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.

The Candlelight Club, 29th June 2012

I've pondered before the unnatural crossover between the Goth and Vintage worlds. It was Mr Valentine who encouraged a group of us go to the Candlelight Club on Friday, held for this occasion just along the terrace from the premises which, an entirely different night of the week, house Slimelight and its popular goings-on. So I went along with Ms Vale and Mr & Mrs Hayden and enjoyed the surroundings, the fashions both authentically period and less so, and the slight thrill that comes from doing something that nobody else knows about. Vintage enthusiasts are not that far removed from Goths really: a set of people having fun doing something stylishly silly together.

Crossbones Graveyard, Southwark

My wanderings this Thursday trying to work out a route for another Walk for the LGMG took me to Redcross Street in Southwark, not part of London I know at all. Behind a set of iron gates the gleaming preposterousness of The Shard soars up the sky, but those gates are bedecked with ribbons, flowers and commemorative items recording Southwark's departed souls. This is the Crossbones Graveyard, site of ritual and vigil, of mystery plays and personal reminiscence, of campaign and public art. I won't explain its history and strange beauty here, but leave you to explore on the website, and perhaps wonder, like me, how you managed never to hear of it before.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Mummers, Maypoles & Milkmaids

Last Sunday the LGMG went to the Horniman Museum to see the Body Adorned exhibition, ostensibly about styles of dress and adornment in the capital. That was fun, although there was little attempt to marry up the range of ethnographic paraphernalia the Museum had brought out of its stores with the more modern videos, photographs and outfits which were indeed interesting and sometimes thought-provoking. However round the corner (and up the stairs) was 'Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids', a photographic display examining English calendar customs and rituals and devised by photographer Sara Hannant. I thought that was so enjoyable I bought the accompanying book:
The photos are lovely, colourful, full of interest and very human. You might think all these calendar customs date back centuries to the times when either bored or desperate peasants cooked up all sorts of excuses to dress up in ridiculous garb, bang sticks together and get slarmied on mead. Well, some are - the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance dates at least to the 13th century, as do some of the horns still used in it - but others are more modern, such as the London Apple Fair, or the Pagan March which takes place in Bloomsbury. Ms Soomarah looked at the photograph of the latter and asked 'Does that woman have her corset on upside down?'

Everything Must Go

Between 1994 and 1997 I lived in Chatham. Officially I resided in the parish of All Saints but didn't worship there, instead going to SS Mary & St John's in the town centre.
SS Mary & John, which began life as St John the Divine until the original parish church of St Mary up the hill closed and the parishes were amalgamated, had seen better days even then. It had been a grand old High Church establishment once upon a time, and once a year still hosted a slightly freakish Mass celebrated by members of the Guild of the Servants of the Sanctuary, which always included some amusing mishap such as the thurifer banging the thurible into the pulpit and sending sparks flying everywhere, or the organist's hearing aid picking up Radio 4 and blasting it into the church. When the centre of Chatham was butchered, sorry, reorganised, a central ring road isolated the church from the town centre. It wasn't easy to get to, there wasn't a lot of parking round about - you can see a large and disagreeable car park in this photo, but it was on the wrong side of the road -  and the immediate surroundings were pretty unimpressive.

While I was there, we decided (or agreed to go along with the suggestion) that we amalgamate with the United Reformed congregation which was at least on the right side of the ring road. I thought of it in terms of the re-establishment of Catholic order, one church in one place. The move didn't happen while I was there, but some time later.

And so the Emmaus Church came into being. Meanwhile, the lovely old building of St John the Divine remained. In 2004 the church housed 'Chatham Vines', a public art project jointly funded by Medway Arts and the Diocese of Rochester, which involved growing vines hydroponically within the church; but that's been it. Nobody's bought the building, it serves no purpose, apart from adding an incongruously grand element in the Medway Townscape. There's a photograph on a gentleman's Flickr stream here on which somebody has left the heartbreaking comment 'I always used to walk past this every morning, and wonder what it was'. Eventually it will presumably end up like the Dockyard Church at Sheerness not far away, which it so closely resembles:

Then I happened to be checking the Walton Church Antiques website and found that they have a whole collection of kit from my old church. I know (from experience) that stuff ends up at Church Antiques when it's no longer really needed, but it still makes me feel very ambiguous that things that may have been used in worship when I was there are now in their warehouse awaiting somebody to buy them. I may go along and find something as a keepsake.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Gift Tat

