Monday, 28 March 2011


We've been doing Messy Church at Swanvale Halt for a couple of years now. If you're not familiar with this concept, it's a way of providing some religious input for families who may not have a close relationship with the church, but move on the periphery - the sort who will come to Mothering Sunday and Harvest Festival but not much else. The way we work it, we pick a theme, people come and do various sorts of craft stuff connected with that theme, then we go into church for a bit of undemanding worship, and finally back into the hall again for tea. I suppose it's 'messy' not just because of the activities but because you don't know what's going to happen. One of the nice things is that because our volunteers tend to be older, and parents definitely do NOT leave their children and go off elsewhere, you get a splendid cross-generational mix. we've built up quite a number of regulars, but on the last couple of occasions numbers have been down a bit. Law of diminishing returns, I thought as we opened up on Saturday afternoon and a trickle of people came in. But that trickle turned into a total of 85 souls of whom about 45 were children, rather more than came to Mass the following day.

Fr Robin Ward, principal of my old vicar school, has written a book on Christian priesthood which recently outsold the latest volume of Messy Church on Amazon. He put this amusing news on his Facebook profile. Another priest commented, 'I don't do Messy Church, I do real church'. Well, Solemn High Mass is certainly easier for people like me who like order and structure, and to whom designing worship that will mean something to small children and unchurched people doesn't come easily. But, I thought, with an attitude like that you won't be 'doing' any kind of church in twenty years time.

The Eucharist (which I suppose this priest means by 'real church') is indeed the core and heart of the Church. More than anything else it shows us what God is like and brings us face to face with Jesus. It should be grand and glorious, and at Swanvale Halt I do my level best to make it so. But the truth is that very many people aren't ready to be dumped into the middle of Solemn High Mass, and perhaps they never will be. Provided somebody is doing it, I'm rather relaxed about that, and will do anything I attitudinally can do to provide people with avenues down which to find their way to God, short of making worship a circus. Messy Church is quite definitely not circus-like. The children are proud of the work they do and when we go into church we aim at reverence. We lit the candles on the old benediction candelabrum on Saturday to pray, and you'd never believe over forty small children could be so silent. There are questions to be asked about how those seeds of faith can be encouraged, but for a lot of the people there, Messy Church is 'real church', which is how it's supposed to be.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Shelley's Ghost

This is Shelley's copy of Sophocles, found, so the story went, in the trouser pocket of his drowned body, but more likely from the trunk of his belongings rescued from the wreck of the Don Juan. It was one of the things on display in 'Shelley's Ghost', the exhibition at the Bodleian Library exploring the way the Shelley family attempted to shape their own and the public's perception of the poet's memory and legacy. There was a nice mixture of memorabilia and literary remains (it's not easy to make 19th-century letters on their own interesting display material), although I did find the layout and scheme of the display rather confusing ('Did you work out which way to go around it?' asked Dr Bones. However, it could have done with a bit of increase in the emotional volume. I got the impression that the life and death of Shelley hung over his family for decades afterwards and the relics are evidence of an intense, lasting relationship with the dead. We're told that it was Shelley's daughter-in-law, rather than his straightforward son and heir Sir Percy Florence Shelley, who became entranced by his memory. Why was this? What about this woman made her so determined to champion her long-dead father-in-law's case? Or was it something about Mary?
What also comes across remarkably is that this was a family already memorialising itself before Shelleys death had even occurred. More objects are constructed from snippets of human hair - Bysshe's, Mary's, John Keats's, and other friends' - than I could easily count. Was this conscious creation of faintly creepy keepsakes common among people of that class and time, or was it just the Romantics who went in for it so heavily?
The most moving item was surely Mary's notebook of thoughts she kept after Shelley's death, titled 'The Journal of Sorrow, begun 1822. But for my Child it could not end too soon'. Anguished, angry, desperate and hysterical reflections and outbursts scratched on thick paper, scrawled, underscored or crossed out. Why did she not destroy it? Did she consciously intend anything to be done with it?

Monday, 21 March 2011

Salutary Effects

At Swanvale Halt we have a vestry prayer before the Eucharist begins. It's all very well but a bit unfocused, rather along the lines of 'Oh God you are really lovely, help us to remember that you are really lovely'. Back in the days of the old English Missal the vestry prayer was a means for the priest to make his own confession and be absolved before absolving everyone else, something I rather like as it emphasises our human solidarity in sin and forgiveness, and makes it possible for the laypeople (acting together) to pronounce God's forgiveness over an ordained person. So for Lent I introduced a new prayer including that element along with other very, very trad bits taken from the old pre-service Prayers at the Foot of the Altar.

