Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Happy Christmas

My niece is 4 1/2. I bought her a selection of craft-y things for Christmas, including a wodge of Plasticine, which she set to playing with, swiftly crafting her grandfather's name, a washing line, and a 'desert plant'. "Where do you get your ideas from?" I asked. "From heaven", she replied without looking up.

Then she presented me with a little Plasticine cross. "You can hold it when you're dead", she informed me cheerfully, "Or having breakfast".

Friday, 25 December 2009


That's Christmas over at Swanvale Halt. We got in roughly the same numbers as last year: over 300 at the Crib Service, 100 at the Midnight Mass, a dozen at 8 this morning, and 90 at 10am. We had a spot of smoke at the Midnight, and most people remarked how sweet and unsmoky the perfume was (because I used the Orthodox stuff from the abbey not far away). But I was more worried about stopping the cope I was persuaded to wear for the first part of the service from slipping away. Off-the-shoulder vestments are so inelegant.

Apparently at Hornington next door they employed incense as well; the celebrant, much to his surprise, was censed with a total of 27 swings of the censer, nine in front, and nine to either side. I thought six (three 'doubles') was the standard. There'll be none of that high-church nonsense for Swanvale Halt, obviously.

I was exhausted, but had agreed to help at the Christmas Lunch for the Otherwise Alone at Hornington, in the capacity of nosh-wallah and dishwasher, under the impression that all the local clergy turn out for this ecumenical effort. 'Oh yes', one of the older hands informed me yesterday, 'All the new incumbents think that, and then discover that nobody else is there at all'. Then when I arrived I was assigned not to the kitchen but to a table instead: facing another three hours of social interaction, of trying to think of things to say, of performance on top of all the performance of the previous day, week in fact, and not quite four hours' sleep. I locked myself in the lavatory to cry for a minute, and then gritted my teeth and got on with it. You might expect the outcome to be that I enjoyed myself after all, but it wouldn't be true. I only hope Jesus is grateful, because I'm not doing it for any other reason.

At college my S.D. thought it was a good sign that when I needed to scream I went to the Chapel. And this Christmas Day my response was to go to the church and say Evening Prayer, very early. At a toddlers' service a week ago I got the families to write prayers on paper stars, after we'd all told my old bear, Tedwin, the Christmas story. So I sat with the prayer stars, prayed through them and burned them one by one, until I came across the star that read, obviously an adult writing for a child, 'That Tedwin goes to the Angel's house'. I am fond of Tedwin, and was more than touched that a child decided to pray for him - though I'm not completely sure what the angel's house is. This isn't the first time a childish act of kindness has shot through just at the darkest moment.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Old and New

I'm not a great fan of trad-language Anglicanism, though I didn't go as far as someone at a church I used to attend who would alter the 'thees' and 'thous' in traditional hymns to 'you' regardless of what it did to the rhyme or rhythm. But I don't see much sense in continuing to address God in a manner which hasn't made social sense since about 1670.

Last week I went to the cathedral to make my confession for Advent. My penance was to say Psalm 8, and only the Book of Common Prayer is available in the cathedral pews. Here's part of the psalm in the Common Worship translation:

O Lord our governor,
how glorious is your name in all the world!
Your majesty above the heavens is praised
out of the mouths of babes at the breast.
You have founded a stronghold against your foes
that you might still the enemy and the avenger.
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have ordained,
what is man, that you should be mindful of him;
the son of man, that you should seek him out?
You have made them little lower than the angels,
and crown them with glory and honour.

And this is the same text from Miles Coverdale's 16th-century rendering:

O Lord our governor,
how excellent is thy name in all the world:
thou that hast set thy glory above the heavens!
Out of the mouth of very babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength, because of thine enemies:
that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.
For I will consider thy heavens, even the works of thy fingers:
the moon and the stars which thou hast ordained.
What is man, that thou art mindful of him:
and the son of man, that thou visitest him?
Thou madest him lower than the angels:
to crown him with glory and worship.

I sat and prayed very slowly through this antique text which, because it occurs quite often in the modern Office, I know almost by heart. And the subtleties of Coverdale's language threw into relief a whole set of different themes which I hadn't seen were there. For instance, God makes babes and sucklings speak for him precisely in order to still the powerful and vengeful, as though they can only be defeated by him deliberately using the weak and lowly things of the earth, a sense which is completely lost in the changes in sentence-order in the modern version. Again, in the modern translation human beings are simply made lower than the angels, and then crowned with glory; in the old one, the glorification of man is a consequence of his lowliness, and his humbleness a necessary condition of his glory. The modern text seems to have one meaning; it speaks with a single voice. The Tudor one is multivocal, full of ambiguities, partly because of its very obscurity. It's ambiguity that gives poetry its power; suddenly, I can see why the poetic-minded tend to prefer the subtle strangeness of Coverdale, Cranmer and the King James Version to the clarity and accuracy of latter-day scholars.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Don't Look Now

Now, if you have a large, abandoned house next to a public path ...... with a strange air of recent dereliction ...
... and intriguing vistas through cracked windows ...
... what you mustn't do is leave the back door open ...
... or Gothically-minded folk with cameras ...
... are bound to come in and take snaps ...... and become thoroughly spooked in the process - especially if one room is roped off with hazard tape.
UPDATE: Apparently this house has been bought by a public school nearby for £4-5M, and is referred to by the staff as 'The Haunted House': but then any empty, detached house gets that reputation after a while.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Building the Kingdom

Deanery Chapter today. One of the local churches, in the middle of a vacancy and hoping to appoint a new priest in charge, was planning to interview candidates a couple of days ago; the Archdeacon pulled the plug on the process when there were only 'one and a half interviewees'. 'We have,' said the curate there, 'a selection panel the size of Belgium'. 'But not as interesting', the Rural Dean interjected.

Come Buy Come Buy, as Long as it's Black (and largely for Girls)

Every once in a while, the LGMG holds a Bring and Buy Sale. On a previous occasion our glorious Organisers got rid of a handful of my books on Gothic culture on my behalf, but I'd never been along myself. On Sunday I did - rather a mad thing to do as I had to fit a trip all the way from the wilds in to London between the morning and evening solemnities, but it was worth it. 45 stalls full of lovely items in various shades of black.
There was jewellery ...
... mugs emblazoned with various designs ...
... and lots and lots of clothes.
There was, it didn't pass without remark, not a lot of stuff for those of us who bear a Y chromosome. I was tempted by a pair of silver cufflinks in the form of the Green Man on a stall of antique jewellery, but even when the nice gentleman in the bowler hat and weskit offered to cut the price to £50 I decided I could manage with the ones I already have. In the end I only found a book and a pyrographed bookmark, but what was fun was being in the whole ambience. For some this is a chance to get rid of their surplus tat; others are top-of-the-range Goth retailers; but in between are great numbers of creative individuals sewing, painting, pinning and engaging in all sorts of other craft activities. People mill about complimenting each other on their efforts. It's part of what makes the Goth world so lovely.

