Tuesday, 4 December 2012

There Once Was A Curate from Riga

More than one friend has recently sent me links to articles about the Revd Sally Hitchiner, Senior Chaplain (one wonders what the junior ones are like) at Brunel University. If you don't know who she is, you can find out more, quite a lot more in fact, here ... and here ... and here ... and here ... and here ... and here. And that's not counting the places where she writes about herself. She's another priest who likes clothes. Actually rather a lot of priests like clothes, but those clothes tend to involve brocade, gold braid and maniple fringes, and that sort of covers it up. I'm not going to talk much about Revd Hitchiner per se because she's become the object of rampant hatred across the wonderful world of the internet which I can't see that she deserves. She clearly thinks rather a lot of herself, otherwise she wouldn't be going along with the exposure, but that's a matter between her and her spiritual director, really, not the rest of us.

As a priest who likes clothes, including secular as well as liturgical ones, I do worry about this aspect of who I have become. I'm a bit older than Revd Hitchiner so I've had more time to ponder the ambiguities; and they come into being part of the Goth world, too. It may seem perverse and hypocritical to resent people paying you attention when you dress in a nonconformist way, but Goths nevertheless do it, and are, by and large, adamant that they don't dress to be looked at. This seems to me to indicate a relationship with clothing which is more complex than the explanation Goths themselves usually give for adopting Goth style (and that Revd Hitchiner gives for dressing the way she does), that it 'expresses their personality'. I see it as adopting a role, as to a certain extent play-acting. It's not only that the clothes bring out part of what is within you, but that you put on an identity when you wear them. In a way, the clothing bears the primary identity, rather than the person. I think Goths use Goth clothing in the same way a Christian priest uses liturgical dress: to express, not something which is inside you (at least not in a straightforward way), but outside you, beyond you.

For my part, my church uniform is absolutely standard clerical dress, with the only refinements being that I wear a waistcoat and a hat of some variety most of the time. Once in a while, for very special occasions, I don't wear a cheap little plastic clerical collar but a white necktie, and as even Fr Benson of Cowley did that I don't consider it especially noteworthy. Non-work-wise I wear very conservative male dress with a bit of a twist. I like the way this cove the Sinister Sartorialist carries himself, but he's a lot younger than me and I don't think it would be appropriate for a middle-aged clergyman to dress like that. I like the beauty and interest of clothes; I don't think they 'express my personality' at all. I don't even think I have that much of a personality, certainly not one I want to 'express'. So I hope I am safe, at least at the moment, from dire spiritual peril at the hands of my cufflinks and ties.

However: there's another aspect of all this that concerns me, and I suspect a dire warning to young clergy who might find the world taking an interest in them. All priests, certainly all parish incumbents, find themselves inevitably, just as did the Lord they serve, the focus of the transferred adoration and hatreds of the people around them, and they wade into wider, deeper waters to their utter danger. Deal with a parish and you can through personal contact do something to control the way people see you and think about you; deal with people on the virtual level of the media and you have no control at all. When somebody first sent me a picture of Sally Hitchiner I thought, Ah, she thinks, deluded young woman, that she can counteract people's stuffy idea of what the Church is like by using the media. And, sure enough, she wrote (I think on Facebook, the Mail article is difficult to disentangle) 'There is that perception that religion is in a box with everything middle-aged and that everything else is in another box'. It won't work, because the media's agenda is not hers, and, as all the coverage of her rise to fame shows, she can't control how people understand the images they see of her.

My mind goes back to the BBC TV production A Country Parish and poor Revd Jamie Allen, who was seen in the series floundering in a generally well-meaning and good-natured way in his Wiltshire villages and trying to be a good priest. The programme played down the fact that he had three churches to look after (too complicated) and gave a completely inaccurate picture of what any clergyperson's life is actually like (go to Rev for a more realistic view). More tragically, the poor sod found it was completely impossible to do his work once the cameras had gone: he turned down the offer of a second series but by then it was too late. 'My ability to minister effectively in the villages has been irrevocably compromised', he told the world when he resigned his charge. The programme doubtless had positive effects on some people, but Jamie Allen had to pay the price, and now works in New Zealand.

Advice to young clergy no.715: Go nowhere near the media. Don't kid yourself you can ride the tiger.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

New Found Catherines

I kept St Catherine's Day on Sunday with a votive mass at the 8am (it was the Feast of Christ the King, but then Jesus is such a self-effacing fellow) and then promptly forgot about the Octave until this morning. Anyway. Here are two recently-noted Catherines to mark the season:

This first narrow one comes from St Petroc's Church in Padstow and was spotted by Miss Traves, on holiday a few weeks ago in Cornwall with Dr Bones. Very stately.

While this Catherine appears in a manuscript volume on display in the V&A's medieval galleries. I like the double wheel, you don't see that very often.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Keeping It Together

One of the questions I said the other day that I wanted the majority in the Church of England to answer was, Why are we bothering to accommodate those who are against the consecration of woman as bishops? If we discover answers to that question, more than just the cynical ‘Because we can’t do what we want unless we do accommodate them’, we might be willing to do more actually to make it happen. One of the possible answers is that the antis bring something valuable to the Church which we don’t want to lose, and I’ve been thinking around that over the last couple of days.

Richard Hooker wrote that the three sources of thought on which the Anglican Church relies are Scripture, Tradition and Reason: we were taught that at St Stephen’s House and I trust it gets mentioned in other colleges and training courses too. You can obviously relate these to the three main divisions within the Anglican Church today. Evangelicals place the Biblical documents at the centre of their thinking; Catholics put a strong emphasis on what the Church as a whole has taught across time and geographical distance; Liberals draw lessons from the world they observe and experience to interrogate both the words of Scripture and the tradition of the Church.

All three in their thinking will inevitably get stuff wrong. I am rather a conservative sort of liberal, and so while I support the consecration of women as bishops I can understand the arguments the two sorts of antis, Catholic and Evangelical, are making. I think they are wrong, but possibly that they are wrong for the right reasons. I believe that, in their anxiety to preserve the importance of the Biblical witness, the conservative Evangelicals are misinterpreting that witness; and I also believe that, in their concern to keep Anglicanism linked (at least in the way it looks) with the other bits of Catholic Christianity, the Catholics are overemphasising the wrong parts of that tradition. But their concerns are, at root, sound ones.

My frustration with some, let’s say, less reflective liberal Christians is that they are, conversely, often right for the wrong reasons. It’s perfectly possible to be a Liberal Anglican and have a great concern for Scripture and the Catholic identity of the Church, but too many Liberals seem to sit very light to both, and often not even to understand them. I suspect, as I’ve let on in the past, that there is stuff in Scripture and the Tradition of the Church that we don’t really grasp yet, but that we have to engage with rather than just junk in order to work out what it is that God really wants us to take on board.  The tragedy of schism, of Christians breaking fellowship and ceasing to talk and worship together, is that it makes it less likely that this will happen. When Churches divide and set up new, separate structures, we fall in with the competitive model under which the World operates, not the model of the Kingdom – with all its frustrations. Different sorts of Christians with different biases get nice, comforting, if smaller groupings in which they will only need to deal with people who think the same way they do, and they then compete with each other.

