Monday, 19 August 2013


Down in darkest West Dorset, in what they will one day call PJ Harvey Country hem-hem, is a village with the lyrical name of Whitchurch Canonicorum, the White Church of the Canons. The church of St Candida and the Holy Cross there is a fine one, although calling it 'the Cathedral of the Vale' is I think a trifle hubristic. Not that the Marshwood Vale, all of six miles or so across, offers any other rivals for cathedral status. In one transept stands a white stone box surmounting three oval alcoves. This is the Shrine of St Wite, one of only two pre-Reformation shrines in England which are still intact - the other is that of St Edward the Confessor at Westminster Abbey. The idea is that, should you be ill, you should pray at the shrine to blessed St Wite - supposedly a female hermit who lived out on the hills and was martyred by the Danes, though no one really knows - and place your afflicted part in an alcove. Her Holy Well is not far away to the south of Stanton St Gabriel, while there is another arched well just opposite the church itself.

My family first came here years ago. I was looking for the well, so I think I must have been about 15, which would make my sister 8 at the time.

This last week my mum was on holiday round the coast in Seaton with my sister and her family. It was her first holiday (apart from staying with me for a few days) since my dad died. They all went to the village of the White Church of the Canons, and my nieces, G (7) and J (3) put their hands in the shrine and lit candles, exactly the same as we had first done twenty-eight years ago.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Turton Villa

Once in a while you find something so interesting in a familiar place that you boggle at not having spotted it before. On hols in Dorset last month we had a wander about Weymouth and between the car park and the seafront we found a peculiar little tower poking up between the brick guesthouses.

This is Turton Villa, and this is about the only photograph one can get of it that gives even a remote idea what it might look like, as it's hemmed in by the buildings around it. English Heritage is right, notwithstanding the 1771 date above the doorway it looks mid-19th century rather than late 18th-century Gothick. Pevsner doesn't mention it, but then he wouldn't.

As you can see if you follow the link, there is a legend that the house is connected by a secret passage to Gloucester Lodge on the Esplanade so that George III could visit a mistress installed in the house. Unlikely on virtually every count, quite apart from the date.

St Dunstan's Well, Burstock

It doesn't look like much, but this dribble of water running under a log round the side of a modern house in the hamlet of Horsey, Dorset, is (probably) the Well of St Dunstan at Burstock - that very, very rare thing, a holy well for which there is some record in medieval documents whose existence was unsuspected until a short while ago. I mentioned it last year when I found the reference in the final volume of AD Mills's The Place Names of Dorset. I confess I had hoped for some brickwork, but one mustn't be greedy.

Perp Revival i'the North

When I did some research into the history of the Anglo-Catholic movement some years ago I ended up lamenting the fact that so little information existed about the role of the movement in the North of England. There was the story of St Saviour's, Leeds, paid for by Dr Pusey and others; Fr Ommanney and his work at St Matthew's Carver Street in Sheffield; and that was about it. All the talk otherwise was about the great Papalist churches in north and east London; the shrine churches of the West End; and the seaside strongholds in Bournemouth, Brighton, and other such places. But I knew it couldn't be the whole story. My old vicar in High Wycombe came from South Yorkshire and referred to the 'Biretta Belt' of churches there - Temple Newsam, Goldthorpe, Swinton, and others - and I kept coming across other references. There was precious little written about them, though.

Now there is, gradually. This week I was in receipt of a very welcome bundle of books and pamphlets from the Anglo-Catholic History Society, including Stephen Savage's Mission Accomplished: Five Lost Churches of Leeds, published a couple of years ago. This contains the astonishing picture you can see to the right:

This is Fr Nicholas Greenwell, first vicar of St Barnabas Little Holbeck, probably in the mid-1860s. The reason I find it so astonishing is the juxtaposition of vesture and clergyman. Fr Greenwell is wearing the full Eucharistic vestments, including maniple, at a time when doing so was something liable to get a priest into trouble (and, a few years later, in prison in some cases). He is also a very Victorian looking gentleman in his whiskers and slick hair, quite unlike his clean-shaven and Popish contemporaries in the South such as Fr Lowder of Wapping. It's that combination that I find interesting, and surprising. I can't remember seeing anything of the sort elsewhere.

