Wednesday, 22 December 2010


There's a young woman who was something of a pain to people I care about. Or there was. Early today she killed herself after threatening to do so for years. I don't know any of the details. I was far from being a friend of hers, and in fact because she brought someone I am close to such a great deal of trouble, my opinion of her was negative to say the least. But to anyone who didn't have to spend a great deal of time with her, I get the impression she came across as charming, idealistic, talented and moral. 'She wasn't evil', said my friend who suffered most from her problems, 'she was just ill'. The illness would have been clear to anyone but the poor screwed-up girl herself, but she positively refused to get help, worrying about the stigma of being labelled mentally ill. Christians usually think of the Devil trying to nudge us to do things that will land us in hell, but I doubt whether the Enemy knows how the details of salvation or damnation play out in any individual's life any more than we do. I certainly don't believe Ms L's suicide will, by itself, pitch her into the fire. But the damage it wreaks on all the people who loved her, and even those who didn't have anything to thank her for, and the waste of any of the good she might have done, is a result for him. It hurts the world, when our job is to try to heal it. Please God to remember the times when that was indeed what L tried to do.

Christmas Cheer

I went to make my Advent confession on Monday. The snow is melting now, but two days ago it still lay deep and thick if not very even across the middle of Surrey. I caught a train which was twenty minutes late and then crawled its way to the city where it terminated, despite being scheduled to go on to Waterloo, because of some undefined technical fault. At least it got that far, it seemed touch and go at one stage. (The train home was amazing - jam-packed to a degree you usually only find on the Tube, literally with no room to move, at least in the carriage I was). I toiled up the hill to the cathedral and told my spiritual director all. He advised me to turn my negative thoughts into positive prayers for parallel virtues, and to be thankful for these insights into my faults, and gave me the Benedictus to read as my penance. I was on my way out of the chapel full of gratitude for this encounter with the Lord's mercy when S.D.'s voice rang out behind me. 'Don't worry', he called, 'Life just gets worse and then there's death'.

Bring on the Sub

There were only six of us at the 8am Mass at snowy Swanvale Halt on Sunday morning. The curate was presiding, and having got to the end of the prayers looking increasingly pink choked at the peace and lost her voice completely, so I had to step in. I'd been so weary, under-the-weather and generally pissed off when I got up that I nearly didn't go at all, there being no actual need for me to be there. Lucky I did, and got the experience of presiding at the Holy Sacrifice in an overcoat and wellingtons.

Something similar happened to me when I was looking after Goremead a couple of years ago. There it was the midweek service when the bout of food-poisoning that had been threatening me all morning finally sent out a conquering wave of nausea. Luckily a) the congregation included two retired priests one of whom stepped in from the Creed onwards and b) there is a toilet adjoining the vestry where the other retired priest found me a minute later with my head down the bowl. Fully vested in fiddleback and maniple too.

Another instance: at the confirmation service in November the bishop managed to choke and only recovered slowly and with a great deal of concentration. The trouble with a confirmation service is that nobody else can do it. Churches tend to have rather few retired bishops lying around for this sort of emergency.

Friday, 17 December 2010

All Flesh is Grasse

You wouldn't expect me to enjoy humanist funeral services very much. Perhaps 'enjoyment' isn't the right word for funerals anyway, but you know what I mean. I've been to a couple and always find them 'thin' compared to Christian funerals. I haven't warmed to any of the officiants who've taken the ones I've been to, but that's probably no worse than Christian ministers of different sorts. Of course you daren't, daren't so much as suggest any negative feelings, because what can you do with them? But what I most dislike came in front of me on Wednesday. That afternoon I took a funeral service at the crematorium and noticed a folder on the table where I was putting my things. This turned out to be the notes left by the officiant at a humanist funeral earlier in the day. Usually humanist funerals spend the vast bulk of their time waxing lyrical about the heroic achievements of the deceased, but there was no trace of a biography in the notes, so I assume somebody else had read a tribute or something of that sort. Instead there was a passage from Lucretius's De Rerum Natura and some heartwarming statements along the following lines.

For those of us who hold that the individual life concludes with death, it is nevertheless not the end. ... Arnold may be gone, but he lives on in your memories.

It is nevertheless not the end? Yes it is. In any commonly understood sense, for Arnold it definitely is the end. This particular celebrant didn't say 'his life returns to the earth', as I have heard on other occasions, but it doesn't do that either. At best, the incinerated remains of the minerals that made Arnold's physical body return to the earth, but not 'his life', his consciousness. As for Arnold 'living on' in his loved ones' memories, no he doesn't. They may have memories of him, but those memories are not 'him living', they're a set of synaptic responses in the brains of those who shared some aspect of his life when it was a life which will themselves decay and come to an end. Call me simple-minded, but all this is metaphor, not truth. I never, ever use language like this.

