Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Sharing and Not Sharing

Years ago in the Church Times there was a cartoon showing a sour-faced gentleman sat in a pew in church surrounded by barbed wire and all the makings of a small gun emplacement. The caption read, 'Mr Grainger made it very clear that he did not want to share the Peace'.

There was a lady I didn't recognise at the 8am service on Sunday, so naturally I greeted her at the door with a word of welcome; her unsmiling and loud reply was 'Is there a church I can go to in this area where you don't have to do that horrible handshaking thing?' That horrible handshaking thing is the Osculum Pacis, the moment in the mass where the congregation are encouraged to greet one another with the benediction of the peace brought us by the sacrifice of Christ - or at least that's the theory - and it was restored to the Anglican liturgy in the reforms of the late 1960s, so after nearly fifty years it's increasingly hard to avoid. In typically English fashion the practice of actually kissing anyone, or even the elaborate forms of embracing prescribed in the old Western rite, has been whittled away into a shake of the hands. 'If you go to Hornington Parish Church at 8am you will find a service that follows the order of the Book of Common Prayer', I advised, 'and there will be no handshaking there'. 'I find it a bit awkward', said Ms Formerly Aldgate when I related the tale, 'But I would have been more polite about it.'

I find the Peace rather valuable as a point at which we are compelled to turn away from our own individual contemplation of the holy mysteries and bring ourselves consciously into the company of the faithful. I've been to services where I have been given the Peace in the most cursory and offhand manner imaginable, but far more often have had a sense of genuine warmth in the very small and simple gesture of someone wishing me Christ's peace in the undemonstrative way one English human being greets another - even if they don't know me from Adam.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014


We managed to get through the Churches Together United Service on Sunday. This has customarily been held in Hornington Parish Church, as the oldest and biggest place of worship in the area, but last year there was a distinct move - for all sorts of reasons - that this tradition should be broken and the Swanvale Halt partisans managed to persuade the executive that the service, which brings together, in theory, all the churches in the area, should come here. I was sceptical to say the least. The United Service has to find space for a lot of people - not, perhaps, the 450 which legend has reported in the past, but still a good few - and enough leg room for them to move around and take communion, as well as a spot for a band. This year the young minister-in-training from the Baptist Church did the planning (in an Anglican church he'd be a curate, but they don't use that terminology) and somehow, with a lot of willingness on the part of our team to move chairs around and be flexible and responsive to whatever came up, including rushing out to buy non-alcoholic wine when we realised nobody had got any, it all happened with relative smoothness. We proved the service will work in Swanvale Halt church, that we can fit 300 or so people and everything else that needs to happen. Things could be tweaked, of course, but it worked.

That means we'll have to do it again next year.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Swanvale Halt Film Club: Byzantium (2012)

If you're going to do a film about vampires and make it even semi-tolerably un-clichéd and fresh, perhaps you simply must divest the motif of all its baggage, create an entirely different genealogy for the vampire which has nothing to do with Carpathian mountains and counts in capes, and set the story in a down-at-heel corner of the UK. We found Neil Jordan's movie very entertaining, rather reticent and quiet in much of its tone interspersed with the occasional but well-handled moment of lurid incident, and enough good ideas to keep it interesting. What remains unexplained doesn't really need explaining - although we were left reflecting that 'Byzantium' is a pretty weird name to give a guest house, in Hastings or anywhere else.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Reluctantly Inclusive

Many years ago I designed a joke logo for an organisation I wanted to call Exclusive Church. It consisted of a portcullis with a cross on the top. It was, of course, a jesting riposte to Inclusive Church, the organisation founded in response to the dreadful mess in 2003 when Jeffrey John's nomination as the new Bishop of Reading was withdrawn after several large evangelical churches in the diocese of Oxford kicked up a stink over his sexuality. For a couple of years one of our churchwardens, a nice, liberal former local councillor, has mentioned the idea of Swanvale Halt church subscribing to Inclusive Church. The other day its national chair, our new cathedral Dean, came to the PCC to talk about it.

Oh dear. There's so much about the style of Inclusive Church which instinctively gets on my nerves. The bouncy-happy modernity, the multicoloured jellybean presentation. It's not me. That's quite apart from anything that might approach principle; I don't like the organisations which Inclusive Church has partnered with in the past, from the Group for Rescinding the Act of Synod  to the Modern Churchpeople's Union, now redubbed Modern Church . Some of these organisations have institutional members on Inclusive Church's board of trustees, though they are always outweighed by independent members. I don't agree with their statement of hope that the Church will move towards admitting same-sex couples to the sacrament of matrimony. I've seen membership of Inclusive Church as a signal that you and your church don't regard as very important the things I, as still something of an Anglo-Catholic, regard as important.