We need to think deeper than just that ‘the Church of England is a broad church and so we want to keep everyone on board’. That’s a weak version of the real situation – which is that precisely because we think differently we need those differences in order to tack towards the truth. You only have to look across the Atlantic to see what happens when Anglicanism blithely severs itself from parts of its identity. Think of Catholics, Evangelicals and Liberals not as ‘bringing different things to the table’, because that image implies that you could, if necessary, live without any of those things (I’m pretty sure my Catholic and Evangelical brethren each believe they could very cheerfully manage without the other two). It pays lip-service to the ideal of unity without really believing that you might be affected, changed, as a result of dealing with those challenging others. Instead, those three elements are like tethers that keep us attached to what are, basically, channels of the Holy Spirit’s teaching us: the Biblical witness to Jesus, the Church’s inheritance of spiritual experience and thinking, and the constant interrogation of both those things by what we actually see and hear around us. We need people who prioritise one or another of those, because our natural human tendency is to downplay the ones we’re less biased towards. And that’s what it is and what makes it so maddening at times – a necessary combination of prejudices.

And why should we bother preserving that? Why not just let one wing or another go off and do their own thing? I believe very strongly that the answer is because the Church of England has, dare I say it, a particular eschatological role. We have, very peculiarly and strangely, developed this mad, frustrating, divided identity – alone among the Churches, at least to this degree. It’s because we are committed to keeping together our connections to those three sources of the Spirit’s guidance that we mediate those other Churches which emphasise one or another. The time will come, I think, when the Church of England will play some deep role in the reunification of the sundered branches of Christ’s Church, and we’ll be able to do it precisely because we’ve kept together internally. Of course God’s plans will happen regardless, but if we actually get in the way of them he’ll be terribly sad …

Maintaining the breadth of the Church of England isn’t just nice if we can manage it. It’s the point of the whole thing. We need those people we disagree with in order to do what God wants of us. None of us, Catholics, Evangelicals, or Liberals, can do it on our own, because we are flawed, limited, biased human beings. And we should be willing to sacrifice virtually anything to keep it.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

A Culture of Suspicion!

As light relief to having a go at my own religion, here's a short jab at non-Christianity for a change.

I know a number of people who are vegans and pro-animal campaigners. A short while ago, one of them put up this photo on a well-known social-networking site:

This prompted a lot of discussion, arising out of the quotation in the picture. I can't find the thread now so I can't quote from it, but it was mainly along the lines of how wicked Christianity in particular and religion in general is for promoting exploitation of animals, and, in contrast, how atheism, being natural and rational, promotes instead respect and kindness towards them.

William Ralph Inge? I thought. I recognise that name. He was, it doesn't take long to confirm if you want to, the famous Gloomy Dean of St Paul's Cathedral in the 1910s, 20s and 30s; this quotation is from Outspoken Essays, published in 1922 and based on an earlier lecture.

As always, it only takes a moment to look this up but you have to have a mental culture of suspicion. I suppose it may be having a background in studying history that I automatically want to know the context of any statement or fact I'm presented with, what the qualifications are of the person who is quoted or who reports an event. This is another tiny instance of our willingness not to question or investigate things that conform to our preconceptions, made all the more glaring because of the sad assumption behind it that atheists can't be unkind to animals or Christians promote their welfare.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

And Relax

Yesterday, a day after my birthday, I went out with Ms Narain, Mrs Monday and Mr Valentine to see Caravan Palace at Koko in Camden. I'd never been to Koko - it's a fantastic venue, occupying the old Camden Palace Theatre built in a wonderfully Rococo style in 1900 and now decked out in gold and sumptuous velvety red (actually the walls aren't velvety at all, and instead are painted woodchip, but look velvety). Caravan Palace, the pinnacle of electroswing, were promoting their new album, and while some of the tracks are veering more in the House direction than what I find particularly appealing, it was huge fun - even though our view of anything was blocked by security men of increasing girth as the evening wore on.

I looked down over the balcony at the mass of mainly young, mainly ordinarily-dressed people on the dancefloor below. They were happily bouncing up and down as Caravan Palace thumped away on the stage (in fact Mrs Monday bounced so much she felt sick). I've recently been dipping back into Richard Davenport-Hines's Sex, Death and Punishment which he wrote a few years before his great history of Gothic, and marvelling how, within the last half-century, we have ceased in so many ways to be the vicious, vicitimising culture we once were, wrapping ourselves in fear and lies and hitting out at queers and deviants in our fear and self-deceit. Or at least, we now deem it socially unacceptable to voice such opinions. A mass of young people being happy is not a threat, and how grateful I am to live now rather than then. It is a society from which the influence of the Church has largely been removed, and that's a good thing too. We Christians have connived at the evils society has inflicted on its minorities, and I am grateful that we are being flung to the margins: we deserve it. As all the bullshit about women bishops proves, we still aren't to be trusted, and God needs to purge us a little more yet.

Where to Start?

I went out on Wednesday morning not really wanting to put my collar on. The General Synod's vote against the legislation allowing women to be consecrated bishops made me feel positively ashamed. I hadn't expected that kind of emotion; I find myself the public representative of an organisation whose thinking is not just at odds with that of the society around it, but actually incapable of being explained in terms that society can understand. I wanted to apologise to everyone I met. How can I even begin to explain what this is about, or to relate it to Jesus of Nazareth who I exist to introduce people to?

My reaction was, and remains, frustration that we have to go through all this again at some point in the future. I have used incautious and unpriestly words to describe all the 'this' through which we will be going, such as 'bullshit', and 'crap'. This is because the argument is settled, and what we are debating is how the minorities who dissent from the decision are to be protected: it means Codes of Practice, legal divisions of powers and responsibilities, interpretations of words within documents. It means endless effort to try and link all this in some remote way to the Gospel of the Kingdom we are supposed to be proclaiming. It is not what I want to be doing, not what I want people to ask me about, and not what I want to hear bishops wasting their breath on either.

Yesterday morning I read our church secretary 1Corinthians 11.3-15 and 1Timothy 2.8-14, the core of the Scriptural case against women exercising any authority. Her response was to laugh: the Apostle Paul's arguments about how women should behave don't make any sense to her, don't relate in any way to her experience of living. I asked her what she does when she and her husband disagree over something, and she said he invariably does what she wants: so much for 'male headship'. The truth is that people outside the Church not only think the Church is 'out of date' regarding the role it allocates to women (as though that was itself of any importance), but can't understand the terms in which the argument is couched. There will be some Christians who regard the scorn and derision of secular society as a sign that they are following what is in truth God's will; they are wrong. Sometimes you're a laughing stock not because you're holy, but because you're ridiculous. Jesus's challenge to his world was perfectly clear and explicable; those who turned on him didn't do so because they didn't understand what he was saying but precisely because they did. If people can't work out what you're talking about, perhaps, just perhaps, you ought to start considering whether you're actually saying anything sensible. There are truths buried in those Scriptural passages, of course - how could there not be? But they don't half need a lot of unpacking. In contrast, the trad Anglo-Catholics' basic position - 'The Roman Catholics don't ordain women. We want to be as close to what the Roman Catholics do as possible' - is at least comprehensible, but open to the pretty obvious question, Well, why don't you just become Roman Catholics?

There are plenty of other questions I'd like to ask than that one. I'd like to ask the conservative Evangelicals why exactly they think male headship means that women can't be bishops when it doesn't appear to mean they shouldn't be heads of companies, legal practices, Prime Minister or Head of State? (Of course they used to argue all these things, and use the same passages of the Bible to justify them, but strangely have gone quiet now that it's socially inconvenient to hold such opinions. It is all, I'm afraid, bollocks). I'd like to ask my fellow Anglo-Catholics, including people I actually love, what they think Catholic words like 'obedience' and 'authority' actually mean? Can they really mean insisting that the only people you'll obey will be people you choose to obey on the grounds that they think the same way you do? What kind of obedience is that? Seriously, not facetiously, what kind of Catholics do you think you are?