In a way I sympathise, because what on earth can you say? A truly honest humanist funeral would state, if it said anything, 'Arnold is dead and we are here to dispose efficiently and cleanly of the collection of carbon, phosphor and other elements that make up his body. Some of the things he did were good and some were bad. You will remember him for a while, less and less accurately as time goes on, and eventually you too will die and nobody will remember him at all.' What we have here is an attempt to accommodate through linguistic sleight-of-hand what the officiant believes, or doesn't believe, with the perceived need to comfort Arnold's family and friends with the thought that in some way he 'lives on'. Shouldn't atheists be brave enough to combat this weak-mindedness? Or perhaps it doesn't really matter?

Sound and Fury

Aeons ago the Heresiarch posted about the 'debate' between Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens in Toronto on whether religion benefits the human race, the world, and the universe. I hadn't bothered with it until a few days ago when I heard it broadcast on Radio 4; even then I couldn't manage more than the opening statements by both participants before boredom got the better of me. You know exactly what the protagonists are going to say in these circumstances; the only interest lies in discovering exactly how it's going to be said and, as the Heresiarch points out, Mr Hitchens's contribution was far more elegant.

My main conclusion was that the discussion was not merely sterile, but entirely wrong-headed. I find myself continually insisting that there are such things as 'religions', ideological structures and traditions based on various propositions, but 'religion' is usually too vague a category to be helpful. And the outset of this debate made the point. The core and heart of Mr Hitchens's argument was this, wonderfully modulated and beautifully delivered phrase:

"Once you assume a creator and a plan, it makes us objects, in a cruel experiment, whereby we are created sick, and commanded to be well. I'll repeat that. Created sick, and then ordered to be well."

The repetition shows how important it is in Mr Hitchens's thinking. But it seems to me that it's a criticism not of religion in general, but of Christianity. The tension in Christianity between the doctrine of the inevitable human tendency to sin and the command to be holy generates huge theological difficulties and, it could be argued, psychological stress which human beings can do without. But it is, I think, unique to this particular religious tradition. Allah, for instance, demands only that human beings follow a few easily-enumerated rules; the deities of many animist traditions make no moral demands on their adherents at all; Buddhist or Daoist traditions again have very clear statements of what human beings have to do in order to live the good life which fall well within the bounds of possibility. Only Christianity has this inescapable tension between divine perfection and inborn human frailty, and even then there have been Christian heretics who've thought differently.

Religions are different and teach different things. Atheist campaigners prefer to tackle a single phenomenon, 'religion', but what they think religion is seems usually to be their own creation drawn from real ideologies - Christianity, for instance - and arguing about that construction seems to me to be the merest pointlessness. It's as sterile as discussing whether 'politics' is good for the world.

Monday, 13 December 2010

A Little Light Art

I've posted before about the Crypt Gallery space at St Pancras Church in London and also about Illumini which organises artistic events around the capital. This Sunday we combined the two by going to Illumini's charming 'Cryptmas' event at St Pancras, which spattered the whole space with fake snow and filled the niches and corridors with a series of light-based artworks inspired by Christmas customs, present-giving, angels, and the whole of the festive season. Even the gigantic glowing animatronic winged skull wasn't particularly eerie, I thought, and instead it was all rather innocuously delightful.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

The Calling

Today is St Ambrose's Day. I told our small congregation the famous story of how Ambrose moved from being a Roman governor to Bishop of Milan after trying to restore peace in a particularly rowdy public meeting called to elect the new bishop, and a child's voice calling out from the crowd, 'Ambrose for Bishop!' Quite something when he wasn't even baptised at that stage.

'I've always liked that story about Ambrose', said Fred, who is our longest-serving server and who usually serves the Tuesday mass, 'because it happened to me'. He then told me how he went to church when he was little, but stopped as he got older and then a bit later was walking past the church when a voice called out 'Fred!'. There was nobody there and he thought nothing of it, but then it kept happening whenever he went past the church, and only stopped when he started going again. Fred's great-grandson was confirmed last month, so there are now four generations of his family involved with the church. Of course there are any number of natural explanations, but that doesn't really matter. From Fred, a story like that was very unexpected.

Friday, 3 December 2010

The Cemetery Looked Lovely

A friend asked why I haven't put up any photographs of Swanvale Halt in the snow. It hasn't been particularly picturesque so far and in any case I have little to thank the bad weather for, as a saucepan resting on a towel sit in my kitchen to catch the drips coming through the ceiling from what is presumably a ruptured pipe. But I wish I'd had a camera with me this afternoon, or that it would have been decent to use it. We had a funeral of a popular local man, with probably something around 200 people in the church, and for the first time in days the sun came out for the occasion. The Council had gritted the steep hill to the cemetery specially, and by the time we got there the sun was straking across the hilltop turning the snow a beautiful blue-white. The cemetery staff had even cleared the snow to make a path to the graveside, revealing the dark green of the grass underneath. It's usually a bleak, windswept place, but never looked lovelier than it did this afternoon.