Friday, 4 December 2009

A Unique Opportunity

On two occasions this week it's become clear that I have agreed to speak to groups - children and toddlers, thankfully, so the intellectual content didn't need to be particularly taxing - and then completely forgotten about it, only to rediscover the fact through some stray remark from a colleague with ten minutes to go. There are clearly angels whispering in ears, but angels being what they are one can't presume on their efficiency or good nature too far. So I am considering placing the following advertisement in the jobs section of the Church Times:

to prevent an absentminded incumbent from being repeatedly humiliated
in the management of a not overwhelmingly busy parish.
The successful candidate will be able to show:
  • Slavish devotion to his/her master
  • A preference for the shadows
  • A silent tread
  • The ability to remember things everyone else has forgotten, in particular the location of interred cadavers
He/she will ideally possess:
  • A degree in necromancy, witchcraft, or similar
  • A voice resembling the late Peter Lorre
  • A limp
  • Own cloak of secrecy

Accommodation provided in church cellar. Gruel and rat allowance. Terms on application.

Apply to: The Rectory, Swanvale Halt, Surrey.

It's almost worth paying the fee.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

What was I Doing Here Again?

One day a week the clergy of Swanvale Halt visit one of the sheltered accommodation places or care homes around the parish and take a communion service, including hymns. This week I was at the home where most of the residents are in varying states of confusion. Usually one or two of them join in with the singing; this week I, the lady who comes to help, and the congregation member who battles loyally with whatever keyboard happens to be to hand, were alone in our warbling and, things being what they are, you couldn't really hear much other than me. Add to that the inconsequent and incoherent conversations taking place in parts of the room and it becomes something to get through rather than take pleasure in. I wonder what on earth is going on for our congregation. I suppose they want to be there, or they'd leave (some do. Some leave and come back). But how on earth could you decide rationally what you're achieving by all this, and whether the time could be better spent?

At Lamford I used to take a service in one of the care homes which grew out of visiting one of the residents individually: that seemed to make sense, and usually, until near the end of my time there, there were a couple of folk who were sufficiently compos mentis to make it all seem worthwhile. But at least at Swanvale Halt the residents seem cheerful and placid. At Lamford numbers of them couldn't stand each other. One day George kept asking, very forcefully, whether he could 'go back to Ashford!' 'Shut up, George, it's church!!' Cis shouted back at him.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Brown Study

At the back of the church is a chest full of old tat no longer used but which nobody can quite bear to get rid of. Actually some of it is being used again, thanks to me, but the stuff that isn't forms an interesting insight into the liturgical fashions of the near-past. Among it was this set of vestments.I doubt it looks that bad from here. To be fair, the chasuble has a nice, classic Gothic cut and isn't undignified. But it's made from an immensely heavy furnishing fabric - the dark patterning is a thick velvet, and I think even I'd find it a nightmare to wear. There's a matching cope with a vile little pixie-hood at the back which I can barely lift.

More to the point - it's brown. What liturgical season uses brown? I asked and got the answer that it was made for use in Autumn, not in itself a season I thought the liturgical year included.

Goth Walk XVI: A Forgotten Genius

On Saturday afternoon the London Goth Meetup once again trod the streets of the capital discovering some more arcane aspects of its history. The Forgotten Genius in question was not Mr McHenry, our guide and informant, but 17th-century scientist and savant Robert Hooke. Our journey took us round the eastern and northern areas of the City, through narrow lanes and past towering glass and steel monuments to capitalism, and this rather appealing doorway at St Helen's Bishopsgate:

My friend Mr Marc M and his Merry Men were once involved with producing a documentary for the BBC about Robert Hooke. Robert, appropriately enough, impersonated Hooke himself, though all he had to do was sit in a periwig at a desk scratching away at paperwork. Apparently, if you stop the video and look very carefully at the notes, you'll find written in delicate Carolean copperplate, words to the effect 'Isaac Newton stole my ideas, the bastard'.

At the Centre

The weekend before last I had a Rather Large Birthday. Once upon a time I was rather cagey about my birthdate, but a friend who at one stage thought she might never reach another birthday showed me how they could be fun, so now I don't hide the fact. However Swanvale Halt church hasn't had an incumbent hit 40 in-post for simply ages, and I was not only serenaded with 'Happy Birthday' at the end of the service but had a cake served afterwards.

Part of the point of the incarnation of God the Son is that human beings, individual, real human beings with names and histories, are important because we bear his stamp and something of his nature. We glimpse God in each other. Still, I have a rush of discomfort that the church may focus too much of its attention on me and my personality (to which part of me is tempted to play up) rather than on the One for whom it exists, and this may only get more extreme when the curate leaves. The priest is key to the church community, but has to work to keep their centrality within proper bounds.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Disappearing Light

In a strange parallel to the recent electrical works on my house, as a result of which several perfectly serviceable lights were replaced with rather less nice ones that are more to the liking of the smallminded authorities who regulate these things, including a particularly inhumane one in the bathroom, the Paschal Candle at Swanvale Halt church has had to be replaced with one significantly less impressive than its predecessor. This is because the real one has been purloined. There have been mysterious thefts of candles from the church before, but the loss of the Paschal Candle, which is renewed each year, is going a bit further. The culprits thoughtfully left behind the five nails inserted in the candle: these will have to be rammed into one from two years ago which was happily reposing in a drawer thinking its work was over. The curate thinks somebody's had away with it as a Christmas ornament, which makes you wonder about the size of the Christmas tree they'll pinch to stick it on. If Trafalgar Square falls victim to Christmas Tree rustlers this Yuletide, you'll know where it started.

Bad Vestments Blog

This has gone straight in my list of places to visit regularly.

As it should for all Christian ministers who know what a vestment is (but necessarily what to put on it). The point is not just queeny fussing about tat looking right; it's what the blog author says across the top of his site, 'Christian worship isn't supposed to be about you'.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Swanvale Halt Film Club

Last night I watched Coraline (2009), helpfully sent me by LoveFilm - a stop-motion animated movie of Neil Gaiman's novel about a young girl who slips into a superficially appealing but finally threatening alternative world. I've seldom been so captivated. Tim Burton's films are great fun, but splendidly vacuous; this is Burton with heart and soul. Henry Selick also directed The Nightmare Before Christmas, which almost seems a dry run for Coraline: I'm tempted to say it picks Burton up and cleans its teeth with him. The weather was atrocious in Swanvale Halt and the wind and rain howled around the Rectory, which was nothing more than the film deserved. Wonderful.

Art Down Below

You'd've thought vampire enthusiasts and Goths formed a seamless unity.The truth is rather different as this justly famous episode of South Park witnesses (the key confrontation is after 4.00 if you can't bear the Spanish subtitles). But there is some crossover between Vamps and Goths in London and I decided to breach the great divide by attending the private view of an exhibition in the Crypt Gallery at St Pancras to which one of the Vamps was contributing. It's rather a lovely space, dank and atmospheric, and thankfully they haven't even cleared away some of the broken monuments. It's better with fewer people in it, though.

Somewhere beyond the crowd of people on the right were the rather fabulous strings-and-electronica duo The McCarricks. Well, you can tell something's happening.
You may have noticed I haven't photographed any of the art. Apart from some moody photographs of Nunhead Cemetery I found it all a bit bemusing, to be frank. Below you can see the aftermath of a performance of which I only caught a glimpse: it involved somebody writhing on the floor under a black cloth.