At the heart of the whole thing is a neglect of the Gospel. Christians are called to follow Jesus to the cross and that actually means sacrifice. It means giving stuff up. It means choosing to be humble, choosing to have your interests neglected, choosing not to fight your corner, choosing to lose, choosing to obey even though the authority figure set over you is clearly an idiot, choosing vulnerability, openness and the possibility of error. It means acting as though we believed that because Jesus died and was raised, so we must die in order to be raised. That the only way to life is through the Cross.

Where is all that? When the pro-women crowd bleats that certain legal safeguards for the antis are incompatible with the dignity of potential women bishops, is that willingness to be nailed to the Cross? When the antis demand that they be shielded from every effect of the change; that there can be women bishops provided their own ecclesial life is fenced off so it can go on completely unaltered, what exactly is being sacrificed there?

Well, we have this ridiculous voting system in the Church of England to ensure that minorities can't be steamrollered, and no other organisation on earth, not even any other Church, works this way. Let's assume it must serve some Godly purpose somewhere and, in that case, let us ask ourselves some more questions.

Let the pro-women bishops party ask: Why should we reconcile the antis? I can think of three answers: Because we promised to; because various things about them are positive and we don't want the Church to lose them; and because Christians breaking relationships with each other is an appalling act which should have us tearing our clothes and weeping. If the answers are anything like that, well, let's get on with it and reconcile and not stand on our dignity.

Let the anti-women bishops party ask: Why the hell should we be accommodated? We lost the argument and in any other organisation would have to put up with the consequences or get out. Why do we deserve any kind of consideration? (Actually I don't see there is any obvious answer to this, other than the three abovementioned, but you're welcome to try and think of one).

Perhaps going some way to answering these questions might lead to some positively Christian conclusions which the uncomprehending world beyond the church door could at least respect.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Justin Welby's sense of the ridiculous is completely incompatible with the dignity of the Archiepiscopal office. Good

One of the nice things about British religion is that nobody goes to church but they still take an unhealthy interest in who the Archbishop of Canterbury is. People have even asked me what I think about Justin Welby, as though it matters at all what I think. So here is what I think.

I think Bishop Welby is about the best we could hope for, given that the tradition in the Church of England, at least since the War, is that the primatial office alternates between Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals and that it's the Evos' turn. The previous Evangelical incumbents of the job haven't had a glittering record. When Geoffrey Fisher became ABC in 1944 'evangelicalism' was very much a slumbering force in the Church and so he was more a sort of crusty Low Churchman rather than a tambourine-banger, so you could argue he doesn't count. Nobody remembers who Donald Coggan was, and as for George Carey ... But Justin Welby, converted though he may have been by the great Evangelical hothouse system of Holy Trinity Brompton and its Alpha CourseTM, has some surprisingly unEvangelical aspects to him. He makes a regular confession. He is an oblate of the Order of St Benedict. (He has the customary evangelical's utter lack of aesthetic sense but presumably can get advice on that). He illustrates the fact that the boundaries between the wings of the CofE are no longer as clear as they once were.

There are three things which make me quite hopeful about this new archiepiscopate. Firstly, there is Bp Welby's much talked-about experience in the oil industry. Of course as an industry there is, shall we say, a certain amount of moral ambiguity about the oil business, but it means that he's not been cloistered within the confines of the CofE all his life, and has some relatively recent experience (he's only been ordained three years longer than me) in what we laughingly call the real world. Furthermore, it's a bit of the real world - industry, finance, capitalism in all its glory - which is very relevant currently.

Secondly. There is his experience in the ministry of reconciliation, gained from five years at Coventry Cathedral and trying to get Muslim and Christian Nigerians talking to one another. One might hope that he might even be able to get Christians talking to one another.

Thirdly. He may not be a very archbishoply archbishop. Since the announcement of his appointment, he has:
       - informed a press conference that he is not a horse and that's a really important point to make;
       - Tweeted that he isn't a woman;
       - swapped his mitre for a policeman's helmet at a photo-call.
And over at Heresy Corner the Heresiarch has called attention to his inability to take some of the more bizarre juxtapositions of the Christian religion with entirely po-faced seriousness.
This bodes well because it suggests that Bp Welby is not going to be the kind of person who expects to command and be obeyed.

There are more than just liturgical contrasts between Bp Welby's two predecessors. Abp Carey had had an extremely successful ministry as a parish priest, and was then sucked into the Anglican System as a theological college principal and Bishop of Bath & Wells. Something happened to the priest whose infectious and enthusiastic faith trebled the congregation of St Nicholas's Durham in two years; he became a humourless, sour man bewildered by the refusal of other people to do what he, and as he thought, God, wanted them to. Since retiring he has continued to plough the same furrow, carping, criticising, increasingly a caricature of the bitter Christian pursing his lips at everything the modern world brings. Rowan Williams's great virtue, on the other hand, was to realise that the command-and-control mode simply wouldn't work either inside the Church or regarding the Church's relationship with the world. Instead he wrote simple books and warm mini-lectures (you can find them on Youtube) about trust or holiness and what they might mean. Relinquishing the ambitions of power meant Rowan was bound to disappoint virtually everyone, but that's reality.

It's clear that there are many Anglicans who want Justin Welby to be a sort of Mrs Thatcher in a mitre, writing articles for the Daily Mail about how wicked everything is, shaking his crozier and moaning 'down with this kind of thing'. But I don't think he will be.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

That Time Again

Too many churches near me are holding alternative Halloween events and being very proud of it. There are aspects of the season's festivities which are worrisome - encouraging children to wander the streets and giving a chance for vulnerable people to be bothered, for instance - but none of them are more wicked and unChristian than similar things which happen other times of the year. Not long ago I finished reading Ronald Hutton's monumental study of British folk customs, Stations of the Sun, and he deftly analyses (in so far as anyone can) the exceptionally convoluted history of the All Souls-All Saints period and how begging rituals became detached from other days in the year and attached to this one, and further concentrated on children rather than adults.