... which means, in New Testament speak, something revealed rather than something concealed. I forgot to mention that at Widelake House the other day as I came round bringing the residents communion one lady was crying and murmuring, 'That poor girl, God bless her, that poor young girl'. I sometimes tell people that the Eucharist involves a collapse of time, a movement of humans into God's eternal time in which sequential chronology is no longer paramount (which modern physics and neuroscience suggests may be close to scientific, as well as intuitive religious, truth), and have heard about the similar collapse of time and sequence in people with dementia or in the final stages of life. On this occasion both ran together. I don't know what was going on in the lady's mind, though of course God does: it is both mysterious and Mystery.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

More Persecuted Christians, Poor Dears

You may know I have a thing about whingeing Christians. Former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey's reappearance to sponsor 'Not Ashamed Day', the launch of a campaign encouraging Christians to be Out and Proud about their faith in the face of "well-meaning political correctness, multiculturalism and overt opposition to Christianity", has prompted me to post about something that came under my nose the other day.

The local churches in this area tend to swap newsletters. We don't as such, because we have a parish-wide newsletter that gets delivered to shops, institutions and homes, but we do get the magazines produced by the others. One headed a piece 'For the first time ever, the Christmas tree in the White House will be called a Holiday Tree this year. The following was written by Ben Stein and recited by him on CBS Sunday Morning Commentary' and there follows a considerable number of words attributed to Mr Stein, the right-wing US Jewish commentator and sometime comedian saying how, as a Jew, he has no objection to the Christian Christmas and rather approves of it as a sign that the American nation has not abandoned God, because we screw up when we do.

It was the bit about the White House Christmas tree that caught my attention. Was this really true, or was this another instance of Obama-bashing rumour-mongering by the US Christian Right? You only get one guess. According to Snopes, this rumour has been circulating since mid-2009 and has apparently kept going this year. This year, as last, the Obamas received the Christmas tree in a horse-drawn wagon emblazoned with the words CHRISTMAS TREE (bit of a giveaway, that) while a military band played 'O Christmas Tree'. Get the message? It's a story that neatly encapsulates the absolute conviction many US Christians have that Mr Obama is hell-bent on subverting the Constitution, banning Christianity, nationalising people's underwear, baking their babies etc. etc. It also helps British Christians work themselves into a frenzy about how the world is turning against them, and how everyone kowtows to the Muslims instead (when Christians moan about being 'treated unfairly', what they really mean is 'those Muslims get special treatment, what about us?').

But it's worse than that. This particular church is not full of frothing fundamentalists, but presumably they don't mind carrying a piece by Ben Stein because they haven't checked who he is - if they had, they'd have discovered he is a pro-life evolution-denier who once declared 'science leads you to killing people'. In fact his views are interestingly varied, but you can't say he is an uncontroversial figure.

AND not all the words quoted are even his. The second column-and-a-half is described, again, by Snopes as an anonymous coda which began circulating and being attributed to Mr Stein in about 2006. Though our local version misses out the offensive and untrue stuff about Dr Benjamin Spock, which you can read in the Snopes article, should you want, it does compound the error by adding 'My best regards, honestly and respectfully, Ben Stein' at the end. But I don't doubt that it's just been lifted wholesale from some website, or received in an email, without actually being checked.

None of this, for heaven's sake, took a lot of digging out; it required just a few minutes with Google, and a basic scepticism of the claim that Christianity is being systematically marginalised and 'pushed around'. Anyone could have found out very easily that virtually nothing in the article is true; anyone to whom it might occur that there could be any doubt about it, of course.

Sadly British Christians are now all too willing to believe this dishonest rubbish without checking, because it fits in with their own sense of being marginalised. It's claptrap. I continue to marvel, as an ordained priest of the Established Church, at the colossal degree of privilege I enjoy even on the most informal levels. A trivial example: a shop in the village is being redeveloped. I called in yesterday to find out what was happening. As I asked I could tell the foreman was a bit suspicious until I pointed out I was the vicar (sic) whereupon the suspicion cleared and we got into a conversation about his church- and school-going habits of years ago. It was assumed (rightly I like to think) by this non- or at least inactively Christian person that as parish priest I have a legitimate reason for wanting to know what's going on in the community I'm responsible for. This is the real world rather than the one imagined from the newsdesk of the Daily Mail, or Bishop Carey's study for that matter.

Thankfully some important voices in the Church of England are not going unquestioningly along with this. The Bishop of Croydon simply swept all the Not Ashamed! nonsense aside on Channel 4. 'I hardly think that we're a beleaguered minority. We're everywhere'. Quite.

Ah, It's Yourself

Here is a small photograph of Jesus looking rather sorry for himself.

I was taking the service at Widelake House and turned the page of the service booklet to find a consecrated Host laser-bonded to the paper. It's not what you expect. Presumably on a previous occasion one of the residents half-sucked their Saviour, didn't fancy him much and deposited him back on the booklet, to be dutifully gathered up and put away for several weeks. Procedure in these circumstances is to bury or burn the Host. Weather conditions make burying a little impractical, so incineration was the order.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Public Appreciation

We have lovely new noticeboards at Swanvale Halt church which we have been planning for about two years, and on Wednesday they were installed. They are very smart and I am very pleased. The one that faces the road even has my correct phone number on it.

