Monday, 24 February 2014

I Was Wondering What To Post About ...

... and Dr Helen-Ann Hartley, newly-consecrated Bishop of Waikato in New Zealand and the first woman ordained in England to be elevated to the episcopal bench, solved my dilemma.
Nobody is going to take women bishops seriously until they at least discover a catalogue from Watts of Exeter. It is no real excuse to blame the Colonies as one sees similar excrescences here, but by way of mitigation the whole New Zealand hierarchy does seem to have got its schmutter from Christmas crackers. 

As the great Pugin once said in despair to a priest who lamentably fell short of his exacting standards, 'What is the use, my dear sir, of praying for the conversion of England in a cope like that?'

Friday, 21 February 2014

On the Ground

On my day off yesterday I heard Frank Field MP and the ubiquitous Fr Giles Fraser on the radio as part of the continuing story of religious leaders criticising the Government's welfare reforms, beginning with soon-to-be Cardinal Vincent Nichols and then a statement to which many of the Anglican bishops gave their names a couple of days ago. "What the bishops are doing is reflecting the experience they have seen through their clergy on the ground", Giles Fraser commented. "My church in south London is opening as a homeless shelter, we have people sleeping in our pews overnight, we are cooking for them. Homelessness in London has gone up 60 per cent in the last two years, this is the reality. Please acknowledge this."

Naturally, things differ from one place to another. Here in a superficially affluent area we do have a foodbank, established in one of the local churches some time before the current welfare reforms began, and I haven't enquired into the circumstances in which people find themselves using its services most often, although I understand it does a disturbing amount of business. However my impression from talking to people is that while the foodbank is there, and things are indeed tight for quite a lot of people, a struggle to make ends meet isn't necessarily the great social fact in this area, and while homeless people do pass through, that's not a huge problem either. Very much more people of working age seem to find the great oppression they face is work itself, the amount of time taken up with travel to and from work, the burdens work places and constraints it forces on family and community life; the sense in which they face a dreadful trade-off between material security on the one hand and, on the other, the elements of life that security is supposed to support and make possible. Linked with this is an anxious competitiveness concentrated on children and schools, on maximising the supposed life-chances of your offspring at any cost. So much of it seems based on a fantasy of the way the world really works, but that's easy for me to say, freed as I am by my stipend from the necessity of working for a living. The connection between the problems the bishops are complaining about and the way things seem to me, here, is that the approach to welfare which produces the one is generated by the ideology of competition and achievement which are reflected in the other. 

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Swanvale Halt Film Club: Hitchcock (2012)

We rather enjoyed this. I suppose part of the point is to highlight the crucial role Alma Reville played even in Hitchcock's greatest cinematic triumphs, and that the film, and Helen Mirren playing her, do very effectively. Anthony Hopkins's Hitch is positively toadish on some occasions, hinting at the truly horrible side of his character rather than the mildly troubling which is most of what you get. Elements of the gleefully macabre are exactly what one expects, and of course you can't go for 98 minutes without Funeral March of a Marionette cropping up, but it's there to do no more than add a lovely frisson of Gothic cosiness. There's nothing deep or life-changing here, or even anything that'll change one's views of Hitchcock, but it's ever so well-made.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Water, Water

Thankfully, the parish of Swanvale Halt hasn't suffered too badly from the recent extreme weather. Between the village and Hornington there are meadows which are there in order to absorb floodwater, and so flood they have, and it's been remarkable to see the resulting lake appear and recede several times over the course of the last couple of months. The parish largely clings to the northern side of Swanvale Hill, and then, very broadly speaking, slopes downward to the river. It's the area at the bottom of the hill, a mixture of old cottages, terraced houses and more modern developments, which has seen the worst problems.