Anyway. I was delighted to hear this from Canon Angela Tilby on Thought for the Day this morning (which I accidentally managed to catch). The programme isn't available to listen to yet so I transcribed it:
Halloween’s become a big retail opportunity, third in rank, apparently, behind Christmas and Easter. This is a recent phenomenon: when I was growing up it was Guy Fawkes Night I looked forward to.  Halloween parties were rare and rather mild events: bobbing for apples and perhaps a pumpkin was all that really happened. But today the fun is incomplete without skeleton t-shirts, crooked hats, and swirly-topped cupcakes with ghost eyes. Since Halloween took off the Churches have complained about it, suggesting that it encourages dangerous beliefs in the occult, that it’s frightening, negative, and, of course, another excuse for spending money. An Australian bishop drew a contrast this year between what he dismissed as a made-up festival about death, and Easter, a real-world festival about life. But I think that contrast is too stark. It’s simply not true that Halloween is ‘made-up’, a product of secular times. All Hallows Eve is the prelude to the feast of All Saints, when the Church remembers its heroes and heroines, men and women whose lives were transparently holy. It’s as the backdrop to that holiness that Halloween comes into its own. Halloween is the demonic ride of the unquiet dead, of all that surrounds and threatens us from the buried world, the anarchy of spirits that have lost their way, the pumpkin-head with its orange light challenging the golden haloes of the saints: So you were good? So what. All comes to nothing in the end. I think the problem is that Christian faith has become too bland, too ordinary, to deal with the dark side of life: there’s so much emphasis on welcome, affirmation, inclusion, accessibility, living life positively in the here and now, that we don’t know any more how to deal with mysterious threats from the realm of the dead. It wasn’t always so. Look at our ancient cathedrals and you’ll see all sorts of reminders of the buried world: gargoyles and demon-heads, Green Men staring through thick strands of foliage, imps’ faces as doorknockers. The unquiet dead are around and within us, and part of the Church’s job is to guide us through our relationship with our buried lives, showing us how to contain the chaos – not least, perhaps, by letting it come out in the mocking forms you’ll see tomorrow night. The dark flying things represent our own mourning for the lives we haven’t lived, our guilt at the deaths we haven’t mourned, our dread that our destructiveness could destroy us. In the light of these dark truths the lives of saints become all the more remarkable; they’ve seen through the veils of illusion to a final coherence, a unity of all things in love. So, a scary Halloween for tomorrow, and a glorious All Saints for Thursday.
There's a lot in here which is beautifully eloquent: 'the demonic ride of the unquiet dead'. The metaphor of the 'buried world' is wonderfully Gothic. Yes, that is what Halloween is, although on the level of most people's engagement with it it's a fun communal event and the deeper psychological realities are kept very deep. It is also true that you should always interrogate the practical reasons why a particular custom pertains, and the commercial one is very prominent in Halloween: some people make a good deal of money out of it. But the point is that makes it no different, for that reason alone, than Christmas or Easter, both of which are big commercial occasions too.

I was astonished to be led from this piece to the Australian bishop who Revd Tilby has a mild poke at, and he turns out to be Robert Forsyth, the Bishop of Sydney. I can't find out whether he did actually use the po-faced soundbite the Australian media has ascribed to him; instead what he really says in this interview on an Australian Christian radio show is actually amazingly mild on the topic of Halloween. If that's the opinion of the ultra-conservative evangelical diocese of Sydney, there's hope for the whole Church. Or perhaps they're saner in Australia.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Analysing Siouxsie

Image for Spellbound: Siouxsie and the Banshees
Very gratifying to hear a short documentary yesterday on Radio 4: Spellbound: Siouxsie & the Banshees. Miranda Sawyer actually managed to get to talk to Siouxsie herself, and she sounded sober, which is a rarity these days. Ms Sawyer called attention to the amazing explosion of creativity which characterised the band's first five albums, produced in four short years between 1978 and 1982, praising inter alia the lovely A Kiss In The Dreamhouse which has divided opinion in the past ('sub-hippy drivel dressed up in knickers for the sake of art' was one phrase I remember reading somewhere). It's true that those five albums (and the early singles like 'Hong Kong Garden' and 'Staircase' which never found their way on to albums) established something like an entirely new vocabulary in the midst of popular music, but it's a bit unfair simply to omit everything that came after: 'Peek-a-Boo' created 'Dark Cabaret', for instance, to say nothing of that accompanying video. But the programme was good to hear. You may be inclined to forget how titanic the Banshees were: I still don't think anyone has quite matched them since.

Naturally, when discussing the Banshees, you can't avoid the G-word, and shouldn't. 'I don't know why Goth is seen as being a sort-of joke, really', says Mr Alexis Petridis at 23.00 in the programme. 'I mean, if you look at what Goth is, if you look at what Goth looks like, it's a kind of extension of the way punks looked, it's a slightly more romanticised version.' That doesn't stop Ms Sawyer from opining towards the end, 'Perhaps the Banshees need to be reclaimed. Many, like me, were put off the band due to the ludicrous Goth fashion which trailed along behind them, like the flapping tails of a second-hand undertaker's coat', before honouring their 'astonishingly futuristic, intelligent, innovative music'. She goes on, 'Siouxsie understood, she understands, that underneath our conventional exteriors humans are dramatic, magical, tortured beings, living dramatic, magical, tortured lives.' Well, not Goth at all, then, that.

And tomorrow Amanda Palmer is on Woman's Hour ...

Derbyshire Shrines

One of my holiday days out took me around the Goyt Valley walks. There are two reservoirs damming the waters of the little River Goyt, and part of the landscape is the grounds of the now-lost Errwood Hall, abandoned since the 1930s. I already knew about the little woodland shrine which you can see here, apparently built by the Roman Catholic owners of Errwood, the Grimshawes, in memory of a Spanish lady who acted as companion to one of the Mrs Grimshawe. Inside you can find a tile image of St Joseph in whose honour the shrine is dedicated, a characteristic range of religious tat and also commemorative items (including a pink teddy bear looking out of the window).


I was much more surprised to discover a completely different little shrine overlooking the valley, and right beside the road which swoops down to the reservoirs from the top of the hill opposite. There is a mosaic icon of the Virgin and Child, lamps, and fresh flowers. It turns out that the shrine was built in the 1950s on the initiative of a Roman Catholic priest from Buxton - you can see more of its history here. Would the Council grant permission for such a structure today? Quite apart from any considerations of religious partisanship, it is right next to the road, just on the verge - something of a perilous position for devotees!
Finally, in the village of Stoney Middleton, I found this: a shrine in a niche underneath a row of houses. There is a side road which branches off the main street and goes immediately very steeply uphill, allowing this archway beneath a house which sits next to a small car parking space. The icons (especially of Christ's Transfiguration) suggested an Orthodox inspiration and, as it turns out, the little shrine was assembled by a member of the congregation of St Aidan's Orthodox Church in Manchester. More about it here.

Who would have expected such a collection of sacred sites in this small corner of the world?

Derbyshire, October 2012

I was away for a week in the Peak District and had good fun staying at the Fairy Cottage in Edale. The things I will remember most are my visit to Speedwell Cavern, being propelled along the underground canal by a guide clearly being driven mad by saying the same thing over and over again to groups of visitors; crossing the hills between Castleton and Edale and somehow losing the footpath which meant I had simply to scramble straight up the hillside; meeting two pigs called Billy and Petal; discovering that Matlock Bath is, rather unexpectedly, a focal point of the biker universe; and eating fish and chips in the Nag's Head on a sheet of newspaper neatly laid over a nice plate. However here are some images more closely related to some of my usual concerns.
On the skyline above Matlock you can glimpse Riber Castle. Apparently the ridiculously wealthy developer of Matlock Hydro, Mr Smedley, built this originally as nothing more than an eyecatcher, then when he received public derision for this announced he always intended to live in it and had to build the rest of the castle on the back of the facade. Sadly there was no water supply on top of the hill and so it wasn't a practical dwelling until long after Mr S abandoned it. It became a school and finally a zoo; various urban exploration groups have had a poke around but the building is at last in the process of being converted into luxury apartments so you can't get very close any more. Very dramatic.

This is the grotto in the Derwent-side gardens in Matlock Bath which, I think, is the current outlet of the original spring that gave rise to the spa. It's a very pleasing little Gothick structure, anyway, and I've never seen it illustrated anywhere else.

Wingfield Manor was a real surprise. 'Neither the picturesque nor the strictly architectural traveller should miss it', says Pevsner, waxing lyrical about its fifteenth-century ruins. I drove through the village of South Wingfield and wondered why there was no sign to it. Having crossed a cattle grid and then driven carefully up a rough track I found out why: although administered in some way by English Heritage, it's still part of a farm and admission is only by guided tour. However you only discover that on the EH website (as I just have). I couldn't find anyone there, and the farm itself doesn't show any clear signs of current activity, the yard being full of rusting machinery and surrounded by derelict buildings.
Derby Museum, like most museums, clearly has more stuff than it can do much with. So they've put on a positively beautiful display called '1001 Objects', exploring not so much the history or significance of the Things but their aesthetic qualities. It's absolutely lovely and made me smile.

