Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Saint Spotted

My thanks are due today to Dr Abacus who noticed this fine icon of St Catherine in the chapel of Cumberland Lodge, which a friend of his serves as chaplain. I've never seen her depicted as veiled, which is interesting. 

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Church Crawling Round Woking

Woking is a bit of an evangelical wasteland as far as churches are concerned but that doesn't mean there is no interest to be found in them. St Mary of Bethany, southwest of the town centre, is a church I've visited before, but not in the daylight; and coming upon its lumpen redbrick mass on a dull early afternoon is not the most aesthetically pleasing experience I've ever had. Within it turns out to be another of the churches that has reoriented itself 90 degrees and so has an altar against the long wall. The old chancel is relegated to the side, forming a chapel. 

The biggest church in the town is Christ Church, a great redbrick barn of a place, though not as architecturally hard-headed as St Mary of Bethany, and which sits quite pleasingly in the shiny Jubilee Square in the centre of town. Here they haven't rearranged the interior because it's so wide it didn't need it, but it's clear that at Christ Church we are, liturgically speaking, back in the mindset of 18th-century Anglicanism, in which the church is a means of keeping people dry while they do religious things, rather than a sacred space in any sense. You'd be forgiven for thinking the piano and the drum kit are the main points of interest, although there is an altar, and we'll come to that in a minute.

I've been in Christ Church for diocesan events umpteen times: it's big, well-equipped, and central, which is why it is so favoured. Yet until I had a determined poke around I'd never noticed the remaining signs of what it used to be. The great apsidal chancel has piscina and sedilia, so you could easily celebrate a Solemn High Mass here if you wanted to ...

... and stuck round a corner is this very pleasing reredos, another sub-Comper effort with the deep azure tone of a 15th-century manuscript ...

The reredos was installed behind the high altar in 1926, and the piscina and sedilia are part of the original fabric built in 1889. Now, it is true that late-Victorian church-building was dominated by High Church Gothic Revivalists and so these features would, perhaps, have been standard at the time, but Christ Church was a cheap job too - in so far as its size allowed - and I do wonder whether strict Low-Church principles and economy would both have conspired to rule them out. Such a consideration doesn't apply to the reredos. Either fitments of this kind were so much part and parcel of Anglicanism in the 1920s that nobody thought more of it, or the tradition of Christ Church has undergone an abrupt change at some point. (The original architect, just for interest, was WF Unsworth, who didn't build many churches but was responsible for the original Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon, which looked like something out of The Castle of Otranto).

There are little elements at Christ Church which nod in a different direction. Everyone now seems to have a Paschal Candle to light during baptisms, while Rublev's Trinity icon is ubiquitous, no matter the tradition of the church:

A final point which illustrates how difficult it can be to gauge the sense of a church from its fittings and furniture. Christ Church has a modern altar, a near-circular table that sits in the middle of the great apse on a slate dais. Although the wood is of no great quality, you might see something very like this in a church of almost any tradition or denomination, from modern Roman Catholic to open-minded nonconformist.

I was lucky to meet the Director of Ordinands who, despite his surprise to see me, let me in to St Mary of Bethany to have a look around. I don't necessarily expect suburban evangelical Anglican churches to be open to visitors, so it was no shock that St Paul's, Oriental Road, was locked, but I was most disappointed not to be able to get in to St Mary's, Horsell, a far more villagey-type church on the north of the town. It looks as though I will have to arrange my crawling in advance. 

Friday, 11 January 2019

What Goes Round

I am getting quite used to the lady who leads the termly 'Hot Topic' training sessions for school governors on behalf of Surrey County Council. About forty governors from a variety of schools (including three ordained people, I realised halfway through) spent a couple of hours in the Holiday Inn at Guildford as she breathlessly downloaded a mass of information some of which I managed to assimilate. 

Do you remember how, a couple of years ago, I was in such a despondent state about the headlong, and forced, race towards academisation in English and Welsh schools? Now, we learn, this rush has come to an abrupt but untrumpeted halt. Perhaps as a result of some highly-publicised failures and the general realisation that they are not the market leaders they were purported to be, academies have gone very quiet. The Department for Education has stopped regarding a school being rated by OfStEd as 'Requiring Improvement' as the trigger for it to proceed towards academisation, but as a demonstration that it needs extra support. This is partly due to the departure of the former Secretary of State and partly to the Government's attention being absorbed by other matters: 'rather than OfStEd and the DFE being at loggerheads', we were told, 'OfStEd is in an increasingly influential position.'