My spiritual director is retiring and summoned me yesterday to pass on some 'ecclesiastical impedimenta'. This turned out to be as above: a blue and a black set of vestments. I already have two black sets so that one will be passed on somewhere! It bears the name of the Dutch embroiderers CH de Vries inside so that dates it to before 1962 - I suspect the 1940s or 50s. The blue on the other hand, well, the blue is certainly 18th-century and very probably Austrian. Normally blue is the Virgin Mary's colour, but that may not be the case here as there was a special provision in churches in the Austrian Empire to use blue in other occasions as well. They've been relined and are extraordinarily heavy. They were apparently owned by Fr John Milburn of St Paul's, Brighton, who, when the Second Vatican Council reorganised the liturgy took his and his church's vast collection of antique vestments and cut them into bits so that they could be fitted to the new approved styles. Thankfully he also flogged off the remainder and so some sets, including this one, were salvaged.

It's so generous of S.D., and I too sometimes toy with the idea of what I will do with my tat when I retire and have to move to somewhere too small to house all this stuff. Not sure when I will have a chance to use this beautiful blue museum piece, however!

Church Work Again

Two pictures of the inside of Swanvale Halt church this week. About half the final layer of the flooring has now been laid and it looks amazing! I had worried as the plywood layer had been down for a couple of weeks that it felt very hollow and stage-like as you walked across it; but the addition of the oak veneer has changed that completely and it feels and sounds very solid and compact underfoot. You'd never guess that it was, across most of the building, raised several inches above the level of the original floor beneath.
We had a bit of a panic before the first planks went down over which way the grain should run. In my
mind's eye I'd always envisaged the planking running east-to-west, directing the eye up the church to the altar, but I found the architect and main contractor had agreed exactly the opposite. Consultation with everyone available to be consulted that morning (church administrator, one of the wardens, a variety of ladies) and some experimentation led to the conclusion that they were probably right, so off the chaps went and began laying the planks.  I keep walking around inside the building and getting used to the incredible way it looks and feels.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

What All the Fuss May Be About

A bit of an essay, I'm afraid:

Radio 4’s early-morning Ramblings programme is a very unlikely-seeming place to discover a sexually radical niche in the schedules, but presenter Clare Balding is gay and there seem, to this casual listener, to be quite a number of same-sex couples walking with her. The other morning the conversation involved a lady who naturally mentioned her wife as not being a great walker and disagreeing about the way to manage dogs. I still do a slight mental double-take when I hear the language of marriage applied to same-sex couples and am not completely sure why.
The Church as a whole has rather less mild reactions, but the CofE’s response to the Government’s consultation paper on same-sex marriages marks a very important step in developing its ideas. I say ‘developing’ because it’s not very clear what those ideas are, no more clear than mine as an individual.

The CofE’s ideas on marriage have been able to stay vague because the Anglican Church has been shielded by its legally-privileged position from having to think. As European countries succumbed to revolution and occupation over the centuries they developed their legal systems in a direction which left Britain behind. Elsewhere, the Church, whether Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Orthodox, or whatever, doesn’t have the right to legalise marriages: the State does that and, if people want a religious marriage too, they do it on another occasion. In England and Wales Anglican clergy act as registrars, as State functionaries, for marriages, and a legally clotted and convoluted business it is too. Ministers of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland used to do the same, but surrendered this right in 1977. One of the benefits for the Anglican Church has been that it hasn’t had to decide how what it does when it marries people is any different from what the State does: the law assumes, as the Response points out, there is a pre-existing thing called ‘marriage’ and two different ways, one religious, one secular, of legally entering into it. Both versions are the same. 

The Response says that what the British Government is proposing creates a new situation in which there are two separate things, religious marriage and civil marriage. This is absolutely correct, but it’s only what happens everywhere else in the Christian world.

The Church’s next argument is that it doesn’t trust the legal safeguards the Government is promising to prevent it from having to preside over same-sex unions and shielding clergy who refuse to carry them out from prosecution. It has a point. When I marry a couple, I’m acting as a State functionary, and it’s not unreasonable for the State to expect me to carry out the whole of what it means to be a State registrar. I can’t pick and choose who I agree to marry. There have been parallel cases where Christian professionals have been prosecuted, in my view sometimes rightly, for refusing to carry out the duties of their job as it may relate to areas that affect their conscience – the therapist who didn’t want to counsel a same-sex couple, for instance. The Church’s argument that the European Court of Human Rights may well refuse to recognise any exemptions the British Government may grant to the duty to marry has a certain amount of weight. But you can argue the other way too. At the moment, as an Anglican clergyman, I don’t have to marry divorcees or ‘persons of acquired gender’ if I don’t want to, and neither of those positions has been affected by equality legislation. So that’s a moot point.