Halloween 2009

I know this is dreadfully late, but here's a photo of one of my two swede lanterns perched on the wall outside Swanvale Halt Rectory. The other was down in the churchyard!

To See Ourselves

I've mentioned the Church After-School Club before. On Wednesday as their game activity the children were called on to choose a job and mime it so the others could guess. Little Thomas, having guessed correctly the occupation before, stood up and jabbed his finger repeatedly at his classmates. None of them could guess what he was. 'A vicar', he said, 'Telling people stuff'. I'm glad the infants think of us as so authoritative.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

The Glory of the Morning

In Lamford I had a nice but modest garden as you would expect with my three-bed 30s-semi curate's house. The garden that comes with the Rectory in Swanvale Halt is a bit more extensive and the trek out to the spot for my morning prayers is accordingly longer. This morning the red bloom across the sky gradually faded to drizzly grey and somewhere far off a tinkly bell rang seven. Could it be the church clock at Hornington; or the bell at the public school on top of the hill not far away? Could it even be the old parish school clock, now the old peoples' day centre next to the church itself? Not likely, as it was roughly on time.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Health and Efficiency

Once upon a time it wasn't too difficult to keep on top of things. The post would arrive at a predictable time of day, usually early in the morning, and you sat with your buttered toast, opened the envelopes with a silver paper knife, and, that done, proceeded to the day's work in the knowledge that unless unforeseen events arose nothing would take you by surprise until the next morning. Then came the telephone and, eventually, the answering machine; in theory this could have resulted in a string of demands, but it takes effort to talk to people or to frame your request or news into something coherent enough to be recorded on an answerphone, so there was still a filtering process.

Now there is email. Anyone can throw a word or two together, attach a string of relevant (or less relevant) documents, reply instantly to anything you have sent them, any time of the day they choose. And, unless you are very disciplined indeed, the messages gather, pile, cram against the day the Lord has made like drifted snow, but not so pretty.

To reduce the general levels of mania, I am wresting control of my email inbox. I will check emails, I tell myself, only at specified points three times a day, when I will either reply and delete, print the documents there and then, and delete, or shove the message into a pending tray if it requires more thought. Will I keep it up? Well, I must do something.

I sent a message to a clerical colleague today only to have an automated reply telling me he only checks his emails 'at the start of the week'. Would we could all be so bold. And get away with it.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Des Res

Right on the southern extreme of the parish, just before you reach the roundabout on the edge of Hornington, and at the end of a long road, is a row of apparently unremarkable cottages. But they bear a remarkable name:

Only the occupants of one of the houses seem to have taken the name to heart, and have a gargoyle on the wall and a pentangle in an upper window. Of course I will have to call, and enquire after their spiritual welfare.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

A Little Step Taken

Yesterday was the feast of SS Simon & Jude; it's been the custom at Swanvale Halt to mark the Prayer Book feast days with a eucharist, so I decided to keep that up while experimenting with moving the customary time from 9am to 6pm. We had seven people there, which I think is a success. I also tinkered with moving it from the Lady Chapel to the old high altar at the east end of the church, which meant celebrating ad orientem; if I can accustom people to occasionally worshiping in this way it will be good work done. I even found in the chest an old red Gothic set of vestments made by Wippells, which can't have been worn for years. It wasn't entirely easy as I'm not yet completely familiar with the physical layout of that part of the church, but to be using the old altar with its pretty reredos and the gorgeous Victorian tiling on the floor was lovely.

The Blackest of Demons

I'm reading (in fact have been since I started in Swanvale Halt) Kathleen Norris's The Noonday Demon which, so far, has proved to be the best spiritual book I've come across in a long while indeed. It deals with the affliction of the soul the desert monks called akedia; it emerged into the Western tradition as the Deadly Sin sloth, though this narrows some of its nature. It's a species of spiritual indifference, which gives rise to restlessness and dissatisfaction, and eventually rage; the 'noonday demon' because it assaulted the monks most strongly in the middle of the day, midway between the hope of morning and the restfulness of night.

The other day I was at a meeting of one of the many overlapping groups which constitute the inter-church relationships of which Swanvale Halt is part. I don't know why I felt so alienated: but for whatever reason it quickly escalated into contempt, cynicism, and anger. Every organisation needs to ask itself from time to time whether it's doing too much or having too many meetings; but this was more. All the good work being described was swamped in my mind by a spiralling mist of anger, even as I fought to combat it. As we reached the end and someone else was leading prayers I barely, barely restrained myself from grabbing a teacup and throwing it across the room. Where did such violent feelings come from?

I had something else to deal with almost immediately, thankfully involving somebody completely uninvolved with the Church. I came home and adopted a threefold strategy, of reading (that is, re-entering my comfort zone which I control and understand), of praying and having a sleep. I came to the conclusion that most of my problem, shamefully, was not being in control of the event. There is obviously a deep rupture in my makeup somewhere which is triggered by feeling exposed and powerless. The Noonday Demon is preparing me for this: laying open the genealogy of 'bad thoughts', which is what it means to battle with the powers and principalities.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

A Different View

You may remember my dreading the Taizé service at Swanvale Halt. This Sunday I took the service myself and it went suspiciously well despite me doing little more than lift the same texts and chants from this time a couple of years ago; having a rather good organist playing the piano extremely effectively for the chants made all the difference. I am not entirely converted - but some anxieties are stilled. I think we can work with this.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Where Did That Come From?

Over the last couple of days I've had more useful interaction with the youth of Swanvale Halt than I had in four years at Lamford. Yesterday there was a gang of early-teenage lads in the church who I had a good chat with. They gathered round the font. 'Can you drink the water?' asked one. I said I wouldn't recommend it. 'I heard it'll burn your tongue if you drink it', offered another. It turned out that came from his RE teacher. It shows an admirable reverence for the sacraments, but not necessarily the way I would choose to encourage it ...

Industrial Injury

Last Wednesday I turned the lights off in church after an evening meeting, and for the first time experienced quite how dark it was. I promptly tripped over the font step and crashed onto the font. I'm lucky I still have a functioning left eye ... And the bruise is starting to die down ...

Friday, 16 October 2009

Holiday 2009

For the last couple of years I've taken holidays in properties owned by the Landmark Trust, that arcane organisation that buys up derelict historic buildings and does them up as holiday lets. This year's stop was the Abbey Gatehouse in Tewkesbury. This is essentially a single, large room over the gateway of the abbey precincts, built in about 1500 and accessed only by a narrow spiral staircase; so narrow, in fact, that when the Trust refitted it the furniture had to be assembled in situ, and in fact the armchairs were upholstered there too. The problem of inserting everything you need for a modern holiday was solved by constructing a sort of room-within-a-room, an oak gallery with kitchen and bathroom either side on the bottom and beds on the top. Genius.

As well as the Victorian gargoyles (dubbed by some earlier visitors Brother Jeremiah and Sister Agnes) there are two disapproving clerical portraits to keep guests in line.