Our other problem has been repeated power cuts and we had one of those on Saturday, so with all the possibilities of non-computer-based work exhausted I went to see what was going on at the foot of the hill, and to visit Martha, a relatively recently-arrived member of the congregation who's been heavily involved in churches elsewhere and who lives in a Council bungalow in a 1960s development on the flattest of the flat land near the river. She showed me some of the empty houses whose residents were boated out by the Council on Christmas Eve when the first floods arrived; about twelve of the properties are still occupied, including hers. There are sandbags at doors and as you pass some of the empty buildings you can actually smell mildew. At the back of Martha's bungalow is a tall bank fringing an older development of houses to the north. She told me that when she moved in the water running down from the rest of the parish to the north, and through the grass bank immediately above, made the house so damp that for months she'd regularly find huge slugs on the kitchen floor. She got used to waking in the night and going out to collect and expel them. Eventually the Council dug a trench around the house, fitted new drains and sorted out the water problem, but it took a while.

We talked about what the church might do in this situation. In more floodstruck parts of the county the churches have been thoroughly involved in the relief effort and the natural response is to think about helping too. We concluded that there wasn't much to be done in our own area apart from encouraging people to keep an eye on their neighbours: I know from experience that all the people I have contact with who might be considered 'vulnerable' have plenty of folk looking in on them. That doesn't sound much, but perhaps it's not a bad thing that not much else is needed.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

This is *Why* it Makes No Sense

‘I know why we’re having these floods and storms’, Mad Trevor told me seriously, ‘It’s because of gay marriage.’ We probably don’t need to spend much time on refuting this thesis, although it might be worth noting in passing that it is a poor explanation for extreme weather events being driven by the same global climate system in a variety of nations and cultures. But a day or so later I was invited to a prayer meeting for our local MP. I couldn’t have gone even had I wanted to, but I do wonder what the focus of such a meeting was. I first remember people from some of our congregations talking about this when said MP was in a bit of highly-publicised trouble a couple of years ago, with the suggestion that he be invited to a meeting at which he would be prayed for. The incumbent of Hornington, at whose church the Honourable Member occasionally turns up on a Sunday morning, did suggest he might not find this an entirely comfortable experience either on a personal level or considering the potential publicity that might result. We do pray for our MP, along with our local councillors and Council staff, and a variety of aspects of our community’s life, on a monthly cycle. But that clearly isn’t what a ‘prayer meeting for our MP’ means. I haven’t asked, but have a suspicion that at the back of people’s minds is the thought that God might be able to influence him in some way, or that he might even be converted and become a champion of Christian causes; perhaps, oh, just plucking one randomly out of the air, opposing gay marriage. This concern with the Christian content of our public policy-making did connect, in my mind, with Trevor’s statement about bad weather being caused by sexual minorities.

Does God view the law of the State in this way and behave accordingly? The Old Testament might lead one to answer very emphatically Yes. Vast swathes of the Books of the Prophets are precisely about that theme: Israel abandoning its wholehearted allegiance to YHWH and being thoroughly Smited as a result. In fact, the whole of what we call the Old Testament only exists in its current form because the Jews in exile were trying to work out where they’d gone wrong in their relationship with their God. Jesus suggests that the relationship between corporate sinfulness and dreadful events is by no means simply assignable to the intervention of God, but the idea is still there. I remember reading Archbishop Michael Ramsey’s insistence that it was possible for nations to apostasise and to suffer the withdrawal of God’s favour as a result, and wish I could recall the reference..

It is certainly the case that, as Christianity must insist on there being a spiritual realm to existence, and created beings having a foot in both the natural and the spiritual domains, so events in one may have repercussions in the other. Human sinfulness – a spiritual event – causes disturbance in the realm of nature. Isaiah the Prophet says that when people sin,

          The earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers,
          the exalted of the earth languish.
          The earth is defiled by its people:
          they have disobeyed the laws, violated the statutes
          And broken the everlasting covenant.
          Therefore a curse consumes the earth; its people must bear their guilt.

But there are distinctions between the accumulation of individual sin; the acts of governments; and God’s relationship with a nation as a whole, from which the nation may apostasise. Governments may enact good or bad legislation, but that doesn’t necessarily constitute a departure from a relationship with God, and in fact it’s hard to work out what might. None of this is very obvious. Lots of Christians are very, very concerned with the idea of Britain as ‘a Christian nation’, and it losing this identity, which is something different from how far its population is or isn’t actively Christian. For some of them, allowing same-sex couples to marry is the final point of rupture; others would draw the line in the sand elsewhere, although they may not be very clear about it.

