Friday, 31 May 2013

Lost Beasts of Britain, by Anthony Dent

The most recently-completed of my loo books is Anthony Austen Dent's Lost Beasts of Britain (1974), and a pleasure it was too, so much a pleasure that my exit from the lavatory was often delayed by some intriguing and delicious paragraph. For this I partly blame the subject matter - those animals which were once wild natives of this land and which bulk large in its placenames and folklore - but most of the responsibility for my toiletary loitering falls on Mr Dent's succulent prose, which flows so precisely, so rhythmically, so seductively, from one page and one subordinate topic to the next. This history of lost British animals - the beaver, the boar, the wild cat, and the wolf - bears witness to a countryman's knowledge of the conditions those wild animals - and their enemies - faced, combined with a lively scepticism as to what the meagre sources appear to say. It also shows that ability to write beautifully which was once the common possession, and concern, of everyone who attempted the use of the English language, and which did not confuse the vigorous beauty of clear prose with overdeveloped adjectives and clutter.

Here is the conclusion of the chapter on the wild cat. I quote it because I'm fairly sure the genetics is nonsense, yet made utterly beguiling by the personal experience, the observation, the history, and the writing:

In summer 1971 I met such a family of yard kittens in the garden of a neighbouring farm-house. Three of them, all of blotched black-and-white colour, came up to me as if to play. The fourth, though obviously of the same age, was slightly larger, dull yellowish-grey with stripes of wild pattern - that is, at right angles to the spine, two horizontal on the sides of the head and four on the crown, a thick dorsal stripe and others more or less following the lines of the ribs. This tiny tiger would have none of my company. With fine tactical sense, though unprovoked, he backed up against a spiny gooseberry bush, spat like a fourpenny firework, and displayed every tooth and every claw in his armoury, while his ears went down sideways until they formed a horizontal line on a level with the flat crown of his head - the image in miniature of the true wild cat of the woods.
     Now this shows how prepotent genetically is the wild cat. The last potential wild ancestor of this Eskdale kitten of which there are records is the Hawnby Cat, obit 1840, mentioned above. that part of Bilsdale is perhaps twenty miles away from here, along any line across the moor that a cat would be likely to take - a long journey for a cat, but not impossible under some form of duress. In any case, different stages of the journey could have been performed by successive generations of the Hawnby Cat's descendants, each one of them carrying fewer and fewer wild genes. The journey down the years is more significant, culminating in this totally wild-looking, wild-acting kitten in 1971. The cat, wild or tame, has a short breeding cycle, and litters are commonly born to females two years old. So the Eskdale kitten was about sixty-five generations in line from the Hawnby Cat, if truly descended from him. Inbreeding apart, therefore, it could have had only one wild ancestor among all its forbears in sixty-five generations; arithmetically expressed, the proportion of wild genes was one over two to the power of sixty-five. Get out your logarithm tables and you will see what sort of a vulgar fraction that is.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

No Day The Same

A few phrases from the last two days:

"I don't think people in the church like me"
"Notwithstanding what the truth is, she will be hurt, and she makes sure everyone knows she's hurt"
"They put chilli in my takeaway to get back at me, I told you people want to hurt me, I told you"
"I feel God has turned away from me"
"Is there anyone in the church who can fix in my washing machine?"
"I've always prayed for the parish, for our priests, for the people who love me. We're so lucky"
"Can you come, she's died and I don't know how he will take it"

Monday, 27 May 2013

Refinding Pentecost

May 19th was Pentecost, the Cinderella of the great Christian festivals. I've posted before about my attempts to adapt the old ritual of the Pentecost Vigil to a parish setting, lifting the ideas of the baptismal and apostolic mission of the Church and the intercession of those who have trodden the journey of faith before us from the old rites and transferring them into an ordinary local church, even down to the picturesque business of the priest breathing on the water of the font. We couldn't do it last year because we were worshipping in the church hall thanks to the refurbishment, but did this year, and even fitted in an actual baptism which was rather appropriate.

