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.