I was transferring the notices into the smaller one near the church door when I became aware of a man standing behind me on the path that runs along the churchyard. 'That'll get vandalised!', he called, and the note of triumphal satisfaction was unmistakable. You could imagine him saying with the same tone, 'That'll be cancer then!' when a friend complains of a stomach ache. I say 'friend', perhaps 'person in the queue at the Co-op' would be more realistic. I couldn't think what to reply, and carried on with what I was doing, thus forcing him to repeat with a slighter greater note of insistence, 'That'll get vandalised!' 'Well, we hope not', was all I could manage at this stage. 'Well, of course', he agreed, and went on his way.

Seconds later another fellow came past. After a moment's silence he said with a clear tone of disapproval, 'Is that permanent?' and on being told it was supposed to be he went on to express the hope that it avoided the attentions of the rude youths who gave him so much grief from the bench in the churchyard when he was on his way home from the station. 'And the police are useless. Bloody useless they are', he finished calling back as he followed the first man along the path.

Finally little Doris arrived. Doris is a former primary school head and member of the congregation. 'What lovely noticeboards', she said. 'We've been waiting for those for ages. They look so smart.'

Got one, anyway, I thought. The boards have survived the first Friday so are probably now as safe as the old ones were.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Gothique Ornée

The municipal cemetery in Swanvale Halt has a charming little Gothic lodge, as well as a pair of former chapels which are not quite so charming. Recent clearing of the hedges has made the lodge far more visible. So here it is.

St Catherine Set

Thursday was St Catherine's Day and therefore one of my important days. There's no better time to show off the St Catherine vestments I had made earlier this year. The very generous gifts people at my previous churches have given me have partly gone into this which was made by the splendid staff of J&M Sewing in Newcastle. I sent them two tiny sketches and, apart from a phone call to ask what sort of braid I wanted, that was it. 'Do you need anything else from me?' I asked the lady with the Geordie accent. 'Oh that's all right Fawther, don't you worry aboot a thing', she replied. When the box arrived I did not open it without some trepidation. But it was perfect, just what I envisaged. With care it'll last a couple of centuries. One day I will hand it on, perhaps to the church in Abbotsbury which looks after the chapel on the hilltop.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Liturgical Improv

There's a ritual for the blessing of a house. In fact there are several and I gauge the degree of elaboration which may be appropriate depending on the person asking and circumstances. You can find more examples of this here and here. I had to do one of these today, and erred on the side of elaboration all things considered.

"Could you bless my car?" asked the householder. I couldn't think of any logical reason why not, and thought it would clearly make him feel better, so we walked out to where the car was parked and on the way I considered what on earth I was going to say. Our brothers and sisters of the Roman observance probably have a form of words for this, but I had no access to anything of the kind. Suddenly the words 'My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!' popped into my mind (2Kings 2:12 should you want to check). So water was sprinkled over the automobile in question and the following words, or something like them, were proclaimed:

Father, who took into heaven the prophet Elijah
in a chariot of fire and granted to Elisha his successor
the spiritual vision to see it,
and intend the ingenuity of technology for our good:
bless this vehicle and those who journey in it,
that they may be preserved from breakdown and accident,
and brought safely to the end of their travelling;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

I was almost unacceptably pleased with myself.

Thursday, 18 November 2010


Yesterday I took a confirmation candidate from Swanvale Halt to a church not too far away for the deanery confirmation service. It was all very much as expected, with clergy not knowing where to sit and choruses none of us could sing as they don't have proper tunes. But what I really objected to was the state of the 'refreshments' afterwards. Confirmations are glorious, celebratory occasions, a privilege for a parish church to host, and it may be that candidates have brought not-very-Christian family and friends with them. The very least they deserve after an hour and a half of concentrated religion is more than a couple of plates of inch-wide strips of sandwich, carrot sticks, and two bowls of olives. There may have been more than two, but you get the point, especially when there's 150 people there. It was easily the meanest spread I've ever seen at a church event. And no quiche! You can't be sure it's the Anglican Church at all if there's no quiche. This would never have happened in Lambourne. It would never even be tolerated in little Swanvale Halt.

Anyway. The interesting thing about this church is the interior arrangements. I think they'd probably describe themselves as 'open evangelical' in style. Like a number of bigger churches, such as St Aldate's in Oxford and St Helen's Bishopsgate, they've re-orientated their traditional-style building so that the business end is now the south wall, leaving the old chancel as a side chapel and the former nave as a very wide, shallow worship space (I refrain from the easy jibe that 'wide and shallow' is at all descriptive of the evangelical movement ...). This is a liturgical fashion I find interesting in its own right, and which nobody seems to have said or written very much about. But here there is something a little different. Here there is an apse around the altar. 'It felt right to put in something that emphasised the altar' said the vicar, not that he was here when the work was done, being a relatively recent arrival. And as you can see from the photo, the altar is not some measly little table such as 'liberal Catholic' churches tend to install, but a rather monumental piece of work with a positively grand frontal. Dress code for last night wasn't surplice and scarf but alb and stole. What strikes me here is the instinctive re-emergence of Catholic forms and signs in circumstances where nobody is actually intending to think of things in such terms.

Here's the worship area arranged for a small communion service.