This photograph from St Gertrude the Great in Ohio is supposed to be the first image of the traditional Pentecost Vigil posted online. Leaving aside the folded chasubles and lowering the Paschal Candle into a steel bucket, it shows quite a clerical occasion, and you do wonder how much attraction the full, old Roman Missal rite would have to an average congregation, with its lengthy, repetitious prayers and elaborate liturgical organisation.
However, it does lead me to reflect that there is wisdom in the Church concentrating effort on the spiritual life of its priests. To convert the world is an ambitious aim. To convert priests to holiness is more achievable. It is not for nothing that even the Church of England insists that priests recite the Office each day and renew their oaths each year, demands it does not make of laypeople, so that their minds are continually recalled to the presence of God and refashioned after the continuous prayer of the Church. As the old saying has it:
                    If the parish priest is a Saint, his people will be holy;
                    If the priest is holy, but not yet a Saint, his people will be good;
                    If he is good, his people will be lukewarm,
                    and if he is lukewarm, his parishioners will be bad.
                   And if the priest himself is bad, his people will go to Hell.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Tower Hamlets Cemetery

Ages ago now we visited Tower Hamlets Cemetery. It's the smallest and least-known of the 'Magnificent Seven' Victorian cemeteries that ring London, and possibly the most ruinous and overgrown. We didn't have much time to examine it exhaustively, but had a good poke round, gradually becoming more bemused by our inability to locate the Maze, which, it turns out, is long gone. The monuments in this humbler and less fashionable cemetery are generally less grandiose than those at its counterparts such as Highgate and Kensal Green, but there are still some intriguing ones, and a gigantic Gothic rocket which is very hard to photograph properly. The most moving aspect of Tower Hamlets is how it very clearly provides such an important recreation space to the people around - children were playing, couples strolling and dogs being walked on the sunny afternoon we were there.

Friday, 24 May 2013

In the Midst of Prayer

Yesterday was the annual service at which all the new churchwardens around the area are sworn in, and it happened to take place in Hornington parish church so I decided I could cycle. Churchwardens are elected by the congregation: although the service states that they are 'appointed by the incumbent and the people', in theory the incumbent of the parish needn't have any role at all, even though once upon a time the rector or vicar would appoint one warden and only the other was elected. Anyway, it is to the Bishop that the wardens swear their oath of office. Except that the Bishop doesn't come to the service, and it's his legal officer the Registrar who administers the oath. Except that our Registrar has retired so it was his Deputy who came, wigged and wing-collared, to do the necessary legal business.

Normally, as I told our wardens, while I'm parading about up the front of the church I never really hear anyone else praying unless they're leading the formal intercessions; there is just a general hubbub or sussuration of prayerful words. But last night I was sat there, in a pew, with them (and a husband of one) around me, actually hearing their prayers spoken. It was a quietly impressive moment.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Dealing in Heteronormative Bullshit is Part of my Professional Duties

... as I said on Facebook. I am not sure anyone will make head nor tail of this, but anyway.

I’m still thinking my way through the issue of same-sex marriage – how could I not be? – and trying to work out what I think about it. Some time ago I remember I shifted my view that same-sex couples should have the same legal rights as opposite-sex ones while preserving the word ‘marriage’ for couples of opposite sexes. My friend Professor Purplepen challenged that it was unjust to allow homosexual people legal recognition and yet deny the word, and I had to see what she meant. I’m still convinced that two people of the same sex can’t celebrate the Christian sacrament of matrimony, as I’ve said before, whatever the State decides to do regarding civil unions. The problem with this position is its incoherence: Christians and non-Christians are not two separate species, and what’s true and right for one is logically true and right for the other, in an absolute sense – from, that is, the Divine point of view. So I find myself still pondering.

I said earlier on that the Church didn’t understand what marriage really was. I wonder whether I do, either, or whether many people really give it much thought. This lack of understanding is why those who feel discomfort at the move for equal marriage have such a problem articulating what’s wrong, and end up using specious arguments which sound like justifications for prejudice, as well as freakish, stupid, grotesque, offensive, and meaningless statements.

