Sunday, 30 January 2011

Gabby Young & Other Animals

Another roundabout story of discovering an interesting band: I heard Gabby Young & Other Animals on Loose Ends and thought their stuff sounded interesting. Then at the end Clive Anderson remarked, 'I do like your hair, Gabby, I should have mine that colour', the joke being that he doesn't have any. That sounded even more interesting, so I looked them up and discovered a girl in a black and white striped jacket, bright red hair and a tendency to decorate one eye.
I persuaded my friend Ms Vale that she might like to go and see them at the Barbican yesterday, and she decided she would as she already knew the headline band, the Irrepressibles. This was a very good thing as she works in music festival organising and was able to wangle free tickets. Much to our surprise as we entered we found ourselves positioned in exceptionally good seats at the front of a very crowded auditorium.
I was unconvinced by the Irrepressibles. They are clearly very musically proficient, but despite all the publicity praising the 'visual spectacle' they always put on I found I was only able to enjoy the admirable music by closing my eyes so I couldn't see what they were doing, particularly the messianic maestro and lead singer, who moved ponderously and portentously from one pose to another. There's only so many songs about disappearing up your own bottom you can write, surely, and by the time the finale, which was something to do with drifting away on a pearly ocean of self-pity and falling into a golden rainbow, mercifully arrived, both of us remained rooted to our seats as the auditorium rose in ecstatic acclamation around us. The metaphor I'd mentally devised about disappearing bottom-ward now took material and awful form as the large gentleman sat in front of us stood up and left his jeans behind. That image will, sadly, remain with me a long while.
But first we had Gabby Young, a glorious experience. Whereas the Irrepressibles are clearly a Project with a capital P, they came over like a group of friends having fun and involving us in it. When a friend of mine saw Ms Young's image their response was 'Isn't she just doing a take-off of Emilie Autumn?' I tend to think GY&OA are rather like Emilie Autumn will be when she finishes the therapy, the same way Amanda Palmer has cheered up no end since marrying Neil Gaiman. At the moment the resemblance is no more than superficial - the mood is entirely different, and majors not on bitter and sardonic humour but a sense of mischief which nicely darkens the general upbeat temper. The episodes of quiet - 'We're All In This Together' is a gentle, lyrical statement of human solidarity in the midst of sorrow - set off the more raucous moments with brass to the fore. There's a lot going on, but it's not trying to be terribly sophisticated. The slight movements of the overgrown rose petals surrounding Ms Young's right eye continually drew the attention. We were left uplifted and, bizarrely for a pair of old Goths, not even feeling slightly disconcerted as a result.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Living in a Strange Country

'I don't have a problem with Jesus,', said Cylene the Goth, the American in Britain, over dinner. 'I'm fine with Jesus. Jesus was great. It's being made to feel a pariah unbeliever I can't take.

'Imagine you think there's life on Mars and hardly anybody else does. Yet they can't help reminding you you're wrong, all the time. People come and knock on your door to tell you, Did you know, There's no life on Mars? Athletes get their medals and say how great it is and then, 'By the way, There's no life on Mars', and everyone cheers. It says on all the coins and banknotes, 'No life on Mars!!' Schoolkids line up in front of the flag everyday and chant in unison to remind themselves There's no life on Mars. Is it any wonder I got to hate religion? It's just self-defence.'

Compared to that, the UK seems so refreshing to Cylene. There's an Established Church, but it's polite and reticent and tries not to annoy.

I know hot Christians decry the Church of England for its lukewarmness, but it has its benefits, and it arises from kindness. Jesus preached to the congregation: the nation of Israel was already supposed to believe, was already 'inside', and in any case, if any of us could preach like he did, would it really get up the atheists' noses? The rest of the time he said nothing until people asked him questions. Seems like a good pattern to me. Reticence about spiritual matters is right: you don't know where people are until you talk to them and get to know them, don't know what they need. And liturgical religion is just that, reticent. Its predictability and control allows space for individual emotion and reflection; it meets people in a variety of different places. And reticent public religion gives people who aren't 'inside' space as well. Long may that continue.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Enough is Enough

You know I have a tendency towards liturgical conservatism, perhaps even favouring a modest revival of the customs and forms which have fallen out of favour over the last forty years and more in the Western Church. I drop in on traditionalist Catholic blogs, either of the Roman or Anglican variety, such as the New Liturgical Movement, the effusions of Father Zuhlsdorf, or Father Hunwicke's syllable-by-syllable dissection of every change the Western liturgy has ever undergone. I sympathise with Pope Benedict's attempts to restore the Roman Church's centre of gravity liturgically speaking. I accept completely all that 'hermeneutic of continuity' stuff, and the concept of the unfolding liturgical tradition of the centuries as the Holy Spirit's gift to the Church, not some form of artistic self-expression to be juggled with until it fits in with whatever happens to be the enthusiasm of the moment. That's fine. It really is.

But. Some people. It will not bother me a bit if I never, ever, again come across anyone advocating the following:

1. Returning to the pre-1955 (or pre-1951, depends what you mean) Holy Week liturgy. Oh yes, what a splendid example of the Western tradition that was. Because it was so disagreeable to keep fasting until the first Mass of Easter on the night of Holy Saturday, the Mass crept earlier and earlier until it was being celebrated at 10 o'clock in the morning. That meant all the Offices had to be rearranged to fit in and you ended up saying Mattins on the evening of the preceding day and Vespers in the morning. Brilliant. Not to mention that the whole Paschal symbolism of light was completely vitiated by celebrating the rite in the middle of the day!

2. The Cappa Magna, the ridiculously huge ceremonial train some bishops and cardinals are entitled to use on certain occasions. Just what we need to revive respect for the Church in a sceptical society, along with the sedia gestatoria and the ostrich feathers being waved either side of the Pope. Tell the truth: the Cappa Magna was designed in the Middle Ages for horse-riding bishops in order to cover up the horse's arse. And one could argue it's still performing the same function.

