Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Parish Easter

This is a picture of the Altar of Repose on Maundy Thursday, but it's still from the Triduum (I posted pictures of the high altar bedecked for Easter last year).

This year we moved the Paschal Liturgy to the early morning for the first time in over thirty years; twenty-odd people came, and we ironed out almost all the teething problems from last year. One of the congregation arranged champagne and pain-au-chocolat for breakfast! We followed that with Communion according to the Book of Common Prayer at 8am (again, the first time that's been used for years), and finally the 10am, with smoke, aspersing, and a baptism. It was a huge relief after all the privation and restraint of Lent and Holy Week. Numbers-wise we were about the same as last year overall, though I've heard that other local churches had record attendances.

I spent a certain amount of time over the Sacred Triduum arguing with atheists over on Heresy Corner about the resurrection. My friend the Heresiarch will insist on putting up stuff over the holy season that he knows full well I will have to comment on and so diverts my attention dreadfully ... Anyway, his point was regarding Derek Murphy's book Jesus Potter Harry Christ which argues not only that there are parallels between the eternal Son and the boy-magician, but also that 'Jesus' was a fictional vehicle to bear certain mystical ideas on which the idea of the historical rabbi-teacher was based.

Of course I think this is tosh, and, when you examine the idea, utterly incredible, but it excites my sympathy (because there is no killer proof of Jesus's existence, only a weight of circumstancial argument) rather more than all those laboured attempts to explain the faith of the early Church by arguing that they made a mistake, or were covering the truth up, or any of the other stories that get concocted. If the 'there-never-was-a-Jesus' line is gathering popularity among atheists, it could be a recognition that the alternative explanations are simply too strained and implausible to bear weight.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Bishop Talking Sense (I think)

Perhaps the Sacred Triduum wasn't the best of times for saying it, but the Bishop of Oxford's statement that church schools should limit their intake of children of practising Christian parents to 10% was one I virtually cheered. I really support Church schools. We have a parish infant's school and much to my surprise I've enjoyed building up a relationship with the school institutionally, the staff, and the parents as well as the children. It's less an opportunity for spreading the Gospel (though it is that to some extent) than keeping myself in touch with society more widely, especially in terms of how the education system works or fails to work. It doesn't have a restricted admissions policy, and you have to get a long way down the list of groups which are given priority in terms of admission before any sort of Christian commitment gets mentioned. It was the same at the parish school in Lamford, and the school in Hilltop Corner, where I looked after the church for a few months (unusually that was a Church Junior school with secular infant schools as feeders).

But I did check our admissions criteria when I arrived in Swanvale Halt. At Hilltop Corner I got a call from a former parishioner who was trying to get his son into a church school in Uxbridge, St Lawrence's I think although I couldn't swear to it. The family lived almost opposite the church, but he was having to prove that he'd been a regular churchgoer for five years prior to the application, no small task as the family had moved twice in that time. He correctly identified the former vicar of Hilltop Corner so I took his word for it and wrote a letter of support. A couple of weeks later I got another call. 'They say it's not good enough', he said, 'I have to prove my wife has been going to church for five years too.'

Recently I went back to the church I was baptised in, St Mark's Talbot Village in Dorset. I was at a said Eucharist at 8.30 on a Sunday morning, the sort of service that normally attracts twenty or so people if you're lucky. By the time the service began there were well over a hundred people in the church, most of them in their '30s or '40s, some with prams. As the service finished, I headed towards the door, noticing that the 20 or so people aged over 60 were doing the same, while everyone else was going the other way, towards the front of the church. Looking at the service sheet, I saw the notice 'Parents, don't forget to sign the attendance register at each service you come to'. The phenomenon of parents turning up solely so their children will qualify for the parish school is a clerical joke (it was the subject of an episode of Rev, of course), but I'd never seen it so blatantly, shamelessly organised as this. I am told this has been the pattern at St Mark's (and I am not disguising names this time) for twenty years or more, and a vast extension to the church was built simply to accommodate the influx of parents, barely any of whom turn up once their children are safely in the school. The 8.30am service is particularly popular because people know they won't have to sit through a sermon.