Malling Abbey

I've mentioned Malling Abbey before. It's a wonderful place, where the centuries of prayer seem to have soaked into the soil. I have a deep concern for the convent and was delighted to see that the holy Sisters have put together a website - very simple, but a shop window for the Abbey and the contemplative life which is so very, very vital to the rest of us in the Church. There are times when I think the whole of the Church of England rests on twenty women praying in a convent in the middle of Kent.

Monday, 15 November 2010

For the Fallen

Swanvale Halt doesn't have a proper War Memorial; all it has is a set of panels in our church's Lady Chapel with the names of the dead carved on them. But only the World War One dead; nobody ever got around to updating them. Last year it seemed a shame to me that anyone who wanted to remember Swanvale Halt's war dead should have to go to Hornington on Remembrance Day, so this year we tarted the event up a bit. I copied out the World War Two names from the old memorial book and popped them on the walls, and yesterday morning after Communion the children were marched into the chapel, laid a wreath, and one of the churchwardens who also just happens to be a trumpeter played the Last Post. 'The shall grow not old', National Anthem and everything. Tears in eyes, lumps in throats. A deceased member of the congregation has left us a legacy: perhaps we can get the remainder of the names added for next year.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Patient's Complaint

My mum went into hospital five weeks ago with terrible neck pain. It turned out that, despite complaining of neck pain when she had a fall in July which broke a bone in her foot, she'd also cracked a vertebra which was never investigated or discovered. We were told she could leave on Friday that week; it took until the following Wednesday to get anyone to take a decision. Nurses were sent to change mum's neck brace, until after a few days one came in who admitted she didn't know what to do and took five goes to get it right, and the following day after consulting with the specialists they decided they should never have been doing it in the first place.

I and my sister wanted to write to the hospital pointing out how unsatisfactory this all was, but Mum will not hear of it. 'I could have claimed a lot of money off people over the years', she says. There was the time she was overdosed with gold for her arthritis and had such a severe reaction she might have died. There was the unguarded roadwork hole she fell into, breaking a hip. There was the time she went into the same hospital in question for two knee operations, was told to stop making a fuss when she screamed with pain trying to walk, and was left for two hours on a commode despite calling for help. (We could add the birth of my sister's second child when she was cut without anaesthetic despite having an artificial heart valve which the officiating doctor seemed completely unaware of - the midwife practically begged her to lodge a complaint but she refused.) 'But I asked God to help me and he did. Complaining may make *you* feel better, but nobody will do anything. Those people were only doing their job, and even if they behaved badly it won't change. Everyone just closes ranks'.

St Teresa of Avila wrote that whenever she obeyed her superiors despite believing they were wrong, somehow the situation changed and things turned out how she wanted; it was only when she was assertive that she failed to get her own way. I can't just dismiss the idea that perhaps God rewards submissiveness and the refusal to 'stand up for oneself'. My instinct is that 'if you don't complain things never improve', but do things ever improve through complaining? Professional people will always make mistakes no matter how well-intentioned they are, and even if you got the ill-intentioned people sacked they would only be replaced by the same mixture of good and bad apples. It's only when you are in a position to affect policy that this kind of information could make a difference.


I noticed a member of the congregation coming in to the Narthex while I was saying prayers the other morning, and leaving something on the table where leaflets and notices are put. It turned out to be a small pile of home-made leaflets announcing a public meeting held by the local branch of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign.'ISRAELI APARTHEID', it declared. 'Author Ben White explains how Israel has established a system of apartheid over the last 60 years'. I took the leaflets home, and produced a small notice instead, adding a question mark to the title and amending the blurb to 'Ben White believes that Israel has established a system of apartheid affecting its Palestinian citizens ...' etc.

Throughout my life I've hated it when anyone assumes they know what I think and how I will respond, especially when it means informing me, in advance of knowing my real feelings and opinions, what I ought to think. In most British liberal Christian circles, in complete contrast to the US, for instance, there's a casual assumption that Christians will be pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli. It tells you something that members of our church can assume that there is no question over putting out publicity of this aggressive and one-sided nature.

I'm not overly pro-Israel, but I do feel there is moral ambiguity on all sides in the Middle East conflict. Liberal Christians tend to see the Palestinians as a tiny nation bullied and beaten about by a powerful Israel; Jewish friends of mine, in contrast, regard the Palestinians as part of an international Arab coalition threatening a sixty-mile-wide strip of land that makes up the only stable democratic state in the region. 'Just look at Israel on the map', said one, 'It's tiny, and all these countries around it who want to wipe it out'. Neither point of view, I think, is without some truth. Or perhaps I just have a reprehensible degree of cowardice and just can't take sides.

The Final Harvest

That title has rather an apocalyptic flavour, but it in fact I'm referring to the nine bags of apples that I removed from the tree in the garden last week. I suppose the apples themselves may have an apocalyptic flavour, I'm not sure yet.

Oh, and I ended up buying three gross of jam jars off eBay for chutney, so be warned...