Fr Greenwell had been curate at Leeds Parish Church under the great old-fashioned High Churchman Walter Farquhar Hook, but in churchmanship St Barnabas galloped far ahead of the mother church in the city centre and became an inspiration to other churches in the area. From the same milieu - the church of St James, in fact - came Fr Richard Twigg, who moved to Wednesbury and became known as 'The Apostle of the Black Country'; him I knew about, but I had no idea of his background. Slowly the story gets pieced together, it seems.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Beyond the Fringe

Today I feel thoroughly ashamed of myself.

A friend I hadn't heard from for ages sent me an email. After some awful experiences in his parish he's been bought off by his diocese and left the Church of England. He's joined the Celtic Orthodox Church, which I had to admit I'd never heard of. And this, I'm very sorry to say, sparked off one of my periodic fits of wandering around the internet delving into the murky world of fringe churches.

Now a walk around any large town will usually throw up any number of churches, some big, some small, in the Evangelical or Pentecostal ambit. Keeping themselves far more to themselves are fringe churches of a different order. Pick any of the words 'Catholic', 'Old', 'Orthodox', 'British', 'Liberal', 'Celtic' or 'Apostolic', and combine any number of them in any order, and you will, eventually, find a Church operating under that banner. There are dozens of them, usually composed mainly of bishops (if you have your own Church, the last thing you want to bother being is an ordinary layperson, isn't it? Not if you can be a bishop, or even an archbishop, and get to dress up) who are commonly very precise about who consecrated them as bishops and where their line of succession comes from, usually leading back to either the fraudulent Arnold Mathew or the deluded Jules Ferrete, and rather less precise about what they get up to day by day. My friend's Celtic Orthodox Church is actually one of the more respectable, because it does appear actually to have a couple of congregations and some genuine sense of continuity with something which is more than just a list of names of chaps who had hands laid on their heads by other chaps at some point in the past. I was very surprised to learn that the C.O.C. was once at one with the folk who now make up the British Orthodox Church, from whom they were estranged in 1997 when him what is now Mar Seraphim, the Archbishop of Glastonbury, led the majority of the Church into union with the Coptic Orthodox. The B.O.C. is very sensible indeed, and in fact makes a point of being sensible, as if to expunge the corporate memory of their origins in a bunch of Theosophists.

When I am in one of these reprehensible cycles of deluded fascination I almost always find myself straying in particular directions. One these involves hunting for a character who, when I was in Lamford, used to call himself the Abbot-Bishop of Hersham and whose name I can't remember, but who our organist once saw conduct a funeral at Woking Crem., bedecked in the most outrageous ecclesiastical garb which included ermine. He had some connection to the shadowy Order of Port Royal but he seems nowadays to have disappeared.

From there it's a short step to Bishop Jonathan Blake. He is now Presiding Archbishop of the Open Episcopal Church. Fr Jonathan came to public prominence when he married the unfortunate late Jade Goody to her partner, but I remember him (though have never met him) from twenty years ago when I lived in Chatham and he was an Anglican priest over the river Medway in Strood and was in the process of leaving the Church of England (with the bishop of Rochester's fulsome assistance) after being unable to keep his trousers on, an element in his spiritual progress he never talks about much. I remember you only had to mention his name to our Rector, Campbell, to watch him go episcopal purple from the neck up. Well, Fr Jonathan does seem to be very sincere about his ministry and his Church does actually seem to have a few members below the rank of Patriarch. And from Jonathan Blake we segue seamlessly in the direction of ...