All that said, I found the Dean's exposition of Inclusive Church worryingly appealing. She explained how the organisation had certainly arisen from those core concerns about the ministry of women and the equality of same-sex relationships, but how it had broadened into a means of thinking theologically about the exclusion of various different categories of people from Church life: at the moment they're concentrating on mental illness and what that means for Christians. Inclusive Church's focus is not on campaigning, though it links with various organisations that do campaign on single issues, but on thought and analysis. "So as regards equal marriage", she said, "We want to think about what marriage means to the Church and society, rather than just coming up with a statement. Some people who support the ordination of women, for instance, just say, that's that, you should admit women to all three orders of ministry and there's nothing to think about. The shame of that is that with more thought and consideration we could have thought differently about what orders actually mean."

I find that rather interesting and creative. It's quite often the case that you support an organisation without agreeing with everything it says and does. Seeing Inclusive Church as a means of doing theological work on the nature of the Church and its people alters the picture somewhat, and I can now just about envisage myself being able to argue that having its logo on our wall isn't a sign of subscribing to a set of trigger issues, but something bigger, deeper, and more worthwhile. Never say I can't be persuaded.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014


I decided to put this image here not because Swanvale Halt is anywhere near Wisbech, but because when Googling for 'Churches Together' I found this and rather liked it. I like the fact that the fish has an eye, you don't often get that. I like the fact that it says 'Church Together', implying that this ecumenical structure only actually involves one congregation. That's the sort of ecumenism we approve of.

To adapt an old joke, clergy, to have their best effect rather than lying around making a smell, should be spread about, like manure. So in Churches Together in Hornington & District we managed last Sunday to move a few of the ministers around, 'pulpit swapping' as the phrase is. I went from presiding at our 8am mass to speaking at the Roman Catholic one which follows immediately afterwards, and then to the Baptists to preach there while our Anglican congregation was addressed by one of the Sisters from the local RC convent.

Certainly it was a valuable experience as far as I was concerned. I spoke to the RCs about what the primacy of Peter meant in an Anglican understanding, and found the service straightforward and understated, very much like our 8am mass on a larger scale: it's the sort of thing you'd go to if you wanted a meditative, calm and quiet celebration of the sacrament to set you up for the week. The Baptist service had a warmth and gentleness about it which was very welcome too, and not really what I expected. So I got quite a bit out of the exercise; can't speak for the people, of course.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Labour In Vine

This is actually rather an unusual picture as you can see blue sky in it, a rare sight indeed at present in the environs of Swanvale Halt. But that's not the point. I didn't actually realise I had a vine until a friend pointed it out several years ago. On occasion since then it has even produced some palatable grapes; but in common with everything else in the garden it's gone a bit wild and straggly and needs restraint. In a book on medieval gardens I came across the idea of training vines across a frame so that in summer they form an area of shade and the grapes can be easily reached, and so this is what I'm attempting with mine. I will now wait to see whether it responds as intended, or just dies of pique.

Friday, 17 January 2014

End of Life

One of my parishioners asked me whether I’d be willing to carry out a funeral service for someone who’d signed a Non-Resuscitation Agreement, ‘because I’ve signed one’, he said, ‘and I’ve heard of priests who treat it as amounting to suicide and won’t’. ‘I’ve got no intention of popping my clogs yet,’ he went on, ‘But if my heart does stop I don’t want to be kept going wired and tubed up to a machine’. Patients who have signed the form, apparently, have to put a symbol on the gatepost so that when the paramedics turn up they know to go into the house and retrieve the paperwork. I assured him that I had no problem with the idea. The Prayer Book merely states that the Funeral Office is not to be used ‘for them that have laid violent hands upon themselves’- although it gives no guidance as to what ministers are supposed to do instead – and, of course, we all follow the Prayer Book implicitly. There’s a clear difference between laying violent hands upon yourself, and insisting on your life not being artificially prolonged.

At least so we instinctively feel; or is there? The intentional suicide takes life, and as it is their own life, dies, so an old-fashioned view might argue, in a state of mortal sin. But nobody I have known kill themselves, or who was tempted to do so, was in a sound mental state. Terrible though the act always is, the suicidal person has tragically reached the point where they can’t see beyond their own pain and despair, and you may question the degree of responsibility such a person has. Yet, if mere life is the criterion the Church is to judge by, then setting down the circumstances in which you would ask medical professionals not to keep that life going when they could is perhaps morally no different from catching the plane to the death clinics in Switzerland at a time of your choosing, and both acts witness to an intentionality greater than that of the mentally disturbed suicide.

