Monday, 25 March 2013

Place of Silence

Looking out of a window at West Malling Abbey, where I was on retreat last week:
And one of the fun gargoyles on the gatehouse:

Good Intentions

We went for dinner in Paddington last Sunday on the way to visiting a friend in hospital; there was a couple at the next table. 'I've put Sebastian on the prayer list at church', I said, 'As he won't be anywhere else.'

A few minutes later I heard the young woman at the table next to us saying to her companion, 'We said we were going to go to church at Christmas, didn't we? Why didn't we in the end? We must go for Easter.'


Last Saturday we had Messy Church and over eighty people attending. I and the children told the parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders - with actions ... I went straight from that to arranging the church for Passion Sunday, putting up the Stations of the Cross and doing the veiling.

That morning I heard that Margaret had died. Margaret was our sacristan, an ex-nun who'd given the better part of her life to the service of the church in many ways, and had managed with increasing pain, in and out of hospital over the last year and more, until her body was just worn out with illness, pain and medication. She never liked the tradition of veiling crosses and images in Passiontide much, but still made a set of veils for the church. I thought of her as I did the veiling, and the sign of mourning it represents seemed all the stronger.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Global Gossip

The first I knew about this latest amazing-what-people-will-believe hoax was when a friend posted this on Facebook:

It went around the Internet with breathtaking speed, being reposted on secularist and atheist blogs and Tumblr sites, and shared all over the place. It isn't true. It not only isn't true, it contradicts official Catholic teaching in the form of Pope John Paul II's Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio of 1981 in which he declared that 'women have the same right as men to perform various public functions'. As usual I find it depressing that so many people can swallow this without questioning where the information comes from, whether it's prima facie likely that an archbishop could have said this and it go unnoticed (since 2007?), and whether the language sounds as though anyone at all might have used it at the start of the twenty-first century, not because of its sentiments, but because of the expression. I have a suspicion that somebody may have written it, at some time, though I can't identify the real source; but it sounds suspiciously antique, at least in English. The Spanish I can't speak for. I was relieved that somebody else commented on the picture "He probably feels that way. But I'm frustrated that there is no actual link to a decent article regarding the statement". At last, I thought, some sense; but many folk are content that something they see online confirms that a prominent individual 'probably feels that way'. It isn't just left-wing people who do this, either; the last time the yarn about President Obama's Holiday Tree surfaced and I repeated my insistence that it was false, a friend of a rather more conservative inclination commented, 'Well, it's not true now, but I wouldn't put it past him'.

The Internet allows such silly gossip to circulate, and, like ordinary village gossip, encourages us to think worse of each other than we have a real reason to. It's a world in which photographs can be doctored, quotations invented, and reputations damaged by anyone with access to simple software. It allows lies to reach far more people than could ever be touched by them in the old world. Cultivating a spirit of scepticism - of not believing what appears in front of you - has never been more urgent.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Time Off

"Do you have a day off?" asked our potential new curate when I met with her on Wednesday. Yes, I do. "That's a relief", she said, "The Rector of Blank doesn't believe in clergy having days off. That doesn't mean he doesn't take time off, but it does mean you never know when he's around and when he isn't. And it does affect everyone else ..."

Hm. One of the benefits of having a training incumbent who'd had a nervous breakdown some years before is that he was always adamant that I should take proper breaks, including a day off each week, and I try to keep this rule. Of course work does invade the space sometimes, which can't be helped - especially when some detail or other of a funeral needs sorting out and there is no other time to do it.  The truth is that, for most of the time, as a priest it isn't necessary that you're around all the time, much as you might like to think you're indispensable. The invasions of free time which you might expect - the sudden call to a deathbed - are in my experience exceedingly rare, though they do happen and that's the kind of interruption you have no objection to.

Frankly I think the disdain of proper time off is posturing. Often I've heard clergy say they don't take time off, haven't had a break in a month, etc., and my predecessor took perverse pride in working through her day off at the same time as complaining at having too much to do. I'm sure it arises from the deep suspicion that what you're doing is pointless and your position is only justified by constant toil: if the shark stops swimming, it sinks. Quite apart from the issue of relaxation, should you rely on a spouse to do all the cooking, cleaning and laundry?

If you're going to argue that you should be constantly available - not just in theory, not just for emergencies, but have no ring-fenced time when you don't work - then you shouldn't ever leave the parish, shouldn't drink in case you have to drive somewhere, and shouldn't marry either. Then you'll be available. But, to be honest, reverend, you just aren't that important. You're not Jesus, Jesus is.