Thursday, 4 November 2010

One Not For Dr Bones

Dr Bones will need to look away at this point, but I am rather pleased that Melpomene's pond at the top of the garden seems to have a new resident, and not the animated gobbets of snot that I complained about earlier in the year, but something actually in possession of a backbone. I'd assumed that the water was too green and foul to attract anything interesting, but this little fellow has been here for some days at least.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

All Souls' Day

As it's All Souls' Day I continued the ancient tradition I started last year of holding a Requiem Mass in the evening. Last year we had a group of ladies who were attending the Wives' Group meeting straight afterwards, which was not the case this year, it being a Tuesday and not a Monday; but we had about the same number of people, just a different set. It worked beautifully. I was prepared to try singing 'The Day of Resurrection' a capella but one of the servers volunteered her partner to play the piano. One of the readings mentioned the 'wrath of God', so I talked about that and how the rather sweet modern hymn 'In Christ Alone' is rendered a bit awkward by the line 'upon the Cross for me he died,/The wrath of God was satisfied'. This gentleman was paying enough attention to play the tune of that hymn after the service was over. I am so very lucky in the people God has given me here.

The Requiem gives me a chance to bring out this lovely set of black vestments. I am especially fond of them, although they are in a very light brocade and lined with moiré silk which makes them very slippery and difficult to keep in place. My old vicar, Fr B, was a great friend of the sisters at St Katherine's Convent in Parmoor, and when the convent was dissolved he was given the vestments to dispose of as he saw fit. He disposed of the Requiem set in my direction, and one day I will pass them on in my turn.

By a curious coincidence a friend of mine lived for a while in a cottage on the convent estate while studying at Bucks College, and I always think of that in connection with these vestments too.

Halloween Views

Some images from my Halloween. A garden in the village ...

Cakes and decorations at a friends' party (that's an eye on the cake) ...

And turnip lanterns at the church and the Rectory.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Brighton Religion

Spending a day in Brighton I could hardly miss looking in at St Bartholomew's Ann Street, could I, especially as it was only round the corner from the car park, looming over the blocks of flats like some red-brick cruise liner from a 1930s Cunard poster. Of course I'd seen pictures of it before, Father Wagner's stupendous 1870s marvel which quite justifiably outraged every good Protestant in the Church of England, and just went up the candle from there. But nothing prepares you for the sheer size of it internally. Because the space is unbroken, and the flat wall pillars soar upwards into the dark recesses of the pitched roof, it seems even bigger than it is. The corpus of the crucifix on the High Altar is life size.
You just know that what goes on here is a bit mad, but it's a madness that carries with it such conviction and intensity (the building leaves little option) that you can only stand and gaze - as people clearly do, constantly coming and going while I was there. I wonder whether anyone reflects how bizarre it is that this amazing building stands here amid a downbeat housing estate with a 1960s prefab primary school abutting it on one side.

I do like the freakish confessional booths that look like little wooden Serbian churches!

Monday, 18 October 2010

Melpomene Revisited

You will remember Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy who graces the rectory garden. I encountered Melpomene again on my walk around London today. On the Guilford Street frontage of Great Ormond Street Hospital in Bloomsbury is what looks like a 1930s frieze depicting the Nine Muses. Why on earth this should be on the outside of the Hospital buildings I can't imagine (there isn't a Muse of Medicine), but here is the Melpomene there anyway.

St Pancras Churchyard, Kings Cross

I was in London today on a little tour of wells and springs (and the sites of lost ones). My starting point was Old St Pancras church, which used to have its own well in the vicinity, long since swept away in the changes made to the area when the railway terminus was built in 1868. Given that this will be the starting point of another walk for the LGMG, I was pleased to find the churchyard is such a Gothic place. There is the wonderfully flamboyant sundial memorial to that great Victorian philanthropist, Baroness Burdett-Coutts ...

...; there is the grave of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft; there is the mausoleum of Sir John Soane; and in one corner is the Hardy Tree.

The architect responsible for supervising the work preparing for the creation of the station in the 1860s was Arthur Blomfield. He had little stomach for clearing the graveyard of Old St Pancras, and gave that task to his young assistant to handle, a young Dorset chap called Thomas Hardy. It must have fitted his temperament admirably. The story goes that Hardy planted an ash sapling near the edge of the graveyard, or rather what remained of it, and arranged some of the now-superfluous gravestones around it. The plaque on the fence around the Hardy Tree doesn't go that far, stating only that the stones 'were probably moved around that time'; but the tree has clearly had time to grow around some of the nearest stones. The site has a strange beauty, and a moving quality as a memorial to all those souls whose remains were disturbed by the construction work - perhaps this was Hardy silently acknowledging a debt, and not just to them but also to all the poor inhabitants of the Somers Town and Agar Town slums who were summarily turfed out by the landlords after the Midland Railway bought the land. Hardy would have paid them grim notice as well.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

High Street Gothic

Imagine my surprise to be walking through Guildford the other day and spy this dress in the window of Hobbs of London:

It's pure Gothic Lolita, if that phrase means anything to you, though Hobbs describe the outfit concerned as their 'Limited Edition Military Style Dress', coupled with a 'Spot Trim Collar' and 'Britannia Lace-Up Boots' as illustrated on their website. It's a bit of a different matter from the stuff you might pick up in Camden, though: the outfit will set any Gothic ladies tempted in this direction back £577.