We've now done this a few times and I wondered how comfortable people really were with it. I wondered how comfortable I was with it, for that matter, and thought perhaps I shouldn't have bothered. Then yesterday morning for the first time Alan, our retired priest, presided, and so he said the confession and was absolved by the rest of us. How moving it was to hear someone, one other person, making an admission of sinfulness and being absolved. If that's how I felt in my agitated state (I am usually far from calm on a Sunday morning a minute or two before Mass), perhaps others felt the same.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Mysterious Ways

The phone rang at 6.25am and as I suspected it was Mad Trevor. Once I'd ascertained that nothing was actually wrong I rather too firmly informed him we'd speak later and virtually put the phone down. Armed with a cup of tea, I called back. 'I've been awake worried all night, and I tried my best not to call you till the morning,' he said, 'You were lucky I didn't call you in the middle of the night.' I refrained from saying that, on the contrary, it was he who was lucky he hadn't called in the middle of the night. 'God has revealed to me', he went on, 'that he is angry with me for asking him for a wife and that's why I'm being punished. He has other things in store for me. That's why you're on your own, too', he added for good measure. I no longer try to argue with Trevor and just let him get on with it.

God had a lot on that day. We have a local Christian youth work charity whose newest member decided she wasn't going to stay, not an easy decision as she doesn't have a job to return to. So she had to be clear that that's what God wanted her to do, and not only prayed herself but 'all the Bible verses people gave me pointed in the same direction'. But she was equally clear God wanted her to come here in the first place. God hadn't seen fit to inform the director of the organisation who took her on that he'd decided to send her back home again. How to explain this? Well, God must have had his reasons for uprooting her a hundred miles and then sending her all the way back again that justified wasting the money the charity spent on job adverts, salary, accommodation and so on. The alternative is to believe that God is less interested in where we happen to be or what we happen to be doing in any detail than in the state of our souls, and as virtually any situation can be one of spiritual growth (and in fact should be) we can read his activity into anything that happens. Hm. Perhaps we've hit on an answer.

I spoke to Trevor later on in the day, and he told me that because he had asked God again for a wife, the Lord had changed his mind.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

The Most Important Irrelevant Thing You've Ever Done

One of the delights of the unexpected BBC comedy series Rev was the appearance of the phrase ‘Deanery Synod’ in the first episode, perhaps the first (indeed only) occasion it has cropped up in a work of televisual fiction, a bit like the word ‘soteriology’ a couple of weeks later. On Monday I was at Deanery Synod, for what the Rural Dean described as ‘probably the most important Synod debate any of you have taken part in’ which, considering the vote we eventually reached had no legal status at all and was binding on nobody, says something about how important Deanery Synod usually is.
We were discussing the consecration of women to the episcopate. Of course the Church of England’s national General Synod has already voted for women to be made bishops, but now each diocese is being called upon to support or reject that stance and to debate what is called a ‘following motion’. This is the interesting bit. The two Archbishops and the bishops advised the General Synod that parishes which can’t accept the ministry of a woman bishop (largely conservative Anglo-Catholic ones) should have the right to be looked after by a male alternative written into the legislation; that is, the authority of such male bishops should come from the Church as a whole, rather than being delegated by individual local bishops. Basically the General Synod said to the episcopate (by a narrow margin) ‘Naaah’, and voted to support establishing a ‘Code of Practice’ by which deputy bishops would be allowed to look after the ‘anti’ parishes only at the sayso of individual diocesan bishops. The ‘Code of Practice’ doesn’t actually have anything in it at the moment. The ‘antis’ were flabbergasted at what amounted to a complete breach of the promises to protect them made when the Church voted to ordain women priests in 1992. Perhaps those promises shouldn’t have been made. But they were, and knowing many people on that side of the debate who aren’t lunatics or bigots, I feel rather sympathetic. The ‘following motion’ is basically the bishops’ way of making General Synod think again. It calls for alternative bishops to be provided for ‘anti’ parishes directly by the legislation, not by delegation from this or that local bishop.
The debate was dire. We had two speakers, one from Women And The Church (who was male) and one from the anti-women priests brigade Forward in Faith. The former was dismissive and tendentious, the latter bizarre: he had a DVD to play (the sound wouldn’t work so he had to talk us through it) which compared the Anglo-Catholic ‘antis’ to the Bengal tiger, ‘beautiful and endangered animals which need their own reserves where they can breed and flourish’. It was so cringeworthy I could barely look up. We were divided into discussion groups and the laypeople I was with seemed to agree strongly with whatever was said, by anyone, whether it was ‘These people who are against women bishops should just leave and become Roman Catholics’ or ‘We must do what we can to preserve and honour the Catholic heritage of the Church of England’. In the end we decided by only two votes to support the following motion – the clergy were much more strongly in favour than the laypeople. Of course our vote is only there for the information of the diocesan synod anyway, and that’s where the decision will actually be made.
I came out of the church where the meeting was being held and for some minutes completely lost my car. In fact, I lost the entire street it was in. That’s how exciting it was.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Black Roses: the Killing of Sophie Lancaster

I was delighted to discover that Radio 4's Afternoon Play was about the death of Goth martyr Sophie Lancaster back in 2007. It wasn't really a play, wasn't a drama of any kind really: a set of reminiscences by Sophie's wonderfully dignified mother Sylvia and poems by Simon Armitage, outlining the story. It was about as good as such a broadcast could have been, although I couldn't help hearing Simon Armitage's voice, which is after all such a distinctive one, rather than anything one might imagine Sophie's as being. 'Martyr' is perhaps the wrong word, too deliberate, too political, for something for which rage was not the main response, just a sense of heartbreaking loss and waste.