The restored shrine of St Thomas at Hereford Cathedral has a very pleasing medieval garishness. Overall I preferred Hereford to the correct grandeur of the Abbey at Tewkesbury.

A day out took me within a couple of miles of Tintern Abbey, which I couldn't miss for its honoured place in the history of Romanticism. I was too late to get in - but to be honest all I needed was a photo or two. It's difficult now, looking at the ruins tamed and ringed with walls and roads like a lion in a zoo enclosure, to imagine how they must have appeared to Wordsworth and his ilk.

Then there was Tyntesfield, the great Gothic revival mansion in north Somerset recently opened by the National Trust. The chapel is a glorious Tractarian jewelbox, but the rest of it, undergoing frantic restoration, is virtually invisible beneath a cage of scaffolding. Only now and again can you catch a glimpse of the occasional arch or mullion.

I also made it to the Picturesque landscapes of Piercefield and Downton, which I'll add to the Gothic Gardens page on the website.

Transylvania In London

The right conditions can render very ordinary buildings Gothic. I have known a number of Liberals I've been rather wary of, but a few days ago the sky and lighting transformed the National Liberal Club on the Embankment into something from Hammer's golden era:

Saturday, 10 October 2009

The Green Set

On the last Sunday in September I introduced Swanvale Halt to my old green vestments. I got these from a French seller via eBay a couple of years ago. They were clearly faded from their former glory, and came decorated down the orphreys, and on the stole and maniple, with exceptionally nasty needlepoint motifs, as in the following photo:And here is how the vestments appear now. I took off the needlepoint, and the horrible old lace protectors along the stole and maniple, and added a cream brocade to the orphreys topped with a Chi-Rho cartouche motif in the middle of the back. I rather wish I'd gone for a dark green (which was the second choice) instead of the cream, and when there's time I'll certainly replace the gold crosses I added to the stole and maniple. But it's very acceptable for the time being.

The Muse Alights

Not far away from Swanvale Halt is a vast emporium of garden ornaments where, before I started work, I planned to buy a bust or two to decorate my rolling acres. However, wandering around the convoluted paths I came across a pair of statues, vaguely Grecian ladies one of whom was holding a grinning mask, the other a grimacing one. If one statue was labelled Thalia, who I knew was the Muse of Comedy, that meant the other must be Melpomene, her sister devoted to the patronage of Tragedy. How could I simply leave her there? She isn't the finest-modelled piece, but sits very pleasingly on her plinth at the top of the vista along the side path next to the garden wall. This prompted me to look for other images of Melpomene. Most are naturally Classical or Classically-inspired, like this one at Vilnius University.

This Melpomene has some Classical flavour but transforms it into something haunting and strange:
Timothy Lantz's image, one of a series on the Nine Muses, turns the personification of Tragedy into an image not only of drama but of decay, doom and sensuality.
But what I found most interesting was the modern artists who seem instinctively to think of Melpomene as a Goth girl. I wonder why ...

Thin Ice for Harvest

The infants' school began assembling for their harvest celebration about twenty-five to nine on Wednesday. I had an order of service, which had my name prominently next to the bits I was doing. I wasn't doing the 'talk - God's Harvest Gifts', obviously, because that didn't have my name next to it.
In troop the children and assorted teachers, parents, grandparents and tiny siblings. All goes wonderfully as they present their gifts and do their little turns. Then comes the 'talk'. The headmistress beams expectantly at me. Ah.
I then go into five minutes of complete insanity tearing round the church asking the children about their favourite foods. They rather suspiciously all seem to like vegetables although one says pasta. I realise that I am starting to descend into lunacy as my discussion of trout becomes far too detailed and curtail the madness.
Do anything in church with enough authority and you can get away with it. But it's not a habit one should get into, I suspect.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Deacon Your Priesthood, My Boy ...

... was apparently the advice of Eric Abbott to somebody. Or it may have been someone else entirely. Anyway, on Sunday evening, after the chaos of the Harvest Festival in the morning, I acted as deacon for the evening eucharist we share, in theory, with the folk of Hornington parish. The president came from an evangelical background and so wasn't completely familiar with how the roles are normally divided between the ministers, but what a wonderful thing it was to be able to be deacon of the Mass for the first time in months. To serve at the Lord's Table, and not to preside, brings home the wonderful nature of God's choosing us weak vessels for his service.

Ev'nin' All, And Take That

At After-School Club last week the children were played music and had to run about the hall. When the music stopped they had to adopt postures or mime actions they associated with a nurse, a firefighter, or a policeman. 'Police!' rang out the instruction the first time. Instantly the lot of 5, 6 and 7-year-olds started to mime beating unseen people about the head with a truncheon. At least they're learning how the world works.

Learning Curve

I'm not yet used to telling people what to do. On the way to Morning Prayer at Hornington the other day the curate suggested to me that we ought to have a 'staff meeting', so that 'people don't feel left out'. I was completely floored. Does that mean people do feel left out? And they'd sooner talk to the curate? Only three weeks into the job at Swanvale Halt and am I already an unapproachable tyrant trampling the sensibility of my underlings, sorry, brothers and sisters in Christ? (one can but dream). My mind flies back to a previous job in which one of my roles was to monitor the seething resentment of my colleagues at the uncommunicativeness of the curator until it reached such levels that I then had to toddle round to his office and suggest that a 'staff meeting' might be a good idea. It's disturbing to imagine myself in the same position.

I'm not convinced churches with only two paid staff benefit from 'staff meetings' as though we were a private company. At Lamford what we were pleased to call 'staff meetings' consisted of me, Il Rettore, the organist and the secretary quaffing coffee in the comfy seats in the café along the street while the parish's assorted layabouts swapped jokes in the opposite corner. The closest I can get in Swanvale Halt is to take the curate to the coffee stall at the railway station and sit on a bench. At least that got us away from the church! And I'm not sure there's much to talk about. I don't have a Grand Plan as yet, apart from celebrating the liturgy in a dignified way and personal engagement.

The latter is where I mustn't fall down. So for the time being I will stick to individual meetings with various people, and see how it goes. But discovering I could conceivably be the cause of frustration is humbling.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Shadows of the Past

Yesterday was my day off. I went to Midhurst in Sussex to investigate the Castle, which turned out to be a series of low excavated walls on top of a hill in a wood. Hm. But from the hilltop I spotted what I had never even heard of, the dramatic ruins of the enormous Tudor mansion known as Cowdray. The whole place furnished some good ruin photos, and I was mightily impressed by the great Hall window - like air captured in a net of stone.
Gothically speaking, though, the eeriest spot was the chapel, with its remains of plasterwork, grim cherubs above the windows, and blasted remnants of statues hanging on the walls, the shadows of lost devotion.