New Arrivals

I have three new prints on my walls. Well, old prints, but new to the house. They are: St Catherine's Chapel at Abbotsbury, Mother Ludlam's Cave and spring at Farnham, and a lovely Gothick view of a Will O' the Wisp in early 19th-century Lincolnshire.

Spotting Providence

The last little while has been unusually depressing for me (and not just for me), and I have yet to unpick it all. A lot of it is to do with my selfish avoidance of trouble and sorrow, and the inability to do anything about a certain amount of it. And so yesterday morning I said to the Boss, 'give me something'.

I went out walking and it completely failed to shake the mood and thoughts. Partway along the towpath walk to town I stopped by the spring at the foot of the hill the ruined chapel sits on. One writer suggests this is a holy well dedicated to St Catherine, which I'm happy enough to run with as Catherine is my patron saint. As I looked at the sparkling water what should I spot but a goldcrest, which flitted to and fro, weighing me up and disappearing before coming back again to drink and bathe in the water, all the while checking I was behaving myself.

And then out of the blue I heard from a person I'd largely given up hope of having any contact from again, suggesting coffee. This was somebody I once hoped for rather more from, but coffee is something. Not much, but something.

A goldcrest and a text were just enough to send my mood in an upward direction and inject some hope into the grey. Just enough. God did not send the goldcrest, nor prompt my friend to contact me. That's not how it works. Rather, in the vast and incomprehensible flow of events, you make contact with and notice just those tiny happenings you need. It's not much, and I assume that God thinks I can make do with this much, and so must. It's not that he suddenly reaches in from the outside of the phenomenal world to make things happen; instead, having decided you believe in him, and having a fair idea of what he is like, you examine your own life and its events to work out what he is about. We thirst, but get just sufficient drops to keep going.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Horace Would Have Been So Proud

Horace Walpole's 'little Gothic castle' in Twickenham, Strawberry Hill, has recently re-opened to the public after a huge restoration which has seen the exterior whitewashed and the rooms stripped of Victorian and later accretions to return to their state when Walpole, the First of the Goths, died in 1797. It's been open for guided tours for a couple of weeks, but Saturday was the first day the public could go round under their own steam. So the LGMG decided to go and look round: never a better occasion for doing so.

If you spurn the audio guide you have instead a little booklet with Walpole's own description of the house leading you round the rooms. The whole place is obviously very, very much a work in progress and while there are spots of magnificence you need a lot of imagination in the more bare and echoey parts. The gardens are full of mud and mire. One of us remembered visiting about a dozen years ago when Walpole's house was being used by St Mary's College and still had its Victorian (and later) furniture, wallpaper and decoration, and was a bit disappointed. The full restoration, including gathering together some of Walpole's collection, is still to come. Having taken that brave decision to take the whole house back to 1797 rather than leave it where it was, I hope the Strawberry Hill Trust can actually follow through. It will, assuming they can, eventually be marvellous rather than just intriguing as it is at the moment.

We were all issued with charming polythene overshoes which fitted better over some Gothic foot attire than others. Still, the staff were delighted we were there. 'Horace would have been so proud', said the lady on the desk.

Grim Fairy Tales

I saw that picture years ago in an encyclopedia of mythology and was always captivated by the figure at the right in the background, the Earth Spider. He's about as nasty as an eight-foot-high Japanese spider demon can be. There he is, weaving his web of nightmares over the epic hero Kuniyoshi.

Last Thursday I went to the Ashmolean for an exhibition of 19th-century Japanese prints illustrating stories of ghosts and demons, and this picture was one of them. I also rather liked the haunted hero who looks out from his tea room to see a landscape transformed into skulls - a skull hill, trees bedecked with skulls, skulls on the grass, even th lanterns. Yes, that's what being nuts is like. The world of Japanese folklore with all its categories of very unpleasant supernatural being is beguiling. One trick I thought the display missed was any relationship to modern manifestations of Eastern ghosts and ghouls - the horrid Sadako prime among them, of course.

Monday, 27 September 2010


Back in January I saw, among other artistes, The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing performing at the Cross Kings, as was. Yesterday I went to hear them again, this time at The Gaff up Holloway Road. A rather crazy thing to do on a Sunday evening, but sometimes craziness must be embraced. I missed Lady Carol and her ukelele, but did catch some of delightfully-named compere Ophelia Bitz. The Men themselves once again offered good if very loud fun (not that these things are always contradictory) and I considered it a success if I could get the general gist of what was going on. Sometimes we had an introduction to the songs, which was helpful on occasion ('this one's about the Empire'; 'this song's about a works outing to Margate ruined when a Cthulhu octopus god crawls out of the water'). Mostly the topics were offbeat and humorous with episodic lapses into the more serious - the one about the Tommy who turns his bayonet on his sergeant having decided 'my real enemy's the bastards in authority' was admitted to be 'nice and cheerful for a Sunday'.

Back to Church

I'm told some churches find 'Back to Church Sunday' terribly successful, and make a great effort for the last Sunday in September to invite people who may not have been to worship for ages, or are on the fringes. I'm told.

