Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Right Let's Do This

I am fed up with the number of people telling me they're away over Easter. The way the day falls this year seems to be playing havoc as the entire parish goes on holiday, and who will be left to keep the Sacred Triduum I don't know. I suppose it's better than last year when Easter Day coincided with the clocks going forward, and getting up for the Dawn Mass was positively painful.

I shared my concerns with the local Methodist minister at our Wednesday morning shared Morning Prayer. 'It always feels like that', he said comfortingly, 'But it turns out all right.' I am not at all convinced.

I am trying to remember (among other things) that I, our curate and God will be there and anything else is a bonus, but I'm not sure I really believe that. Il Rettore used to call the reprehensible habit of looking back through your registers to see how attendance at a service compares with what you got last year as 'the sin of multitudinism', but one does like to feel one isn't entirely wasting one's time.

It did occur to me that the holy Sisters at West Malling begin every Office with the words from Psalm 34: the cantor sings 'O magnify the Lord with me', whereupon the other Sisters reply with 'Let us praise his name together'. I like this as it creates the impression that one person is inviting the others to take part in their act of devotion. I may even introduce it as part of our vestry prayers. Very comforting!

Friday, 11 April 2014

Different Gods

My nieces have been visiting with their parents and so we took them out to Guildford Castle to occupy a few minutes. I've been there before, but somehow never really paid attention to the chapel which squeezes onto one side of the Great Chamber. It's tiny, as none of the castle is big; and this photograph doesn't properly convey the dark, almost covert quality of the graffiti-ridden little closet.

This is religion as an adjunct to power. Here the king, when staying in the castle, would have knelt and watched a priest wedged into the far end of the room with an acolyte on the step, making the miracle of Christ's presence, and thought - what? Attempting to bring his own life of violent politics and brutal justice in front of a God who pointed in a different direction entirely.

And yet this place has a different view of God even from the Gothic ages that followed. Here God is mediated through heavy Romanesque arches, darkness, a weight and a power beyond the powers of the world, yet inevitably seen through them and their habits of thought. God is ever the same, yesterday, today and tomorrow, but the way we apprehend him varies. Does God when met in the private chapel of a Norman royal castle have much in common with God met in a modern communal church? This is a God who understands violent politics and brutal justice, and absorbs them, drowns them in the upraised chalice. What sins do our own less confrontational sacred spaces offer up to him by their very shape and nature?

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Old Words Made New

Normally the main service on the first Sunday in each month at Swanvale Halt is a non-eucharistic Family Service with a sung eucharist in the evening, but this year of course Mothering Sunday fell on March 30th, so duties were moved around and this week we had a eucharist in the morning instead. That left a 'blank' Sunday evening when there would normally be a service, so I offered Evensong and Benediction, partly as a way of keeping my hand in regarding that form of service, so I remember how to do it!

At the last minute, and mainly because I didn't feel any of the people who turned up would be comfortable reading the lections without preparing them, I read myself, and decided to read from the Authorised Version of the Bible so that the texts were in keeping with the rest of the Prayer Book service. The extract from the Gospel of St Matthew felt curiously fresh and immediate expressed as it was in 17th-century English. This is almost certainly because we are so used to hearing the text read in modern idiom, so the antique version seems a welcome change. The companion reading from the Lamentations of Jeremiah had not the same sense to it, and I can imagine that some of the more convoluted offerings from the mind of St Paul would not have an equivalent effect, but here - once the texts are read with a natural rhythm of speech and not exaggerated churchiness - was a sort of vigour and energy that made an impression.

Monday, 7 April 2014

A Conservative Habit of Mind

Some years ago I came up with what I called the Law of the Conservation of Church Fittings which stated that there was a hierarchy of change, or lack of change, in ecclesiastical settings. Liturgical words can be shifted with reasonable ease, at least once you get past a 'block' such as the Book of Common Prayer which very largely determined the form of Anglican liturgy for about 300 years, and before long everyone forgets that it was any different. Liturgical forms and practices take a bit more to move. Hardest to change of all are the bits and pieces that hang around a church. This is partly because they tend to be introduced by clergy who leave them behind when they move on without really having explained them to the laypeople, who then don't like to take it into their own hands to do anything about them, just in case they're important. They become part of the furniture, even when they no longer actually perform any useful function.