Drat Already

On the way to the induction of the new Rector of Hornington (the people of Swanvale Halt are so delighted we got in before them) I learned to my distress more about the Paschal arrangements in the area. I'd heard that there was an 'early service' near a local convent, though I thought describing this as a 'sunrise service' when it takes place at 7am - not sunrise even in mid-March - was pushing it. At Swanvale Halt we then have a bog-standard communion at 8 and an 'Easter liturgy' at 10am. It's absurd bringing a lighted Paschal Candle into a church in the middle of the morning, and my predecessor tried to dress it up with having children carry in flowers and some sort of embroidery at the same time. Restoring the integrity of the Paschal Liturgy at its proper time and in its proper form has been one of my ambitions in my mind.

Now it was revealed to me that the 'sunrise service' is an ecumenical effort assembled by all the local churches. Of course being an ecumenical event it can include nothing more committed than hymns and prayers - all ecumenical services are nothing but hymns and prayers because anything else will annoy someone, and most of the time you're not completely safe even with them. The full Paschal Liturgy therefore cannot happen in any of our local churches, and it's just assumed that I will sign up to this. Breaking ranks will turn me into the anti-ecumenical monster, the big bad bigot who won't play the game. I could live with that, but I can't put our evangelically-minded curate in the position of having to pick loyalties. So the restoration will almost certainly have to wait.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Our Lady of Haddington, a Great Surprise

A couple of weeks ago, before starting at Swanvale Halt, I was up north of the Border visiting chums in East Lothian. On a day of constant downpour which thwarted our planned trip to a haunted castle we went instead to the fair town of Haddington, and visited the Kirk of St Mary, 'lantern of Lothian' as it was known. It was enough of a surprise to discover that the chancel lay in ruins until the 1970s and its restoration - hardly the most auspicious time for rebuilding churches. Then I turned a corner and found, in an ostensibly Presbyterian church, this:

Apparently the chapel containing the image of Our Lady, the successor to a medieval pilgrimage site, was restored in the 19th century by Earl Lauderdale, whose family were Episcopal (quite right too), and so remains officially an Episcopal place of worship.

Outside in common with many Scottish kirks is a wonderfully grim graveyard. There was plenty of fun to be had, even in the appalling rain, but my favourite was this little skellie peeping out from beneath a fallen urn to see whether it was safe:

Stay With Me, Remain Here With Me For An Interminable Time

I was DREADING attending the Taizé service. This has apparently been going for ten years or so and is well appreciated at Swanvale Halt church because it's quiet and contemplative. However the last time I went to a Taizé service was when I was dragged along by a fellow theological student to one as part of Oxford Mission Week and ended up nearly banging my head on the floor begging God for it to end. Or even for one chant to end.
In fact last night's service was just about bearable, because it was relatively short and you knew what was going to happen. There used to be a couple of attenders who played instruments rather than as we did listening to the chants on CD, and I imagine a flute or violin would have helped, but I remain unconvinced that a handful of middle-aged, middle-class Anglicans sat on plastic chairs trying to get the hang of these strange, often inconclusive tunes can ever replicate the atmosphere of thousands of pilgrims at Taizé itself led by the monks. I think what people need is Benediction. In fact, for the service they put our benediction candelabra on the altar, but clearly don't know what they're for - they're just pretty. God has a sense of humour.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Tell It Like It Seems

At a wedding on Saturday I met a former parish priest I know who now divides his time between management consultancy and a guitar. 'Parish ministry', he said, 'Is mainly about having continual battles with strong-minded women. That's why I gave up: I couldn't be bothered any more.'

My first week at Swanvale Halt left me feeling agitated and uneasy, mainly at the feeling of being slotted into a pre-existing round of engagements and activities that I've played no part in developing. But as I thought it might the Mass on Sunday made things suddenly feel very different. Here I was doing the thing I was sent to the parish to do among the people I'm supposed to care for and pray for. I poured all the frustrations, such as they are, into the chalice for Jesus to deal with, and they were drowned in the wine - even if, thanks to the swine-flu regulations, we're only using a dribble.

Last night somebody I was at college with phoned me. He's gaily taking his windswept Yorkshire parish back forty years and having vast fun doing so - reintroducing weekly Evensong, unbleached candles for the Requiem Mass, hymns they haven't sung for a generation - and they think it's marvellous. He said the other Sunday, 'Aren't you lucky to have such a young, trendy, forward-looking Rector?'

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Very Country House

Chums from the Goth group at my housewarming party a week last Sunday. A very lovely memory to have.

48 Hours In

I had a super induction service at Swanvale Halt on Monday evening, even though I hadn't twigged that I was supposed to give the dismissal at the end and nobody had pointed it out: the Bishop had to call me to the front. So St Rita of Cascia, blessed patron saint of liturgical cock-ups, is right there with me from the start. I was whirled around from one smiling person to another at the bun-fight afterwards, fuelled by nothing but champagne and mania, to discover in the dying moments that the ex-Lady's dog had escaped from the upstairs bathroom where he'd been confined, scaled the roof, jumped the gate and was wandering around the road outside greeting the cars with a friendly bark.

On my first day I was only made incandescent with rage the once, largely because slightly too many things were being framed to me in the terms 'this is what we do' rather than 'this is what we've done till now, do you mind carrying on?' which would have got my back up rather less. To a degree this is mutual insecurity: I'm especially sensitive to being told what to do because I'm unsure of my ground, while some people are unsure of me and so sensitive in the other direction.
I went to see my spiritual director whose house I'd been staying in before the move. 'Everyone said you were very untidy,' he informed me, 'I think we need to work on this. Of course in the old days the answer would have been to get a tidy wife, but that's rather frowned on these days'.
He told me two things I found interesting (three if you count his being denounced by the Bishop of Rochester as 'a very dangerous man', which I suggested should go on the cover of his forthcoming book). There was the story of the former vicar of St George's Bickley who covered all the windows of the church in black velvet so it was pitch-dark inside and replaced all the altar furniture with silver stuff. It must have looked like something run by the Church of Satan. In a similar vein, S.D. recently conducted a house-blessing using the full-works Rituale Romanum form with separate exorcisms of salt and water before they are co-mingled and then blessed again to make the holy water for the blessing itself. The lady houseowner was very pleased. 'I do so love the Book of Common Prayer', she said. Curiously she opened all the cupboards in the house to be blessed but not the fridge. We concluded that it must now be positively throbbing with demons.

This afternoon at my new Deanery Chapter I heard another good line. One of the parishes is facing the decision not to use one of its two churches, naturally a very controversial question among the non-churchgoers of the village concerned. 'But that's the church they don't go to,' said the priest in charge of one of the neighbouring parishes, 'It just wouldn't be the same not going to a completely different church'.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Shameless Materialism

I'm very pleased with my new house, and with the things I'm acquiring for it. It's somewhat bigger than the old one, so there have had to be a number of new things to fill it. Some of them, however, aren't strictly necessary, just rather nice.

Among this category we have a marble bust which now graces the staircase hall. When the sun is out in the afternoon, it shines very pleasingly through the thin folds of her hood.

Then there's this delightful chair which I discovered at an antique shop near Hampton Court. I've never seen anything like it, and while it was somewhat more expensive than one might ideally prefer, the chance to have a black Victorian Gothic chair in my house, complete with spikes and pinnacles, was too good to pass up.

