Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Turkish Coffee

This is something nice. On Saturday I hosted a small get-together of the London Goths at the Bridge Coffee House in Shoreditch. It was visited by a friend of ours not so long ago, and the pictures on her blog were so enticing I decided to organise a little soirée on an official basis. There were ten of us in the end, and it was a lovely couple of hours spent talking, sipping coffee and nibbling on cake.

The Bridge has been open for a couple of years and the decor is quite astonishing, a mixture of vintage paraphernalia and Turkish harem chic - drapes at the windows, faux-Deco statues holding up faux-Tiffany lamps, gigantic vases, tables smothered in heavy brocade, gilded sofas and glittering mirrors. It was no great surprise to find there, as well as ourselves and the sort of good-looking if ill-dressed young people who tend to inhabit the area (if you're over 30 in Shoreditch you really stick out), a bewhiskered young gentleman in tweed and a victory-rolled forties girl in a dinnerplate hat, yet more proof if proof were needed that Goths and vintage-freaks are often strangely drawn to the same sort of things. 'Just a shame it's in Shoreditch', commented Ms Soomarah.

Sorts of Anger

God has had plenty of rage and frustration directed his way from Swanvale Halt lately. Just after Christmas a devout and lovely lady from the congregation, who's waited nearly two years for a knee operation which has been delayed and delayed owing to infections and problems, was rushed into hospital with what turned out to be a ruptured intestine. This was itself probably due to the painkillers she's been taking at terrifically high levels for months and months to cope with her knee and back. For a while it looked as though she was about to die and I spent four hours with her on New Year's Day in expectation of that happening. But she's still here, now tracheotomised and ileostomised and heaven knows what else, somehow keeping going. I had this in my mind when I preached on the Sunday before last about the injustice of things and the uselessness of some forms of comfort, which people seemed to appreciate. As St Teresa said, 'Lord, no wonder you have so many enemies, when this is the way you treat your friends'.

The other day I heard Mad Trevor ranting and shouting in the church while I was in the hall next door. There's no point intervening when he's like this, and I don't have anything to contribute anyway, so I let him get on with it: I suspect spiritually it's rather positive. What he was saying wasn't even especially mad. He has been somewhat persecuted by life, has had a rough time of things, and, it seems to me, has every right to be angry.

Over at Heresy Corner the Heresiarch's correspondents (including myself)have been commenting on philosopher Alain de Botton's idea for a 'Temple of Atheism' in the City and his theories as to why atheists of his generation are rather less angry and strident than their older fellows, such as Dr Dawkins and Mr Hitchens. As one pointed out, Dr Dawkins isn't even that angry, and pointed us towards this post by Greta Christina, who really is.

I could make niggling points about bits of it, but, in broad terms, I find it unanswerable. There is so very, very much for Christians to be ashamed of historically, and to guard against in the way they try to think now, and any sense of Christian entitlement to special treatment from a largely non-Christian polity is grotesque.

I sometimes wonder that I am not angry about the right things. All my moods of anger seem essentially selfish, arising from a sense of my own entitlement, of jealousy or wounded amour propre. I have discovered more and more of it thanks to the process of being a priest. But apart from that I'm almost excessively easygoing, very prone to making sympathetic noises to people in bad situations without being able to cut through the emotion and visualise the process that leads to the bad situation, the structure, the relationships of power and injustice. Christ was angry on occasion. Perhaps I need to work on it.

Times of Change

Nearly forty years ago, one of my illustrious predecessors at Swanvale Halt embarked on a reordering of the church, removing the chancel screen, bringing the altar forward, and moving some of the pews so that they faced inward towards it - the sort of thing that many churches at that time and subsequently did. The changes never went any further because Swanvale Halt has never had a lot of cash sloshing around, unlike Lamford, for instance.

Then, two years ago just before I arrived, a longstanding member of the church died and left the church her house, a one-bed 1920s bungalow she'd lived in since 1946. It was just a shell, but we sold it and raised a tidy sum of cash. Now we could begin thinking about the 'final' stage of those changes begun in the 1970s. The floor, the atrocious floor with its twelve different materials ranging from cracked Victorian tiles to battered timber boards stuck down with tape, to the beige carpet all Anglican churches are obliged to have some of, could go, along with the dreadful glaring lights which are so inaccessible we have to wait until more than half of them have blown to justify the cost of bringing in an electrician, and the tatty, viciously uncomfortable pews which were, so the story goes, secondhand when the church was built and which, the church clearers tell me, are 'of no commercial value'.

It's taken since then, but last Friday I put up the statutory notices inviting the good folk of the parish to make comments, objections and representations to the Diocesan Chancellor about the plans. Two years of sketches and diagrams, of berating the architect for being an idle git who spends most of his time in France, and of marvelling when you discover that 'Yes, we have all the information we need to make a decision' actually means, when used by the diocesan powers-that-be, 'No, we don't have the information'. Two years of thinking something is going to happen at a particular point, then having to reschedule not once but three times.

