Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Difference in Perception

A reverse-charge message came to my mobile from my regular interlocutor Karly. I knew not to reply to this – the last time it cost me £4 – so I called her directly instead. ‘Father, can you call me a taxi? I’m at the church and need to get to my mum’s and haven’t got any credit on my phone’. I called the taxi company she suggested. ‘It’s not for me, but for a lady called Karly Talbot’, I said. ‘Ah, this is the same person we tried to pick up half an hour ago,’ said the man on the other end of the line. ‘She was supposed to be going to no.6 Larkspur Road. My driver waited around for ten minutes but couldn’t find her. I can send someone else, but she’ll have to pay for the first callout as well as the second.’ I related this information. ‘But I haven’t called a taxi today!’ Karly protested. It is not my habit to probe into people’s stories – I’ve learned it’s pointless – but just out of curiosity I couldn’t resist asking, ‘So how did the man at the taxi firm recognise your name straight away, and know where you wanted to go?’ ‘I don’t know. That’s scary!’ she answered. It’s not just scary, I thought, it’s bloody miraculous. There may be complex and involved explanations involving unknown third parties, but I didn’t have the energy to get into them. Of course I ended up taking her to her mum’s. 

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

The Crossroads of All Things

I say mass in a little side chapel of the church; there's about a dozen of us. I'm facing away from them, facing the cross. I pick up the paten and the chalice as usual. 'This is my body ... This is my blood'. But it's more than that. This is mangled and broken flesh, scattered blood among fragments of glass. It's all the blood shed from the first murder onwards, in one little silver cup. And I can hear sounds in my ears that almost drown out my own voice, even though I know the words better than I know anything else I ever say.

Jesus said the blood of all the murdered ‘from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary’ would come upon his generation. He meant that moment was the crux of all human history. As he was the one through whom all was created, so when he was nailed and killed it was the nailing and killing of all creation, and whenever his brothers and sisters suffered, or would ever suffer, so would he. ‘What you did to the least of these, you did also to me’.

And that means that every time I lift the chalice I lift all the pain of the world, past and future. Through him, I’m linked to all of it. I was warned about that, years ago, but I don’t always feel it. Which is just as well.

Monday, 22 May 2017

The View of the Young

Gatherings of Swanvale Halt Messy Church vary hugely from one occasion to the next. In March we had the highest numbers we'd drawn for two years and more; this month, we had the lowest attendance for two years, and the difference isn't marginal in absolute number terms. I wonder where everyone was.

It gave me a chance to speak to Megan, who is 13 and one of the very few young people who orbits around the church community. She was helping out on one of the craft tables, making spangly sequinned angels. Megan has been coming to the church with her family since she was small and naturally is questioning things a bit more as she gets older. She's taken communion a couple of times at Christmas and Easter, despite not being confirmed, so technically we ought to 'admit her to holy communion' which as far as I'm concerned just requires a conversation to make sure the communicant knows what it's about. 'I'm not sure I believe in God,' Megan said. 'I think there was a person called Jesus, but I look at things very logically and I'm not sure how all the rest of it fits'. Jesus is a start, I said.

I've tried to treat the handful of teens and near-teens we have at the church as a group, but the trouble is that they aren't. They go to different schools, they have a variety of different experiences, and there aren't enough of them seeing each other often enough to develop any sense of common identity. Even when they retain any sort of definite faith, the pull of bigger churches where they might find more young people like them is inexorable. It's hard for me to think my way into their situation, because when I was their age I couldn't abide other teenagers and sat in my room reading books.

Megan and I got on to gender stereotyping. She had two templates for her angels, one clearly supposed to be male and one female, with longer hair and a schematic skirt. Most of the children seemed to think angels are girls. The male figure doesn't appear to have any hair at all. 'They take the view that if you're bald you're male,' Megan told me. 'I asked, What if I lost my hair? and they said, You'd be a man.'

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Folk Wisdom

Candlestub Clem sat on a chair in church next to the candle stand where he’d just lit a light for his poorly sister. ‘You know me, Father, you know I’m an alcoholic and all that, and yeah, I never went to university, but I lived in Cambridge for twenty years, and you spend all that time somewhere like that, and stuff has to rub off on you a bit, hasn’t it? If you keep your eyes and ears open. My gran used to say to me, take the cotton wool out of your ears and put it in your gob, and you might learn something. I talk to people about apartheid and stuff, and they don’t know who Steve Biko was. How can you not know about Steve Biko? I could tell you his cell number. People just don’t know, they don’t pay attention. It’s a crazy world we live in, it really is.’

