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.