At 8am yesterday I confronted a church containing 9 people. As I told them, and was rewarded by rueful smiles, Back to Church Sunday seemed in danger of becoming Stay Away From Church Sunday. If that title hadn't been claimed by all the others.

Thankfully at 10am some people did indeed come Back to Church. We had more than a dozen children and over a hundred people all told, including two young men who came in on their own and sat at the back - 'Roman Catholics' I instantly concluded but they turned out to be a local window cleaner and his Estonian houseguest. Instead of preaching I talked through the Eucharist stage by stage which people seemed really to appreciate. It's always struck me that I only knew anything about why the liturgy was the way it was because of studying 19th century church history at college, and then had nothing in the way of instruction until I got to vicar school, so how are the laity supposed to work it out?

It all went on a bit, but wasn't unsuccessful.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Trouble Down Below

I said to our curate the other day that I was increasingly worried about the Garden of Remembrance and the measuring of plots for the burial of ashes which seemed to make no sense to me. 'We're going to be digging through ashes to bury more ashes if we're not careful'. The following afternoon the man from the undertakers' called to deliver a pot of remains and, brushing the dirt off his hands, asked me where I'd put the guide marker for the hole. 'In the middle of the plot', I said. 'I nearly cut straight through the tube in the previous plot', he said. 'I've smeared a bit of dirt up the side so you can't see it.'

So today I tried to sort the business out by measuring the whole area and working out how big the plots are supposed to be, and comparing that with the plan. 18" by a foot, I make it. According to the original plans the plots look about 8" square and there's a border a foot wide at the edge of the grassy area. That's not the plan we use, however. The plan we use is a copy of that one, with a completely different layout pasted over the top, showing no border and half as many plots, tacked on the office wall. How we've never had 'ash-clash' before is a minor miracle.

Goth Walk XXI

The LGMG went walking last week through the dark heart of London - and, as he freely admitted, that of our guide the young Lord Declan - examining the origins of Goth in the capital in a grand peregrination that took us from Kensington through Brompton and Westminster and up into Soho, narrowly avoiding both the Bishop of Rome who happened to be around at the same time and a gaggle of figures carrying black flags. Anarchists, was my first thought. Then I saw the beards; Pirates was the second. Pirates have black flags. Then I saw the placards reading 'Jesus hates the Pope' and 'Jesus loves Islam' and realised they were Muslim Fundamentalists. One of my colleagues misheard the latter slogan as 'Jesus Loves His Mum', which we much preferred though didn't think it really needed saying.

These are my two favourite pictures of the day, arches in a church doorway on Milner Street, and massed black-clad folk descending the steps of the Albert Hall. I tried to think of a joke involving Hitler, and failed.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Green Set, Amended

I swore to change the rather substandard crosses of gold ribbon I added to the stole and maniple of the green set, and I've finally bought a length of proper vestment braid from eBay and done the job. I think the new crosses look much smarter.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

The Power of Christ Compels You!

Every month, we go to Widelake House to hold a communion service for the largely gaga residents. Once a year it all becomes rather more involved. Giles the manager of the House is convinced (I'm not sure on what evidence) that the place is built on a Saxon burial ground or a plague pit or something, and insists that it gets blessed. Being a Papist he used to invite one of the Bishop of Rome's clergy to do the job, but somebody was rather cursory and dismissive on one occasion and so now he turns to those of us from the province of Canterbury. Our curate did it last year, and now it was my turn. We started in the manager's office and then I was led around the house by a member of staff, pausing in all the lounges and opening all the bedrooms. Most of the residents were elsewhere, sat in the lounges or wandering about, which expedited the process, one of them preferred I carry out the rite outside the room itself, and my guide suggested that another resident would not welcome the intrusion, but everywhere else got sprinkled and prayed for. 'Everything will be SO much more peaceful now', beamed Giles, 'I can go on holiday in the right frame of mind'. I'm not entirely sure about that.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Down in the Depths

Last Thursday took some of the London Goths to Shoreditch to view the exhibition 'Subterranean London', which was kicking off the annual Illumini Event, in the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall.
I saw some interesting items on the way along Old Street; an excitingly derelict building, a Gothic triple doorway, a backbone on a building, and a beguiling rogue sculpture which I now know to be the Credit Crunch Monster created by a guerilla sculptor naming himself Ronzo.

However, little did we know that we were not the only people there, but that several hundred (and for all I know several thousand) others had had the same idea. It took me, at any rate, an hour and a quarter to make it along the queue. We were, to be fair, plied with sweetmeats by costumed attendants and juggled at by entertainers during the long, long wait.

Once inside, a labyrinth of tunnels, chambers and stairways was revealed, decorated by a variety of artworks mostly of the sculptural variety inspired by the strange world of underground London - crypts, forgotten railways, cellars, air raid shelters, and the like. It was very intriguing, if cramped, and I thought the quirky and slightly unsettling humour was worth the wait.

Of course I can't help viewing these types of things as a former museum curator, and my only gripe was with the tiny size of the labels - rather than squint through the semi-darkness I photographed the most interesting for future reference!