I doubt the whole concept makes sense even in Christian terms. I found myself reflecting that God only ever created one nation, namely Israel. They were his people, chosen and in fact generated for the specific purpose of revealing his nature and preparing the ground for his incarnation. By the time of the collapse of the Israelite Kingdoms, that purpose was over. The building of the Second Temple and the events recorded in the Apocrypha, much as the Israelites read God’s purposes into them, were a futile effort to get it right a second time, to create a racially and ideologically pure Israel that would please God. But it was too late. The promises embedded in the writings of the Prophets applied to a different kind of Messiah, and to a New Israel, the Church that Messiah would create by his life, death and resurrection.

Israel aside, every other polity has nothing to do, per se, with God’s will and purposes. This is pretty clear from what St Paul says about human political authority in the 13th chapter of the Letter to the Romans. Paul stresses that the secular authorities exercise God’s power, but he’s talking about the pagan Imperium Romanum, which obviously doesn’t have any kind of covenantal relationship with God. This is exactly the same authority which will, in time, lock Christians up and throw them to the lions; yet Paul sees it as having, nevertheless, its own legitimacy and autonomy. If the secular power does carry out God’s will, it’s unconsciously and not as a result of any special relationship with him. Even the confessional state, with an official Church embedded into its structures, is not a covenanted one – the relationship of Church and State in England, for instance, is accidental and historical, mediated through the person of the monarch. The initiative didn’t come from God.

God only ever created one nation, and that nation, as a political entity expressing a covenant, is gone. All other nations, states and peoples are human arrangements, historical accidents, and they can’t fall into apostasy, never having had that bound relationship with him. Mistaking our existing political arrangements for a divine covenant, reading the history of the present through the distorting filter of Israel’s concocted past, is to make a near-sacrilegious error. I think.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Tat That Redefines the Term

Our curate will (all being well) be ordained priest this summer. A traditional gift for a new priest is a set of red vestments, red being the colour for a votive mass of the Holy Spirit. However she needn't think about getting this, which popped up on eBay a few days ago. It's an 18th-century Spanish-pattern red velvet chasuble with silver embroidery and looks so heavy you'd barely be able to move. As a friend pointed out to me, it has sequins too. I think the seller was asking about £1200 for it.

Saturday, 8 February 2014


This fearsome implement, which has made me feel rather like a character from Monkey as I have stumped up the rain-streaming garden steps with it over the last few weeks, is my long-handled pruning saw, and it has made possible my winter campaign of inflicting discipline on the garden. I started the process way back in November (I think - my memories are dim on this point), working around the front of the house, the beds either side of it, and up the slope to the east before hacking at the ivy, the bay tree, and the laurels, uprooting any brambles wherever I find them. I have found it hard to credit, fighting my way through a straggling, overgrown laurel bush in wind and rain and struggling to get a purchase with the saw on a towering overmighty stalk which is an inch or two too far away to reach with any comfort, how the twigs can find their way into my eyes, ears, and even up my nose, with such painful and maddening regularity.

But as of a couple of days ago, the Great Prune is DONE. I hope that with a bit of foresight I'll be able to keep on top of things in years to come and not have to engage in quite so extensive a process of horticultural cleansing again.

Some hope.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Gothic Evolution

One of the things that fascinates me is how, why and to what extent people change the style they may have adopted for themselves. Of course some Goths, once they have become such, stay exactly the same as they were at 18. Others move away from the subcultural world completely, once it’s fulfilled whatever need it was that drove them there in the first place. Those who stay, but change, I find most interesting.

Now, many, many years ago I used to contribute to the Goth magazine Meltdown with the odd article or review. The editor had set it up to make her fortune, or at least her reputation, although I don’t think it really managed either in the few years it was going. Meltdown had an in-house illustrator called Dr A who would come up with cartoons to accompany articles for which no sufficiently appealing photograph could be found. Here’s the one he did for my article on Gothic academic studies.