I’m not fazed by the idea of two people of the same sex in bed together or doing whatever they feel inclined to do. I am a bit bothered when a homosexual chap refers to his partner as his husband. I can’t do it, and this I suspect is the core of the matter. It feels as though somebody’s holding a cat in front of me and claiming it’s a dog, and then getting very angry when I can’t agree with them. It may be a perfectly nice cat. There’s nothing wicked or immoral about being a cat. But a cat isn’t a dog, it’s just not. If this is ‘wrong’, it’s not wrong in moral terms, but in terms of being untrue.

If you think marriage just means ‘two people saying they love each other’, to deny same-sex couples the right to say the same would indeed be positively unjust. To deny them that right with any degree of justice you’d have to work out what it is about them that would prevent them doing what heterosexual couples can, and there isn’t anything. But that definition of marriage is, I think, facile, romantic, shallow and naïve; it ignores the fact that the way marriage is understood is a construct, not a product merely of what two people happen to feel, and, ultimately, even what they may think of as ‘love’ is conditioned by things beyond them, rather than beginning with what they think they feel at any one moment. The essentialist romanticism at the heart of our modern view of sexual relationships, at the heart of which is an ideal of individual fulfilment, descends from the late 18th century and its idealisation of nature, emotion, and individuality. The move for equal marriage reflects a dream of dispensing with the social coding of marriage and uncovering the ‘real’ state underneath, conditioned only by what the couple feel.

Ultimately, certainly in Christian terms, the core reality of ‘marriage’ is that of two people committing to bringing something new and creative out of their difference, and that difference is most clearly figured and summarised, however clumsily, by sexual difference. To say that sexual difference doesn’t matter, that the sex of a marriage partner is of no importance, is to change the understanding of the thing. This adds some credibility to conservative claims that same-sex marriage somehow takes away the right of heterosexual couples to enter into that institution as traditionally understood: it isn’t that they won’t get married once gays can, but that society’s understanding of what they are doing when they do has been shifted. Think of it linguistically: traditionally, you can’t have a ‘husband’ without a ‘wife’. A person can’t be either on their own, nor can you have two of them. To say that a marriage can include two husbands or two wives is to remake the terms, not to define them in relation to each other as formerly, but to use them simply to denote the sex of partners in a committed sexual relationship. In this sense the ‘dog and cat’ analogy is unhelpful: it’s more like having a compass that says ‘North’ at both the top and the bottom. What you’re holding isn’t really a compass any more. Of course, if you’re a libertarian of a certain sort, emptying marriage of its traditional significance is not a bad thing at all, given the oppressive reality of much traditional thinking about what it means.
My thinking on this is very vague, I admit (but no vaguer than anyone else’s), but I believe that underneath the movement for gay marriage is a very basic assumption, not even consciously articulated and which would almost certainly be denied by its proponents on the Left, that fundamentally human beings are nothing but individuals making unencumbered choices and that men and women are ultimately interchangeable. If heterosexual marriage is the ultimate social symbol of our non-commensurability as beings, that is, the fact that we can’t simply be reduced to races, classes, economic factors, or whatever, and randomly swapped with one another, then saying that sexual difference is a thing of no consequence is not an unproblematic matter. If we are interchangeable then we’re disposable. And, politically, who will do the disposing? The irony is that this is a movement justified by a belief in the unique worth of every human being whose effect – I suspect – will be actually, eventually, to erode our sense of that unique worth, which is a fundamental insight of Christianity.
Of course you can’t prove any of that and I can’t expect anyone else to be persuaded by the argument, which is what leaves me open to being called a bigot. Society has already decided in favour of the individualistic, shallow definition of marriage and it has to get on with it; if you were to dump me in Parliament and tell me to vote one way or the other it would be Yes, because giving same-sex couples the same legal rights as everyone else can’t be wrong no matter how dubious the thinking behind it. Things have already gone too far to stop. Yet I couldn’t do it without reservations. I see it as a symptom of a vast and perilous ideology, one which is passionately committed to denying the truth about human nature, but one which is so deep-rooted in me as well as others that it’s very difficult even to squint through the mist and discern the shape of the real problem. I am convinced that it’s not really about gays; it’s about what human beings really are.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Goth Walk XXX: The Devil's Architect