Meanwhile Buxton Museum contains many - many - objects from the collection of Sir William Boyd Dawkins, redoubtable Victorian and Edwardian naturalist and geologist, so they've decided to recreate his study in the museum. It's fantastic, just the sort of room any gentleman would be proud to have. There's even a top hat.

I had no idea there was such a thing as Derbyshire Black Marble until I had a look around Buxton Museum.

St Catherine appears in a Victorian window in Bakewell Parish Church. She also has a chapel dedicated to her in the crypt of Derby Cathedral, but no images there.

Edensor Church, on the other hand, contains the maddest and most outrageous of funeral monuments, that constructed in the 1620s to commemorate the two sons of Bess of Hardwick, William and Henry Cavendish. An empty suit of armour, a trumpeting angel and scary putti flapping about the pediment, a Gorgon's head and a malevolent owl, and, at the centre, the respectively skeletonised and shrouded figures of Henry and William themselves. Just think, before the church was rebuilt in the 1870s this would have stood behind the altar.
And finally, a very odd church interior. I went to Stoney Middleton to see St Martin's Well, aka the Roman Baths, and had no intention of visiting the church until I saw it. It has a small, perfectly ordinary 15th-century tower at the west end. In the 1700s the rest of the church burned down and, for some bizarre and now lost reason, it was decided to replace it with an octagonal nave. The pews all face wierdly in towards the centre, though there isn't anything in the centre: the font is off to one side and, as you can see, the altar sits in a little alcove which functions as the chancel. The church history has a photograph of what it used to look like until a reorganisation in 1953, when the pulpit, organ, and radiators were all moved out of the way and lots of clutter cleared out.

Goth Walk 28: Dickens's Dark London

It's a long time ago now, but back in September I did another Walk for the London Goths. Mr Bishop suggested that, it being Charles Dickens's bicentenary, someone should mark that occasion, and as I can't stand Dickens I was clearly the ideal person to do so.

In fact doing the research was very enlightening. I decided early on that the best way of tackling it was to take some of Dickens's most gloomily eloquent descriptions of places in London and themes in its history, and tie them together with a very loose narrative. It brought home to me how so much of his work was driven by a sense of social conscience arising from that traumatic early experience of his father ending up in the Marshalsea debtor's prison, and Dickens himself having to work in a blacking factory. So my view of him rather shifted and that was what I wanted to put across.

In the end the date selected was Sunday September 23rd. This was so that Ms Vale could run the social side of the Meetup, and that particular day was the only one in the course of three months she and I could both make. That Sunday saw easily the worst weather in London so far this year. I got to the starting point, the George Inn in Southwark, to find a handful of people huddling away from the torrential rain and violent wind outside. I wondered whether, if the handful remained a handful, we could justify simply staying in the pub and doing all the readings there. Dr Bones even made it from Oxford and brought Boots the dog with her, introducing him to the underground as well as to some of the worst weather he can have experienced. 'We don't normally allow dogs indoors,' said the young man on the bar, 'But considering ...' Eventually the group reached the amazing total of about twenty attenders so we did indeed set out, blown and battered down through Southwark, past the Cross Bones Graveyard and along the Thames to Blackfriars, across to St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe and Newgate, and finally along Fleet Street to finish up at Gladstone's statue just opposite the site of Dickens's publishers. People were kind enough to say that the meteorological conditions added to the atmosphere.
Photograph by Mrs Alyson Pacanowski.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Inside and Out

The readings for this morning’s Mass were from Job 3, in which poor Job curses the day of his birth – ‘Why offer life to those who are bitter of heart?’ he cries – and Mark 9, in which Jesus berates his disciples for offering to call down fire on the Samaritan village that won’t let them stay. In my little homily I talked about suicidal feelings and not judging people by the circumstances of the moment.

On the way home I was crossing the railway line and was puzzled to see a woman standing on the track talking into a phone: unusual thing to do. As I passed she called me back and offered the phone out to me. On the other end was a police receptionist, and in the course of talking to her and the woman I worked out without too much trouble that she’d had a couple of drinks and was threatening to throw herself under the next train, as her sister had a few months ago. There wasn’t going to be a next train, however, because the signalman had already held all the trains further along the line. I kept her talking until the police arrived (in two cars and a van) and bundled her off to the local mental hospital. Of course she called me every name she could think of, but then if you’re genuinely determined on offing yourself you don’t tell anyone about it. I have to say the (all young male) coppers handled it superbly as far as I could tell, very clearly following an established procedure for such incidents. It was a strange synchronicity of the world inside the church and the world outside, and I suppose that had I not been dressed in clerical gear the woman would never have stopped me.

They Do Things Differently

I happened to speak today to a member of an Anglican religious order who spent some time in South Africa and who told me about the way certain ecclesiological controversies had been managed there. ‘The ministry of women was sorted out in one day,’ he said. ‘Nobody was forced to do anything, everyone against was accommodated, whether you were a bishop, a priest or a parish. Deacons, priests, bishops, all voted for at once, no fuss, no agonising, and they’re just about to appoint their first female bishop. Here, it’s just mess and pain and disaster.’

‘And as for gay marriage,’ he went on, ‘the South African government declared everyone had to marry same-sex couples. They weren’t going to give anyone a conscience clause, Christians, Jews, Muslims, whatever. The Archbishop said, well, the Prayer Book won’t let us do this. And he simply suspended the marriage licence of every Anglican priest in South Africa. Result, chaos: nobody could get married in an Anglican church. The State gave us a conscience clause in a week. Here, it’s going to take years of heartache and handwringing.’

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Constabulary Duty

We all had an email from the Diocesan Board of Social Responsibility yesterday, passing on an appeal from an organisation called Redeeming Our Communities to take part in a minute's silence to mark the death of the two policewomen killed in Greater Manchester:
I always feel ever-so-slightly uncomfortable at what I call 'Headline-Driven Prayer'. Redeeming Our Communities is based in Manchester so it's perfectly understandable that they should feel particularly concerned in the deaths of these two police constables, and equally understandable that their other branches across the country should also feel involved. But being asked to pray about a specific event, however unhappy, in which I or my community aren't directly implicated makes me wonder about all the other equally unhappy events and situations we are not asked to pray for because the news media haven't seen fit to pay as much attention to them. I know who our own local police in Swanvale Halt are, and pray for them, regularly, by name. I meet them and talk to them in the street. But we can't pray for everybody, and I don't really wanto to make the media my filter as to what I should or shouldn't pray for. This is quite apart from the uneasy sense that the awful deaths of two public servants is, rather nastily, a flag issue in the police's quarrel with the government over pay and conditions.
That line about the police's 'darkest day' made me wonder how many other police die in the line of duty, because I had no idea at all. Helpfully Wikipedia tabulates the information here, and I'm not even the first person to have had the thought, as this gentleman has analysed the figures. It didn't surprise me to learn that there's already been a police officer killed this year: Ian Dibell was shot in Clacton apparently after intervening in a row, though he happened to be off duty at the time.
The figures are actually rather interesting. Although the table is slightly questionable because it comprises all deaths of police officers resulting from their criminal work, including situations in which the criminals concerned didn't actually intend to kill them, there were three peaks in danger if you were a copper: the years between 1900 and World War One (which confirms my impression that this was a remarkably violent era in British history though nobody seems to talk about it much), a minor blip upward in the mid-1950s, and the height of Fatcher's Britain when, between 1981 and 1985, no fewer than 32 police officers were killed, followed by 18 between 1986 and 1990. The current state of things is actually comparatively quiet.
To find the last occasion when two PCs died in the same incident you only have to go back to 2002 when two Leicestershire officers were killed in a car crash, with a parallel event in December 1984. Admittedly none of those were shot in cold blood; but three officers died in the Harrods bombing in 1983; three were shot in the Shepherd's Bush Murders in 1966; two were shot in West Yorkshire in 1951 attempting to arrest a robber; two were killed by the landlord at a pub in Bedlington in 1913; and finally three died in the Siege of Sidney Street in 1910.
A surprising number of police officers in the early years of the last century 'collapsed and died during an arrest', an event which hardly ever happens now (although all these events hardly ever happen); perhaps the police are fitter now or maybe this reflects the fact that they go about on foot less. The most bizarre death was that of PC Christopher Wilson of the Devon & Cornwall Constabulary, who 'contracted a fatal illness when spat upon during a football disturbance' in 1977.
Anyway, pray for the people you know and the situations you have contact with is a rule I tend to follow. That way you're not responding to the media's assessment of who deserves your sympathy most.


