Wednesday, 28 April 2010

An Indepth Consideration of Theodicy

I ended up taking a difficult (all right, nutty) parishioner to a Christian healing centre as our conversations have become completely pointless. The centre is Charismatic in style but at least Anglican in authority and form. He, thankfully, found it peaceful and welcoming, while I loathed the entire experience, very, very quietly. You feel a rat hating what everyone else seems to be getting so much out of. The trouble is that I can't help disagreeing with nearly everything I hear.

We started with a long and to me completely unaffecting service. First one of the volunteers shared some of the 'words from the Lord' they'd received while praying before the service: she'd seen a vision of Jesus with his sweat dripping down on the congregation here. I trust this wasn't an impression seen in the mind's eye but a real, pulsating, genuine, vision seen with the natural sight, otherwise you wouldn't use the word, would you? Then there was the chaplain's homily.'Do you remember how great it was when you accepted the Lord Jesus?' she said. Actually, I do remember, and it was bloody awful. Oddly enough, she clearly thinks a great deal of CS Lewis, as people often do, and as I recall his conversion was bloody awful as well. But no, we all think the same way and go through the same experiences, don't we. 'God is always with us through our sorrows. Isn't that a wonderful comfort?' Well, oddly enough when I'm actually suffering I don't give a toss whether God is with me or not, and his presence, whatever it is, makes not a stuff of difference. Worse, if I think he's actually causing the pain I am tempted to tell him he can take this sort of 'love' and eternally swivel on it. I can live without God's presence, I want the pain to stop, thank you. I know it's more complicated than that - but that's what it is, complicated.

As my parishioner was having his consultation I was sat in the lounge trying to do some work while three of the volunteers or regulars were chatting opposite me. The conversation went along these lines:

A: Do you know why Haslam wasn't bombed during the War?
B: They were praying in the churches.
A: Well, yes, I expect so, but it's more than that. There's a water tower there that the Germans had decided they were going to use when they invaded, and that's why the area wasn't bombed. God put that idea in the Germans' minds.
B: And God inspired the architect to build it there in the first place.
A: Exactly.

At this stage I was thinking a) what was God bloody well playing at regarding Coventry then and b) how much more convenient it might have been had God put it into the Germans' minds not to invade Poland in the first place.

I don't know why this kind of stuff gets under my skin so badly. I know it represents an insane way of thinking about the world, because it undermines any process of rational cause and effect: it's basically a sort of nihilism, because it removes rational causes for events and predictability and replaces them with a single, sovereign and inscrutable Will which we cannot read or understand. Try and work it out consistently, and it's the high road to madness. It's also authoritarian because it places so much power on those who interpret and communicate the will of God. Say 'God has told me' and it puts the matter beyond debate and scrutiny. If this is Christianity, I want out. I know all this, and reject it, but I can't work out a way of accommodating this sort of worldview within the way I think myself. I don't understand it, don't know how it arises.

I told our Evangelical curate about this and she shared her own experiences. She and her husband once went to speak at a Christian event and got late-night messages shoved under their door from the team leaders saying they hadn't yet contributed any 'words from the Lord' and they should pray to discover why the Holy Spirit wasn't talking to them. At another church she described as 'rational Charismatic' the ministry team would indeed pray together and note their thoughts and impressions, but exercised a certain scepticism about them. They'd write down whatever came out of the meetings and review them a few weeks later to see what sense, if any, they made; they didn't simply assume that the random chaos of the mind were messages from the divine. I've got no problems with that: it permits the human mind, and creation itself, some autonomy as well as allowing God in. It has an element of discussion, scrutiny, and reason. It isn't mad.

Monday, 26 April 2010

All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go

Today is St Mark's Day, transferred from Sunday. At Swanvale Halt we usually have a simple Eucharist on the Prayer Book feast days, and I celebrated at 9am this morning: there were two of us, which is not unexpected. Then I spotted that the noticeboard advertised the service at 6 in the evening. I resigned myself to doing the whole thing again, turned up, set up, dressed up - and at this advertised time nobody came. Perhaps I shouldn't tell anyone when any of the services are.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

What Goes With Black

'It just seems like play-acting', said my mother about the Goths. And of course it is. My couple of days in Whitby made me reflect on whether, and how far, grown-up people should indulge in such antics. Especially very grown-up people.

Of course I’m never satisfied. I’d ended up, accidentally you understand, trailing one particular Goth girl all the way from the Tube to Ruswarp station where she went on to the town itself. Unfeasibly tall, skinny twenty-or-so thing in a long plum brocade coat, frilly jabot and enormous boots, hair shaven into a wonderful pattern like one of Fuseli’s fantasy women. Now she looked the part. But once she gathered a gang of like-aged friends and they sat at the back of the train incessantly chattering about nothing other than computer games and how pissed they got the last time they went to Whitby, I was converted into the mindset of a Goth Daily Telegraph leader.