On Sunday 12th we went walking around central London again, this time tracing the history and pseudo-history of that mysterious and intriguing architect Nicholas Hawksmoor. Our journey took us from his Spitalfields masterpiece, Christ Church, through a near-impenetrably busy Brick Lane, into the eerie weekend desertion of the City, and back out again to St Luke's Old Street. I found it quite a challenging talk to put together because there's so little known about the man himself: he wrote very little, apart from letters complaining about how badly he'd been treated in the latter part of his working life, and, as Iain Sinclair so vividly put it in Lud Heat in 1975 - the prose-poem that sparked off Hawksmoor's transformation from fairly obscure 17th and 18th-century architect to secret Satanist - 'his motives remain obscure. His churches are his medium, full of the dust of wooden voices'. So I ended up stringing together the weird appearance of the buildings, the fact that so many of his grandiose projects came to nothing, and the fiction that's built his modern and dubious reputation.

Of course all the stuff about Hawksmoor being a devil-worshipper is nonsense, but there remains the oddness of the churches. If you only had St Luke's to go on, rather than the Stepney gems, you'd think the architect was an idiot rather than a genius, sticking a fluted obelisk on top of a tower; what was he playing at? And then, at St George's Bloomsbury, the tower consists of a Greek temple portico beneath a pyramid based on the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, topped with a statue of George I; is this a celebration of authority, religion and power, or a statement so ludicrous and over-the-top it amounts to a subversion of it, a joke? Why are there no Christian motifs anywhere in Hawksmoor's churches? Was he trying, as his latest examiner Vaughan Hart suggests, trying to construct a new visual vocabulary for Anglicanism by making use of ancient pagan imagery, or was he just an ancient pagan? He remains an enigma.

Photo, taken in St Michael's Alley, by Mr McHenry.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Two Screaming Popes

Last week I went to see my spiritual director. As well as touching on my prayer life, work and personal circumstances, we usually end up talking about things like folded chasubles. However we have to face the fact that we've almost certainly done that subject to death, and this time found ourselves discussing the new Pope (and the old one). S.D. is quite well connected and having been ordained a long while can put a lot of things into context.

During our discussions the phrase 'hermeneutic of bollocks' was raised, and not by me, it has to be said. Ex-Pope Benedict used to talk of the 'hermeneutic of continuity', by which he meant trying to emphasise that the changes that followed in the wake of the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s had not been intended by the Fathers of the Council, and by Pope John XXIII, as a dramatic rupture with the practice of the past, but as a development, as a restatement of eternal truths. To a certain extent this was true, in the sense that the old liturgies and theologies were not simply junked; that isn't the way most Churches work, especially the Roman Observance. But the phrase 'hermeneutic of continuity' became a rallying point for all those conservative Roman Catholics who, in their hearts of hearts, felt that the new Mass heralded by the 1960s wasn't, in a deep way, legitimate; that the Old Mass, the Extraordinary Form as it became known, was not 'extraordinary' at all but normative. Worse, there was a sleight-of-hand going on to paint the two as actually identical, which is simply untrue, as untrue as claiming they're completely unconnected. There is a world of difference, politically as well as liturgically, between a pre-Vatican 2 Solemn High Mass in which the priest faces away from the congregation, only he and a server communicate, and which parts of the service are deliberately inaudible, and the Novus Ordo Mass where the priest faces west, the congregation join in and sing hymns, and everyone takes communion from the elements consecrated there and then, notwithstanding that they're both celebrations of the eucharist under some form. 'They are', enthused S.D., 'politically completely opposite', and no Benedictine revisionism can erase the fact.