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Diversionary Tactics

Il Rettore is of the opinion, having read the analysis of Monday's meeting I'm intending to send out to the congregation - I think this is a matter of such importance that they need to know about it - that I should write to the Bishop with my concerns. He even stooped to using such Evangelical language as 'the Lord laying a call on you'. Well, I suppose I am the last priest in the diocese appointed with freehold, and perhaps this was why. I described the proposed new funding system to Ms Formerly Aldgate who described it as 'sounding like the Department for Work & Pensions: "rewarding hard-working churches" '. So I have written and now it awaits posting. If the diocese accepts that the language of punishment and reward is inappropriate, that at least renders the 'new definition of fairness' more palatable. We'll see what happens. 

Today was my day off and I went to Dorset to visit my mother and look for wells. I went to Swanage and it was most agreeable, so here are some nice images. 



Tuesday, 16 May 2017

All Flesshe ys Grasse

On another day, Reg’s funeral would have dominated my thinking yesterday (as it did until the evening). It’s not every funeral service that begins with a preamble from the departed laying out his thinking behind how it’s put together and the spirit with which we should all approach it. His outline notes include the instruction ‘Eulogy (if deserved)’: I have no idea what one does to ‘deserve’ a eulogy, and it’s not my place to decide anyway. The love and honour in which Reg was held was palpable, as was his sense of gratitude and joyousness – though shot through with the extremity of the way he died. I spoke to one of my predecessors as Rector for whom Reg had served as churchwarden in the 1960s: his predecessor had told him how ‘this is such a good parish. You’ll love them into heaven.’

As an antidote, in the evening I went with our treasurer to a meeting about the new Parish Share system the diocese is proposing. Now, this is all a bit complex, but bear with me. The Diocese of Guildford derives more of its £11.7M income from its parishes than any other Church of England diocese, 94% (in Lincoln it’s just over 40%), because it lacks the historic endowments and landholdings the older dioceses have. This means that if churches are subsidised for any reason, the money basically has to come from all the other churches, essentially reallocating resources from a handful of larger evangelical churches to smaller ones. The distortions arising from this system have in recent years been mitigated by a complex arrangement of caps and floors on the annual changes in the sum the diocese demands from each parish. It all means that how the figure for any parish is arrived at is opaque to say the least. The diocese also reckons that the actual cost of each stipendiary clergyperson has been significantly underestimated. ‘It’s not fair!’ the Bishop outlined at the start of the meeting: the system should not ‘penalise growth or reward decline’.

So there is to be a new system. Each parish’s quota will be calculated on what it gets (a vicar, for instance, calculated as costing £55K per year), a share of the common costs of the diocese, and an adjustment based on the relative prosperity of the parish. There will continue to be cross-subsidies, but they will be apparent and transparent rather than covert, and seen explicitly as ‘an investment for growth’. In the future, if a parish in Guildford Diocese is subsidised, it’ll know it.

Well. It struck me that this shift marks another stage in a huge process of centralisation which has gone on for decades. Once upon a time each parish in the Church of England was a virtually independent unit, financially and administratively; occasionally a bishop would turn up to confirm people or to discipline a naughty Anglo-Catholic clergyman but that was basically it. Then in the 1960s clerical incomes were standardised as the parishes handed their historic endowments over to the dioceses to be put into a central pool, possibly the greatest single act of Christian charity in this country’s history and one that nobody really talks about. Gradually clergy also began sending their fees for marriages and funerals into the diocesan pot as well. This financial centralisation should be seen alongside the long effort by the bishops to get more control over the patronage process, that is, who has the right to present a candidate to be incumbent of a parish; and the abolition of the Parson’s Freehold, the incumbent’s absolute security of tenure which is now (except for those who, like me, were already in place) replaced by licences for a term of years. Freehold gave clergy the freedom to innovate without worrying about being slapped over the wrist, but it also gave them the freedom to be alcoholics, depressives, oddballs, or plain idle buggers. Put all this together and the picture that emerges is of a massive and decades-long process in which the parish ceases to be the strategic unit for the mission of the Church of England, and is replaced by the diocese. The diocese’s hand may still be relatively light and respectful of the traditions of each parish, and bishops certainly tend not to behave with the brutal high-handedness that some once did, but the striking thing is that it has a hand at all. This is a shift from a situation in which parishes are given a priest and then left essentially to get on with it, to one in which strategic direction is set centrally and then implemented locally.

I said this, and the chaps from the diocesan offices didn’t like it at all, which suggests to me that I’m on to something. I didn’t at the time take the further step of summarising the proposed change, which I characterise – possibly caricature – as a shift from saying ‘every parish needs a priest and we will provide one’ to saying ‘every parish will have a priest if it earns one, and, if it can’t pay, we will decide what “earning” means’.