The notices remain up for four weeks, and then, presuming no serious objections are made, we apply to the Chancellor for a faculty for the work. He doesn't usually deny permission once the Diocesan authorities have recommended approval. Then, hopefully early in March, we begin, vacating the church to the gentle attentions of the builders before moving back in some time early in June.

It's terrifying. The vision of a clean-looking, more efficient, comfortable, aesthetically pleasing building is enticing, but once the first pews come out there's no going back. I know it will all be better, but a mere two years in to the job and I'm already more comfortable than I was with the existing structure, its quirks and difficulties.

I was in the office writing out the notices on Friday and one of the older members of the church was there, who remembers not just my predecessor who carried out the first reordering, but the rector before him, too. 'Thank goodness', she said, 'I was cleaning the other day and thought, This all looks so tatty. It's time it was done.'

Sunday, 22 January 2012


A story the Rural Dean told me.

It's a meeting of the Rural Deans with the two Archdeacons. One R.D. is just about to move out of his parish. He's a very Low Churchman who inherited a rather more Catholic church.

R.D.: Before I go I want to get rid of a load of vestments. I never used them, I just wear a suit. What should I do, do you think?

Archdeacon: You need to apply for a faculty.

R.D.: Great, who do I apply to for that?

Archdeacon: Me.

R.D.: Right, and who do I send it to?

Archdeacon: Me. And then I reject it.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Trying to Work It Out

I write after having anointed Mad Trevor again only to have him storming out of the church once more cursing me and the whole Church. So a lot of good that did. We got off on the wrong foot when he turned up, to be given prayer-for-healing-with-anointing, demanding I sprinkle him with water as well to break a curse. I refused because that wasn't what we agreed to do and the rite of anointing doesn't include sprinkling with water. It would be easier to give him whatever he wants, but pastorally wrong. So he went around the church shouting to God to take the curse off him and put it on me before 'blessing' the font and using the water in that. After the rite of anointing, I gently raised the possibility that his 'voices' are his own thoughts amplified by his illness and that, while they may go away eventually, the thoughts never will and he would be happier not expecting God to do this. Could I perhaps speak to his doctor and organise a case conference for him? 'No, I don't want you talking to my doctor, the doctors are ignorant and evil, science is lies. I am not ill.' He asked for a key to the church so he could come in and pray when he liked and I refused. 'This church is shutting me away from God, you and all the wicked servants will be punished by God, I can't believe you've treated me so badly since I've been here.' I didn't raise the hours I've spent trying to talk through his problems, including the time I helped him fill out entries for internet dating sites that he then abandoned two days later; the £200 I gave him from my own pocket to buy a new cooker he then spent on a keyboard; the urgent appointment last week I arranged for him with the CAB to talk through his debts which he never turned up to 'because I was too busy'. Sorry; I'm just venting.

Mad Trevor now has a friend, Mad Terry, who is superficially more sensible but is perhaps an even bigger fantasist. He wants me to exorcise Trevor as well. Both of them are quite talented musicians in their own way and have an idea about breaking into the music business and Mad Terry quotes various people he says he knows and has worked with. It all sounds nearly plausible, and on the thinking that God's hand might be somewhere in it, I even had a small commissioning service for their venture before Christmas, and persuaded some congregation members to join in. But then Terry talks about marrying Tamara Ecclestone ('I'm meeting her tomorrow') and you think; hang on, 27-year old millionaire heiress and model; balding, overweight, unemployed early-50s musician with mental issues? Does this compute? Do you actually look in the mirror when you shave? 'Fantasist' is a kind non-Christian way of characterising his thinking; an unkinder word might be 'liar'. The truth is that when Terry tells you something is happening, for instance that he has a music contract or is meeting Paul Weller or test-driving a £20,000 car on the basis of the advance he's getting from the publisher, none of this is actually happening in the ordinary sense: he thinks God has told him it will happen, and so he talks about it as though it was going to.

'Why do you think this affects you so much?' asks my S.D. I suppose because it presses all my most uncomfortable buttons about what I believe concerning God, truth and reality. 'You don't realise that most people don't think about things philosophically', he warned me. 'You try to fit everything into some sort of rational structure. Most people just have a few phrases and ideas that they don't examine or think about, they're just enough to help them cope'. This is perhaps the key to being a bit more forgiving and relaxed about Mad Trevor and Terry, and to stop trying to incorporate them into my own world-view. They're two lonely, unfulfilled middle-aged men with a lot of problems wrapping themselves in fantasy to cope with the fact that their lives are crap. Sad really, rather than threatening.

Getting Together Again

Given the shudders that the annual ecumenical service at Hornington Parish Church tends to induce in me, there was bitter irony in the fact that it fell to me to organise it this year. Even more bitter was the fact that the first Sunday in the year, when this traditionally takes place, was New Year's Day this occasion. It was an additional factor in not going to attend the final outing of Vagabonds at The Minories the evening before - even if, after my Dad's death, I had wanted to.