Not mentioned in the Response itself, but in the public discussion of it, is the possibility that, if such exemptions were overturned legally, it would mean the Church of England having to withdraw from conducting legal marriage services and thus weaken the Establishment of the Church. Other than that being legally extremely complicated, it’s difficult to see why too many people should care about the ‘weakening of the Establishment’. OK, it may be a bit of a shame, but the rights and privileges of the Anglican Church can hardly trump the legal rights of same-sex couples. What nobody talks about openly is the amount of money the Church would stand to lose if it no longer carried out its legal role in marriage. At the moment every couple who marry in an Anglican church pay at least about £350 for doing so, roughly half of which stays with the local church while the other half passes up to the diocese. That’s not including fees for things like certificates, flowers, bells, music and so on. It’s not a huge amount of money, but multiplied by the quarter of all marriages in England the Church conducts at the moment, and it more than covers the canapés at the Bishop’s tea party.

These are all pretty thin arguments. Behind them is a basic lack of clarity about what marriage is and therefore why same-sex couples shouldn’t marry. And that’s no surprise to me.

I’ve just been back to my theological college notes to look at what we were taught about marriage. There’s a single A4 page reflecting one 45-minute lecture, two-thirds of which are taken up with Scriptural quotes about divorce. The closest we got to thinking about what marriage was and what it was for was the first bit of the lecture, on ‘Models for Understanding Marriage’, with beneath the heading the four words, ‘Contract – Creation ordinance – covenant – sacrament’. Even the ‘sacrament’ bit, to judge by my notes, was mainly about the technical details of how the ritual works and its dissolubility, which is typical Western-Catholic thinking. None of it thought about how marriage actually related to real people and what they did with one another.

That wasn’t a lot of help. It didn’t answer the question of why the Church marries people at all. I’ve only developed my ideas about what marriage is since being ordained, partly through the business of having to take couples through the process of preparing for their wedding, talking and listening to them and their experiences. I think most people, including most Christians, have a ‘rites of passage’ model of the sacramental life of the Church. Baptism for babies, marriage for adults, funerals when you’re dead. It’s completely natural, and completely wrong. Only when you see the sacraments as signs of God’s saving work going on in us that you come to view them differently. Baptism is the sign of the rebirth of the natural human life into the divine, raised life of Jesus; the funeral office proclaims the hope of the resurrection as witnessed in the life of one particular human being. So what is the sacrament of matrimony about? Why marry people in a religious rite?

From my conversations and reading – especially Orthodox theologians – I got as far as this: marriage is, as one writer put it, the sacrament of rage. It takes natural human love, which involves sexual desire, and puts it into a situation which demands commitment, compromise, the dealing together with mutual anger and sorrow. Of course many other human relationships do this to some degree, but marriage is voluntary, exclusive, and intense in a way that no others are. A good marriage becomes God’s means of processing sin and hurt: it bears fruit. The basic linkage of sex with procreation comes in here: the generation of children from their parents’ sexual relationship is a sign of the fruit the marriage bears in other forms too. Not, as the Response recognises, all marriages result in children, but that’s the model which lies behind the ritual: the union of difference, the processing of cosmic damage, the emergence of fruit.

At this point we come to the most important of the Response’s statements. Firstly, and dramatically, it acknowledges the presence of positive virtues in same-sex relationships: “Same-sex relationships often embody genuine mutuality and fidelity, two of the virtues which the Book of Common Prayer uses to commend marriage”, it states. That raises the question of what heterosexual relationships do which homosexual ones don’t. Clearly the difference lies in, well, difference, as the Response suggests:

However, the uniqueness of marriage – and a further aspect of its virtuous nature – is that it embodies the underlying, objective, distinctiveness of men and women. This distinctiveness and complementarity are seen most explicitly in the biological union of man and woman which potentially brings to the relationship the fruitfulness of procreation. And, even where, for reasons of age, biology or simply choice, a marriage does not have issue, the distinctiveness of male and female is part of what gives marriage its unique social meaning.