Then, walking round the town on Thursday, the opposite. Whenever I saw someone who was younger than 50 who didn’t walk with a limp because they’d done a knee in I doubted the evidence of my senses. This is Whitby, for heaven’s sake, the town which for a week or so each year has a higher proportion of top hats and crinolines than anywhere else on earth: it ought to be glamorous. It ought not to make me weep at the sight of yet another pot-bellied fossil squeezed into a brocade coat. It ought not to make me feel slightly ashamed at owning a Darkangel frock-coat myself. It ought not to make me start thinking that the ordinary residents and day-trippers look better than the Goths do. Thank God for the evening concert where some youngsters restored my faith. Leave it to them, I wanted to say, leave it to them, as I sat in my very sober black three-piece suit and tie. There’s a reason why chaps (and even Chaps) developed traditional male dress: it was to stop aging gentlemen looking preposterous. The girls don’t look quite as nuts, but even so...

On the way home I was reading a book on cinematiste terrible Ken Russell. 'Russell', fumed one exasperated critic, 'trivialises and debases his source material, and then re-inflates it to monstrous proportions'. Well, there’s the Gothic enterprise in a nutshell which explains why so many of us even have an uneasy relationship with it.

As a friend commented, with the best will in the world there are visitors to Whitby Gothic who are wearing their Gothic finery as costume, and for most Goths the c-word is anathema. There’s a difference between costume and clothing, the difference between adopting something essentially outside you and expressing something essentially from inside. The one can perhaps be a stage leading to the other, because in some ways we are, or become, what we wear, but they’re not the same, and the waters are muddied because anyone with enough money can go to a Goth retailer and buy dramatic-looking gear without really considering how daft it looks on them. We lose the notion of materialising the drama and beauty of the world (which is what Goth does) while maintaining a sense of individual style.

And then there’s the question of what you aspire to. Why does Steampunk style have such appeal for gentlemen (and some ladies)? Because the values it embodies – the values of gentility and adventure – are achievable (and worthwhile) no matter how old or young, portly or svelte you happen to be. Expressing your inner Victorian engineer or explorer is realistic. But your inner pirate, vampire, Byronic aristocrat or highwayman had better stay inside if you look more like you’d have a coronary chasing after your victim.

This isn’t to be snotty: my friends recalled meeting a bearded man on a Whitby street, a couple of years ago, wearing a huge white wedding dress because it was the only place and occasion he could wear it outside and still be accepted. There’s something rather moving about that, notwithstanding the dreadful offence against aesthetics, and I suspect many Whitby-goers are isolated folk with no other outlet for their inner sense of who they are. But perhaps there’s a need for some friendly advice here. It doesn’t suit you, sir, it really doesn’t.

My Friend Went to Whitby and all I Got ...

I went to the UK's Goth capital at the very time when it was packed to frothing with Goth retailers and all I managed to buy was a Steampunk cross made from cogs bought off a foppish young man who looked suspiciously like a poet, and an old chloroform bottle purchased from a fiddle-tormenting antiques dealer who warned me not to take up the instrument 'because there are too many violin players'.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

La Vie Brittanique

"English women hate me", said Cylene the Goth, brushing red hair away from mascara-ed eyes and adjusting her layers and layers of taffeta and lace. She's a girl from the States, over here to marry her English fiancé, if the officials she refers to as 'the Mysterious Council of Monocles' allow her to stay. "The old ladies think I'm great because I'm a throwback and sit on the bus knitting. The young ones just look daggers at me. I think it's because they somehow know I've stolen one of their men."

I said she was being too sensitive, and so did her husband-to-be, originally; within a week or two of her arrival here he apparently changed his mind. Then I spent this afternoon with her drinking coffee and poking round charity shops. At the counter in Boots the Chemists' the old lady complimented Cylene on her hair, took an interest in her purchase of nail varnish and mentioned her own forthcoming holiday in Florida which she was looking forward to. Moments later we passed a young woman on the high street who, to my complete astonishment, maintained a level and contemptuous glare at my friend all the way past - until I stared vengefully at her and she looked hurriedly away. What's going on here? Is it my friend's voice ("I sound like a duck"), or her appearance (we British do tend to despise anyone who seems to take themselves seriously enough to dress properly) - or, as she argues, a subtle and manic form of sexual competition?