Dr A wasn’t just an illustrator. He also played synths with a band who started out calling themselves Sneaky Bat Machine and then in the very early 2000s morphed into Goteki. Goteki, or Sneaky Bat Machine, were broadly speaking a Cybergoth band. I’m pretty sure I’ve never listened to any of their output, but feel fairly confident that it would have been the kind of thing that makes more traditional Goths quiver with rage. ‘Sounds like an ‘80s computer game soundtrack’, commented IF magazine of their album, apparently. You don’t see many Cybergoths these days – you don’t see many Goths at all, of course, but Cybers are a near-invisible minority even within the subculture now, though once upon a time, in the late 90s and early 2000s, there were loads of them. Cybergoths mingled regulation black with fluorescent tubing hair extensions, enormous furry boots, and, ubiquitously, little black goggles perched high on the arrangement of multicoloured dreadlocks and plastic that served them for a hairstyle. So Dr A was one of these fellows. Here’s a picture of the band from their Goteki phase, from their one-time record label Wasp Factory: he’s the one on the left.
I had not spared any of this a thought for years. Then not long ago while looking for something else entirely I stumbled across an artist and sculptor/toymaker calling himself Doktor A. This Doctor constructs little Steampunkish characters from a strange fantasy world called Mechtorians, all of which have their own identities, histories, and, quite often, riveted brass moustaches. He exhibits them all over the place and sometimes people buy them. It was while looking at some of his drawings that I noticed affinities, little features, that reminded me of the cartoons of the other Dr A all those years ago. There were spirals – and you might say with some justice that attenuated spiral motifs pop up in all sorts of Gothic artistic places thanks to Tim Burton and The Nightmare Before Christmas – but they still leapt to my attention. And, buried away in the depths of Doktor A’s website there are little resin caricatures of the members of Sneaky Bat Machine, which can be yours for a mere £150. The Doctor and the Doktor are one and the same, even if the resemblance may be hard to glimpse in photographs.

But Dr A has eschewed his fluorescent tubes and gigantic boots in favour of a granddad shirt and a waistcoat. This is what he looks like nowadays, as depicted by His ‘artist’s biography’ somewhat unhelpfully informs the online enquirer that ‘raised by the military and monitored by men in white coats until he was 16, Doktor A has always scribbled monsters’, giving no clue as to the nature and causes of the artist’s shift over the last dozen years from Cybergoth to Steampunk. It’s a move from a style based on a fantasised vision of the future to one organised around a fantastic vision of the past – in which the only continuity is provided by goggles, except that now they’re brass and leather whereas once they were plastic. But they’re both outsider style, linked by a dissatisfaction with the aesthetics of the present and a determination to dress up. That’s the connection, I suppose.

Mind you, the question arises – now that Steampunk’s dead, where do we go from here?

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Little Issues

We took a momentous decision last week: to suspend Junior Church, the children's activities that operate in parallel with the main 10am Sunday morning mass. This is because on several occasions those activities have comprised one child on his own. Our other core of regulars has found it less and less easy to attend for different reasons. So we'll sort out some more appealing material for children to use at the back of church, and I'm putting together a children's communion booklet for younger worshippers to use. 

This doesn't mean there aren't children in church: there were over twenty at the Family Service on Sunday, and Toddler Praise, Church Club at school and Messy Church are doing fine. But they aren't around on ordinary Sunday mornings. 

Once upon a time, children had their own church activities. 'Sunday School' was on a Sunday afternoon, and parents would drop their children off and leave them there. It was specifically tailored to them. Then from the middle of the 1960s (at least in Swanvale Halt), with the renewed emphasis on the Parish Eucharist as the central act of Christian worship which everyone should take part in, children's activities were moved to Sunday mornings, held in parallel with the adult worship, and with children encouraged to take part on occasion. Gradually, these events became less a worship experience for children and more an adjunct to the adult service intended to keep the children occupied and taught so that families could come to the main service and not feel that the youngsters would be alienated or left out.

