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.