Monday, 25 February 2013

Doesn't Bode Well

I had a call from what sounded like a very young mum enquiring about having her baby baptised. She was based in Guildford. 'That's unusual,' I said, 'Most people have their children christened in their local church. Have you got any connection with Swanvale Halt?' 'Not really', she answered, 'I couldn't find a church here.' That was odd, but I thought we'd better have a conversation about it so it was arranged for Saturday.

She didn't turn up. A quarter of an hour after our meeting time, I called her mobile number: no response. I called the landline number. 'Hello?' asked an older male voice. Rather embarrassed I explained who I was and asked to speak to Young Mum. She wasn't in. 'Might she be on her way here?' I asked. 'No idea,' said the man, 'She hasn't been in since last night'.

Where was the baby, I wonder? As someone said to me, 'In a basket outside the church, if you're unlucky.'

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Counting the Sheep

Yesterday I had the delightful annual task of filling out the 'Membership Return' for the church. We used to be able to do this via a paper form, but now it has to be via a national online one which crashes every now and again, forcing you to go through the whole thing repeatedly, even if you've saved the data; but such is progress.

Every year the Church comes up with new questions to ask us. I was astonished by this year's effort. For the first time I was challenged to give figures for how many people were part of 'the whole worshipping community', and break them down by age (as one of our churchwardens commented, 'That's me - broken down by age'). What does that mean? Are the hundreds of people who come to the Cribbage on Christmas Eve part of the 'worshipping community', or who attend services with the Infants School in church, or who come to weddings or funerals? Does showing your face once a year count? Does coming into the church to light a candle and pray, but not actually doing anything else? I guessed that it meant 'people who actually attend ordinary Sunday services at some point during the year' and made a rough guess, but then remembered Messy Church which, we are constantly told, is a legitimate expression of 'church' in its own right and so must be included too. My final guesstimate was 30 children, 5 11-18s, 75 under-70s and 75 over-70s, in the end.

Even rougher was my guess for the next section. I was asked to put down how many people had joined the church over the past year, and how many had left. I can just about list the handful who have left because they have either died or moved, and you tend to notice that. But trying to work out, as I was expected to, whether those who have joined have done so because they've moved in to the area, begun attending church for the first time ever, or come back to church after a gap, and detail which age category they fell into, is completely impossible. I have no idea. I have a hard enough time keeping any tabs on them at all. In an age when monthly attendance counts as 'regular' the pastor stands little chance of noticing when someone becomes a regular attendant or when they cease to be. I am aware of new faces, that's about it (and it's better than not noticing any). But what about the young mother who came a couple of times eighteen months ago when her marriage was rocky, but hasn't been through the door since; or the man who, conversely, turned up this morning for the first time in nearly two years? How do I characterise either of them?

The form gave me the option of putting 'none/unknown' in each box if I couldn't provide a figure, so I did. When I tried to save the data, though, the program demanded I put a figure in! I'm afraid what the Church has ended up with is a whole series of boxes which don't add up at all, so I await the phone call from the Diocesan Secretary to ask me what the hell I mean.

Saturday, 23 February 2013


We have an ecumenical structure locally, Churches Together in Hornington and District. Every month, one Saturday morning, there is a CTIHD prayer breakfast which takes place at one of the churches. I like prayer and I like breakfast, but I remain sceptical about the intersection of the two. There tends to be a space for people to voice their own prayers and concerns, and invariably there comes a spirit-sapping moment when someone who, in every other aspect of their spiritual life is gentle and warmhearted, starts to bang on about gay marriage, praying in concerned tones for 'our government and nation which seems to have lost its way so much'. So I find them quite difficult occasions and have to grit my teeth on the rare occasions when I'm there.

Now the free evangelical church in Swanvale Halt, with whose minister Tim I debated soteriology some time ago, was asked to host one of these events, and has refused, much to the consternation of the gentleman who organises the rota. Tim called attention to the Statement on Gospel Unity of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches to which his is affiliated, which made it impossible for them to take part in ecumenical events with certain other churches in the area. This is part of what it says:

If we are to find common cause with other believers, it will be partnership on the basis of a shared commitment to the Gospel. This will be expressed by a shared doctrinal basis.
... the New Testament warns repeatedly of false teachers and false prophets coming into the church. Whilst such false teachers profess to know Christ as Lord, and appear as brothers, they are in reality wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matt 7v15, Acts 20v29-31). In twisting or distorting the Gospel they rob us of our message for the lost, and instead of building up believers in the truth lead them astray to spiritual ruin (Col 2v18-19, Rev 2v20-23). Elders are charged with the primary responsibility of guarding the flock against such malign influences, and we are commanded to reject them and remain separate from them (Rom 16v17, Gal 1v8-9, 5v12, Phil 3v2, 2Pet 2, 2John 9-10, Jude). ... Matters of spiritual life and death are at stake if these false brothers are accepted and their deviant doctrines embraced.  We are therefore obligated by love to stand apart from them, both for the sake of the church and its witness to Christ, and also for the sake of such false teachers themselves, as we would long for them to come to repentance and true saving faith. 