The Roman Catholic congregation which shares our church is usually looked after by a local priest, but he's been away on holiday, so Fr Ignatien from Burkina Faso has been with them for the last couple of weeks. He asked whether we could meet up to have a conversation so we did. I'm afraid I was worried that he was going to ask whether our parish could send his some cash, but we didn't go anywhere near that subject (just as well as we don't have any), instead talking about the differences between the RC and Anglican observances. He was a bit bemused to discover that the theoretical head of the CofE is the Queen, but at least he can go back to the minor seminary where he teaches with a bit of a clearer idea of what the Anglican Church is and how it works; or doesn't work.

On a previous occasion he asked me whether the Blessed Sacrament was reserved in the aumbry in our Lady Chapel as indicated by the candle burning in front of it, and then took to genuflecting in the proper manner whenever he passed it. And for several days this week a young Hispanic-looking lady has been coming in to the church soon after 9am, standing in front of the Sacrament for a few seconds praying, and then leaving. On Friday she brought a friend!

I haven't spoken to the two young women so they can be forgiven for thinking this is a Roman church, but Fr Ignatien must surely realise the Sacrament in the aumbry has been consecrated by me (it wasn't him, after all!). In theory, therefore, it isn't 'the Sacrament' at all and he shouldn't be doing anything in front of it. I wonder whether the Pope knows about this dreadful indiscipline. What are they teaching RC priests in seminaries these days?

Friday, 14 September 2012

There's a Green-Eyed Yellow Idol

There is a new arrival at the Rectory. I was out in Hampstead yesterday, and, waiting for my friend to arrive, I wandered down an alleyway where outside a book shop I found several tables laden with antique junk for sale. I ended up buying this little heathen idol from a strange small lady and a man in a tweed suit with a cravat. They didn’t know anything about it other than that it had come from a house clearance in Maida Vale on Wednesday.

As I walked away with it in my bag, I suddenly reflected that this is just how all those stories in mid-1960s portmanteau horror films start. The chap in tweed was too tall to be Peter Cushing but that was the only difference …

Take That

Brian was one of our regular Infants School Church Club attenders. He’s now moved on to the Junior School and so out of our clutches but I met his mum the other day who related a conversation she’s had with him about the Garden of Eden story. He’d obviously heard it and had been thinking seriously about it for some time. ‘I’ve decided’, he said out of the blue one morning in the summer holidays, ‘that God made a mistake punishing the serpent.’ His mum asked him what was that. ‘Well, he cursed the serpent to crawl upon its belly on the earth’, said Brian. ‘But that’s what snakes do, they like it, that’s why they don’t need legs. What God should have done,’ he went on solemnly, ‘was get all the snakes together once a year and slap them all round the face and say “That’s for tempting Adam and Eve”’.

Outside View

‘Which reading do you want for this particular Sunday?’ asked our church administrator. ‘There’s a choice so I need to know so I can prepare the large-print copies’. I opted for the lection from the Book of Wisdom. ‘Do you know why there’s a choice?’ I asked, and explained that, because Wisdom is in the Apocrypha and some evangelical churches don’t recognise the Apocrypha as part of the Bible because those books were in the Greek Septuagint but not in the older Hebrew manuscripts, so they have to have an alternative. ‘I see’, said our secretary. Then, after a moment’s reflection, she stated ‘It’s all just bloody madness, isn’t it?’ Well, there are complex questions to be asked about the way in which the Scriptures were written and the process of discerning their selection – but, to put it very basically indeed, yes, it’s all bloody madness. Every church should have a non-churchgoing member of staff, I think.

Ways of Doing Things

Last week I went for a walk around Oakwood in the south of the county. My walk was a long figure-of-eight (longer than I expected thanks to taking a wrong turn and then being diverted into a field of over-curious horses), and at the crux of the 8 was St John the Baptist’s church. It sits virtually alone at the end of a small lane – apparently until relatively recently there was no vehicular access at all – and from the other directions can only be approached via long footpaths. It’s basically a thirteenth-century building constructed at the time when the Weald was finally beginning to be permanently settled, and was then expanded, not very happily, in the 1870s. The Buildings of England: Surrey claims that ‘looking out from [the churchyard] can still give the impression of frontier uneasiness’ which I think is a bit over the top, but it is still a remarkable experience. I’m told that despite the isolated situation, or perhaps because of it, the church is rather well-attended, with a thriving Family Service where you can find lots of young families.

(Photo copyright by John Salmon)
There’s a little church history leaflet which, very very unusually, gives quite a full description of the reordering which took place in the mid-1990s, and of course I’m rather interested in such things given what’s just taken place at Swanvale Halt. Here, again, the old pews were removed, new lighting and flooring installed, and a new entrance area within the west end of the church created. It looks very handsome … all apart from the strong blue upholstery on the chairs. Why they went for that I can’t imagine, unless it was an attempt to echo the blue ceiling at the east end of the church. Misguided in my opinion, if so, because when you walk into the church the first thing your eye sees is all that blue. I’m very glad we opted for solid wood seating.
Oakwood provides another interesting insight into changing fashions in church interiors too. I’m becoming aware that the installation of rood or chancel screens in churches may have been rather common between the Wars and that, in such cases, they stayed for forty or fifty years before being removed. At Swanvale Halt the dates are 1924 and 1972; at Oakwood, 1932 and 1976.

The Old for the New

One member of the congregation asked me where I got ‘that lovely new thingy on the altar’ from. It is, in fact, the church’s old green altar frontal that we’ve had since about 1880 (it’s visible in the very earliest photographs of the inside of the church) but which has been stuck in a chest for about thirty years. Now that the church has been refurbished and seems so much more light and simple, the eye is more drawn to the sites of colour and visual interest and in those surroundings this old frontal looks wonderful. It needs a bit of repair work, but I have a friend who can do that and then we’ll use it most of the time.

Friday, 31 August 2012

Christmas Comes But Half the Year

I called into one of the charity shops in the village yesterday. The manager was fuming. 'They've made us put up Christmas stuff', she said. Worse than that, 'The cards are awful. There are only two religious designs. I complain but they say people don't buy religious cards. Well they do in the village. People won't like it.'