We often talk about dying naturally and distinguish it from being ‘kept alive artificially’ by all the paraphernalia of modern medicine. Yet most of the time a natural death at the hands of disease or injury is the last thing we want: if we have useful years of life left to live, we want that artificial intervention. The dreadful paradox of modern medicine is that exactly the same miraculous technology and the same medical ethic that drive the saving of life when we do want it are the same as those which drive the extension of life beyond the point where it burdens us; you can’t have one without the other. Again, an old-fashioned Christian ethic might have condemned the removal from God’s hands of the control over when a human being dies; yet, if God’s will is seen as being expressed by natural forces as opposed to human acts, then any medical intervention at all is a rebellion against God, and we tend not to think that.

Our language is inadequate to express the problems posed by our technological advances; and, although the purpose of the Church’s moral categories and strictures is, rightly, to insist on the absolute worth of human life, when that insistence produces perverse results in terms of inflicting pain and damage on real people you have to question whether we really understand our own ethic. Clearly ‘mere life’ is not what we are talking about, and there has to be some sense of a life having value – but the decision as to where value lies is profoundly dangerous. It can’t be its value to the person alone, or you are left with nothing to say to the suicide in their hopelessness. It can’t be its value to society, or you are left with no weapon against the eugenicist. Could it be the value of a life to God? But what is the value of a human life to God?

If we are God’s children, and life is his gift to us, does a loving parent force an unwanted gift on their child? They might, if it would do them objective good. But what might that good be, if the life is burdensome and painful? ‘Who of you fathers’, says Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, ‘when your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him.’ God is not cruel and is not arbitrary. What he gives us must be with reason. The question is whether a particular state or situation is his gift, or just part of the world’s arbitrarily-distributed pain, and whether working with that pain will do us or anyone else any good, any longer. 

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Swanvale Halt Film Club: The Turin Horse (2011)

All right, it was my fault that we even tried to watch this film: I was intrigued by the concept of starting from the incident in 1889 when the philosopher Nietzsche attempted to stop a horse from being whipped in the main square in Turin, suffered some sort of paroxysm and spent the rest of his life silent in an asylum. Director Bela Tarr decided to ask the question, What happened to the horse?

What happens to it at the start of this film is that it pulls a cart along a stretch of misty road towards the tumbledown barn where it lives with a carter who has a dodgy arm and his daughter. Fighting a gale, they unharness the horse and put it and the cart away. This all takes about half an hour. For the next two hours of monochrome 'action' the two of them get up, dress, eat potatoes, and go about dreary daily tasks, enlivened only by the visits of a belligerent man in search of a drink who tells the carter at some length that the world is going to the dogs, and a group of raucous gypsies in a wagon. The horse is a sad-looking nag and not in the best of health though because we were desperately skipping through the footage searching for dialogue, I'm not sure whether it actually dies by the end. The last ten minutes or so of the film is entirely black, with a few lines of speech or directorial voiceover.

Of course this is all an almost clunkingly-obvious slow apocalypse in which the humans face the end of their little world and by implication the world as a whole. Critical opinion of The Turin Horse seems to be near-ecstatic, though I have a suspicion that people who review it positively are largely congratulating themselves for being tough enough to sit through the relentless boredom, while to refuse to do so is to admit you are a superficial philistine. I suppose it might have a sort of hypnotic quality to it if you persevere, though you may equally decide life is too short to bother.

My main problem with it is the fakeness of the whole exercise. The black-and-white cinematography concentrating doggedly on domestic minutiae implies a stern realism, but it's framed within a completely unreal situation. At one point the carter decides they have to leave, and so he and his daughter pack up their meagre goods and set off in the cart. They seem to circle the top of the hill, announce 'there's nothing there', and go back to the housestead again. But there must be something there! The stranger who visits the house talks about going into town; the gypsies, logically, can't emerge ex nihilo. In reality people in bleak situations come up with all sorts of ways of coping, or change them and go somewhere else; the couple in this film, apparently, aren't in a real situation at all. They are there only to dramatise (if such is the word) a nihilist philosophy, and that sense of disconnection from reality makes it very hard to care either about them or about the horse for that matter. And if such a philosophy can only be expressed through such an unreal narrative you have to question whether it can be taken seriously. It certainly has little to do with Nietzsche, who may have announced that God was dead but equally insisted that the death of God was a liberating experience for those human beings brave enough to accept it, and go about creating their own meaning in a world of infinite possibility. His ideas were anything but miserable resignation. The film, on the other hand, is basically an unimaginative presentation of a false proposition.


