Tuesday, 23 August 2016

The Risk of Caring

That doughty first-generation Tractarian, Fr Francis Murray of Chislehurst (though he was Rector of Chislehurst for so long that he counts as a second- and third-generation Tractarian as well), died in 1902 at his prie-dieu in his room: 'often and often, while men slept, the Rector was striving with God in prayer for the souls entrusted to his keeping'. I am a poor priest who drags himself often less than joyfully to his prayers, and less than prepared in heart, but it struck me while I was there yesterday how hazardous a business caring is.

Here I am nearly at the end of my seventh year in Swanvale Halt and I think of the lovely people of the parish who have died over that time. I also wonder about how my life will pan out - not so much my own mortality but how it interacts with the mortality of those I care about. Ms Formerly Aldgate is quite a bit younger than me so, should we stay together, it's more likely that she will have to cope with the loss of me than me with hers. But my sister is only seven years my junior; it's not impossible that I could outlive her. There is someone I feel much for (though I have never met them) and who is my exact contemporary, to within six weeks: which of us will leave this mortal life first? If it's them, what will it feel like to live in a world in which they are not there? I was speaking on Friday to my Goth accountant and friend Ms DeathAndTaxes and we touched on the speculations several of my chums are engaging in about the possibility of setting up a Goth retirement home, and considerations of mortality come into that as well.

I looked down my parish lists for my prayers, and knew full well that, by the time I leave this place, many of the people on it will have died. I thought of Brenda and Alistair, a humorous pair in their early 80s who live further up the hill with one of their sons, a quiet fellow who scoots up and down every day to the station to go to work and who I've never really had much of a conversation with. It was Brenda who told me she had a dream the night before the Referendum that Britain had voted to leave the EU 'and I woke up crying, and then I found it was true'. She photocopies our weekly news notes and Alistair checks the light bulbs in the church hall as he has done for the thirty years since he was churchwarden. Assuming I stick around in Swanvale Halt (and I have no reason not to) they will go before I do.

Being a Christian, at least being part of a Christian community, means doing the strange thing of deliberately opening yourself up to loss. As well as the communities of family and friendship which nearly everyone has, someone who is part of a church contracts a whole set of additional relationships. Of course as well as sharing in sorrows they would otherwise have avoided, they share in joys as well, weddings and the birth of children, watching them grow and develop. But there are risks even there: not all children make it through intact. This is the vocation of us all, the risk we all take and the privilege we all share, but the parish priest shares it to a uniquely intense degree, or should. And all this is only a tiny, pale reflection of God's involvement in our lives. 

I am a cold fish a lot of the time and I was struck by the description Fr Richard Coles gives in Fathomless Riches of the priest who was largely responsible for his briefish conversion to Roman Catholicism, Fr Derek Jennings ('Dazzle') 'for whom intimacy was so difficult, and who could be so waspish and sometimes snarly, but who was finally able to love people through his priesthood'. I certainly didn't really know anything about love before God came my way, and what I thought was love was delusory and self-bolstering fantasy. I still don't know much, but I learn, a little.

Sunday, 21 August 2016


Parish life in Swanvale Halt is simply a medley of extemporanea at the moment. Among these events is the Village Show, which I can't remember whether I've ever shared with you. It is the Saturday in the middle of August when the church is taken over by marrows, dahlias and tomatoes so red and shiny they represent virtually the Platonic Ideal of a tomato. Lots of people come in and look admiringly at them and we serve them tea and cake. It's called 'community building'.

Entries in the Show were down by about a third this year, for which there may have been several reasons, ranging from the weather, both generally (not a good growing year) and specifically (a deluge in the morning which possibly kept exhibitors away), to a lapse in publicity. In the kitchen the tea team muttered about young people not having time to grow things, and covering front gardens with paving. I'm not sure this is the case. Many of the winning exhibitors were relatively youthful. 'Best In Show', in fact, went to a young woman for a brace of glossy aubergines which, the judges opined, were awfully hard to grow.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Day Out

Something lighter hearted. Last Saturday the church provided teas and took Messy Church to the Swanvale Halt Family Fete, provided by the council, on the recreation ground. This is the latter. Sheila who co-ordinates Messy Church was very proud of herself having managed to recycle the crafts she did at the last Messy Church and at Toddler Group on Friday. 'Haven't we done this before?' asked one of the parents. 'Though I don't suppose it matters.'