But the triumph of the whole exercise came when I was looking for a cake stand. Afternoon tea is a fine institution which needs reviving and support, and a cake stand is simply essential if this is to occur. I visited one antique shop with this in mind and found a tree-tier Edwardian cake stand for about £40. OK, I thought. Then I found another for about £30. Then, hiding away in an obscure room near the room of the rambling emporium, for a mere £16, was this.

I had no thought that such a thing might exist. I assume the bargain price was because whoever did the pricing assumed nobody would be mad enough to want to buy a black ebonised cake stand.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Here We Are Again

All is well despite my long, long absence from this online account of my doings. After my departure from Lamford the great majority of my worldly goods went into storage: Il Rettore somehow managed to persuade the storage company to let me have a unit free in return for 'advertising' - I think they thought the reach of the parish magazine was somewhat wider than it is. Out of guilt I almost emptied them of bubble-wrap and boxes.
I spent two months holed up in a room at the Deanery, in His Majesty the Dean's absence. In fact for almost all the time I had the run of the place - a rather extensive place, as it happens - which felt like nothing so much as a rather superior holiday let. I was desperately concerned about killing the Dean's cat, but to my relief found that it had in fact had the good grace to die some time before.
I took the odd service at the Cathedral when nobody else was around, and elsewhere. A college friend died of a brain tumour and I took his funeral and memorial service, which went OK. I heard my first confession. I enjoyed being on Light Duties.
I was, after all, appointed Rector of Swanvale Halt, to which position I ascend on the 7th of September. I moved out of the Deanery and into my rather lovely Rectory, about which more at some other time. Now I'm squeezing my final few days of liberty visiting friends and doing fun things before Real Life returns.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Moving On

Today is my last day in the curate's house at Lamford. There's been too much to do to become very melancholy about my move, but I suspect it will hit me when it's all over.
Yesterday was, of course, the great final day 'on duty'. I presided at the 10am mass. Owing to some strange oversight, we ended up with five babies being baptised, when we try to limit the numbers to three. The church was packed and chaotic and regular congregation members were reduced to bringing in chairs from the Hall, as though it was Christmas. As we were assembling I was confronted with a phalanx (well, say eight) of Guides and Brownies having forgotten we'd agreed to parade their banners. In the event, it worked out fine. The babies emitted nary so much as a whine (let alone anything more physical), and silence fell when silence was required.
Afterwards, naturally, we had The Do. I was serenaded with a comic song about my hats, composed by the Director of Music, and deluged with presents and well-wishing before we moved on to a lovely buffet lunch - yes, there was the obligatory Anglican quiche. I had the same conversation about my future about thirty times, I should really have kept count.
People's gratitude is astounding. An American family who are leaving the parish all came for the first time in ages, together with the young man I prepared for confirmation three years ago along with their son. The Best Dressed Woman in Lamford whose house I blessed gave me a bag of presents so exquisitely wrapped in purple and black that I should have taken a photograph. And the troubled man who's recently started coming thanked me 'for all your help' when all I've done is have a couple of conversations with him at the church door. People see their own goodness reflected back in priests - but I suppose that's part of what priesthood means. My other reflection is that I feel oddly relaxed about it. Coming back from my secondment in February was a strange experience, and these last couple of months have felt like a hiatus. The process of detachment from Lamford has been going on a long while.
Now all my things are in boxes, and professionals will be looking after them. It's not what I wanted, but perhaps it will do me good.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Radical Education

I haven't said anything on the blog for ages. In fact most of my chums have gone a bit quiet on theirs - it must be the heat.

I took my final Assembly at school today, and talked about goodbyes, Jesus saying goodbye to the disciples, and what heaven might be like.

Dante for six-year-olds. It's the way forward.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Brave New World

This isn't strictly about religion, but still. I walk to church in the morning past hordes of children on their way to our parish primary school, and a good few greet me as I pass them. This morning I was passed by two little sisters who live round the corner. "Hello James", said the bolder of them. "Last day of SATS today". Splendid, I answered, taken aback. What a country this is, where 9-year-olds look forward to the conclusion of a week of exams.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Limbo Again

The diocese would quite like me to go to the parish of Swanvale Halt. I would quite like to go to Swanvale Halt. All that remains is to persuade the people of Swanvale Halt that they would like me in the same manner, so that we can avoid the tedious business of advertising the job and having competitive interviews, which is so ungentlemanly.
During the Clergy Conference I was determined to find out what was happening after my visit to the parish to meet the curate, only formally-instituted churchwarden, and a layperson who acts as 'unwarden'. The first words anyone spoke to me at the conference were those of the Archdeacon: 'I don't know anything'. It turned out that, although the curate felt she could work with me, the Archdeacon thought the Rural Dean was going to ask the laypeople what they thought, while the Rural Dean thought the Archdeacon was going to. It never occurred to the laypeople that they should volunteer an opinion. So nobody knew anything at all.
Yesterday I called the Archdeacons' secretary, who is the only person in the entire diocese who seems capable of pulling a finger out of wherever the fingers of preternaturally inactive yet chronically busy people normally are. Apparently the laypeople did like me, and want me to come for an interview. However it isn't clear whether this means on my own, or as part of a group, which naturally I would prefer to avoid as while I may be the best available candidate for Swanvale Halt in the diocese, I doubt I am the best in the entire Church of England. I refrained from asking why this wasn't ascertained in the first place. So we continue to wait.

Friday, 8 May 2009

We All Got Out Alive

This week saw 200 or more ordained people crawl snail-like unwillingly (if they had any sense) up the M1 to the Triennial Clergy Conference. Overall it wasn't quite as horrendous as the first one I attended, as a result of which the Diocesan Training Department came to the conclusion that I was mentally ill on the grounds that I wasn't very talkative; clearly not wanting to spend more time than necessary talking to Christian clergy is a sign of suicidal depression. Anyway. The speakers were excellent, including even the environmental scientist who helped us a good way along the road to the self-same suicidal depression with his take on climate change, and there was a wonderful atmosphere of hysteria. The conference had begun with a joke about prison camps and escape tunnels being filled in. On the first evening the Dean, following the theme, introduced the Bishop as the 'camp commandant'. 'Camp yourself, Mr Dean', replied our diocesan, a statement followed by a 'did-I-really-say-that-out-loud' look passing across his horrified face. That evening we'd been encouraged to renew our baptismal vows at an act of worship which was quite the gayest I'd been to since theological college. We all walked across a film of swirling water projected onto the floor while the bishops doused us with water using gigantic fir fronds which could only be wielded in a way that would have made Arnold Schwarzenegger look limp-wristed, let alone two middle-aged ecclesiastics in pullovers. I had to leave early to take a funeral (of a longstanding parishioner whose last act of service to the Church was to die at the right time to release me), so I missed the final Eucharist. Apparently during the course of this the (very Anglo-Catholic) Dean, standing next to the vicar of one of the big evangelical churches in the diocese, chose a rousing hymn as the moment to raise his hand aloft just as they might do in that very church. The evangelical vicar starts to giggle. The little phalanx of Catholics opposite, including Il Rettore, begin to giggle. Luckily the hymn ends before the entire event dissolves. The chapel, for some bizarre reason, sports a gigantic wickerwork parrot hanging from the roof (people tried to convince me it was an eagle). I hope to God the visitors from our twin diocese in France don't think the whole of the Anglican Church is like this.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Those Were the Days

My hunt to find a new job continues. On Monday and Tuesday this week it took me to Aybourne, a parish not far around the motorway from Lamford and a similar sort of place with a similar sort of biggish, liturgical church. I didn't get the job, but strangely enough although I've known about it and quietly cherished the idea of being Vicar of Aybourne for ages, when I left the interview I was gripped by a sudden and strong feeling that I didn't really want to go there at all. Just a bit too grandiose for my taste, perhaps.