Marriage has from the beginning of history been the way in which societies have worked out and handled issues of sexual difference. To remove from the definition of marriage this essential complementarity is to lose any social institution in which sexual difference is explicitly acknowledged.

To argue that this is of no social value is to assert that men and women are simply interchangeable individuals. It also undermines many of the arguments which support the deeper involvement of women in all social institutions on the grounds that a society cannot flourish without the specific and distinctive contributions of each gender.

Here we actually get at something worthwhile and substantial, even if it’s expressed in vague terms. It will be difficult for the Church to make its case over this, partly because society is indeed very busy working on the assumption that men and women are interchangeable in every way that matters, and past oppression of women was justified for so long on objectionable assumptions of sexually-determined differences that such a reaction is quite understandable. You don’t have to spend much time dealing with real men and women, especially real men and women in relationships with one another, to discover that they differ; but in what, and where these differences may come from, is contested ground. The Church’s discovery of complementarity fits in with the conclusions I’ve come to, in so far as any of them are settled, through actually talking to men and women in sexual relationships with each other, but I don’t think it really understands it any more than I do. Nonetheless, here are the beginnings, the first inklings, of a proper, clear theology of Christian marriage. Christian marriage is a sign of the model of Christian relationships generally. The problem with marrying people of the same sex is that they are not different enough to be effective signifiers of what Christian marriage represents.

To think about another sacrament: the wine of the Eucharist represents the blood of Jesus; it is an effective signifier of blood in its fluidity and redness, and of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in its burning quality and intoxicating effect (not that you drink enough to be intoxicated unless you’ve over-provided). The Church’s law provides that, in extreme circumstances, you can consecrate water instead of wine if no wine is available. You can’t consecrate ink, though, because it’s not intended for drinking and is too far away from the thing it signifies to be an effective signifier. Two people of the same sex in the marriage rite are in that position: their relationship may be perfectly valid for what it is, but it’s too far away from the thing it wants to signify to represent it effectively. A sacrament doesn’t necessarily present what is, but what is supposed to be.

The Response is absolutely right when it says that the Government’s proposals represent a change in what the law has hitherto presumed marriage to be. Where it’s wrong, I think, is that the Church assumes British society hasn’t already made that shift. I believe it has. For most people, marriage simply means ‘two people who love each other promising to stay with each other’. They can’t understand what the Church’s problem with same-sex marriage is, because as far as they can see Christian marriage is just about the Church saying, ‘Here are two people who love each other, isn’t it lovely, thanks very much God’ with lots of dressing up and parading about. And the Church, frankly, has allowed them to believe that and lots of other nonsense as well. A proper Christian idea of marriage is only beginning, shyly and reluctantly, to emerge, under the pressure of challenge. As for society as a whole, its idea of marriage doesn’t need to be ‘diluted’, it already has been.

The general response of the Christian Churches to the prospect of same-sex marriage is, at least in part, a howl of pain at being forced, for the first time, to work out what it actually thinks in the horrible knowledge that most people don’t understand it any more. The Church isn’t in a position any longer to enforce its views; and refusing people of the same sex the ability to participate in society’s new definition of marriage that institution is plainly iniquitous. The separation of Christian and secular ideas of what marriage is has already happened and the Church hasn’t even realised it. Well, it’s starting to. This is a process that has to be undergone. If I and other priests lose our legal status as regards marriages, so, with ambivalent feelings, be it.

Monday, 4 June 2012

As Much of the Jubilee as I can Manage

It's all very well, this Jubilee business, but while not a republican I've never been that much of a monarchist either. At the Family Service on Sunday I spoke about everyone being kings and queens in God's eyes, and played a game with the children involving trying on different sized crowns which I'd knocked up the day before. I started to cut out fleur-de-lys shaped prongs for the crowns before realising I'd be there for several days and so they got triangles instead. I'd made most of the crowns far too small. 'I never realised children had such big heads', I complained afterwards. 'You've clearly never given birth' commented one of the mums.

And that would have been the only Jubilee-related thing I did, had I not had a last-minute invitation to the Overingly street party. Overingly is a tiny village on the estate of a local stately home, complete with its own church built by the landowners because the parish they officially belonged to was too High-Church for their tastes. I led the Christmas service in the church (ironically - I took great delight wearing my biretta) and so was invited to the party. It was lovely, marquees set up at the house next to the church, a band playing the pop tracks everyone can remember, a hog roast, pony rides, and lots and lots of people, teenagers, children, babies. I hadn't wanted to go after the evening mass at Swanvale Halt, but was very glad I did. In the church itself, not far from a table laden with strawberries and cream, was a little exhibition of memorabilia about the history of Overingly, maps, documents, photographs, relics from the wartime Home Guard and things dug up from the fields.

