Saturday, 31 July 2010

I Do Like to Be ...

Five coachloads of more mature people from the parishes of Swanvale Halt and Hornington set off last Wednesday to Worthing on the annual Day Out. Thankfully my experience of the Day Out in Poplar, where I was on placement, wasn't repeated - being on the coach on that occasion was like being trapped in an episode of Eastenders. Did they actually sing 'Roll Out the Barrel'? It felt like it. Anyway. There was none of that this time.

After we all dispersed, I headed off to find a church to light a candle in on behalf of a friend. I found what I assumed was the old church in the middle of the town, a grand Classical portico behind which the 'St Paul's Centre' now shelters, a café and a music venue. It must have been quite a place at one time:

... but no candles (there is a 'chapel' at the west end, consisting of a semicircle of chairs facing a wall behind a glass partition, very spiritual, but I didn't know that then), so off I traipsed. I thought 'Church Walk' might be the location of a church, and indeed it was - St George's - but that was full of children on a holiday club. At that point I decided to go and talk to the Lord on the seafront, and had I not been accosted for a forty-minute conversation by a drunk it would have been ideal.

Later I went past St Paul's again and noticed another church a few hundred yards away at the other end of the street. This turned out to be Christ Church, built, as its history leaflet tells the visitor, 'to meet the spiritual needs of the lower classes'. It's a vast Victorian flint-covered barn of a place with an old-fashioned Low Church tradition, which means that Prayer Book Mattins (to me possibly the dullest act of worship to emerge from the centuries of Christian history) is still the main service on Sunday morning. I met a gentleman who was repairing the front door. He was trying to encourage people to come into the building, he said, and thought of having a candle stand. With the agreement of the Vicar and Wardens, this was arranged - and then removed after two members of the congregation denounced it as 'Popish'. How quaint to think such places still exist.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Lilly Through the Dark

At the suggestion of Dr Bones, I went last week to see Lilly Through the Dark at the Farnham Maltings. To my surprise the performance was not in the Maltings itself but in a tent in the grounds: I'm not sure quite why, but it was part of Something Bigger, and I spotted not only a Mayoral-type person but also an unshaven cove with no tie who I have my strong suspicions was Jeremy Hunt MP, having a quick visit to a local arts event before, I presume, abolishing the quango that promoted it.

The show is one of the works of The River People, a company of young actors and puppetteers which has been going for about three years, and tells the story of a young girl coming to terms with the death of her father by searching for him through the land of the dead, and the mysterious and sometimes threatening characters she meets there. The set, if you can call it that, is a pile of tattered books from which the players emerge via a variety of apertures, and the conceit of being just what they are - a group of travelling storytellers - allows them to develop the narrative through whatever lies at hand: piles of more books, an umbrella that becomes a tree, a paper lantern moon. I thought at first the show would turn out darker than it did, but although it is essentially a charming fairytale there are enough touches of humour and macabre menace to spice the whimsy. And fairytales can be pretty Gothic when they try. This is inventive, enjoyable, and has a gentle heart.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Doesn't Suit You

I regularly drop in on the Bad Vestments Blog, dedicated to ridiculing dreadful tat. But you can have tat that's completely respectable and it can still go wrong.

This isn't from Bad Vestments, but from The New Liturgical Movement, depicting a Mass as part of a recent Latin liturgical conference at Detroit. We'll overlook the oversize birettas (this coming from someone who's something of a fan of the biretta) and concentrate on the bishop. It is (apparently) perfectly acceptable for the bishop to wear a dalmatic in the colour of the day, green in this case, and then a gold chasuble for a festal occasion over it. Acceptable according to the rules - but visually awful. What on earth is whoever's planning this Mass thinking? There are times when meticulous observation of the rules undermines they very purpose of the rules, in this case to ensure a dignified and beautiful celebration of the sacred liturgy. Is it too much of me to suggest you can see this lack of perspective operating in other areas of the Roman Church's life at the moment?