There are conservative Roman Catholic bloggers denouncing Pope Francis, who has dispensed with some of the more recondite liturgical fashions promoted by Papa Benny, as an emissary of the Devil (mind you, you have to be a sedevacantist to manage this with anything less than catastrophic cognitive dissonance). I even read somebody lamenting how Francis has hypocritically acted against the 'poor' who he claims as such a priority for the Church by putting honest Italian artisans who spend all their time knocking up mozettas, crucifixes, fanons and Papal slippers out of business. He's upset a lot of people - paradoxically while remaining a perfectly orthodox Roman Catholic bishop on most matters that matter. What he isn't is the sort of figure who can act as a talisman for romantic reactionaries who like looking up lists of European nobility in the Almanach de Gotha. Benedict had just enough of that about him to make it make sense, to make such people fantasise that he was going to get the seda gestatoria and the papal ostrich feathers out of storage. But he wasn't, and his successor has made life even more restricted and less picturesque for whoever comes after him. As S.D. put it, 'Once he looked at the Papal apartments and said, I don't need all this, he made it impossible for anyone else to move back in. What are they going to say, "I really feel God is calling me to live like a Renaissance prince"?'

The scene in the attached photograph could never have happened at any previous point in history. Two popes, equally legitimate, equally recognised, existing at the same time and cordially meeting. Papa Benedict's decision to resign changes the game forever in the sense that it made the Papal office significantly more like the sort of positions heads of organisations occupy in other Churches, or even in the secular world. But, more radically, what we now have is two Popes who differ; while their doctrine, their philosophy, their theology comes inevitably from the same formation, their emphases, their styles, their preferred fashions do not. Two Popes, icons not of identical tradition, but of personal preference. For the first time ever, the mirage that Rome is eternal, unchanging, and monolithic is impossible to maintain. It's gone. In its place is a reality of ambiguity and choice, and the conservatives may howl and deny it all they like.
Amazing how sometimes the Holy Spirit sees to it that the consequences of our actions are exactly the opposite of the ones we intend.

Friday, 17 May 2013


We hadn't hosted a confirmation service at Swanvale Halt for years; nor had we had many people to offer as confirmation candidates for years, I think five since 2000 to be precise. So I was very keen indeed to secure a Deanery confirmation service for the refurbished church, regardless of how many people we actually had ourselves to offer forward. As it turned out, there were eventually five of them, all adults - a civil servant, a school caretaker, a plumber, a mum and school assistant, and a civil engineer - and we had a really good series of sessions in preparation. They joined another ten candidates from across the area, and enough of their families and friends to fill the church. The only elements over which St Rita of Cascia made her presence felt were the thurible coming open and spilling incense and charcoal over the floor (thankfully during a hymn so the frantic scrabbling around after bits was possible to disguise) and the bishop's microphone going haywire so that, from behind at least, it sounded as though he was doing a passable impersonation of the late Norman Collier. It was, however, lovely. I insisted that we not water down the service to the usual middle-of-the-road common-denominator and instead give everyone something to remember, which is just what happened. I also insisted we put on a really good spread after the service was over, and that happened too. Heaven knows how much that cost, but I can think of few things better to spend money on than a party to celebrate fifteen people making a public declaration of faith.

However once upon a time this wouldn't have been anything much to get excited about. The modern custom of confirming people (and baptising them if need be, as two of ours were) and them taking communion at the same time has only arisen because numbers are small enough to make this feasible, whatever the Church may argue in terms of this being the right way of doing things, which is of course true as far as it goes. I checked back through the old confirmation register in our strong box, and discovered that Swanvale Halt had on its own produced 48 confirmation candidates in 1960, 18 in 1961, 40 in 1962, 34 in 1963, and 48 again in 1964. Of course the majority of them were aged under 16, but not all - the number of adults being confirmed was never below 7 in any year. Equally striking was the gender imbalance: the figures hovered around one-third men and boys and two-thirds women and girls, except in 1964 when 83% of the confirmands were female. That tells you a lot about the sociology of the mid-century Church of England.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013


I am very fond of my old mobile phone, and joke that it only has a black-and-white licence. In some senses I am too fond of it as when it went missing a couple of weeks ago I went completely frantic with the accompanying sense of disorientation. It turned out to be in a colleague’s house, wedged down the side of the chair I’d been sitting in.
On Spring Fair Day the phone went missing again. Partway through the afternoon I realised it wasn’t on me, so cycled home to check, thinking it was in the coat I’d worn in the morning, but no. Nor was it at church. As I made my way back to the field having concluded that it must have been in my bag after all, I spotted it lying by the side of the main road in a waterfilled gutter. It had obviously dropped out of my pocket. The phone was very unhappy, with water sloshing around behind the screen, which could have been an interesting visual effect had it actually been designed like that.