3. The Folded Chasuble. Deacons and subdeacons have their own proper garments, the dalmatic and the tunicle, graceful, elegant, and grand. But no, for penitential seasons we simply must revive the ugliest and most pointless form of liturgical vesture the Church ever devised. Otherwise everything is lost.

4. I actually read somebody commenting on the New Liturgical Movement that the Western Church should go back to the Julian calendar. No, the suggestion hasn't met with much approval, but somehow it seems iconic.

What next? Reclaiming modern society for Christianity by returning to Ptolemaic cosmology? So much more beautiful and Christian than all this heliocentric Copernican nonsense, after all.

Normal service resumed soon. Grrr.

Quality Control

Our retired Assistant Priest was taking the early Mass on Sunday so I was able to sit and contemplate. It didn't take much attention to realise that when the new Epiphanytide service leaflets were assembled I'd arranged the pages of the particular one I was holding in the wrong order for Doris to staple together. I was confident most of them would be OK, but were any more like that? Towards the end of the service, I overheard one of the elderly couple, Mr & Mrs Bowdry, seated behind me, whisper to her husband, 'The pages are the wrong way round'. At least one other faulty one, then, I thought. I happened to follow them on the way out of church - and saw Mrs B. dutifully put her dud service booklet back on the pile with the others, so it could inconvenience somebody else.

I really find it quite difficult to pick my way through the psychology here. It could just be sheer forgetfulness, or the most maddening case of 'Mustn't Grumble-ism'.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Blessed Statistics

'Church attendance figures are up' - or down, of course - says the Church Times once a year. The figures are compiled by the dioceses sending out annual questionnaires to churches, and I've just returned Swanvale Halt's - not even very late. But as well as asking us to list Easter and Christmas attendances and communicants, the authorities are well aware that all sorts of factors can affect one-off occasions like that (the weather this year, most obviously). A broader picture is needed. So we are asked to add up attendances in the month of October. All well and good. But the Church wants to be honest and present a credible picture, and so we parish clergy are asked, nay commanded, to exclude anyone who comes to the church on multiple occasions. Everyone should only be counted once, not only each Sunday, but also during the week too. Only additional attendances should be counted.

Of course this is virtually impossible. It's particularly difficult for us as we hold our Harvest Festival on the first Sunday of October, and the church is packed. I have only the very vaguest idea how many people came to both that and the Sung Eucharist in the evening, still less how many of the attenders at the midweek mass on a Tuesday were there on Sunday too. Actually, although Harvest is an acute instance of the problem, it's not absent for Christmas and Easter either; most irregular church worshippers are probably only there for one service over the season, but can I really remember how many folk who were there at the Midnight also came at 10am on Christmas Day? I ended up lopping off pretty arbitrary figures from each service based on - well, a few cursory glances out at the church. After all, I'm supposed to be praying while I'm at the altar ...

The figures are, being generous, not inaccurate, but their accuracy is, shall we say, impressionistic. Over time it doesn't matter, as one year won't be any more or less impressionistic than the one before, but it does make you wonder what any church with a congregation more than about a dozen does with its Annual Return.

Thursday, 13 January 2011


Dr Bones bought me this trio of Gothy angels for my Christmas tree -they'll have to wait for next year, now. Unless I can find another occasion to bring them out ...

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Shifting Sands

I haven't said much lately although there has been a considerable change in the parish with the departure of our curate to her new charge in the Diocese of Norwich. Of course there was a big farewell service on Sunday and the traditional party afterwards. I only hope the vestment carrying case we bought her from Vanpoulles is worth the extraordinary amount they charged for it! If you bought your tat from Vanpoulles as well, the vestments would be worth rather less than the case you put them in ...
This ought to mark a huge change in my life in the parish, not only, or even primarily, because I will now have a lot less slack in my schedule and will have to be rather more determined and efficient (not something that comes very easily!). I'm certain it will be difficult not to have a colleague to work with on an equal basis (Mrs Curate was rather older and more experienced than me, and had been in the parish for nearly two years when I arrived, so it was never a normal training incumbent-curate relationship), but how that actually plays out isn't clear yet. I'm most concerned at the moment with not letting the saying of the Office decline into a cursory observance rather than a proper spiritual discipline and offering as it was when either she was leading it for us, or I was and having to batter my thoughts into some coherent form in order to pray.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Second Christmas

This Christmas passed off with considerably less stress and strain than last, as I knew what to expect this time. Of course St Rita of Cascia doesn't like everything to go completely smoothly, so fifteen minutes before Midnight Mass was due to start it was pointed out to me that one of the selected hymns wasn't in the service booklet we use for this occasion. What would be less disruptive - to rearrange the hymns, or hand out hymn books to people already in the church? I chose the former, and despite our novice organist (novice to this organ - in general terms he's far from being a novice) balking and warning me not to expect anything wonderful out of him for the new hymn, it was splendid. I'd insisted that our curate should preside, as she's leaving soon, and in deference to her dodgy throat we eschewed incense on this occasion. We'll just have to have extra next year.

Thanks to the entire parish continuing to be encased in ice, we were about a third to a quarter down at the midnight and the 10am on Christmas Day, and, at the 8am, about half what we were last year. Even at the Crib Service, which is usually the one young families come to, we lost about a tenth on last year's numbers. The Romans suffered the same so this was no surprise.

It's a bit cruel when Boxing Day is a Sunday. I insisted that there be no 8am mass and instead we just gathered at 10 - only about 30 of us, but there was a nice feel about the whole event. It gave a chance to sing Good King Wenceslas as the first hymn, which nobody could remember singing as part of a service before!