This little glass pot has sat on a windowsill in Swanvale Halt church next to the aumbry where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved ever since I arrived. It rests on a linen purificator. Neither are ever changed, moved, or used for anything. I had no idea what the pot was for although had I thought about it I might have been able to guess by virtue of the limescale marks that you can see running round the inside of the glass.

When she was alive, I asked our ex-nun sacristan about the pot, and she didn't know what it was for either. I asked the master server and one of our longest-serving altar servers and they had no idea. It had just 'always been there' and they'd never thought about it. Finally I mentioned it to the former PCC secretary who didn't know either, but said she would ask our revered former incumbent from the late '60s and early '70s who is now a Roman Catholic priest.

The pot is, apparently, supposed to contain water so that when someone needs to handle the Blessed Sacrament they can cleanse their fingers before doing so. However, our former incumbent admitted that he'd never actually used it himself; it was left over from the days of his predecessor, and he'd just never bothered to move it. That means that this particular bit of liturgical impedimenta has sat on its windowsill unused for forty-seven years.

There is, as people have pointed out to me, a sermon in that. Or several.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014


On my way around the Labyrinth at Malling Abbey I noticed the blossom just emerging on the apple trees. In my garden is an aging damson tree which has looked increasingly poorly over the last couple of years, weeping resin and sprouting bracket fungi on the branches. In the autumn I cut off a couple of the dead branches and found them partly soft and papery inside. A horticultural friend suggests the tree may be reaching the end of its life; certainly there are two smaller trees in the garden which are probably daughters of this one, so it's been around a while. But this year it's decided to blossom again, for at least one more go. I look out of the window of the small bedroom while saying my prayers in the morning, and see it, a slightly ghostly presence against the dark of the big trees beyond. It has a sort of bravery and persistence.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Back to the Abbey

As in previous years I spent a couple of days on a Lenten retreat at Malling Abbey. The Holy Sisters are planning building work to turn part of the premises into a proper retreat house for the Canterbury Diocese. Even more excitingly, they've bought two new toasters for the dining room which actually toast bread rather than just warm it up a bit.

I walked the turf labyrinth in the grounds. Usually I don't go in for labyrinths and what my friend Adam from St Stephen's House would have described as 'Celtic nonsense', but I rather like the one at Malling. There are gnarled old apple trees, and a couple of others, in the grounds which the grass paths must wind their way around on their journey to the centre, meaning that as you wend your way around the labyrinth you are not simply treading a featureless path but continually approaching and retreating from these trees and seeing them from different angles. It adds a depth to walking the labyrinth you might not otherwise get.

As I was there, slowly treading the turf and trying not to get too muddy, I saw one of the Sisters driving a small tractor around the grounds, circling the trees. The tractor had nothing attached to it, no mower, harrow or roller. She went round and round for about ten minutes and then drove off into the Enclosure and by the sound of it drove around in there for a while. I couldn't work out what the purpose of this was, and wondered whether it was a penance, or a reward ...

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Shifting the Product

Several conversations about the same subject over the last few days – the decline of the Church and what might be done about it – led me back to some thoughts prompted by driving past a closed branch of Blockbuster Videos a few weeks ago. A business dedicated to an obsolete technology, overtaken by change and economic stress. What does that say to the Church, I wondered.

The Church Times has been running a series of articles analysing change in the Church (of England, specifically, but it applies more broadly) and ideas for the future. It always strikes me looking back at the history of Anglicanism over the last century and a half or so that we’ve been saying the same sort of thing for a very long while. Last year I acquired a fascinating book from the Methodist stable, called Towards a Radical Church: it bears so strongly the stamp of its time (1970), and yet rehearses the same arguments and complaints that we go through now. I like the way it blithely assumes that most married women will continue to eschew paid work and therefore will, once their children are at school, be available to run the new, shiny, radical church's activities. Visions of the future so soon become overtaken by reality.