Her Maj the Q. didn't feature very heavily; she was there in the form of the odd photo and a photocopied sheet of songs on a couple of the tables - Land of Hope and Glory and so on - but that was it. What this was, mostly, was less a celebration of her than of a community seeing itself and its own history reflected in her role over the last 60 years. In a way this couldn't have happened at any time before now: the monarchy has become, or is striving to become, ordinary, and so is less a sign of contradiction than a sign of who we are too. That, I think, is what people have been celebrating.

Putney Gargoyles

Friday saw me hanging around a street corner in Putney waiting for Cylene to come and collect me for her birthday celebrations, and I spotted an interesting number of stone denizens on the buildings around. These are nice:

However I was very surprised to see what I was pretty sure were busts of Disraeli and the Earl of Salisbury adorning a row of shops along Putney Hill Road:
According to the Putney Society these date to 1887, but there's no indication who was responsible for them.

Happy Birthday Church

This is not Swanvale Halt church, but St Matthew's Ponders End last year where a friend of mine  was vicar. I rather like the idea of balloons in church to celebrate Pentecost, the Church's birthday, so we had a few decorating the hall where we're still worshipping, on the relevant day, May 27th. I was thinking of releasing them into the wild at the end of the service but read one too many stories of cows being choked on the remains of stray balloons so just let people take them home. 'It's for our granddaughter' said one couple insistently. A likely story.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Coffee House Conversations

We so enjoyed our trip to the Bridge Coffee House inShoreditch back in January that we went again yesterday, or at least a smaller and different selection of us did. We talked mainly about soft furnishings, but also about the state of the Goth world.

Janet is one of the dressier members of the LGMG and can change outfits several times a day depending on what she’s doing. But as she moves elegantly through her forties some things become less of a priority. ‘I’ll still wear a corset to go to a club’, she said, ‘But that’s only for an evening. I just can’t put up with that sort of thing all day now. Corsets and bustles stop you doing so much, and as you get older getting strapped and laced into your clothes doesn’t do you any good. I used to dress up in the whole gear to walk around a stately home and I'd feel completely exhausted and ill by the end of the day. I just can’t be bothered now. I’d sooner wear something looser and less elaborate and be comfortable.’

‘Well, there’s a younger generation to do all of that’, I said. ‘Yeah’, she replied with some ruefulness, ‘unfortunately. Actually’, she added after some thought, ‘I’m not sure that the youngsters in their 20s are going in for all that either.’ I don’t know, and will have to take more notice when I’m next at Reptile or Tanz Macabre. There is an economic factor at work, in that proper vintage clothing, or modern interpretations of it, is now so expensive that younger Goths may not actually be able to afford it.

We also had a conversation about the state of clubs and the music played in them. You might expect that the more mature of us would be miffed about the way things change but in fact the main complaint was just the opposite, that so little new music tends to get played in the London Goth clubs. ‘You’d go to a particular night’, said Mark, ‘and you’d know that when a certain Depeche Mode track was played that was the end of anything interesting. From then on the DJs were catering for nostalgiagoths who expected the same limited playlist.’ This is odd because there are plenty of newer Goth bands in other parts of the country, and the experience of people who head into Europe for the big festivals is that it isn’t the same there. The main purpose of the DJ is of course to get people dancing, but they do have a secondary one of introducing their audience to new music they may like; it may not help that the London DJs and promoters are a remarkably small circle and tend to be, let’s say, no younger than in their mid-30s. Salena (25), who adores Kylie and Nine Inch Nails more or less equally, and Sarah (24) who finds herself drawn more and more to dark-cabaret, electroswing and classical music, didn’t really feel able to contradict any of this. ‘I’m too anachronistic to be used as an example of anything’, stated Salena.
Of course I don’t necessarily expect to hear much that I like being played at a Goth club: I’m there mainly for company and ambience. But the evening before going to Shoreditch, I’d been to Inferno at the Electric Ballroom in Camden with Cylene and a couple of friends, and in the car on the way she’d insisted on playing all of her favourite stuff because she was sure she wouldn’t hear any of it when we got there. It was no more obscure than IAMX, either.