The SIM card was undamaged so I simply took the phone apart and popped it in the boiler cupboard; by the end of Sunday it was completely dried out and ready to use again. Try that with your smartphone.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Taking the Air

The churches around Hornington take it in turns annually to host the Town Rogation Service during which the town councillors parade around an area in full regalia praying for God’s blessing on the community and its common life. This year it was our turn, for the first time since our former curate had planned the service and it poured with so much rain that she had to lead it entirely inside the church, leading everyone around indoors and inviting them to pretend they were at the allotments or the infant school. This year, we were able to go outside and even to walk through the allotments, following pretty much the same route as our ex-curate had planned, with an additional stop at the railway station; I decided that the station forms such an important part in the life of so many local residents that it needed to be recognised – and not just because people commute but because the two level crossings dictate so much of the pace of life in the village. Coincidentally, I’d just taken the funeral of the man who was Swanvale Halt’s signalman for over thirty years.

I am of course used to wandering around in a biretta and vestments, and the councillors are no strangers to dressing up, but I was full of admiration for Rona our crucifer who had to go up front and lead us. It’s a very un-English business because it involves taking religion out of the cozy (and invisible) confines of the church building, so you just have to set your jaw and get on with it.

The highlight was when a car drew past us, and a chap wound down his window and shouted ‘Heil Hitler!’ at the assembled procession. ‘There is insight in Swanvale Halt’, a friend of mine commented.

Spring Fair 2013

I have been absent from the blog for a long while - there's simply been too much going on over the last month to leave energy for any writing not driven strictly by necessity. The hump is now past, though, so I can do a bit of updating on things that have happened over the last couple of weeks.

The Spring Fair took place again this year, as previous years, though not after a lot of struggle to reorganise the administration. Last year, you may remember, it rained almost constantly on top of weeks of rain beforehand, so the field was a boggy mess. This year, I assured myself and anyone who would listen, we were already scoring an advance before we’d even started.
The forecast was for ‘light showers’ in the morning followed by intermittent sun in the afternoon. We’d certainly had the ‘light showers’ by the time came to declare the event open, so I looked forward to better things and told everyone so over the PA system. No sooner had I handed back the microphone than the heavens opened and for half an hour we experienced probably the heaviest deluge I can remember since moving to Surrey. Then one of the tea urns failed. Then the barbecue flooded. Then we discovered that the band didn’t have any chairs. I sat in the ‘command caravan’ looking at the rain and reflecting that God might be trying to send a signal. The sky was a uniform dark grey and there was no sign of it so much as shifting.

Eventually the torrents ceased and the niggles were resolved. This was the cue for the CD player to malfunction. Well, we had another at church, I said, and cycled off to get it, wedging it into the basket before heading back to the field. Above there was a stark celestial contrast between a lowering grey mass of cloud to the south – over the fair site – and blue sky with white cloud to the north. The Spring Fair lay right under the frontier between the two. As I cycled, down came the rain again, so heavy and wind-driven that at one point I could barely breathe.
Yet, by the time the infant school children came bounding into the arena to do country dancing there was a bit of watery sun and we were fairly busy by the end of the afternoon. It was, all in all, a near-triumph just saved from being a near-catastrophe. As I went around the field later on gradually drying out (visiting one stall I reached out to something and water poured off my sleeve) ordinary members of the public said to me more than once how they look forward to the Fair, how it marks the start of Spring, how they spend so much time there talking to friends and how nice it is that it brings people together. So I suppose we do have to do it again next year. But not in the same way.

I said that last year.