Capitalist businesses sell a product or range of products for profit, and a particular business defines itself around its product. If things change and that product becomes harder to sell, the business faces the challenge of what to do. Now, there is nothing inherent about a business which marries it inextricably to its product; it could survive in a time of change by deciding to sell something else, and sometimes this happens. Practically, though, there are constraints, because at least in the short term a business has to use the skills and experience of the staff it has and the capabilities of the equipment it has, and even if it does want to revolutionise the business it’s in, it’s normally a process that takes some time and so the new line, whatever it is, will exist alongside the old until it takes over. Most often, however, what stymies business change is not these practical considerations but simply not seeing what’s happening, and the inertia that comes from not being able to imagine radical change. It’s much easier to think that you can make your business succeed by better marketing, internal reorganisation, or things like that, rather than actually rethinking the whole enterprise, by recognising that your business isn’t really defined by what you’re selling, just by institutional continuity.

Thinking about the Church in these terms is an interesting exercise. What is the product we’re selling, and how might that change? How much change is possible, even – because, whereas a business, if it looks at things in a hard-headed way, isn’t essentially about its product, the Church is an ideological organisation whose form is related to its principles.

It seems to me that what the Church sells is relationship with God, expressed uniquely in Jesus of Nazareth, mediated by committed communities of people engaged in various activities. That’s its product, essentially. What about that might be open to change?

The part about God and Jesus clearly isn’t capable of being changed without the Church ceasing to be Christian. It could choose to do so, but a) it would no longer be committed to the same ideology that now gives it meaning, and b) it isn’t clear that it’s that bit of the product which is the problem. It’s the community and activity elements which seem to be under the most challenge: churches with too few people and too little money to carry on their traditional work, traditional subgroups such as Sunday Schools and Mothers’ Union branches unable to operate, social change making it very hard even for people who want to be part of a physical, geographical church community and its life actually to get involved.

It seems to me that most churches focus on the activity element of their product as the one changing which involves least pain and upset (though not none). They try doing new stuff and, if they’re exceptionally brave, stopping doing old stuff, in an attempt to get more people interested: outreach, social action, new sorts of services, ‘fresh expressions of church’. Sometimes these do work, but they’re limited in scope, and don’t touch the core nature of the business.

Now, Blockbuster (for instance) managed the technological shift from video to DVD rental fairly smoothly, but has been done in by not adapting to a world in which too few people want to rent films on physical media to make that business model feasible. The shift to an online and virtual economy is one of the great facts of our time. Might the Church learn from that? There have been experiments in this area for about ten years, online churches and internet chaplains and so on, but they’ve never really caught on, and I don’t know whether any thinking has been done as to why they haven’t worked. It may be that such online communities don’t actually provide people with enough of what they want from a church, that it brings a degree of face-to-face, physical relationship; that they recognise it for not being the real thing. At the moment Swanvale Halt uses its (limited) online presence as a marketing tool, telling people what’s going on and acting as a shop window for the real church. What if we could devise something which functioned in the same way as Messy Church does: that is, another means of allowing people to maintain contact with the core church of physical relationship and commitment in social circumstances which make doing that very difficult? It’s a possibility.

Yet even that doesn’t really break free from the idea of the physical church community being at the centre of the life of Christians. I’m not sure it’s possible to do so; I suspect that relationship is an essential element of the core ideological product which we can’t jettison without ceasing to be what we are.

None of this results in much clarity, I’m afraid. During its series of articles, The Church Times printed many comments and letters saying things along the lines of, ‘The Church needs to wake up to what’s happening and change or it’ll die’. Such statements do annoy me. The truth is that the Church is perfectly aware of the problems it faces; it’s just that nobody really has the faintest idea what to do about them.