Pick Up a Pontiff

There's a video circulating of Archbishop Bergoglio, as he once was, at a Children's Mass in 2011 at which - in the baffling way of these things - gigantic puppets act out Bible readings, doubtless completely terrifying any children who may have been present. Christian worship has a proud record of terrifying children, of course, but in such cases it doesn't actually appear to be the intention. Anyway, you could never, ever, picture Pope Emeritus Benedict taking part in such a liturgical excrescence, but various people I know are already grimacing at this and some of Pope Francis's sartorial decisions. 'Well' commented the Principal of my old theological college, 'That's wiped out the last eight years in the space of 24 hours'.

The Vatican bureaucracy was quite happy with Papa Benny reviving various arcane elements of the Papal wardrobe as it distracted him from making too much of a fuss about what they were up to, or weren't up to - mainly acting as a colossal brake on any alteration in their own position as the central bureaucracy of the Roman Catholic Church and thus making the whole thing work more effectively. Pope Francis certainly won't move on any of the issues that exercise Western liberals, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, but there is every indication that, given a few years of reasonable health, he won't let the comfortable monsignori in the Curia carry on in the way they have done. A massively centralised governmental system is one of the chief reasons why the Church has responded so incompetently to the child abuse crisis. Pope John Paul was hugely uninterested in the matter; Benedict would have wanted to tackle it but his focus lay elsewhere; Francis is a different matter. Reforming Rome may be 'the thing' he does.

Like it or not, the attitude of the Roman Pontiff makes a huge difference to virtually every other Christian. The great issue of the age for all Christian denominations isn't same-sex marriage, abortion, the position of women in society, or anything so specific; it is the matter of authority - where we think it derives from and what its scope is. Pope Benedict's great project of rediscovering the Roman Church's centre of balance, culturally and liturgically, naturally rested on the same authoritarian, centralised, backward-looking model of leadership he shared with John Paul II. Francis is no liberal, but he strikes a very contrasting figure from his predecessor: a pastor rather than an academic, he stands some chance of knowing more about real people in real circumstances, rather than viewing the world through the words of Hans Urs von Balthasar. And, conservative though he is, that contrast makes a lot of difference; merely by having a galvanising 'project' rather than a consolidating one, Francis may really stir things up.

That said, part of the fun of Papal elections is that you're often not sure what you've actually got. John XXIII was supposed just to keep the seat warm for Cardinal Montini and ended up summoning the Second Vatican Council; John Paul II was elected as a radical reformer and did none of the things his voters expected of him. Which expectations will Francis fail to fulfil?

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Trying to Be Organised

As time goes on one tends to attract responsibilities, memberships of various boards and committees, which stick to one rather like mud sticks to the boots, until eventually the mud is so thick you can't move your feet. All of these tasks generate an astonishing amount of paperwork.

A couple of times recently I have been reduced to near-tears by considering the amount there is to do and the strictly limited time there is in which to do it, if one is not to go mad. I sat not very long ago at a meeting of the board of governors of the infant school. Time was when being a school governor was a matter of turning up for a meeting once a term or so and smiling benignly while the head teacher told you how splendidly it was all going. Those days are long since past, and now governors are expected to be 'critical friends' to the school, and if they are not seen to be sufficiently critical, and able to demonstrate it, OfStEd will want to know why. Anyway, this particular meeting saw me in a bad enough mood to start with having managed somehow to mislay all the paperwork I know I printed when the clerk to the governors sent it to me. Of course you only discover this kind of thing with moments to go before you have to leave for the meeting, whatever it is. I've tried, I really have tried, to get my head around school and what happens in it, and have attempted to set time aside to read all the masses of bumf that gets sent down from the DofE and its intermediaries, but I can't manage it. After three and a half years it remains nearly as impenetrable as when I started, and I barely ever think of any contribution to the meetings which nobody else comes up with first. School is not the only category of meeting for which this holds true, either.

So I have determined two things. I will no longer print paperwork, or receive it through the post, and then keep it in a pile on the desk until the event or meeting to which it's relevant comes up, after which it then gets filed; I will file it first in the appropriate place, and then, in theory, I'll know where it is. Secondly, for a meeting I'm not actually chairing I will set an appropriate time to leave, warn the chair that I will do so, and then go at that point so avoiding the stress of fretting about how long it will go on, when will be an acceptable time to go, is it worth going or staying, and so on.

You may think this is all petty. But this is the stuff of which the Kingdom is made. I don't think.

Believing Easter

I know I shouldn't be astonished at what people will believe, but am. Most recently the feeling was provoked by a conversation with someone I know who organises a small church fellowship in London attended by people from various alternative scenes around the capital. They're going to be discussing whether Christians ought to celebrate Easter. This is the argument.

Easter is not a Christian observance. The venerable Bede says its name derives from an Anglo-Saxon goddess called Eostre. She is the same as Astarte, who is the same as Isis, who is the same as Ishtar; the names are the same and those goddesses had festivals in the Spring which the early Church took over. The worship of Astarte was brought to Britain by the Druids through their contact with the Phoenicians. Therefore Easter is pagan and Christians should have nothing to do with it.