The problem for churches of a more traditional type comes when they designate a particular service as family-friendly. We did this in 1986 when the non-eucharistic Family Service was started. All very well in 1986 - but in 2014, with society making it far more difficult for anyone but the most committed young families to come to church at all, if you're parents with smallish children and you're choosing which Sunday in a month to attend worship, you'll pick the service which is organised around the children rather than the ones which aren't, even if there are other things provided for the children to do at the same time. I often get asked by baptism couples and other contacts whether we have a Sunday School - and even after being told we did, they still chose to come to the Family Service. My training parish, Lamford, had a different experience. There the first Sunday in the month was also a 'Family Mass', but it was also the service designated for baptisms (lots of them) which meant it was often so chaotic that church families chose not to come then either, and distributed themselves around the rest of the month. With a bigger congregation to start with, that made Sunday School more feasible on the other weeks (especially after a particularly unpopular teacher died and attendance shot up - a somewhat brutal example of 'sudden change' galvanising enthusiasm). Finally, specifically child-orientated worship at other times, such as Messy Church, provides another option which families prefer to attend.

There's no point fighting this, and instead we will put our time and energy into doing other things to help young worshippers and parents engage with God. I detect a certain degree of relief from the Junior Church leaders ...

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Out with the Devil

I am not accustomed to posting photographs of myself on these pages, but here I am a couple of months ago with little Jocelyn at the font, an image kindly sent me by her parents. I now have a little archive of these baptism snaps, which form not only a record of my clerical career to date, but also the effects of time on the quantity of my hair.

The Church of which I have the honour to be an ordained minister is considering a range of experimental alternative texts for the baptism service, which arose out of a request by the General Synod a couple of years ago to come up with material in 'more culturally appropriate and accessible language' than the existing one contains. In particular, specific references to sin and the Devil disappear to be replaced by generic statements about evil. Of course our beloved conservative newspapers have delighted in fulminating about it and you can read a modest example of that here, or indeed, should you feel so disposed, check the actual texts and come to your own conclusion.

The lines of disagreement are fairly predictable. For my part I prefer to trust something that has a connection with the whole history of the Western Church rather than what a group of early-twenty-first-century middle-class clergy think speaks to their own momentary epoch, about which I suspect they know less than they imagine they do, and so if I'm allowed to carry on using the traditional texts, I will.

The mind-boggling thing is that anyone imagines that minor tinkering with liturgical language actually makes a difference to the evangelical mission of the Church: it's the kind of thing clergy do in order to avoid any real work, and I know because I'm continually tempted to do the same. One form of service may be marginally preferable to another, but it won't change the world; it just isn't the issue. The great majority of people who have little or no connection with the Church don't care what words it uses, and barely-churched families who want their kids 'done' are prepared to do and say virtually anything they can to allow that to happen. When I do baptism preparation I always ask whether the couple are happy with the language we use and whether they have any questions or things they'd like me to clear up, and they hardly ever do. I often find myself struggling to help them put into words why they want their children christened, and wonder whether there's something they're not telling me.

In baptism, like all the sacraments, words and symbols and actions only achieve what they are supposed to achieve - only become effective channels of grace, in traditional terms - if you are to a certain extent primed by a certain amount of prior practice and expectation. That's the context in which the traditional baptismal texts are intended to function. So you could argue that providing a more 'culturally appropriate' form of service for people who aren't steeped in the sacramental life is exactly what the Church should be doing. Except that expecting that people will turn up at a church service and be converted to faith by this or that form of words is to lay an unrealistic weight on your own efforts. Even the more modest aim of trying to guarantee that they're not actually turned off by what you do is a pretty hazardous exercise: I remember a conversation with a work colleague whose point of disgust with the baptism service was the priest carrying out the traditional gesture of turning a double-sided stole from penitential purple to celebratory gold after the dunking. It would make far more sense simply to insist that baptism families have to be regular church attenders, which is exactly what I would do were it not for reflecting that the sacraments belong to God and not the Church. As so often, I suspect the Church has got the wrong end of the wrong stick.