Saturday, 11 January 2014


This lovely photograph doesn't show our Crib at Swanvale Halt, but the scene in a friend's church, St Mary's Thorpe, set up for Epiphany last week. Their crib sits within the old high altar which you can see on the right side of the photograph; ours is a bit more homespun, and over the last couple of years I've found ways of mounting it closer and closer to the floor so that the roof of the thing doesn't actually poke over the top of the altar itself.

The Crib had its revenge last Sunday, though, when I moved it from in front of the altar to the side of the church and put my back out in the process, an injury I haven't quite recovered from. Today it needs to be dismantled and put away (I think - there are differences of opinion as to when this should be done) and I will be taking extra care that it exacts no punishment on me this time.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Of Neglected Ecclesiological Observances

Mr Smart from St Michael's Bedford Park in 1933 (from the Richmond & Twickenham Times) here illustrates the ambiguities of the role of the Subdeacon. The reason I was thinking of these ambiguities was finding a role for our retired priest, Jack, in the Christmas services as he is a bit wobbly at the moment. He could subdeacon at the Midnight, we thought - but what does a subdeacon actually do? Look up the standard liturgical authorities such as The Parson's Handbook or Ritual Notes and the answer seems to be many functions which are now normally done by laypeople, and nothing specifically applying to a person in holy orders. very clearly states that what a subdeacon does is 'Mostly just stand around being fantastic'.

The fact that nothing that the subdeacon does is a specifically clerical function is reflected in the confusion regarding what the subdeacon is. In the Western Church, it developed into one of the Major Orders, separated from the Minor Orders such as Lector and Doorkeeper, while in the East it remained connected with them in the list of Minor Orders. However clergy hardly if ever remained at the level of Subdeacon, and when there was one in a Solemn High Mass the role was almost invariably taken by someone in priest's or deacon's orders; except when, in the Anglican Church after the Catholic Revival, a layperson such as Mr Smart here illustrated did it. I remember at my old church in High Wycombe when I acted as MC for Mass I occasionally wore the subdeacon's tunicle, I think entirely incorrectly as there was no deacon taking part.

The range of liturgical bits and pieces which are traditionally the subdeacon's province - crucifering, reading the Epistle, holding the Gospel book, preparing the vessels and performing the ablutions for the celebrant - are, as I say, nothing specifically clerical and are normally nowadays distributed among a range of lay servers. That makes it hard to probe through the smoke of liturgical history and try to uncover a proper Catholic understanding of why one might bother to have a subdeacon at all. I suspect, having done a bit too much thinking about it, that this confusion of status and function is actually the purpose of it. The transitional nature of the Subdeacon, caught somewhere between the lay and the ordained state, makes the point that clergy are not different sorts of human beings from laypeople, but represent the functions and calling of the whole people of God, nowhere dramatised as effectively as in the Liturgy itself: ironically, though typically in the history of religion, perhaps the opposite meaning to the one it came to embody. Does that, I wonder, make sense?

NOTE: I decided to look up Mr Smart's old church, St Michael, Chiswick, and found a moderately Anglo-Catholic church with two people on the staff they describe as subdeacons, quite distinct from their Reader (although I see that both subdeacons are on the preaching rota), Sacristan, and MC. Obviously a local tradition - but I wonder what the thinking is behind having this separate category of people.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

The Words That Maketh [Right Wing Newspapers Scream Blue] Murder

Until now, the glorious Polly Jean Harvey has always come over politically as, if anything, vaguely most comfortable on the Right. She dismisses feminism as of no interest; she is a determined consumer of meat; she supports hunting. A famous encounter on Andrew Marr's sofa with a positively oleaginous David Cameron did nothing, really, to dispel this impression, only complicate it.

Now, every now and again Radio 4's flagship news programme Today hands itself into the tender care of a Guest Editor, people who have expertise in some other field than broadcasting and who are given carte blanche to commission pieces of interest to them. On the morning of January 2nd, PJH became one of these guest editors, and the results have, it is fair to say, not gone down universally well. For someone accustomed to universal acclamation for nearly a quarter of a century now, I wonder what she makes of this. I only caught bits of the programme on the day, but this morning skimmed through the whole thing.

The morning began shortly after 6 with a short piece read by Ms Harvey announcing her intentions - and making clear what her demands had been. She would pick her contributors and then set them going on the absolute condition that their items would not be altered without their consent. She would intersperse the journalism with poems and bits of music that illustrated the themes. Easily the most bizarre of these was prefacing the pre-7am weather bulletin with a full play of Tom Waits singing Strange Weather. She would not only affect the content of the flagship of British national radio but also its form, and, in fact, break it apart. The great shibboleth of all broadcast journalism, balance, was shown the door, although after a hatchet job on the economic role of the City of London a lady from some investment firm did make some attempt to justify it, and John Humphries rather effectively, I thought, cornered Phil Shiner from Public Interest Lawyers. At various points the presenters, Sarah Montague and Mishal Husain, floundered with the alterations to their usual iron timetables, and I'm sure, as someone who usually times their morning by what's on Today, I would also have done, had I not been on holiday. I imagine it was this that provoked as much ire from regular listeners as the actual content.

