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.