Well, that tells the rest of us, though I do wonder how many of Tim's flock are actually aware that this is what they're supposed to be thinking. I sympathise on one level, as I don't think the boundaries of ecumenical activity are infinitely flexible. Some local churches left CTIHD a few years ago, for instance, when it voted to let the Quakers take in, because the Society of Friends has no statement of belief. I suspect most Christians overlook this difficulty with Quakerism because it's so old and so familiar, and because Quakers have such an admirable moral record. However they don't bother me, heretics though I regard them, because at root they are focused on the person of Jesus Christ and what he is recorded as saying and doing. I'd have far more problem with the Unitarians, though - and there is a Unitarian congregation locally - because their ideas stem from an entirely different source and have left Jesus a long way behind. Nevertheless, all that aside, I think the FIEC statement arises from the same error I gleaned from my conversation with Tim, that of turning 'faith' into a statement of faith. The New Testament always treats 'faith' as an act, a response to Jesus, not an account of who he is or what he does that can be tied down to a set of words or doctrines. Faith is that, when we are presented with the Christ, whenever we are presented with him, we turn towards him rather than away. Taking that and turning it into a statement of doctrine, as the FIEC very explicitly does, is pretty much what Blessed Paul refers to as a 'dead work', I suspect.

Talking about these things is precisely what an ecumenical structure should be doing on the grounds that exchanging ideas stands a better chance of leading us towards the truth. I wonder whether anything along those lines could be arranged.

Folly ID-ed

In the course of online debates about quirky holiday lettings a friend of mine answered a longstanding mystery. A couple of years ago I scanned all my parents' old slide photographs including ones from a holiday they took in Cornwall back in 1993. They included this:
I didn't recognise it and nobody from the family knew where it was - my Dad probably took the snap and since the whole point in scanning the photos was to provide him with an album to look at as he had Alzheimer's by that stage, there was no chance of him remembering. We thought it might be on Bodmin Moor given the photos taken either side of it, but I couldn't see anything on the map that matched.

It turns out the little folly is Doyden Castle, now owned by the National Trust and nowhere near Bodmin Moor at all, but perched close to the cliff near Port Isaac. Dad and my sister probably saw in when they went for a walk  one day without my Mum. Headley and Meulenkamp say it was built to commemorate the loss of the fishing boat from the hamlet of Portquin at the foot of the cliff, which went down with every man in the village drowned - but the National Trust's claim is that it was built by Samuel Symons of Wadebridge in about 1830 as a party venue, which seems much more likely. Samuel Symons certainly existed, and while there's a persistent story that Port Quin was 'the Village That Died' after it was abandoned some time in the 19th century when all the menfolk were lost at sea, that not only seems bizarre, but it's never dated and never documented, at least not in any place I can discover.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Getting Away

I haven't booked my main holiday this year which is a bit late. I would like to spend a week in a Landmark as I have before. I love the Landmark Trust and its policy of buying ruinous but quirky properties and doing them up as holiday lets, but ... well. I've enjoyed them in the past. I've stayed in four:

First was St Winifred's Well in 2007, tiny, quaint and atmospheric with an actual holy well underneath it. I really liked it.

The Ruin near Ripon, where I stayed in 2008, was wonderful, a bizarre and delightful folly perched on an escarpment.

Next was The Abbey Gatehouse in Tewkesbury: that was a bit of a mistake as it seemed secluded but was in fact in the middle of a busyish small town.

Finally there was Ty Capel at Rhiwddolion in 2011, which took a little bit of getting used to but was lovely in the end.

Last year I wanted to stay in Derbyshire, but Swarkestone Pavilion was booked - and I'm not sure about its location anyway as it seems uncomfortably close to a major road. That was what led me to stay for a week in The Fairy Cottage in Edale. It was nice to have a full week there rather than the four nights afforded by Landmarks, and the building was very pleasing, but some of the furnishings would have disgraced a student bedsit. At least with Landmarks you're assured of cleanliness, a high standard of furnishing, and that you will not be assaulted by aesthetic nightmares such as are often perpetrated by owners arranging properties for rental by the General Public.