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Chapel House, Blackfen

I and a friend from the LGMG caught the bus from North Greenwich to visit Red House, William Morris's Arthurian fantasy-home in Bexleyheath. On the way we spotted this extraordinary little folly, weirdly marooned next to a roundabout on Blackfen Road. My photograph of it was pretty hopeless, so here's one lifted from Google Earth:
Why, we pondered, take what seemed to be an ordinary small house and fit it with toy Gothic details to make it look like a chapel?

The great Bible of British folly-hunting, by Headley & Meulenkamp, doesn't help us in this instance as the house doesn't get a mention. However Professor Google comes to our rescue. It was once in the grounds of Danson House and was constructed in the 1760s as an eyecatcher or, according to some sources, was an even older building that was adapted for the purpose. An old postcard showing the house was popped onto Flickr some time ago, and here is what one viewer commented, rather movingly:

My grandfather puchased this house sometime in the 1920s and I lived there as a boy during the 1960s - The Powers that Be destroyed the vista of the house when they decided to force us to sell the front garden where the yew tree and well was in order that the new widened road has a "nice wide grass verge" onto the newly built roundabout. The well had a tomb stone (covering it) upon which was engraved lurid threats of what would happen to anyone who drank the water from the well. Notwithstanding the threats of death, there was a pump in the house that took water from the well. The tombstone is still there having been dismantled and re-erected in front of the chapel's battlements - the tombstone's writing (and scull and crossed scythes) is no longer visible. After the roadworks my father decided enough was enough and sold the house and land to the timber merchants next door who used the land and neglected the house. Very very sad and completely incomprehensible as to why the planners took the front garden - I remember crying when they chopped the tree down - my father kept the trunk which may still be there in the side building.
            My father used to tell me of the times when the steam traction engines would stop outside to fill their water tanks.  
            The house is older than one might think - Wooden beams set into the inner facing battlement wall in the loft indicate that it was already an old cottage when it was converted to a folly chapel in the 1760-70s.

In this map from the original series of the Ordnance Survey in the 1880s you can see Chapel House and the accompanying well marked:

An unexpected addition to the day!

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Thunder God

I had the most astounding phone call the other day. Last Sunday I baptised a baby boy for a young couple from the parish who are very marginally in contact with the Church. Their ideas about God are as vague and unformed as you could imagine. I went round to visit and explained the service and what it was about as I always do, at least when first children are involved. They were obviously slightly nervous and uncertain but doing their best to be agreeable, and the baptism service was a good occasion. It was, however, the Sunday when the weather turned dull and oppressive, and it was thundery, hot and overcast as I went home and left them to mill around outside the church taking photographs.

In the middle of the week I got a phone call from the baby's mum. She was stood outside the church, crying. 'I just wanted to have my baby christened,' she said, 'And we came out of the church and there was thunder. I know one of the godparents isn't religious. I need to know if Jack's going to be all right.' She couldn't say much more because she was so tearful, so we talked a little, in as understandable a way as I could make it, about her ideas about what God is like, about the fact that there would have been loads of christenings that day and thunder is a natural thing, and that God knows she wants the best for her son and will accept that and take it seriously. I said she should light a candle for him in the church, pray for him and encourage him to pray when he's old enough. I said these are the kind of thoughts that go around the heads of many people, but we don't all talk about them.

I felt both amazed that she was so upset by these superstitious thoughts and not able to brush them away like most of us do, and quite pleased that she felt the priest was the right person to talk to about them. At least she must have thought I wasn't likely to tell her off. And she loves her son.

Saturday, 28 July 2012


I’ve just finished reading Richard Davenport-Hines’s 1995 biography of WH Auden. D-H is a wonderfully fluent and involved writer and his book on Gothic (subtitled ‘Four Hundred Years of Excess,Horror, Evil, and Ruin’) is still, I believe, the best thing written on the subject. I enjoyed the Auden book though it is, I understand, not without its omissions and flaws. It struck me that this kind of literary biography is virtually impossible now, not only because we write so little down and communicate electronically when at one time it would have been done by letter, but because I think times have changed and behaviour has changed. There was a whole class of twentieth-century intellectuals who were constantly reaching judgements and conclusions about one another, and gossiping to each other about them in those letters and documents; a lot of this book rests on that kind of gossip, in the form of Auden’s friends’ confident opinions about him and his about them. I’m not sure we do this in the same way: certainly I don’t. This may be something to do with the post-modern collapse of grand narratives. Auden, for instance, comes across as full of insights and interesting opinions, but they come from a series of fixed beliefs, conclusions and attitudes which he contracted fairly early on and then used to analyse the world, and people, around him. Sometimes they hit the target; and quite often they didn’t. Sometimes they read terribly sententiously but on examining them you wonder what they’re actually about. Do we really do this any more?

Glimpses of the Presence

Friends of mine live in North Berwick. I was there last week and one evening went out and sat on the beach to watch the sun set. For some strange reason I was struck by the presence of God, a very quiet, thankful, but ecstatic experience. ‘Thank you for being here, how kind of you’, I felt constrained to say.

I looked out at the Bass Rock across the Firth, where sixteen or so centuries ago St Baldred had founded his monastery clinging to the cliffs. The Dark Age saints are often somewhat grim-set, granite-like presences in Christian history. What was it they experienced, all those years past, in between fishing and catching the occasional gannet which must have occupied so much of their time? Did it comprise – elation? Did God seem to them the way he does to me?

Returning to the Church

The Feast of the Magdalene, July 22nd, marked the day the congregation of Swanvale Halt church re-took possession of the church building. Everything came together wonderfully last week, the lighting, furniture and cleaners all arriving absolutely on time. Everybody was very complimentary – at least, everyone who spoke to me was – and we had celebratory cake and champagne afterwards. ‘Are you pleased?’ asked a member of the Roman Catholic congregation. ‘After all, you’re the most important person to please’, which I thought was rather an odd statement. That I am ‘pleased’ matters least of all, really; it isn’t about my preferences.
We ceremonially re-filled the font, with various people pouring in buckets of water and the font then being blessed; the choir sang Stanford’s Te Deum; and we used the old Victorian altar frontal which will be packed off to Janet the Goth seamstress to be repaired so it can make an appearance a bit more often in the future.

It was all lovely, and I’m now on holiday so the relief is unbounded. But fiddling around with buildings is the easy bit of it all, really. Bringing some spiritual dividend out of the changes will be a far longer-term job. I hope we’ve done the right thing.

Modern Mores Pt.468

Last Friday it was my grandmother’s funeral. She’d only been a few weeks off her 100th birthday, but a gallstone and the ensuing infection made sure she didn’t quite make it.

We waited, me, my mum, sister and brother-in-law, mum’s cousins and a couple of Nan’s neighbours, in the supermarket car park just outside her flat for the hearse to arrive. It wove a circuitous route through Parkstone where she lived longest. The atmosphere was rather different from the horrible strain of my Dad’s funeral only 6 months ago, and so I caught more of people’s reactions as the hearse went past. Mostly people don’t do anything, beyond looking very obviously uncomfortable; a good few don’t notice (perhaps they don’t notice anything going on around them, some people don’t), and I only saw one individual who actually made any positive response to the presence of the dead. He was a middle-aged man doing some work on a house, and paused on the scaffolding as we drove past, and saluted. I thought that was rather lovely. Of course he had no idea whose body was being transported along the street, but that shouldn’t matter. We ought to acknowledge the passage of one of our brothers and sisters, as a recognition of our common humanity. It’s a shame we don’t know how anymore.