Monday, 12 April 2010

Truly Sadly Darkly

So I became toweringly angry with someone, someone I feel a great deal for. It wasn't their fault, it was entirely mine; they were blissfully oblivious to me being hurt, wrapped up in a happiness of their own. And I wanted to drag them into my hurt, to make them share it, to spoil their happiness, and could happily have found a way of doing so simply by moving my own feelings into their field of vision. That would have done the trick: it would have been revenge. Revenge on an innocent.

I love the Goths, generally. They are an important part of my life. But there's a subset for whom 'evil' is part of the dressing-up box, put 'Sin' into nightclub names and think that engaging in mild sexual eccentricity is to strike a blow against Christianity. As though God cares about your whips and fake fangs. To discover in the heart of a Christian priest such a reservoir of cruelty; for anyone to find it in themselves to want to hurt and damage and kill someone they love; to hate at the same time as loving; that's evil, that's the dreadful reality of a fallen world. Play-actors.

Truth in Sideways

First: after the communion service at the care home, a very polite gentleman who has been very engaged throughout the service stands and says, 'Perhaps you can help me. I don't know where this is or who I am'. I reflect that this is a rather less embroidered version of the questions I often get asked. Luckily a nurse was on hand to explain, 'You're Ernest, lunch is in half an hour, and then your wife is coming to collect you'. 'Oh splendid', replied Ernest. If only it was always that easy. Perhaps, in a way, it is.

Second: I find a member of the congregation, retired middle-class professional chap, coming into church on Saturday afternoon. 'I came in this morning to pray that nobody was hurt in the Grand National', he explains, 'And nobody was hurt, so I've come back to say thank you', and he kneels and gets on with saying thank you. It makes me love the work all over again.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Christos Anesti!

Well, after all that the Paschal season at Swanvale Halt passed in great excitement. My aim has been to tweak the services so they conform a bit closer to standard Catholic order, but in fact they haven't needed too much tweaking - the Reception of the Oils added to Maundy Thursday, and communion to Good Friday. Both those liturgies provided me with moments where I almost faltered: washing people's feet at the Mass of the Maundy while the choir sang the Ubi Caritas, and prostrating myself at the start of the good Friday liturgy: I almost couldn't get up again.

The Paschal Liturgy on the night of Holy Saturday was the main new element. There had been a very small Paschal Vigil service some years ago, but my predecessor had abandoned it because so few people came and tried to include elements of the liturgy in the main service on Sunday morning, to universal complaint about how this lengthened the whole thing. It was a bit chaotic, entirely my fault and mainly due to opting for a pianist rather than an organist: the music went haywire from the start. I won't make that mistake again. But we got through it all in just over an hour, perfectly feasible, and had champagne and nibbles afterwards. It would work far, far better early on Sunday morning, which is where I'll plan for it to be next year.

Numbers were up by about a quarter at every service, and communicants at the 10am on Sunday topped 100 for the first time in some years. It would be interesting to see whether this reflects other churches' experience this year.

First photo shows the nave altar and east end of the church set up for the Paschal Liturgy, with the Paschal Candle stand in the middle and the banner which the church has had for several years strung across the chancel arch. I was a bit sceptical about that, but it works really well.
The second snap is the old High Altar, restored to its full Victorian splendour, where we said the eucharist eastward-facing as part of the Paschal Liturgy, to ring the changes and make use of the whole of the church building. The brass candlesticks either side of our lovely old Victorian cross I bought of eBay, and the altar frontal and superfrontal I found in boxes and drawers around the church. 'Yes', said our sacristan, 'I've been trying to lose all that for years', but everyone else seemed to like it!
A relief it's all over. I know that shouldn't be the attitude, but it is!

Friday, 2 April 2010

As a Sheep Before its Shearers is Silent

These words from Isaiah 53, taken as a prophecy of Jesus, were read as part of the Good Friday liturgy today at Swanvale Halt as I imagine they would have been in many other places. I find myself wishing, not for the first time, that Christians could be bloody well silent sometimes.

Part of the diet in these parts, as it was in Lamford, is an ecumenical 'Walk of Witness' following a wooden cross through the streets of Hornington. My ritual question during the planning as to why we don't have a Walk of Witness on Easter Day instead of Good Friday met with blank incomprehension as usual, so once again I was forced to wonder what this was all supposed to be about. At least in Lamford we were encouraged to walk quietly: we're supposed to be calling to mind the Via Dolorosa, for heaven's sake, not having a pleasant morning stroll, but this morning's walkers were full of vocal jollity and uplift while following an instrument of violent death through the streets (our curate, God love her, was properly sober in the final blessing). We blocked the traffic and apparently took great delight in doing so: after all, we're Christians, aren't we, showing the heathens what it's all about! Why shouldn't we get in the way? The homily at the end took up the theme. 'The cross is an everyday part of our culture,' cried a local vicar, 'What I suppose this Walk of Witness says is that we are the people who refuse to trivialise it'. So an act of witness to the sacrifice of Jesus becomes instead a witness to our own faith. It's not really about Jesus, it's about us, backslapping and congratulating ourselves for being better, deeper, more insightful, than the unbelievers out visiting the cafes and shops. The Cross of Christ is God's judgement on the world, but except for liturgical observances like this, the lives of all those Christians out walking are mostly indistinguishable from those of everyone else. Who is being judged? Where are the Pharisees here?