The trouble is, much as I love Landmark and its ideals, its properties are becoming eye-wateringly expensive. There's no point forking out a lot for something less than ideal, and my general requirements are small size, secluded location, and odd character. That means the following are really the candidates, and here are the costs for a four-night stay in my preferred autumn slot, arranged in ascending level of pain. Prepare yourselves.

The Chapel, Lettaford, Devon: £325. It's the cheapest, but then it's the smallest and least interesting.

Glenmalloch Lodge, Dumfries: £369. Not too pricey, but the real investment is having to get to southwest Scotland to stay there.

Lynch Lodge, Peterborough: £391. Dr Bones has stayed here, and I called by for one night having gone to our former curate's induction as Rector of four parishes in mid-Norfolk. Nice, but it's not really very secluded as it's round the back of a farmyard. And the area is pretty built-up.

Whiteford Temple, Cornwall: £407.

Swarkestone Pavilion, near Derby: £429. Has the issues specified above. One runs the risk of forking out a lot of money and being kept awake by the road noise.

Queen Anne's Summerhouse, near Bedford: £431. This is nice, and I don't know Bedfordshire at all. But we're already more than £100 a night now.

The Chateau, Gate Burton, Lincolnshire: about £450. Very pretty, and again Lincolnshire is an unknown quantity to me. After two holidays in rugged Wales and the Peaks I quite fancy somewhere flatter. But it's not cheap ...

Houghton West Lodge, near Hunstanton: £461. Not the most special of houses; I'd have to be very sure I wanted to spend a week in west Norfolk.

The Bath House, near Stratford upon Avon: £474. I would love to go to the Bath House as the bottom storey is a faux-Roman bathing pool decorated with great blocks of tufa stone and the whole thing is the most insane sort of Georgian folly.

Robin Hood's Hut, Taunton: £521. You will notice how, now that we are reaching the very nicest and weirdest buildings, the pain barrier is becoming insistent. This is a fantastic folly, but even so.

The Prospect Tower, Faversham: £631. It's gorgeous. It's Gothick. It's much too much.

The Banqueting House, near Newcastle: £646. Oh, you can stop now.

And the last insult, from my native Dorset, a building which has haunted my imagination since I was small and we used to go to Kimmeridge Bay and were able, in those far-off days, to go right up to it and peep through the broken windows: the Clavell Tower. It isn't even available until 2014, then only for a sprinkling of extremely unhelpful dates, and when it is it's likely to cost well over £700 for a four-night stay.

I could always go back to St Winifred's.


Our Goth embroiderer and seamstress friend Archangel Jane has done a lovely job repairing our old green altar frontal. She sewed on the loose braid, stripped off the decayed old fringe at the bottom and sourced a new one, a dull gold so it catches the light without looking tacky. It's only had a week of use between Epiphany and Lent, but will come out again later in the year once Eastertide is over.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Spiritual Refreshment

Two things have much improved the quality of my life lately. The first has been the purchase of a new computer. The old one, well, not that old in my terms but at four years an antique computing-wise, was proving more and more reluctant to do virtually anything in an acceptable time. For at least two years I'd been turning it on in the morning and then going away and doing something else for a quarter of an hour while it warmed up, or at least that's what I assume it was doing. I was then very reluctant to turn it off again during the day as it would go through the same rigmarole again. Then there were all the simple tasks it would fail to perform, or inexplicably begin performing without being asked, for no easily identifiable reason. The new one is a dream in comparison - though I wonder how long it will last before it decides, like a spouse who's had time to get used to you, that it can drop its guard and go to the toilet with the door open, metaphorically speaking. Ah, the magic's worn off, I'll think to myself ruefully. The main drawback at the moment is the operating system. Those in the know tell me that Windows systems proceed alternately. The even-numbered releases are always ordure and the odd-numbered ones usually manage to repair the faults their predecessors introduced. My old computer came in just in time for the much-reviled Vista, and now my new machine enjoys the dubious glories of Windows 8. Next time I will either have to exchange machines faster or eke this one out longer, and coincide my new purchase with either Windows 9 or 11.

The other new development has been that I have signed up for call screening on my landline phone. This means that I can actually see who is calling me and decide for myself whether I am feeling strong enough to face a conversation with that person. It has already proved its worth with Mad Trevor (I don't always ignore him: today he put the phone down on me after I expressed some doubt as to whether he'd really heard the Devil cursing Richard Briers, given that he couldn't remember when it had happened and only 'recalled' it on hearing the news that he was dead) and cutting down vastly the amount of telesales calls I get as I routinely now ignore anything that comes up 'number withheld' or 'international'.

My spiritual equilibrium has benefited no end from these developments, both of which I recommend to the harassed and frazzled.