Feeling Original

I am reading a book about Original Sin. I rather like Original Sin, though a great many Christians have problems with the idea; they include our Reader here at Swanvale Halt, who delivered a sermon denouncing the idea some months ago (I haven't had the opportunity to be contradictory yet). These Christians tend to react badly to the thought that we are all born somehow stained and corrupted, that a tiny baby can need cleansing and purifying before it's fit for God to look at it. This, of course, is a caricature of the doctrine, but it's what people think. As far as I'm concerned it's a comfort. We are all in the same boat, and incapable of actually being pure, of working our way into heaven by sheer application of will. It's the flip-side of God having done the work for us.

The author points out how terribly important the democratic implications of Original Sin were in the evangelical and Methodistic revivals of the 18th century, and how, with some exceptions, the upper classes tended to hate the idea. Spiritual equality with their servants and employees was the last thing they wanted to have preached to them; it outraged their ideas of breeding and lineage. Conversely, the poor had presented to them the image of a God who loved them no matter how depraved and corrupted they might have felt themselves to be, or might have been told they were. Nowadays everybody is constantly told how valuable they are; our opinions are endlessly sought over every conceivable matter; the ideology of personal fulfilment rests ultimately on the belief of the unchallengeable value of our choices. You can't see Original Sin making much sense in a society that thinks like that.

I reflected that I've underestimated Original Sin's role in my own conversion, in favour of the intellectual and aesthetic process. Even before that I had a vague but strong sense of the wrongness of things, of the inevitability of loss and breakage, both in the world as a whole and within myself. What could be done about it? What could allow us to separate ourselves from that brokenness and allow movement, change, freedom? That question came long, long before anything approaching Christian belief, but it surely prepared me for God to come as an answer.

Monday, 19 July 2010

It Comes from Nowhere

I lay the events of a mere twenty minutes or so on Sunday out, not to complain, just as an illustration.

It's the main service, at which I've been deaconing and preaching, and our curate presiding. It's her birthday, and there will be cake-cutting and card-presenting afterwards. Firstly, my microphone has been shrieking and howling, which always gets on my nerves as it can scupper the effectiveness of the service on its own. That's sorted out. Then as the notices proceed I call people's attention to my letter about signing up to a list to give our more infirm members lifts to church. At that point I notice one elderly lady is being given water and fanned, and is then removed aboard our communal wheelchair. When this happens as a minister, you face the decision what to do - how far to acknowledge the interruption. In this case, as we began the final hymn, I decided that as there were two of us up front I should go and check and leave our curate to dismiss the people. All turned out to be well with the lady, she'd just come over faint. 'We need a new wheelchair' declared one of the people who'd taken her out. 'This one's broken and folds up when you sit in it'. As this is the third time this has been said to me I say with some restraint: 'NO IT ISN'T. THERE'S A CLIP YOU HAVE TO PUT ON.' I am not a technically-minded person, but it took me approximately ten seconds to discover how to work the wheelchair. I will now have to put a label on the thing reading something like NOW SECURE THE CLIP!!!

Into the refreshments after the service. I've spotted two couples who are in church to hear their marriage banns read for the final time, so I will have to print banns certificates and take their payments. I can't get at the computer because one of the lads from Junior Church is arranging a birthday card for the curate. Eventually he's finished, but I can't find the certificate to print off. Finally I work out this is because you need to be logged on as the church secretary to see all the documents on the hard disk. While I'm engaged in this, I'm astonished to hear the sound of a large pair of hands loudly being clapped and the congregation in the hall being called to order by a helpful gentleman who takes it upon himself to organise these things. His wife appears, to tell me 'You're wanted!' Really? Am I really? I am abundantly aware that I am supposed to lead the congratulations of the curate's anniversary and initiate cake distribution; scant minutes ago there was a vast queue snaking back into the church awaiting coffee and tea. And now I'm actually being FORCED to do the ceremonial bit to somebody else's assessment of priorities as though I was sat in the office farting about on Facebook. 'Were you in a bad mood?' says the curate at the evening service. 'I didn't notice so I doubt anybody else did'. Bad mood? They're lucky they got out with the usual number of limbs each.