I find the entire thing revolting. The Church simultaneously sits in judgement on parents and families, and encourages hypocrisy among them. It degrades the sacraments of Christ's Kingdom by making them entry requirements for something they have nothing to do with. And why is it that we should expect non-Christians happily and supinely to fork out for our sectarian schools when their kids can't even go there? Few things make me so angry.

I'm all for maintaining the ethos of Church schools, but that depends on the governing body and staff rather than the children. The ones I've been involved with have managed it - and of course half the CofE schools in the country are Controlled, not Aided, schools, and so don't control their own admissions policy anyway.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

An Opportunity for Reflection

I wasn't expecting to be granted a curate to start in the summer of 2012, and yesterday had confirmation that this is so. I am not that long from being a curate myself and only became a 'training incumbent' because there was already a curate at Swanvale Halt when I arrived; and given the somewhat hazardous financial situation of the church we could do with having the curate's house rented out and bringing in a few thousand pounds a year. But I was rather taken aback by the email from the diocese which informed me I had failed to 'demonstrate that you fully understood the role a training incumbent undertakes'.

It made me think about my own curacy at Lamford. In my first week Il Rettore told me 'I can't do anything for you except teach you how to say the Mass' and so that was what he did. In my first year we had Mass practice most weeks, but everything else I had to work out for myself. I asked about what he did to prepare couples for their wedding or having their children baptised and he would shrug and say 'I don't know, I just chat to them'. Whenever I saw him take a funeral service his preparation seemed to consist of scribbling a few notes on a scrap of paper in the Vestry before the service started. Our 'staff meetings' (the diocese is very, very keen on staff meetings) occurred over coffee on a Monday morning in the café run by the Turks round the corner from the church, and consisted of me, Il Rettore, the organist, and sometimes the parish secretary if she wasn't too hung over from the weekend. Occasionally we opened a diary but never a Bible. I don't think the powers-that-be like this model very much.

But the thing about Il Rettore was that he cared about people. He could get away with pretty rough prep for funerals in a way I never could, but he dealt so brilliantly with bereaved people it didn't matter. He couldn't tell me what he did with wedding or baptism couples because each time he just engaged with them and who they were, not with a scheme or system (I need a scheme or system). And as for myself, he cared about me. He was my friend and I could always take him into my confidence in absolute trust that he would keep it; the advice he might give me was almost invariably wrong, but that wasn't the point. He was there and cared, and being given advice mattered less than being given tea and being taken to look at the new season's tomatoes in the greenhouse.

It's worth saying that we were all rather scandalised to discover that a curate in an adjoining parish to Lamford was approaching presiding at his first Mass having had no liturgical preparation at all from his incumbent, who was the husband of the diocesan Director of Training. He came, rather on the quiet, to Il Rettore for that.

I'm being offered the chance to talk this over so it will be interesting to discover what the diocese thinks the role of a training incumbent really is!

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Palm Sunday

This is the old High Altar at Swanvale Halt decorated for Palm Sunday. I rather like the arrangement because from a distance it looks slightly sinister.

Friday, 15 April 2011

The Pains of Being a Trailblazer

As we congratulated ourselves on rescuing an amazing black and red silk 1950s dress from a vintage store near Waterloo, Cylene explained to me her progression through Goth style since abandoning shapeless skater-boy tee-shirts and jeans at about 17. ‘Once I was reconciled to the fact of actually being female, that was it. Dresses from then on’.