But what content. Personal accounts from Kenya and Ulster of torture at the hands of British forces, and testimonies from wounded servicemen about their experiences. Examinations of the role of money and power in the City and the arms trade, and even a rant from Dave Zirin about the effects of money in sport with special reference to the Olympics. A lot of it was deeply tendentious, and giving vent to the opinions of John Pilger and Julian Assange is not as radical as it seems: do either of them have anything very new to say? But they drive the Daily Mail into paroxysms of disbelieving rage so, yes, let them have their five minutes apiece. It's worth it. The bravest editorial decision of all was to let former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams read his poetry. God, Polly, you know how to dice with danger.

It was, cumulatively, draining. Usually the Today presenters defuse and lighten the appalling deluge of political and international crap they have to report on with banter and badinage, but there was precious little of that going on. Rather they seemed to feel constrained to keep having to explain to listeners why the programme was as screwed-up as it appeared to be. Nor do I necessarily go along with all of it: panegyrics to the NHS go down ill with me as the NHS arguably killed my father and had a pretty good stab at killing both my mother and sister at different times, but I have no doubt that Dorset County - the hospital local both to Ms Harvey and Clive Stafford-Smith who did the piece - is an impeccable institution. But the whole show, tough though it may be to take, served to remind us - if we knew - that there are deep structures which cause things to happen to individual people, and that those structures are themselves composed of individual people, making innumerable decisions and indecisions which affect how the structures develop and act. Accidental socialism, you might describe it.

At least, Ms Harvey in her introduction did her best to make it seem almost accidental. It was like most of her other pronouncements: apparently revealing while in fact intensely controlled and distant, edging on the disingenuous. What she did was immensely daring: to take an institution weighed with expectations, and just to rip it up, not just to slip her own interests into it, which is what the guest editors are supposed to do, but simply, brutally, to exploit the opportunity to make a statement. That deserves some respect, regardless.

You can, should you so desire, listen to the programme here.

Friday, 3 January 2014

New Year's Eve

We were determined to drag ourselves to the capital for Reptile's New Year's Eve party, as for residents living out beyond the suburbs it's the only night when one can stay late and still catch a train home before the following Sunday morning. It's also the night when Reptile takes over the whole of the Minories premises and the Goths can spread out in leisurely but obviously still pestilential fashion into the other half of the pub with its congenial cages and cubbyholes. For some reason there was a strange undercurrent of discomfort which several people remarked on. Apparently there was some kind of tantrum later in the evening after we left; the fire alarms went off at one point; and one friend remarked on the difficulties presented by having to wade through shoals of bustles to reach the bar. I put it down to the event being remarkably busy making it therefore harder to move around, to see, and to hear anyone even than it usually is.

'You could tell who were the regulars and who was there just for New Year', it was said, the line being between those who came wearing 'meringues' and those in more sensible attire. 'Goth does have an element of panto' commented another person, 'which is why I don't have anything to do with it any more'. Yes, it does indeed, and the dividing line, I prefer to think, is not to be found between this or that style or elaboration of dress or between people who are or aren't club regulars, but between knowing that it is panto and not realising the fact. And beneath the fanfalou and folderol of pantomime, remember, there are matters of deadly seriousness - and that juxtaposition is exactly what makes Goth both terribly amusing and quite interesting, quite apart from the pleasant individuals one might meet there.

We left the Minories at about 1.30 and fought our way through the Tube, out and into the one-way system which operates around Waterloo on New Year's Eve. This is the third year I have done this, and the route seems to grow more extensive each time. I could hardly believe it when, funnelled with the thousands of other lost souls stumbling through increasingly rain- and wind-lashed Southwark streets not quite knowing where we all were, I saw a sign pointing towards Blackfriars Station which we'd passed through about forty minutes before; we should have got out then. We must have walked for over a mile, and the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds began much earlier than last year. Arriving at Waterloo just before 3am only to find there was no 3am train to Guildford after all, we 'enjoyed' a bagel and execrable tea from one of the station outlets before spotting a train scheduled to leave, apparently, at 3.35 - a horrible, raucous, weary train as it happened, and one which meant getting back in to the rectory at 5, strongly suspecting that alternative plans may be made for next year.