Monday, 15 August 2016

Pick A Side

Image result for public interest lawyersWhen I heard on the radio this morning about the collapse of Public Interest Lawyers and saw the crowing headlines in some of the right-wing newspapers I remembered that PIL’s boss, Phil Shiner, had appeared on PJ Harvey’s act of assault-and-battery on the Today programme back in early 2014. At that point he was embroiled in the case which has led to his firm’s downfall, the claim that a number of Iraqi insurgents had not been lawfully killed in a military engagement in 2004 during the Second Iraq War, but were in fact murdered and mutilated while detained by British forces, although on the programme itself he was mainly talking about torture and mistreatment. John Humphrys gave him quite a hard time, as a journalist should, bringing up allegations which have proven not without some foundation, that PIL went hunting for claims of mistreatment against UK troops. In 2009 the High Court found that the Ministry of Defence had indeed investigated the claims of murder inadequately; but the subsequent public enquiry, named Al-Sweady after one of the young men who died, concluded at the end of last year that there was no basis for the claims and that the complainants were politically motivated. At that point the bubble burst: the Legal Aid Foundation removed its funding from PIL and another law firm which was representing Iraqi detainees, Leigh Day, and the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal is now investigating both companies, as well as Phil Shiner personally. The questions centre on whether PIL and Leigh Day did indeed scout around for Iraqis willing to allege that British troops had mistreated them, and whether, as seems to be the case, PIL even made upfront payments to complainants ‘in advance of’ compensation settlements. The mass of over a thousand mistreatment cases on PIL’s books will now, likely, vanish.

It’s an ugly business. But it shouldn’t obscure the fact that PIL brought to light the appalling death of Baha Mousa at the hands of the British Army in 2003, about which there is no doubt, and for which case Mr Shiner was applauded by Liberty and the Law Society. Neither should people overlook the Al-Sweady enquiry’s conclusion that Iraqi detainees were indeed maltreated in exactly the same ways that eventually led to the death of Baha Mousa, even if the most lurid accusations were untrue.

‘You’re making a good living at this, aren’t you?’ John Humphrys challenged Mr Shiner on Today. He doesn’t, it seems to me, look as though that’s his motivation. He looks to me like an awkward bugger, a belligerent and unreasonable fellow at least as far as his work is concerned. I was put rather in mind of the collapse of Kids Company and its parallel sucking-in of taxpayers’ money to do profoundly good work which never quite achieved what it was supposed to. I was also put in mind of the thought that sometimes occurs to me, that it's only unreasonable people who ever really achieve anything.

What’s really going on in these sorts of scandals? It seems a shame that they blow up and then disappear, and that nobody is really interested in uncovering the truth. We rather expect the Right to turn up scoundrels and bastards, and are unsurprised when it happens. The fall of liberal-leftish campaigners uncovers nerves, however: it represents a collapse of our ideals. It could be the case that such people begin with high aspirations and are somehow misled by them, deluded by great successes into a self-enclosed, self-confirming pattern of thinking which assumes that one is acting in the interests of truth and justice and that one’s more questionable deeds will one day be vindicated by the greater good. Unreasonable people have fewer inner constraints than the rest of us. It could be, alternatively, that they really are frauds and deceivers, duping the idealistic and the trusting in their own interest. It would be very, very helpful to know which.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Black, Black, Black