The change probably won’t cripple Swanvale Halt church. I and the treasurer guess that, when the new system comes in, we’ll have to find another £5-10K per annum, a challenging but not impossible amount. But far worse and more depressing than the shift in balance from parish to diocese, which is perhaps an inevitable process, is the managerialist and results-driven ideas behind the bishop’s statement about ‘penalising growth and rewarding decline’. What morally pejorative terms those are. The assumption is that a church can grow if only it tries, and therefore if it’s not growing it must be complacent and idle. This new model is very much ‘salvation by works’ rather than ‘salvation by grace’ – payment by results, rather than needs. It works entirely against everything we tell people about their essential value, about God valuing the lowly and weak. Whether centrally-directed strategy and incentivisation will ‘work’ better than hands-off universal provision, or will just accelerate decline, is an open question.

And it’s on God that I try to focus. Ultimately my value comes from him, from what I am in his eyes, not in the eyes of the Church of England. It doesn’t make me feel that good, though.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

"Child-saints rejoice you, small immaculate souls"

The thought occurred to me that I might mention the newly-canonised visionaries of Fatima during the consecration at mass this morning, but I realised I couldn’t remember which two of the three children it was. Was it Jacinta who was canonised yesterday or Lucia? I asked the Roman Catholic parish priest as he was on his way out (we share the church building with the Papists). Scandalously, he didn’t know either. The office computer and Professor Google came to my aid.

There are other child-saints in the annals of the Church, of course, but they’re mostly a bit distant (the Holy Innocents, for instance), or actually adolescents (St Agnes, St Pancras), or completely legendary (St Romwald, who preached a sermon on the Trinity as a newborn and died at the age of three days). Siblings Jacinta and Francisco Marto are the youngest saints declared in modern times, dying during the influenza epidemic of 1918 at the ages of 7 and 9 respectively. This only became possible after the Vatican relaxed the rules a bit in 1981: previously candidates for sainthood had to have achieved a degree of maturity, but now the regulations recognise that a child can be ‘precocious’ in faith and awareness. In fact, the resolve of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints crumbled in this respect precisely because of the campaign to canonise the children of Fatima. 

I've never paid that much attention to the Fatima manifestations, partly because I'm not that much of a Marian devotee and partly because they've become so embedded in the imaginary world of ultra-reactionary Roman Catholicism. There are still Catholics who believe that the Vatican has suppressed texts of the visions revealed to the three children in 1917, texts that suggest the Church of Rome will go into apostasy and that the end of the world will follow soon afterwards. Even leaving aside the conspiracy theories and nutcase enthusiasms, the illiterate peasant children who met the Virgin Mary in the pasture outside their village so epitomised the piety of their culture and age that they’ve become (literally) icons for that piety, a sort which is a bit of an embarrassment to modern Catholicism. The surviving photographs of the children (here, for instance, or here, or here) do show them somewhat as eerily adult and theatrically pious, though perhaps that’s what coming across the Virgin Mary in a field will do to you. It would be fairer to reflect that they’ve been dressed up in their best clothes by grown-ups, and their disconcerting expressions are what any poor children would have adopted when confronted with a camera around that time. If you look at photos of British schoolchildren lined up in classes just before the First World War, they scowl in the same way. They’re just being serious. One gets the slight impression that the children were already icons even during their lives, and, while nobody doubts their genuineness, they were clearly surrounded by an awful lot of people who had certain expectations of them. As an antidote, compare this photo of a tired St Jacinta being carried through a crowd. She’s not enjoying herself much, is she?


But the point about children is that they aren’t that serious, and roping the visionaries of Fatima into grown-up ideas of what religious people should be like would be a shame. Jacinta, Francisco and Lucia (yet to be canonised, her) would have run about and played and laughed around the early twentieth-century village of Aljustrel like children everywhere. Thankfully some of the art that’s emerged around the children is less weighted with the significance they must have had to bear at the time of their visions and since. The tombs at the Fatima basilica where Pope Francis went to pray are actually rather nice, especially the statue of St Jacinta, surrounded by stylised hills and sheep.


I hope the holy children of Fatima will, in their sainthood, be allowed to be children. Because that’s the radical, subversive quality of their witness: the fact they were poor, and the fact that they were young. Contemplating them might remind us more of God’s clear bias towards the child and the childlike. It might act as some reparation for a Church that, at the same time as it idolised some children, ignored and damaged others: the shadow side of the festivities yesterday in Portugal.

As for me, I’ll wait for the canonisation of Blessed Antonietta Meo, who was even younger than the Marto siblings: she died of cancer at six in 1937 a year after having a leg amputated. She looks like a little Louise Brooks. She would skip in front of the tabernacle at church and say ‘Jesus, come and play with me!’ and I defy you to repeat that without your eyes stinging more than is dignified for a grown-up.