... Bishop Sean Manchester. Like Mar Seraphim, Sean Manchester is also Archbishop of Glastonbury (there's a Roman Catholic one, too, it's a crowded place). You may have heard it said that most of the Internet consists of pornography or cat photographs. A good part of the rest of it is phantom blogs and websites set up by Sean Manchester and David Farrant under an assortment of assumed names to slag each other off. I'd never heard of Bp Manchester before reading a fascinating article in the Folklore magazine some years ago about the saga of the Highgate Vampire. That was when Mssrs Manchester and Farrant met and fell out, and they have devoted an impressive amount of the intervening forty years stalking and berating one another in no uncertain terms.  It's all quite entertaining, but you do feel like a good hot shower and rub down after reading any of the fake blogs operated by either gentleman. Bp Manchester stands out from the other episcopi vagantes - 'wandering bishops', that's the term for them - in that he is not an ecclesiastical and spiritual liberal, far from it, but prides himself on being more conservative than the Roman Catholics (except that he's married). I came across a very, very long thread on the Fortean Society message boards in which, during the course of several concurrent discussions about ecclesiastical niceties, whether vampires were real, and naturally, how evil David Farrant is, somebody asked a poster called Exorcistate (who was clearly Bp Manchester himself) whether the bishop did normal things like marry or baptise people, and whether he had a congregation. Well, said Exorcistate, His Grace has serious concerns about security and so his ministry has to be exercised with great discretion. You can take that as a No, then. Years ago Sean Manchester was interviewed for Udolpho, the magazine of the Gothic Society, in the course of which he claimed he was the heir of Lord Byron and therefore the legitimate owner of Newstead Abbey. He does seem to be quite intelligent and good-humoured. He is also the only person I have ever seen, bishop or otherwise, wearing a biretta with a suit.

Well, that's my penance done for wasting so much time on this grubby and unedifying world. Back to the grubby and unedifying world of the Church of England.

What amazes me, by the way, is that almost all these Churches seem to have a branch in Bournemouth ...

Chant, or Shan't

As I go on I become more convinced of the suggestion that the normative musical form of Christian worship is, at least in Western Christendom, plainchant. 'Normative', of course, doesn't mean 'normal'; it does mean that it sets the standard for other forms of music used in worship. The crucial elements are the absence of clear rhythm and its single melodic line, which erode the sense of time and allow an alignment with the eternal nature of God. Plainchant is also unaccompanied song, and puts primacy on the human voice.

When I was at St Stephen's House the House Musicians always went into despair when whoever was responsible for leading Morning and Evening Prayer for the week chose to have the student body sing the canticles in Anglican Chant rather than plainchant. Anglican Chant, at least from the 18th century is a bit like plainchant's boorish cousin who wants to dominate all the conversation at the family gathering. It's also easier to sing because you can slur notes, wobble about and hide behind harmonies. Plainchant is supposed to be pure and sung in unison, and if you get it wrong it sounds awful. It's good training.

I'm not very good at it, but I want to try and at least remind the people of Swanvale Halt that such a thing as plainchant exists, so when we keep one of the big feast days on a day which isn't a Sunday I try to use one of the Office Hymns, which I sing as an introit so the people can pray with it. Last Tuesday was of course the Transfiguration so I introduced the mass in the morning with this hymn from the English Hymnal, sung to the melody Coelestis Gloriae. It took me ages to get my head around, mainly because I couldn't find an example of it to guide me anywhere online, but finally it clicked and after a lot of practice I was able to make my way through the whole thing pretty bearably. Unfortunately on the day I ended up on the wrong note to start the second stanza and went badly awry though I managed to get it back on the right track for the third.

The next time we do a bit of plainchant will be on Michaelmas Day at the end of September when I've set the Office Hymn, 'Christ the fair glory of the holy angels', as our communion hymn to the tune Iste Confessor which I already know as it's used for the office hymn at Candlemas, so we'll see how that works out. The choir are confident they can do it!

Monday, 5 August 2013

Saints Alive

It's ages ago now, but we went to the National Gallery and quite by chance realised that Michael Landry's exceedingly odd but also exceedingly fun exhibition Saints Alive was on, as it still is (and is free to go in to) until 24th November. The bland description of 'a display of kinetic sculptures made from recycled materials' belies how wickedly amusing and strangely devout, in a mad way, the show is. Mr Landry was given virtual carte blanche to come up with a display interpreting the art of the Gallery, and while wandering around was struck, as he explains, by the religious content of so much of the collection and in particular the presence of Christian saints. From there he looked into their legends and, as we could have told him, some of those legends are very bizarre indeed.