"Aren't you hot, wearing all black?" people say to me in the summer. Depending on the mood I'm in, I will say either "Oh, yes" in a cheerfully disarming way, as though it was absurd to imagine any differently, or conversely claim that I'm impervious to heat. I think my interlocutors sometimes imagine I am obliged to wear black, which is of course not the case. Marion our curate will wear a black shirt a lot of the time, although for Toddler Group and other such occasions she adopts a variety of amiable sweaters which are doubtless supposed to suggest warmth and approachability but some of which I find a bit challenging. Dr Bones's father, the estimable vicar of Oakington, hardly ever wears clerical gear of any kind, as he says everyone in the village knows him anyway; evangelical clergy like him are much more likely than Anglo-Catholics to adopt a less monochrome dress code, although the great Fr Maurice Child of Cranford scorned clerical dress too. Most of his parish is now under Heathrow Airport (I'm not claiming there's a causal connection). 

In my Lamford days Il Rettore once shared with me SJ Forrest's rhyme 'A Clergyman in Black':

I never, never like to see
A clergyman in black.
It speaks of dark disloyalty,
And clandestine attack;
Of sabotage, conspiracy,
And stabbings in the back.

This black fanaticism bears
The label of the Beast;
An aping of the Romanists,
A masquerade at least,
That makes a clergyman appear
A veritable priest.

Though ministers are difficult
To sift and classify,
I find the deeds of darkness
In the men of deepest dye;
And those in black are normally
So very, very High.

Although I do not like High Church
I'd stomach one or two
(The Church of England's big enough
To tolerate a few).
If only they would not behave
As if their faith were true.

A clergyman in corduroys
Or dressed in Harris tweed,
Will generally compromise,
And readily accede;
His safety and his sympathy,
Are wholly guaranteed.

So let us warn our ordinands
Of folly and excess,
And only pass the ministers
Who honestly profess
A variegated churchmanship,
In varicoloured dress.

I have worn uniform black since the age of 18 or thereabouts and wouldn't feel very comfortable in anything else, although in my middle age I have become quite enamoured of striped shirts and ties in a variety of hues. It is of course the case that black garb speaks of the otherness of the ordained life, which is a point worth making even in an orderly village, but I probably would have chosen it anyway.

'I think the jacket and waistcoat are more likely to make you hot than the fact that they're black', said Ms Formerly Aldgate. She is as usual right.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Mutual Aid

Who would have anticipated that the most pleasing event in my work recently would have been visiting two old gentlemen in hospital?

I've been to see Colin many times and told you about one of them before. Now he is in a different hospital and waiting to go to an environment where he can be looked after a bit better than at home. 'Have I told you before how lucky I am? Made it to 94', he said. I noticed a lovely art card on his bedside table, brought by a couple of friends. I suspected it was Dorset, and so it was, Charmouth beach to be precise. 'It reminds me of holidays', said Colin.

Round the corner in another ward was Keith who is a bit more confused than Colin but is also ready to go, provided somewhere appropriate can be found for him. I discovered on this visit (the hospital social worker happened to be there) that he has a nephew who will help to sort things out. 

I was so grateful to be able to see Colin and Keith. There's nothing very explicitly churchy about these encounters, though we pray in very short and simple order and say the Lord's Prayer. What else is needed? My visits help to keep them part of the community, but then they perform the same office for me, don't they?

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

St Catherine at Arundel

On my day off last Thursday I went to Arundel, a place I hadn't visited in 30 years. At the east end of the Anglican parish church you can peek into the Fitzalan Chapel, the private chapel of the Catholic Dukes of Norfolk which is only accessible via the Castle. The east window of the chapel is a riotous Victorian catalogue of holy people (plus the then Duke and his family), and, lo and behold, blessed Catherine the Martyr is among them, complete with wheel and massive sword. The child next to her is probably not, as I first thought, a cherub thoughtfully holding her martyr's palm for her, but one of the Holy Innocents and his palm rightly belongs to him.

Catherine, like the rest of the assembled company, is supposed to be gazing rapt at Our Saviour in the centre of the window. 'She's rolling her eyes,' commented Ms Formerly Aldgate. 'She looks incredibly bored.' 'I think that's supposed to be piety rather than boredom,' I suggested, 'but it's often a fine line.'