Anyway. It is accepted that the service takes the form of a Communion, and provided the URC church manages to provide its non-alcoholic wine (rather than the Ribena we had to make do with in 2010) it's not too overtly offensive: we have to struggle with loaf bread rather than sensible wafers, but you have to compromise. I insisted that, in honour of the day, the theme should be 'bearing the Name of Jesus' but managed to get the Circumcision of the Lord in by using the proper Collect for the feast. The music, after a certain degree of argument with the music group, was pretty acceptable and included some good traditional hymns to top and tail the service, rather than anything that might be converted into a Nazi rally like usual. There were a couple of hairy moments when the bread and 'wine' refused to arrive on the altar because nobody had thought to bring them, and when all the clergy waited forlornly at the end for a crucifer to lead us out and again nobody turned up. But it was all ok. AND I don't have to do it again for years.

I wore my old gold set. 'That's the first time I've seen a maniple in 50 years', said the URC minister. 'It's the first time I've seen one in 74 years' put in one of my colleagues from Binpont up the hill. Who is 74.


The best part of my Dad's funeral was that we had 'Walkin' to New Orleans' by Fats Domino played as the coffin was being carried out. Strangely that was one of the couple of Fats Domino tracks I already had clattering around in my collection: now it'll always be associated with my Dad. It was also good that the undertakers took us a long, windy route through Parkstone on the way to the church, past his parents' house, the recreation ground where he and Mum first met, and other places. I thought it was a bit gruelling at the time, but looking back on it is actually rather comforting.

The worst part was the minister. At least he wasn't the 'crem cowboy' who'd taken my uncle's funeral, but he was cracking on a bit then and may well not be around himself now. The chap who performed my Dad's obsequies was a somewhat offhand Ulsterman who preached not on the Bible text that I'd chosen but on The Lord Is My Shepherd which was one of the hymns. The argument was: the Psalm that hymn was based on was written by King David. King David was a great sinner. He found peace and hope in his relationship with the Good Shepherd, and so must we. 'We must do business with the Good Shepherd', he said several times, having come up with a line he liked. This makes it sound all very reasonable, but a) it was a disquisition on substitutionary atonement which is dodgy ground when you're taking a funeral service for somebody who never 'made a commitment to Jesus as their personal Lord and Saviour' in their earthly life, b) it was something he'd clearly learned long ago, c) he hadn't got it written down and so wasn't entirely careful about phraseology ('If you're past your sell-by date you'll know what I mean'; 'David committed adultery. David was a murderer'), d) it was utterly impersonal and e) it was awfully long. The whole demeanour was of someone who didn't want to be there and thought he was basically wasting his breath exhorting his audience to repentance, but thought he had to.

As indeed he was really. In the limousine on the way back Mum asked me what I thought and I said I wouldn't have been so preachy. 'I thought that', said my sister, 'But I have to admit I'd turned off after a couple of minutes'. 'Some of them', put in the undertaker from the front passenger seat, 'do like the sound of their own voices'. We were surprised she could hear us.

I don't know, perhaps I do it all wrong - perhaps I should be completely ignoring the deceased and whatever the bereaved might be feeling, and trying to convert people by making them feel bad rather than loved. You may detect a degree of scepticism in my tone. Thank God for Fats Domino or I would have been left thinking I'd prefer a secular funeral. Perhaps I still would.

Christmas and New Year

It's been a long time since I've added anything here; my brain has been too addled. Of course Christmas at Swanvale Halt was as busy as you might expect, in fact busier as there were extra events over the festive season: the local secondary school and a nursery group both requested Christmas services for the first time, and I was asked over to a strange little estate chapel a couple of miles away to lead their Christmas service, which takes place on the Thursday after Christmas and involves a walk down a muddy lane to sing carols to sheep. Unfortunately I seem to have done this well so I will probably have to do it next year too. Then on New Year's Day there was the ecumenical service at Hornington, which I'll post about separately.

All of this liturgy was sadly overshadowed by the death of my Dad on December 28th. You will know he's been ill for some time, and had a place booked in a local care home. In the week before he was due to go there, he became increasingly poorly and on the Friday had three successively more serious falls, finally hitting his head and blacking out. Once in hospital he became unresponsive and drowsy, and there not being any other clear cause despite lumbar punctures and brain scans the doctors diagnosed a urinary infection. We thought he was becoming dehydrated but they have maintained this wasn't the case until Boxing Day when he was put on a drip. He never recovered, rapidly declined, and by the 27th it was clear he was dying. I was there, joining my mother and sister, from about 1.30 for about twelve hours as Dad gradually got weaker and finally died just after 1am. It's a terrible, piteous thing to see someone die, not an experience I've had before and not one I want to repeat soon.

Mum was faced with the prospect of a rather quick funeral a week later or waiting three weeks, so went for the early option - waiting would have been purgatorial. It was at St John's, Parkstone, where they were married. As well as family and local friends, Dr Bones and Miss T both made it down from the Oxford region to the service, which is more tribute than anything else to what a lovely man my Dad was.

I can't be sad that Dad has avoided a long, horrible decline - at least, no further than he'd already got - and having to go into care. His life was no fun for the last six months. But even though I've been losing him for some time it's strange that he's no longer actually around. I still feel rather numb and my feelings are very difficult to put into words. He ought to have had a better hand dealt him, is what keeps coming back to me.