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.