Secondly, three years ago OfStEd was busy criticising schools for not concentrating sufficiently on the core curriculum and that other matters were secondary (and for 'secondary', read 'irrelevant'). Now, however, the inspectors have started saying the precise opposite, that children, especially in the earlier years of education, should be able to take part in a 'rich' curriculum that provides them with a rounded set of life experiences. We even now have the innovation of the 'Activity Passport', listing things it's good for children to have done between Reception and Year 6. Here's a flavour:

Reception: Taste a new fruit
Year 1: Look up at the stars on a clear night
Year 2: Get soaking wet in the rain
Year 3: Stay away from home for a night
Year 4: Skim stones
Year 5: Make and launch an air powered rocket
Year 6: Visit a local charity and find out how you can support them

The whole idea clearly arises from the popular perception that children are spending too much time sat in front of screens. Some of the tasks in fact quite sound demanding ('Choreograph a dance') but others bring a bit of a tear to the eye. The pointlessness and disutility of so many of them is one of the few things that has brought me much hope in humanity lately. I didn't expect that from an evening at the Holiday Inn in the care of Babcock 4S.

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Midweek Disruption

Before I knew he was there, Bill had appeared outside the church porch, as he has virtually every Tuesday morning for decades to serve at the midweek mass (once upon a time we had services every day - but the Tuesday mass is the only one that survives). I was busy vandalising the noticeboard whose backing board has gradually buckled, discoloured and disintegrated until half of it is unusable: I wanted to strip it out so we could put notices directly onto the metal at the back, but found that the glue was tougher than I thought. I was left with a pile of bits of board to throw away.

Brenda had arrived at the same time. Bill was telling her, clearly in some distress, that he was lost. 'You're at the church, Bill, you're in the right place,' Brenda assured him. We both did. Brenda took Bill inside and sat him down in the Lady Chapel where we celebrate on Tuesday mornings. He was shaky and shivery and fiddled confusedly with his glasses - he should normally have two pairs but hadn't been wearing any when he arrived. We carried on with the service but Bill's presence is so perennial and steadfast that his agitation agitated us all. When it was over, some of the others took him to the old people's day centre for tea, but he was then whisked home and a doctor's visit later on confirmed that he had a chest infection, which I suppose we have to imagine accounted for his disorientation.

Bill, like so many others in the congregation, seems eternal even though you know they aren't. Every Tuesday he pours wine and water into the chalice I hold, and then washes my fingers after the communion, and I wonder how long he will be able to do so and how different things will seem when he isn't there. Nothing in this world lasts forever, yet we yearn for it to do so, or at least I do.

Monday, 7 January 2019


Epiphany is one of the occasions when we take the opportunity to use incense at Swanvale Halt, though it isn't quite as spectacular as the employment of the gigantic botafumeiro at Santiago, as illustrated here, not even when Fr C presided a few years ago and stoked the thurible more than usual, swirling the charcoal and incense pastilles around with the spoon. However that did make me wonder whether I was being a little stingy with the stuff, and on Sunday evening I gaily popped four pastilles, supplied by an Orthodox monastery not far away, into the pot. The resulting amount of smoke surprised even me, and I now know that four is enough to polish off the weaker of the parishioners. Subsequent chargings of the thurible were restricted to two. 

You might say this is a small practical experiment. Following on from our discussion of science and humanism the other day, it occurred to me that while reason is of course a very good thing, and God can never be anything other than absolutely rational (if only we knew what the rational thing was), the scientific method is a different matter. Life is not a laboratory, and I don't mean that metaphorically. There are indeed circumstances in which we can determine what course of action to adopt by testing hypotheses, such as how much incense a particular congregation can stand wafting from a thurible. The thurible, the incense, and probably the people, remain the same from instance to instance: the variables are limited. But most of the time we inhabit immensely complex, nay chaotic, systems, and the accurate replication of experimental circumstances which is central to the scientific method becomes impossible. For instance, if you are a finance minister debating whether to adopt a particular fiscal strategy, you can't repeatedly test your guesses out on the level of an entire national economy and exclude all the variable circumstances which would make the resulting data meaningful. It is exactly those variable circumstances which make for so much dissension among economists (I wait for Dr Abacus to comment). There's only so much the scientific method can do: and beyond it, we're left with the arguable. 

Saturday, 5 January 2019

Farnham and About

My week off between New Year and Epiphany came to a conclusion yesterday in a walk around Farnham. It was a bright, chilly late morning and early afternoon, and the fairly short walk - only an hour and a half or so - took me around the hills northwest of that small Surrey town, past timber-framed farmhouses glimpsed across the fields, and more modern structures such as the 1930s - perhaps - Cedar House.

I took in visits to a couple of churches. Although St Francis's, Byworth, was shut, it's a perfect example of the sort of small estate churches being built during Anglicanism's boom-time of the 1950s, when a moderate sort of Catholicism was the natural environment for the Church of England. It has a bell, a statue of the Saint by the door, and an altar hung with a brocade frontal. 