So here you are greeted by a gigantic statue of St Apollonia who, when the visitor presses a pad, yanks out one of her own teeth with a pair of pincers. Through a doorway you come across a fibreglass torso atop a strange contraption of gears, wheels and chains which beats itself on the chest very dramatically with a stone, representing St Jerome attempting to combat sexual distractions. Further along St Peter Martyr's cranium is being perpetually chopped with a scimitar, while the upper body of St Francis of Assisi sits atop a collection box - pop in a coin and he will obligingly beat himself on the head with a crucifix. The most extreme contribution is the one inspired by St Thomas which, obedient to St John's Gospel Chapter 20 verse 27, consists of an arm endlessly jabbing into the side of Christ with such vigorous force that the entire thing actually lifts off the ground and clatters back down again with a bang. By November I expect Jesus will actually have a hole in his side. St Catherine is represented by an enormous spiked wheel (what else?) which you can have a go at turning, comparatively mild compared to the rest of it. There are any number of collages decorating the walls too.

I actually thought this was a huge hoot and not at all blasphemous, but then that's me.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Readers and Their Doings

Our Reader is brilliant. She is an academic person but when she preaches manages to wear her learning very lightly at the same time as giving people plenty of good content. It’s a great gift.

But what are Readers for? Not long after I arrived I had a consultation with Lillian about what her role in the parish might be. It wasn’t going to be taking funerals, and most of our services are Eucharistic so the scope for her to lead worship was limited. We worked out a preaching schedule and she leads Taize services every other month, and has started a Bible study group.
The trouble with Readers – who you are not supposed to call Readers, they have been Licensed Lay Ministers in this area since 2001 – is that their distinctive role has been eroded over the years from both ends. What I mean is this. In its late-Victorian origin, the Anglican office of Reader, inspired by the ancient Minor Order of Lector, was intended to enable laypeople literally to read the Scriptures in a liturgical setting where previously that job had been the reserve of clergy and parish clerks. Readers got a badge and that was it. Gradually in the 20th century they became ‘clericalised’, still laypeople but allowed to dress up like clergy – first in a cassock and surplice, then with their distinctive blue preaching scarf. However, over recent decades the fact that laypeople are allowed to deliver the readings in services, and that a new category of non-stipendiary local clergy has been established, has meant that the Reader no longer looks quite so special. He or she is a sort of sub-vicar who can’t do anything that no one else can. One incumbent in this diocese was reported as having decided to put two parishioners who expressed a sense of vocation forward as Ordained Local Ministers rather than Readers on the grounds that OLMs would be more useful and training Readers was a waste of time; in Lamford an OLM had been ‘tried out’ by one of the previous incumbents as a Reader to ‘see how she did’ while another gentleman who had been rejected for the priesthood was advised by the same Rector to train as a Reader instead (sensibly he refused). The response to this unclarity has been to up the educational qualifications, and Readers now undergo a rather rigorous four-year theological training (probably a bit more involved than mine was!).

 At college we discussed Readers and wondered whether it might not be sensible, given that we were all being constantly told how special and wonderful the Diaconate was, to ordain all the existing ones as Deacons and have done with it. The trouble was that Deacons obviously have sacramental and pastoral roles as well as preaching and teaching ones. So that didn’t quite add up either.
On Tuesday I was out at a meeting for local vocations advisors, of whom I have the inestimable honour of being one, and we were addressed by the Warden of Readers for the diocese. She described Readers as ‘lay theologians’ whose ministry was specifically to make links between the lay world beyond the Church and the tradition they are charged with interpreting and reflection on. That would not result in a role which could be easily constrained, but which might lead to all sorts of involvement with groups and structures in and beyond the Church. That was the first time I’d heard it described in such terms and I’m grateful for it. Look for people who ask questions and want to make connections, we were advised: they may be your Readers.