The things that are true about this argument are: 1. Bede does mention a goddess who gave her name to April before the Anglo-Saxons adopted the Roman terms for the months, and hence the English name for Easter. 2. There were ancient Near-Eastern deities called Astarte, Isis and Ishtar. But that's it. The rest is unhistorical trash. This, very briefly, is why.

1. There's no etymological link between Astarte and Eostre, no matter how similar the names look; they come from completely different linguistic and cultural contexts.
2. There's no historical link either. The only connection ever quoted between Bronze and Iron Age Britain and the Near East is via those elusive Phoenician tin traders, and the only evidence that such merchants ever found their way to these damp northern islands is a statement from the 1st-century Roman historian Strabo, writing centuries after the fact. There are no finds indicating any trading contact, and modern historians believe that if there was trading contact between Britain and the Phoenicians, it was through intermediaries. So, no Astarte for the Druids. Plus the fact that the Roman invasions of Britain under Claudius in the 1st century effectively destroyed Druid culture, so there's a gap of four centuries and more between them and the appearance of the Anglo-Saxon Eostre.
3. There's barely any evidence of Near Eastern mother goddesses being worshipped in Roman Britain, although we happen to know a lot about pagan religion then. There's a bit of a jug and a bracelet with the name of Isis, and that's it. Nothing else.
4. There's no evidence other than the statement by Bede that there ever was a goddess called Eostre; it's just his guess based on the old name for April, Eostremonath, a guess made more than two centuries after the conversion of the English to Christianity began. Again, no placenames, no other literary reports, no archaeology. She may not have existed at all.
5. Isis certainly had a Spring festival, the Navigium Isidis, but none of the other Near Eastern mother-goddesses seems to have done. Also it was held at the start of March, not the end - far earlier than any date for Easter.
6. Why was England (and therefore the English-speaking world) the only part of Christendom that adopted Astarte's name for the feast of the Resurrection of Jesus, while the Christian cultures in the part of the world that did actually worship her invariably and from the earliest times used the term Pasch based on its intimate connection with the Jewish Passover?

The source of all this nonsense seems to be Alexander Hislop's deranged work of obsessive anti-Catholic scholarship, The Two Babylons: Papal worship revealed to be the worship of Nimrod and his wife (1858). I say 'scholarship', because it was about acceptable for an isolated Scottish minister given the state of historical, philological and archaeological knowledge in the middle of the 19th century to come up with this kind of stuff. Repeating it all a hundred and fifty years later, however, is another matter. Much of the Christian commentary I've seen quite happily refers to Hislop's book as a authority; I suppose people lack the apparatus to realise how compromised it is. But shouldn't discovering it was written by an extremist Scottish minister in the mid-1800s ring a few mental alarm bells? Perhaps not, as we're always inclined to believe what confirms our own prejudices. In this instance, the assumptions of radical Christians and modern pagans neatly coincide.

What actually shocks me, sheltered soul as I am, is the utter lack of any historical sense on the part of so very many people who don't lack basic intelligence. There's no real awareness of the passage of time; of the fact that cultures are different, that languages are different, that historical periods are different, that geography makes a difference. Everything can be made to meld together; names, personalities, peoples and cultures merge into an indistinguishable melange.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Cultural Relevance

As usual, I get an idea of something to write about and it takes days and days to get the time to do so. The other week I was summoned along with all the other clergy in the diocese to the Bishop's Study Day. These are always dispiriting events held in more-or-less uncomfortable churches around the area, but usually the speaker provides some food for thought. On this occasion, I saw the topic was going to be 'Reimagining Discipleship' which filled me with what turned out to be justified foreboding. There's not a lot you can say about discipleship that nobody in the last two thousand years has said. It comes to something when the dreadful moment when the audience 'breaks into small groups' arrives as a relief.

The bit I remember (apart from a couple of appalling jokes from Il Rettore the content of which I have succeeded in obliterating from my memory) came in the questions rather than the matter of either of the talks. One of the speakers had come across a US study into the dynamics of small church groups across denominations, and had replicated its findings in about 70 churches across the north-east of England - that such small groups, house groups, cell groups or whatever you call them, no matter what their original purpose, inexorably move towards becoming mutual support networks for their members. But, obvious though it sounds, that wasn't always the case. Apparently in about 1912 a Parliamentary commission into adult education in Britain examined small church groups among others, and found that, whatever the intention in starting them, they tended to develop into adult education classes discussing social conditions, trade unionism, science and so on. Without positive direction they, like their modern counterparts, drew their purpose increasingly from the society around them. Only the model is different: in the early 1900s, the Workers' Educational Association; a century later, Alcoholics Anonymous. Then, the hunger, and need, was for knowledge; now, for fellowship.