Some days ago a number of bishops and Lord Carey, the former incumbent of the Throne of St Augustine, issued a letter to the Sunday Telegraph complaining about Christians in Britain being persecuted. How Christians both love feeling persecuted (it creates a sense of interior legitimacy) and yet resent the sensation of being left out of the counsels of the powerful, or not being able to tell people what to do. On the other side of the Tiber, the Holy Father and his spokespeople seem to have spent most of Holy Week denouncing the criticism of Papa Benny for his role, such as it may have been, in the cover-up of the child abuse scandal. I've no doubt that some of the attacks on him, which are personal and vitriolic, are inspired by other considerations than a sense of justice. But all the abuse, legitimate or not, levelled at the Pope doesn't balance the rape of a single child. Can't he see that? Can't he understand how carping, self-centred and graceless this looks? I suppose it will be to the good, because it only undermines the position of the Papacy further.

There seems to be only one Christian voice of sanity. Is it any surprise that we find it in Lambeth Palace? In his Easter letter to other Church leaders Rowan Williams argues that whining on about being persecuted (not that he puts it like that, of course) trivialises the experience of those Christians who really are in danger around the world, as well as being simply disloyal to the Gospel itself:

We need to keep our own fears in perspective. It is all too easy to become consumed with anxiety about the future of the Church and society. We need to witness boldly and clearly but not with anger or fear; we need to show that we believe what we say about the Lordship of the Risen Christ and his faithfulness to the world he came to redeem.

This is being interpreted as an assault on Lord Carey's missive, which I'm not sure about, though Rowan has little enough reason to feel friendly towards his predecessor, whose mouth seems to have assumed a permanent cats-arse pout towards Lambeth and the world ever since he left office. I don't care really. He's right whatever the case.

There's nothing makes me want to throw the whole Jesus thing over so much as bloody Christians. Thank God for my church, and for Easter morning.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Tangled Webs

The Anglican parish of Swanvale Halt has the unusual arrangement of sharing its church building with one congregation of the local Roman Catholic parish, an arrangement which has obtained these past 30 years. But it's suddenly brought a problem - and not the usual one of us having to make sure our Sunday 8am mass finishes in time for the RC one at 8.45.

There's a couple getting married in the church in the summer: he's an Anglican and she's a Roman. It was always intended to be a Roman Catholic wedding. The other day they went to find out details of the registration only to have the registrar tell them it couldn't happen. I checked, and it's true.

In my defence, Anglican clergy are told what they do in respect of weddings, but not what Roman Catholics do; why should they be? I'd always assumed that only Anglican clergy can conduct legal weddings, and that the rites of all non-Anglican churches have no legal status. So I further assumed this couple had arranged a civil registration, with a religious service afterwards. Now I discover that in fact Roman Catholic clergy occupy a middle position between the official status of Anglicanism and the non-recognition of everything else. Whereas we become treated as registrars automatically on ordination, and so can conduct Anglican weddings in any place licensed for them, RC priests are licensed to carry out legal wedding ceremonies, but only as individuals for specific buildings. If the arrangement between us and the RC parish had been a legal one rather than an informal custom, a RC wedding could indeed legally take place in the church; but as the matter lies, it can't.

There are ways of sorting this out: either our couple will have to go to one of the RC churches locally, they will have to register the marriage civilly and then have a RC service afterwards, or accept an Anglican rite wedding with a RC priest doing the non-legal bits. But how stupid and hidebound it makes both the Church and the Law appear.

It's Only the Truth

I told the wittiest person I know, the fair Lady Cylene late of Portland, about the preceding post and she said 'You're such a fashionista for Christ'. I'm almost tempted to change the title of the blog, or at least get badges made.

My old theological college recently received a very substantial legacy which enabled them to revamp a lot of the facilities, but there was still a lot of cash left over, and the Principal does seem to have spent quite a bit of it on antique vestments. I keep meaning to suggest the college should alter its motto to 'Puella pro modo patienda' - which roughly means, if you can imagine Kylie singing it, 'A girl's gotta suffer for fashion'.

(In fact, if you look through the website you can find a photograph of Dr Bones in the library reading an unlikely collection of theological books, not a sight you see every day, or in fact ever again).