A Definition of Futility

Some time over the last couple of days the church had out-of-hours visitors who inspected the roof in search of something which might be of interest, to themselves and their scrapmetal procurers. Of course the insurance will help out with the damage to the lead, the stonework, the tiles, and the drainpipe, but it was a faff to be called out on my day off and to have to spend a while with the secretary fastening the tarpaulin her dog usually sleeps on in the car to the damaged roof of the organ chamber (you can't run the risk of water getting in there). It's the stupidity of the criminal 'mind' that depresses most. They haven't got away with anything in this case, and there's precious little to get away with anyway. Instead they've risked life and limb with rotten old iron drainpipe, tiles and stone collapsing beneath them wherever they trod, and all for nowt but causing us, and Ecclesiastical Insurance, a lot of fuss.

Industrial Accident

Some people pay good money to have hot wax dribbled over them. Can't understand the appeal myself when a candle misbehaves.

Monday, 7 March 2011

'Let England Shake' - PJ Harvey

In the New Yorker Sasha Frere-Jones has a decidedly damning-with-faint-praise review of Let England Shake, Polly Jean Harvey's latest album, but he manages to stumble on something insightful, namely the Corscombe siren's career-long shift from singing from the viscera to composing from the head. This is partly true: PJ herself has talked (to that international arts journal The Bridport News) about the primacy of words in Let England Shake, of words coming first and then having the music fitted around them - which, it has to be said, results in some very odd song structures indeed. But even her early output, from the abandoned woman of 'Sheela-na-Gig' onwards, so apparently gutsy and instinctive, in fact involved the adoption of a series of masks. You could never be quite sure where the singer's approval rested, where gender lines lay, what, exactly, was going on. Despite all the attention given to the political and historical elements of Let England Shake, nothing is any clearer, which is what makes it all the more compelling.

Take, for instance, the heartbreaking evocation of somebody's England, 'The Last Living Rose'. 'Goddamn Europeans!' spits the singer to start off, completely unconvincingly on any level; 'Take me back to beautiful England' - an England whose 'beauty' is described in images of rain, rot, and waste. What is being condemned and what approved here? If anything, it's about the impossibility of love, the longing for home and distress at what home has become; or, perhaps instead of distress, we should read perverse, defiant endorsement. Everything is ambiguity. The much-discussed war-inspired pieces, even those that seem to relate to Afghanistan, are so decontextualised, so reduced to an experience, a feeling, that it's impossible to know where we are treading exactly. Each snippet of emotion is made simultaneously tiny and universal. It is nothing else than PJ Harvey has always done, though the keynote here is distance, reflection, rather than visceral immediacy. She uses again the high, thin voice she first showcased on White Chalk, and plays her usual games with instruments she doesn't really know very well: her description of herself as an artist rather than a musician is very accurate (just as well she can attract such proficient musicians to work with her). Both these serve to distance the emotion from the expression. Yet what pictures she manages to paint. Let England Shake is a series of drownings, losses, seen through veils of mist. Like the Dorset coast.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Into Eternity

Our friend Donovan died last month in very sad circumstances. This is a picture of him on one of the Young Lord Declan's Goth Walks in the spring of 2009. We were all following the traditional route of the condemned from Newgate to Tyburn and, having finally reached Tyburn itself, were listening to Dex expatiate upon its history from a plinth. As usual bemused tourists couldn't resist listening too. I looked round and saw Donovan framed by 'ordinary' folk and was so tickled by the contrast I decided to take the photo. He clearly saw what I was up to and made an heroic effort to stop himself laughing.
We had a 'wake' for Donovan a couple of weeks ago and some of his family were there. They're very strong Christians from South Africa and always felt Donovan rather 'came from the planet Zog' as his father put it. I thought they might like to know they weren't the only Christians there and spoke to Donovan's dad. He told me (though I hadn't asked about it) that they felt assured of Donovan's being received by God, in fact having received two 'revelations' from different quarters about it. I wasn't sure what to say and still am not. I never had any remotely religious conversation with my friend and have no idea what he thought, but I'd be surprised if his opinions were anything like those of the rest of his family - and he certainly never showed any obvious signs of Christian commitment.
I often find that even people who are very hot conservative Christians, when it comes down to it, find themselves convinced that their loved ones are OK with the Lord even when they show none of the classic characteristics of conversion or commitment which the same conservative Christians insist on in everyone else. Ages ago I took the funeral service of a man with three children one of whom had opinions of this kind. 'He may not have known Jesus,' the son said firmly, 'but Jesus knew him'. Well, presumably so, but that's not exactly classic Protestant Evangelicalism, is it?
In fact I don't mean to criticise as I think this kind of, let's say, 'creative engagement with the tradition' is positive. Conservative Christians accept the damnation of those outside the boundaries with little worry, until those sinners happen to be people they care for whereupon the principles start to bend.
Happily God cares for all of us. I wouldn't have pitched my friend into the flames, and I can hardly imagine God would be less understanding than me.