‘I brought Gothic Lolita style back from Okinawa. In Albuquerque in 2001 nobody else was dressed like that. Nobody thought I could manage it practically, as a way of dressing the whole time rather than just club gear, but I did. But then it got taken up by the wrong crowd and I had to move on, and went more Victorian. By the time I was in Portland I had a bit of an identity crisis. I said to a friend, ‘I dress Victorian but I like Industrial as well’. I think he thought that by ‘Industrial’ I actually meant machines and technology rather than stompy music, and he thought and said ‘Hmm, it sounds as though you should go Steampunk’. This was 2006, nobody had heard the word in Portland. So I tried it – and it was the real thing then, not just putting machine cogs on everything. But for some reason it was the Neo-Nazis took up Steampunk and again I had to leave it behind eventually.

‘Then I came to England and everyone does Victorian. I suppose you guys invented it, after all. And half these girls make their own clothes! There’s no way I can compete. And anyway, it’s not always practical. I wanted a style that I could actually wear all the time and you can’t drive a truck in a shelf-bustle! I like vintage, but the thing about ‘vintage’ is that everyone immediately thinks ‘Psychobilly’, polkadots and Bettie Page bangs, and that’s done to death already. And I thought, well, I want to be a 1950s housewife, and nobody else is doing that. You can make anything Gothic, so let’s try’ – she says, sat at Costa Coffee in the dark blue house-dress with lace collar, small black gloves, and big dinner-plate silk hat kept on with a hatpin.

‘Trouble is, how long will it be before this gets popular too? I’m already planning the next move. I haven’t got a name for it yet, apart from “Inpatient Gothic”. What I’ll need to do is work out some way of doing straitjackets and bandages that’ll actually be wearable day-to-day …’

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Back to the Beginning

I went round to visit a couple who would like their (3rd) child baptised at the church, nice, enthusiastic pair. They started talking about childraising and religious issues.

Mother: 'I told Benjamin that not everyone thinks like us. Some people think human beings came from monkeys. And he said, "But that's silly, mummy. If human beings come from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?" How cool is that? Even a five-year-old can see through the Theory of Evolution!'

They were so happy I didn't feel it was appropriate to have the conversation then. But how blinkered must their religious background be to allow them to assume blithely that I'm a creationist? It is, after all, a pretty marginal opinion in this country, even among Christians. It was remarkably disorientating!

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Missing the Wood

Last week a reverend gentleman wrote to the Church Times:

"The evidence is there for all to see. The churches that water down the teaching and replace the Christ-given holy eucharist with 'home-made services' drawn up by a committee, and fall over backwards to conform to the inroads of secularism, are the ones in decline. ... The churches that teach the Catholic and apostolic faith in all its fulness, and have a dignified parish eucharist at the centre, every Sunday, backed with solid teaching, are invariably growing churches."

And this is my reply; not sure whether it will get printed, so I put it here.

"While I share Revd Geoffrey Squire's frustration at churches (and Churches) 'watering down the faith' and not recognising the effect (Letters, 1st April 2011), I'm not sure that trad Anglo-Catholics should be quite so self-congratulatory. There are far, far fewer churches in the Catholic tradition than there once were. Of those I've attended, two have closed in the last 15 years and one is struggling to keep going. If we look at the 21 churches involved in the 'Battle over Benediction' in London in the 1920s, only seven survive in any form and only three (St Mary Bourne Street, St Stephen Gloucester Road and St Peter London Docks) are in any sense part of the Catholic movement; St John Holland Road has just been taken over by HTB. London is a special case but almost every town has its closed church or churches from the Catholic tradition. This means that people who like Catholic worship have to gravitate towards a smaller number of churches which, naturally, look more flourishing as a result, and younger, enthusiastic clergy also have less choice as to where to go. The strength of a small number of trad Anglo-Catholic churches is, I suspect, less about teaching and more about demographics.

"The good side of this is that such churches have a wonderful opportunity to help the Catholic movement revive, if they can manage it. Some of that will involve precisely the kind of imaginative outreach work that our Tractarian forebears engaged in, as well as reverent and beautiful celebration of the Mass."