Its mother-church, the medieval St Andrew's in town, is intriguing because it seems to suggest successive waves of Catholicisation, beginning with a restoration of the chancel in 1848, whose tide is now ebbing. A Lady Chapel was created in 1909 and the altar brought forward in 1959, a very early date for a change like that. In the early 2000s an internal suite of meeting rooms was created by clearing out the pews and creating a wood and glass box at the west end of the nave.  I couldn't find any date for this splendid sort-of sub-Comper reredos, which now sits behind the old high altar at the far end of the church. I'm guessing it can't be earlier than 1910 (and perhaps not much later).

Finally I called in at Farnham Museum, set in a Georgian town house on the main street. Its staircase is apparently very highly regarded:

The collection isn't vast, but every local museum furnishes some surprises and Farnham's is no exception. I will spare you the taxidermy diorama of red squirrels playing cards, but thought I would share John Verney's The Three Graces Playing Croquet in the Garden of Farnham Castle which was definitely a surprise to me, at any rate. Splendidly the Museum has it available in postcard form. Mr Verney is on record as saying that 'the addition of a clergyman raises the tone of any painting.'

Thursday, 3 January 2019

Must Try Harder

As an ex-atheist I still have some vestigial sympathy with unbelievers, but I do wish they made it easier. This week, Radio 4 is broadcasting extracts from Stephen Hawking’s final book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, and on Wednesday morning the words of the late physicist concerned creation and the Creator and why there isn’t one. I know the book is ‘popular science’ and therefore watered down from the real thing, but really. Hawking relates how the ‘space’ for God has gradually shrunk as science has provided better explanations for natural phenomena: the beauty of science is that it reveals ‘the laws of nature’ behind what we observe, rather than the arbitrary fiat of a deity. All that’s left to God, says Hawking, is kicking the whole thing off, and even that loophole seems about to vanish. When we enter the subatomic realm of quantum mechanics, particles appear and disappear randomly, and this provides a model of how the universe itself, originally subatomically tiny and almost infinitely dense, might have suddenly appeared without explanation and without cause. Furthermore, says Hawking, since time itself only came into existence as the universe expanded in the Big Bang, and causation is a function of time, our natural curiosity as to what ‘explains’ its arrival is misplaced: no time, no need for explanation. The universe merely is.

Now, if the beauty of science lies in its revelation of natural laws, where the apparent randomness of the quantum world leaves it I can’t imagine. If, as one humanist contributor to my friend the Heresiarch’s former blog once commented dismissively and reductively, ‘stuff pops into existence all the time’, that means that at a fundamental level there is no ‘law’; unless there are laws that we haven’t worked out yet, which would make the randomness apparent rather than real (as Einstein insisted, so I understand). And the 'stuff' that 'pops into existence' somehow never turns out to be an infant universe: that event was, as far as we know, unique. Observable subatomic particles (appear to) 'pop into existence' within a pre-existing system rather than outside it, so the two events are not analogous. Meanwhile, disposing of the notion of causation by abolishing time is philosophical sleight-of-hand and nothing more. This is all quite apart from the jejune concept that the only reason for believing in God is that we can’t think of a better explanation for the origin of the universe, or thunder, or the existence of cats (whether or not indeterminately alive or dead). ‘There will always be believers in God, because there will always be people who want that kind of comfort’, concludes Hawking. There will always be people willing to trade their intellectual integrity for emotional security, because that’s what it’s all about. Thanks.

One of my Christmas gifts was Dr David Layton’s book The Humanism of Dr Who, which as an old Whovian caught my eye. Any attempt to draw spiritual lessons from the long-running fantasy series (‘sci-fi’ is a bit of an insult to that genre) comes up against the fact that the good Doctor’s world-view is defiantly secular-humanist, so this book must have been an easier write. I’ve only just begun it, but did scan first through the chapter on religion. And there we find the contention ‘religious “belief” requires “the leap of faith”, the trust that a statement is true apart from any evidence or reason in its support. The religious point of view is that is a belief is held strongly enough, it is true’. This kind of – forgive me – garbage is regularly trotted out by atheists who clearly have never paid attention to religion and religious people at all. Remember, I decided I believed in God on the basis of evidence. I admit gladly that my previous experience and predispositions may have played a role in that decision; that another person with different experience and predispositions might have decided entirely differently on the basis of exactly the same evidence; and that there indeed comes a point where you cannot determine the existence or otherwise of God simply on the basis of that evidence. But that’s what most of life is like: you can’t prove beyond any doubt that a chair is there but that doesn’t stop most people sitting down with a cup of tea. Faith is not exercised on the basis of no evidence at all. Anyone who claims it is isn’t paying attention to the real experience of religion and probably doesn’t want to.

The third atheist outlook I’ve dealt with over this holiday is that of Arthur C Clarke who I looked up after hearing his name and realising I didn’t know that much about him. He apparently ‘could not forgive religions for their inability to prevent atrocities and wars’. My old doctrine tutor said that the best argument for the non-existence of God was the behaviour of Christians, and that I can still absolutely go along with.