what is really very conservative clothing traditionally coded as male (which doesn’t mean women can’t wear it – my accountant Ms Death-and-Taxes carries off a three-piece and a wing-collar rather well), I’ve found that the role sort of suits me (no pun intended). That’s when I’m not flouncing about in vestments, naturally.

This all inclines me to think that sex, gender identification and sexuality are not as simple as either conservative Christians or radical individualists might imagine. I think that ‘male’ and ‘female’ have some sort of objective existence, and that it’s a bit silly to claim they don’t, but that they each have performative elements, and it’s just as silly to deny that too. I think the old phrase you hear bruited around (less frequently these days), that a person with a non-standard experience of sexual identification ‘has the mind of one sex in the body of another’ doesn’t have any rational basis, and that people are, generally, happier if they learn to accept what nature has made them; but that they have to work that out for themselves. They should be allowed to do it, as I rather did, without pressure or contempt. And part of the working-out, part of the negotiation of the varied elements of masculine and feminine that make up any individual person, and between that person and the socially-coded nature of gender, might be for a six-year-old to dress as the other sex now and again and experiment with having a different name. If any children around them are confused, calm parents might tell them that in the end, most people are happy being boys or girls, but that some people take a while to work it out. I think children, who are generally more sensible than grown-ups, are likely to take that on board.

Which leaves us with the question of why the Biblical texts are so hung up on sexual difference. Because there’s no getting away from the fact that they are. Various gender-liquid happenings in first-century Corinth drive St Paul positively frantic with concern, provoking his remark, ‘doesn’t the very nature of things show you that if a man has long hair, it’s a matter of shame to him?’ Well, no, it doesn’t, but Christians don’t really have the option, though some try to take it, of saying that this is all just antiquated rubbish we can safely ignore, as there’s a rather important baby going out with that particular bathwater if they do. It must mean something. Paul’s argument is so silly (as our New Testament tutor at college remarked, ‘He can’t have spent much time in first-century Palestine’ – and bearing in mind that he came from Tarsus rather than Judaea, he probably hadn’t) that I suspect its silliness is the whole point of it being there. Sexual differentiation is important, but the content of that differentiation is less so.

Why should this be? My only ideas so far are two. First, that sexual differentiation is the clearest sign of our non-interchangeability as beings. You can’t simply swap one human being for another, as we are different, defiantly, irreducibly different: some of us are male, some are female. From that distinction descends all our absolute and unique worth as individuals. The Sign of Difference is the mark of our freedom. Secondly, the business of negotiating our own place in this spectrum of difference is one which develops our maturity, our sensitivity, and our tolerance for those who find themselves taking another route through it. Without there being a sense that there is a journey to take, two poles to define one’s location against, there is no movement, no negotiation, and therefore no growth. And I suspect (only suspect, mind you) that this is what the Lord, in all his beautiful simplicity and subtlety, has in mind.

P.S. I remembered that a couple of years ago our church Toddler Group was blessed by the presence of two small brothers who more often than not turned up dressed as Snow White. I don't recall anyone, child or grown-up, being either confused or distressed.