The interview process was all desperately jolly, and in fact the parishioners were so keen to erode their church's reputation for being a bit stuffy that at times they ventured into the outskirts of hysteria. First I and my two competitors were shown, separately, round the church, churchyard (which is still open for burials), and vicarage (stripped bare apart from a few of the carpets which will also have to go since, I was informed, the former incumbent's dogs wee-ed on them). We were then whooshed around the parish to visit the primary school, dramatic castellated public school (like a miniature Wycombe Abbey) and technical college, before 'meeting the team' over tea and cake; I was introduced to a spectacular retired priest with a plum jacket and gravity-defying bouffant hair. Then we were billetted on various parishioners to relax for half an hour before 'trial by lasagne', otherwise known as supper with the PCC. The following morning was the interview itself, an hour of what amounted to concentrated spiritual analysis which I really don't want to repeat any time soon.

Frankly Aybourne, rather like Lamford, has had too much cash sloshing around in the past. The current vicarage is impressive enough, with soaring ceilings and rooms whose purpose is not really entirely clear. But it was preceded by this building, the Old Rectory, a structure so colossal it makes the Old Rectory in Lamford look like a chalet:
It now houses an entire junior school. The story goes that the then incumbent became Lord of the Manor unexpectedly after his elder brother died, and decided (suddenly having the money) to rebuild the church, in the process moving it to a more comfortable distance from his house. After all, Poor People might turn up, in theory.

The Church of Jesus Christ is always, inescapably, penetrated by the values of the world, but it seldom becomes so spectacular on a local level as it does (or once did) in Aybourne.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

A View Out Of Limbo

Today I went to visit a potential new parish. The Rural Dean of the area, an affable gent who dresses suspiciously well for a clergyman, took me to the church to meet the current curate, the only existing churchwarden, and the 'un-warden', who acts as a warden but for understandable reasons doesn't want to be written into the role - the reasons being that it's a mug's game, which is eminently understandable. It's a very agreeable place, basically a socially-mixed village forming one side of a small country town while remaining a distinct community. I like it, and them (though to be fair I was pretty determined to); now it remains to be seen whether they like me. Hopefully they will like me enough not to want to go through all the tedious business of having the post advertised, my fear being that some plausible idiot will turn up and I will be left floundering. Competition is so very tiresome.

At home, I took a gin out on 'the terrace' and sat for a read, listening to the single mum and daughter next door talking about tea and admiring the apple blossom. I have been very happy these last four years in my little house. All in all, I am very blessed and privileged. I wonder whether 'real life' is about to begin?

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

The Wing of Madness

I have a friend who is part of a small, informal 'alternative' Christian fellowship in London, and through them she's become involved in the case of a young girl elsewhere who, they are convinced, is the victim of multiple demonic possession. I was asked whether I could find someone with medical experience who also could appreciate the spiritual side of the matter. I did; but everyone I asked for advice confirmed my own impression, that all the symptoms described sound like classic split personality disorder, and while nobody can be sure from a distance, there would not appear to be any supernatural element in the case. Predictably, my friend's friends (who I met and spoke to on Sunday) aren't inclined to take this advice, and are carrying on talking to the 'demons' to ascertain their plans. I think this would be completely the wrong approach even if there WERE a diabolical influence at work, so I can't have anything to do with it unless they want to come back to me.
However I did learn something from the experience. It upset me very radically: that night I had a series of bad dreams, which I don't normally suffer from, and I didn't work out why until the middle of Monday. I walked along an ordinary Lamford street watching happy people going about their lives, the blossom on the trees, the bright sun on the gardens, and at once the confusion in my mind escalated until it seemed the sun was black and the landscape screaming: the same experience that produced The Scream in Edvard Munch. This was the shadow of the wing of madness, a world in which there are no rules and the rational mind can get no purchase. What I'm really afraid of is going mad.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Last Easter at Lamford

The Bishop, at his own suggestion, came to celebrate the Paschal Liturgy at Lamford at 6am last Sunday - what a long time ago it already seems. It was properly dark outside the church this year, and having twelve members of the congregation for baptism or confirmation made it a special occasion. Not everything went completely right, naturally: no matter how long you prepare for a liturgy there's always something you've forgotten and usually something that goes haywire. This time it was a link of the thurible chain coming open which meant we had to abandon it, me tripping over a note in the Exsultet (at least we don't sing it in Latin), and discovering as I was about to read the Gospel that nobody had attended to the Gospel book since Palm Sunday. I had to grab a service booklet from someone and read it from that.

The bacon and sausages at breakfast were a cut above the usual fare, though.

All the Holy Week services have had slightly higher attendances this year, with the exception of Mid-Day Prayers on Holy Saturday (which only attracts a handful anyway) and, strangely, the 10am Mass on Easter Day, which was noticeably down. 244 communicants last year and about 300-320 in church, 217 this out of a congregation of about 250-70. Nothing to do afterwards, thankfully.

This will be my last Easter in Lamford as my curacy comes to an end. Next year it will be - somewhere else.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Structural Conundra

The lady I spoke to in two long conversations last night was in a terrible state. Her beloved pet dog has a brain tumour, and she faced the decision of letting him die or having him treated, which, because she'd faffed about for a month, had to be taken now or never. Eventually my advice, in so far as it meant anything from someone who doesn't care much for animals and has an active antipathy to the canine, was to go for the treatment: I thought it would cause her less pain than allowing him to die and forever suffering from guilt.

So many of our moral decisions are structurally the same as this. I was reminded of a couple of weeks ago when I had to decide whether to go for a parish I'd been asked to look at, once I leave Lamford; I didn't want to, but wondered whether I ought to, and couldn't see a clear way forward. The elements are the same: instinct points in one direction, a sense of duty in another, advice is perhaps unanimous but not satisfying, and the one thing that would enable us to decide without any ambiguity or regret - knowing what's going to happen if we take one course of action or the other - is the one thing we have no access to. Those of us who are believers want God to tell us what he would like us to do, but he very seldom does, and in the end we have to risk those indeterminate futures, plump for one thing or the other, and deal with the consequences. Might be right, might be wrong, God help us. Quite literally. It will all be revealed in the end, but until then - we live with it.

