Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Missionary Context

I'm reading at the moment into the life of someone with a connection to Swanvale Halt who spent much of her life as a missionary in India and was instrumental in the establishment of the Church of South India in 1947. She had a great concern with encouraging the ministry of native Indians and the independence of the Indian Church from the missionary societies and colonial Churches in which its origins lay. Coming from the Anglican stable, the worship she was used to in the Diocese of Dornakal would of course at first have been straight Book of Common Prayer no matter how incongruous that might seem. But there were para-liturgical celebrations which had more of a local flavour:

There emerged gradually a collection of Telugu Christian lyrics ... These were sung not only at divine worship but also at field work ... The [Easter] vigil was kept decorating every little chapel with beautifully cut out patterns in brightly coloured paper ... Then there was the Christian Home Festival, usually kept around Lady Day, for which a big wooden Cross was erected, outlined with little clay lamps. Each family lit its own little lamp from the Cross and proceeded singing from house to house where they lighted more lamps and received a blessing ... Supremely of course the Harvest Festival held sway ... All through the night village parties converged on the nearest big centre, singing as they came following their brightly coloured cross. The eucharist was celebrated early but the service of Ingathering came at mid-day, attended by all ages and kinds, chickens, ducks, kids and calves ... the climax came when all the produce was carried, pushed or dragged up to be offered, received and blessed ...

This is what we have become fond of calling 'inculturation', the adaptation of European Christian motifs and ceremonies to other cultural circumstances.

It occurs to me that this early- and mid-twentieth century collision of colonial Christianity with indigenous conditions was the Western Church's basic experience of such religious adaptation; it required only a slight and easy mental shift to view the inherited culture of the Church, whether Catholic or Anglican, as requiring a similar sort of 'inculturation' within a context in which traditional religion was theoretically familiar but from which in reality it had become estranged. Hence the jettisoning, from the mid-1960s, of the Book of Common Prayer and the old Roman Missal, plainchant and familiar hymnody, to be replaced by Folk Masses, guitars and puppets. All that stuff Pope Benedict and the folk of the New Liturgical Movement reacted against. The colonial experience is the key to understanding it.

Monday, 29 July 2013


The former incumbent of our next-door parish once made the more sensitive members of Chapter gulp with a statement that 'a parish priest needs to know when to be a bastard'. I suppose the corollary of that is that they need to know when not to be, too.

I found myself in the bastard's position last week over Micky. Micky had taken up residence a couple of weeks before in the churchyard, initially with a bicycle, although that had mysteriously disappeared. He had a habit of grasping my hand in a vice-like grip which belied his appalling aroma, clouds of accompanying flies, and incomprehensible speech (which, however, I discovered could be effectively deciphered by various local residents). He lived in the big rhododendron bush and had been observed by the denizens of the old people's flats on the other side of the churchyard taking a dump there, which I'd already upbraided him for. I had swabbed down the benches in the churchyard after he'd wee-ed over them, and been very grateful for the fact that he never tried to sleep in the church itself. I was not sure quite where responsibility for the piles of lager cans lay between Micky or the other drinkers who were magnetically drawn to the Garden of Remembrance to accompany him. I was rather more sure of the complaints I had from people whose relatives' ashes were buried there.

On Sunday morning a week ago I came to church to take the 8am mass on a hot, bright day. Micky was rather harmlessly sat on a bench minding his own business. However on going home for breakfast I spotted him enthusiastically urinating up the wall of Boots the Chemist as families went by on their way to the Roman Catholic mass at 8.45. People live in the flats above that, I thought.
Coming down again for the 10am I found him lying in the church porch, his lager cans on the ground. I said it was time for him to move on. 'You look on me as a lower form of life' he said.

Now let us not be falsely sentimental, for Christ is the enemy of false sentiment. Micky's life - a life he doesn't want to leave as there is a very pleasant and well-resourced hostel four miles away he could go to if he wanted -  is just incompatible with the life my parishioners lead, and I can be of no good to him. But being bounced into being the representative of communal self-righteousness is not at all congenial.

Visit to the Homeland

More than a couple of weeks has gone by since I attended the installation of a college friend of mine as priest-in-charge of St Benet's Church, Kentish Town. St Benet's needs a bit of love. It needs a bit more than that, actually, including a new roof, but love goes a long way and I trust Peter will love the place and its people. 

St Benet's is one of a type of Anglo-Catholic churches which are very recognisable - tall, narrow hall-spaces organised around a single focus, soaring and transcendent, like St Silas not far away, or St Bartholomew in Brighton.  It's a bit down-at-heel, and designed to make a firm and definite statement in its roughish streets rather than a refined one, but you can see how grand and glorious it once was.

I joke that I may not be the only priest in the Diocese of Guildford who owns a biretta but I'm the only one who wears it now and again. At St Benet's there were rows and rows of biretta-ed clergy, and nobody batted an eyelid at incense, plainchant, maniples, and relics on the altar. This is the sort of environment which fostered my spiritual life and what I find wonderfully comfortable, and comforting. Yet I have moved rather far away from it and find myself in a parish which, though it may have had a Catholic tradition once, hasn't really understood what that is for quite some time. it's also a village parish church rather than a gathered church in an urban setting with lots of other ecclesiastical choices nearby. Catholicism in the Swanvale Halt mould will never look quite like Kentish Town, anyway. What I find myself doing is reminding people that there is such a thing as a Catholic Church - looking for the principles behind all those intoxicating delicacies we got used to at Staggers and the churches that may have sent us there, and trying to work out ways of expressing those principles rather than just importing the frills wholesale. Teaching people what a cake is and how cakes work rather than making them eat Black Forest Gateau, I suppose.

Saturday, 20 July 2013


I've been threatening to begin the Grotto in the garden for at least 18 months, to the extent that people began to smile in an 'understanding' way whenever the subject came up. But it is now begun as this photograph proves! Digging the hollow out into the bank at the top of the garden is more spadework than I've done in more than two decades, I think. The soil here is very sandy and very compacted, which didn't make things particularly easy. I have had no experience of mixing concrete since watching my Dad lay the crazy paving outside the house when I must have been about 10, and doing so for myself I was astonished by the way gallons of cement, sand and gravel seemed to shrivel into about a cupful on the addition of water (it may have been mortar he was mixing, I suppose). Anyway, the base slabs and the rubble base of the walls are now laid and as soon as there is time - tomorrow, perhaps - I will add a bit more. It won't be an extensive grotto - just big enough to sit in - and I suspect it will require a brick roof before being ringed with proper stone around the mouth to give it the correct look.

How long all this will actually take is anyone's guess.

A Bit Late - But Pretty

As I said last time ... I've been absent for a long while from the blog. Blame it on lack of energy as much as lack of anything to say. As a gentle reintroduction to doing anything, here is the new-old altar dressing we used on Trinity Sunday.
The two elements shown here don't actually go together. The gorgeous superfrontal with its heavy gold Gothic lettering I found folded up in a drawer in the vestry, and it doesn't actually belong with anything else we have, but the damask frontal pairs with it fairly nicely, although it is slightly too orange in tone. It will do until we can find something more exact, and suits the policy of re-emphasising beauty and tradition in worship.