There will, in future, be a little stack of banns certificates, as an alternative to maiming the congregation.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Le Viatique

I came across this picture on a conservative Roman Catholic website (not that I spend much time hanging around such places). I guessed it was late 19th-century French, an impression confirmed when a friend identified the artist as Aimé Perret, 1847-1927, not that I can find out much about him. It's called 'Le Saint Viatique': the sacrament is being taken to someone dying on a winter's day in Burgundy, in 1879.
I think this is a lovely image. Clearly in this community death is not just a private matter for the person and their family, but through the involvement of the Church everyone is concerned and everyone knows. The Host being taken through the ice and snow speaks very strongly of Christ's presence in the most difficult of circumstances, mediated through the human beings who are his Body. And as one friend commented, the second boy acolyte looks like someone 'being snapped with a camera who didn't want his photo taken'.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Walpole and His Stuff

This news is a week old now, but even so. On Friday 2nd July a group of the LGMG (a very small group) gathered at the V&A to visit their exhibition of artefacts from the extraordinary collection of that extraordinary antiquary, wit, and man of taste Horace Walpole, originally gathered and displayed at his equally extraordinary creation, Strawberry Hill. No photos possible in the display itself, sadly, but despite the typical ill-lit contours of the V&A's temporary exhibition gallery and the minimalist set-dressing (a few Gothic arches cut into the tops of the towering partitions) the Stuff triumphed through its sheer quirkiness and, occasionally, beauty, glinting in the gloom (how Walpole would have approved!) with suggestions of the arcane and occult. Very literally in one case: I had no idea that Dr Dee's Scrying Glass had ended up in Walpole's clutches, and even less idea that it was in fact an Aztec artefact long before Dee himself got hold of it. Several of the items are fakes, or not what they are supposed to be (the 'Armour of Francis I', for instance, isn't from the time of Francis I and isn't all from one suit of armour), but this seems completely appropriate considering Walpole's fame rests on writing a fake medieval romance and building a fake medieval mansion. Rather disappointingly separated were the wooden cravat carved by Grinling Gibbons and a pair of outrageous embroidered gauntlets which Walpole once wore to greet a group of French visitors. 'The French servants', he wrote with obvious glee, 'Are now convinced that this is the customary dress of an English country gentleman'. Gothic, as we know, isn't just about literature though some are still stuck in that mode; people who think Gothically think it via things as much as narratives. This display gave an insight into how one of the earliest self-conscious Goths went about that exercise. Great fun. When Strawberry Hill reopens in the Autumn we must organise a visit.

Self Service

A friend of mine went to an Anglican church in a rural part of Oxfordshire a couple of weeks ago for a weekday evening communion service. In her words, 'they put the chairs in a circle with the table in the middle and said "to help yourselves or if you feel moved give it to someone else"'. She was indeed moved, in fact all the way out of the door and home. I suppose this may have been 'holy communion by extension', but even so ... It's not the circle of chairs with the central table, or informal atmosphere, as even I've done that occasionally. It's the complete disintegration of any communal sense of what the Church is, both contemporaneously and across time, and robbing God of any initiative in the process. Help yourselves? If you feel moved? Are we the motor of the eucharist, or is God?

Thursday, 1 July 2010


'There's a face in the screen around the Lady Chapel', said one of the Swanvale Halt congregation. 'The rest of the decorations are all roses and things, but there's only one face'.

So I went looking, and here is the face - a little Green Man carved into the Edwardian (I think) oak screen supposedly based on an original in the church at Bovey Tracey in Devon. I'm not sure whether this little fellow is a borrowing from there too, but it's fun that he's taken up residence with us.