Surprised by Joy

I went to make my Lenten confession yesterday. Most people who don't make a regular confession find it a perplexing business when others do. So do I, if I'm honest: the process of dredging through the muck of my soul which I know God has already forgiven seems formalised and bizarre. I arrived at the Cathedral a bit early, having just come from another appointment, and sat in the car park with a mixture of trepidation and, frankly, indifference. Yet as I was waiting to go in - confessions are heard in the Lady Chapel and there's no pretence at anonymity, my confessor knows who I am and vice versa - I was absolutely overcome with an intense feeling of blessedness, grace, and connection, connection to God and to the people of our parish whose own sins and struggles I bear with me. My sins are being forgiven as I pronounce forgiveness for theirs. I had to wait quite a while and by the end of half an hour felt a lightness and calm which hardly ever finds me in day-to-day life. It's called joy, I think. What a wonderful privilege to be able to bring all the petty mess of human frailty to Jesus for his healing in these light, beautiful surroundings from which everything evil and mean seems banished, and how right it is that his forgiveness is mediated through another frail human being. 'Go in peace, and pray for me, a sinner too'.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday at Lamford got off to a splendid start when our NSM priest took the 8am Mass in chasuble and stole but no alb underneath. We assumed he'd left it at home and were preparing to say to anyone who asked that it was an extra-penitential practice not to wear an alb during Holy Week. In fact he'd just forgotten to put it on ...

The hysterical atmosphere kept going for the 10am: it looked as though an elderly member of the congregation was about to peg out and had to be wheeled to the hall for restorative coffee, and at the other end of the scale a little girl fell over on the steps. Place is a death trap. Other than that, it went very well. We don't have a Procession of Palms, but more of a Solemn Entrance. The Choir carry on to their stalls while the altar party halts at the font for the Blessing of the Palms, and then the liturgy proceeds. The Passion Gospel was read by sundry laypeople, Pilate in the pulpit, the Evangelist at the lectern, and Jesus in front of the altar, with the aid of standing mikes. I got Stan, a retired teacher and the only male voice in the group, to read the Evangelist: in the rehearsal he actually choked up with emotion, God bless him. For the last few Sundays we've been a bit depleted but were back up to 200 or so this morning, and lots of people receiving blessings rather than taking communion - encouraging in a way, because it means they're not cradle-Christians but are taking it seriously.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Bang Your Head Against the Wall

A couple of weeks ago, the Radio 4 satirical series The Now Show had a bit of a go at Christians. 'The greatest story ever told?' asked John Holmes (I think). 'Haven't they ever heard of The Very Hungry Caterpillar?' What struck me wasn't so much the fun-poking as the whooping and cheering with which it was received; it wasn't just amusement, but approval. Predictably enough, Thursday's Feedback included two responses from Christians. I prefer not to use words like 'whining', but they are the ones that come to mind.

I have the dubious privilege of being a publicly-identifiable Christian; head-to-toe black and a dog-collar aren't exactly clothes to hide behind. I notice quite often from passers-by looks that I think include suspicion and confusion. The church in Lamford doesn't hide itself, either: you can see the spire over half the parish, so the institution is unescapable. What do the vast majority of our parishioners, who never come nearer the place than the path along the High Street, think of the place, or of the God behind it? Do they resent it? Is this a growing feeling?

The time has gone by when Christians deserved automatic deference and respect. Society no longer believes in truth, and Christians are no more than a nominal majority. By our insistence that society owes us something, that we deserve (and in fact need) to be sheltered from criticism, satire, and abuse, when nobody else is granted the same privilege, all we do is arouse more hostility from the majority - even that nominally Christian one - which regards such privileges as unjustifiable. If people want to be rude to us, that's their own business. Time to shut up.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Ready for Palm Sunday

The old High Altar, vested in red for Palm Sunday and with the cross veiled for Passiontide.

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

St Anthony of Padua Does It Again

We have the Bishop coming to Lamford this Easter Day to baptise and confirm about a dozen people from the parish. At 6am. And he volunteered.

Anyway. This Sunday morning at quarter to 8 Il Rettore bursts into the sacristy to announce that the confirmation register is missing. 'Where did you put it?' 'What, you mean two years ago?' I respond in an instantly ill temper. Rettore then races round for ten minutes trying to find the errant document. I really didn't think it was the time for a search, but most of my irritation arose from the guilty thought that I might, indeed, have lost the thing. Could I have left it at the cathedral after the confirmations in 2007? No, they failed to find it in their lost property box yesterday. (There was one from another church, however).

This afternoon I spotted a box behind another box under a desk in the photocopier room in the parish centre and there, among obselete liturgical books and Bibles nobody bothers to read, was a telltale glimpse of green binding. The register is found. Not before we bought another one, of course. It was moved along with all the other stuff from the church during our electrical works 18 months ago. Of such details is parish life composed, and our little sins and repentances.

The Passion of Richard Dawkins

Somebody lent me a DVD of a debate between celebrity unbeliever Dr Richard Dawkins and his Christian mathematician colleague at Oxford, John Lennox, about Dr D's book The God Delusion, staged at the Christian Fixed Point Foundation in Alabama. It was, for the most part, terribly polite, I suppose unsurprisingly as it would have been highly unlikely that either gentleman would have come up with an argument the other hadn't heard a score of times before. I ended up thinking what a good showing Dr Dawkins put up, apart from being completely wrong.

There's little enlightening for most of us in this: we've heard the arguments before, too. But I was very struck by Dr Dawkins's very visceral observations on the fact that, in the end, your attitude to Christianity resolves into what you think happened to Jesus of Nazareth to make people believe he had been resurrected. He talked less of its truth or untruth and more of its wrongness, using words like 'petty', 'narrow', parochial', 'small'. He resents setting his grand vision of the interlocking logic of the Darwinian cosmos alongside something so historically bounded. Next to the boundless majesty of the heavens, Christianity is monstrous because its truthfulness rests on one person and one set of events in one place at one time. That Dr Dawkins actually showed some signs of passionate engagement at this point is very revealing. It's fascinating to engage with what atheists feel rather than what they say they think.

Funny Peculiar

The question torments me still: was the church of Elmham, not far away from us at Lamford, ever a Royal Peculiar? Our assistant Sacristan, who used to worship at Elmham, doggedly maintains that they both were. On the face of it, everyone knows which churches have been 'Royal Peculiars', that is, subject to the jurisdiction of the Crown rather than the local bishop. The list is limited, and neither Elmham nor Lamford are on it. They were both Crown livings once upon a time, so perhaps this legend is folkloric inflation. But I've come across references to Royal Peculiars which aren't on 'the list', yet did indeed maintain peculiar courts - Gillingham in Dorset, for instance. So I don't know, and remain tormented.

Then again, this same lady told me in all seriousness that Elmham has a black Latin chasuble hand-made for it by Queen Victoria from knicker material. Now I can't imagine how that story got going, given that it outrages everything we know about the good Queen-Empress.

Clergy sometimes do get a bit skittish, and perhaps these legends have a clerical origin. This week it was my turn to assemble the weekly newsletter. I didn't know what anthem the choir would be singing, so sent it to the office with the instruction to check with our Director of Music. In a moment of weakness I'd filled the gap with 'Popeye the Sailor Man' by Charpentier. The Rector had his own moment of weakness, translated the title into French as 'Grosyeux le Matelot', and left it. ONE PERSON in the congregation noticed.