Telling Stories

A while ago I had reason to look up a prayer to St Michael for protection against evil on behalf of a parishioner. There is quite a well-known one from Roman Catholic sources and whose authorship is ascribed to Pope Leo XIII. But it has an interesting story behind it, involving a gradual inflation of the drama allegedly surrounding its composition. Originally it was simply promulgated by the Pope without comment. Then in the 1940s one of Leo’s secretaries claimed the prayer originated from a vision the Pope underwent at Mass one morning, in which the Church’s spiritual enemies were revealed to him. In its most developed form, the story has Leo collapsing, passing out and remaining insensible for days before coming round and revealing the details of his vision. That, of course, is complete fiction.

Then a few days later a former parishioner from Lamford sent me an email. ‘Greetings from the Shrine of Our Lady of Yankalilla!’ he said. Our Lady of where? Yankalilla turns out to be in New South Wales. In 1995 a damp patch mysteriously appeared on the wall of a very unremarkable Anglican church in this unremarkable Australian town, and, with some imagination, you can see how it resembles the traditional pieta image of Mary holding the dead body of Jesus. And so up popped the Shrine – endorsed by the Anglican bishop of The Murray, complete with a holy well and all the accoutrements of an albeit relatively minor sacred place.
In both these examples you can see very old patterns re-emerging, stories escalating and ideas gathering as imagination gets to work and tales get re-told. I can’t exactly forget these patterns as I re-tell the older stories in the Biblical texts, especially to the children at school. We’re careful to couch them in terms of being stories, and even fairly small children are aware that some stories are real and some aren’t. I wonder what exactly they think about the Bible’s, though, and how easily they distinguish between the categories.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Terminological Inexactitude

'Matilda', wrote Hilaire Belloc, 'told such dreadful lies/It made one gasp and stretch one's eyes'. I shouldn't be surprised by anything in the lives of Mad Trevor and his occasional chum Mad Terry, the demon-smeller and Charismatic Christian, but they still catch me out. They have resumed their musical ambitions and I was asked to go round to Terry's house, an old cottage in the village, or part of one, to re-bless them for their plans. I arrived, as I had on a previous occasion, to find Terry's landlord and landlady there to sign his new lease. 'You were here last time we visited', said the lady. 'What a coincidence!' 'Isn't it,' I agreed. 'Oh, we always have a blessing when we sign a new contract', put in Terry. Do we? News to me. That wasn't what I'd been asked for. He then pointed to me and told his landlady, 'This man's one of the ones who've been praying for you, that's why you're better, thanks to Jesus!' I wasn't, I had not the faintest idea that anything was wrong with her having only met her once and never given her a second thought since then. It was very clear the owners wanted Terry out of their house and were reluctantly signing another six-month lease and taking the property back into their possession after that; the lady began talking about that, then indicated me and said, 'But you won't want to talk about that with your friend here'. 'James knows all about the situation', Terry assured her. No I didn't, I didn't know a single thing.

Three blatant lies in five minutes implicating me was impressive going. Later on Terry ascribed the failure of his and Trevor's earlier efforts, and a similar blessing ceremony, due to the presence at the time of a couple who turned out to be 'living in sin'. Isn't Christianity wonderful. The falsehoods seem to trip off this particular Christian's tongue with such facility I doubt he's even aware of them.

Monday, 16 July 2012

The Watts Gallery

Years ago during a particularly abortive holiday with Dr Bones involving a broken thumb and spending far too much of it in the boat moored only yards from where we'd started and trying to hide whenever anyone went along the towpath, we visited the Watts Gallery. I think it was then, anyway. We had a very nice afternoon tea and sumptuous cake in the tea room. The gallery itself had, well, let's say 'a charm of its own', involving not looking as though anything had changed since Watts's own day. That didn't mean that it looked like it had done in 1904, only that nothing had been done to it since then. It infused a glacial chill even on a warm summer's day, and in a black jacket one avoided getting into contact with the walls in case too much dust and, in extreme cases, paint came off.

The gallery has now been gloriously restored and a couple of weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be invited on a tour. Now it really does look as it may have done when originally set up. It's become a fantastic, luscious space, if you don't mind heavy Victoriana with a topping of Art Nouveau.

Not content with the £2.5M this has cost, the Trust has even more ambitious plans to buy Watts's house and incorporate that into the scheme as well. It's very exciting.

I hadn't realised how Watts made his fantastic fortune doing society portraits which he hated, but which paid him enough to produce the strange allegorical works he actually thought were his important work, and to build the gallery to put them in (because nobody was going to buy them).

This raises the question of whether he actually warrants such extravagance. Strictly speaking, probably not. Artistically he probably should have stayed a brilliant portrait painter - but then he wouldn't have been as interesting.

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Careful Now

This shows you why you should be careful in churches.

I don't like these candlesticks. They are awfully 1970s/80s and as you can see have fake plastic candle bits topped by real candles. I was looking forward to ceasing to use them as soon as our stock of that size of candle runs out.

Last week I went to visit one of our former churchwardens who is in hospital. 'You know those candlesticks?' he said. 'Should I and Elsie get them engraved, do you think?' I had no idea, because nobody had told me and it isn't written down anywhere, that these candlesticks were given by this lovely gentleman and his wife in memory of a daughter who was born with Down's Syndrome and died very young. So, whatever happens and whether they are no longer used every week as they are now, these stubby and ill-favoured items have to be retained, and displayed, because of the love and memory they represent.

I can't help thinking of the great Percy Dearmer's lines in The Parson's Handbook:
The parson must make it understood that he will not accept a single thing for the church unless the advice has first been sought of that person who overlooks the decoration of the church ... If this precaution be not taken, the services of the church are certain in time to be vulgarised. Some kind friend will work an impossible stole; another will compose a ruinous frontal, and, without warning any one, present it as a pleasant surprise when it is finished; another will be attracted by some brass-work of the gilt-gingerbread order in a shop-window, and with a smile of kindly triumph will deposit it one day in the vestry. It will be too late then for the parson to protest: all these good people will be hurt (and one cannot blame them) if their presents are rejected. But if it be publicly explained beforehand that the attainment of beauty of effect is a most difficult task ... and that a church must suffer if left to the chance of a multitude of individual tastes - this catastrophe will be avoided.
Sadly, some things did wiggle their way into churches during The Time That Taste Forgot, and can't be blamed for reflecting the dreadful standards of their day.

All these gifts need to be recorded somewhere, I think. Back in Lamford, Il Rettore got irrevocably onto the bad side of one particular lady not long after arriving when he drew a lurid chasuble from the vestment press with exclamations of dismay, not knowing that she'd made it.


Church Refurbishment Again - the Floor

The oak floor in the church is now completely laid, so here is a composite photo (taken standing on top of the altar frontal cabinet). The contractors will be in the second week in July to make good and the furniture will arrive then as well. The following week the lights will be commissioned, and we should be back worshipping in the church on July 22nd, St Mary Magdalene's Day.

And here is a photograph not of the floor. Well, only incidentally.

Chatham Remnants

Here are the remains of the paraphernalia from St John the Divine, Chatham, which I retrieved from Church Antiques the other day. The purple stole is a nice simple, classic one I gave to a friend who is being ordained priest. The rust-coloured veil and burse are made in a particularly beautiful brocade which includes lambs and the IHS monogramme. I'll try to put them in a frame, and have them as a keepsake.