Saturday, 29 March 2014

Back to the Abbey

As in previous years I spent a couple of days on a Lenten retreat at Malling Abbey. The Holy Sisters are planning building work to turn part of the premises into a proper retreat house for the Canterbury Diocese. Even more excitingly, they've bought two new toasters for the dining room which actually toast bread rather than just warm it up a bit.

I walked the turf labyrinth in the grounds. Usually I don't go in for labyrinths and what my friend Adam from St Stephen's House would have described as 'Celtic nonsense', but I rather like the one at Malling. There are gnarled old apple trees, and a couple of others, in the grounds which the grass paths must wind their way around on their journey to the centre, meaning that as you wend your way around the labyrinth you are not simply treading a featureless path but continually approaching and retreating from these trees and seeing them from different angles. It adds a depth to walking the labyrinth you might not otherwise get.

As I was there, slowly treading the turf and trying not to get too muddy, I saw one of the Sisters driving a small tractor around the grounds, circling the trees. The tractor had nothing attached to it, no mower, harrow or roller. She went round and round for about ten minutes and then drove off into the Enclosure and by the sound of it drove around in there for a while. I couldn't work out what the purpose of this was, and wondered whether it was a penance, or a reward ...

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Shifting the Product

Several conversations about the same subject over the last few days – the decline of the Church and what might be done about it – led me back to some thoughts prompted by driving past a closed branch of Blockbuster Videos a few weeks ago. A business dedicated to an obsolete technology, overtaken by change and economic stress. What does that say to the Church, I wondered.

The Church Times has been running a series of articles analysing change in the Church (of England, specifically, but it applies more broadly) and ideas for the future. It always strikes me looking back at the history of Anglicanism over the last century and a half or so that we’ve been saying the same sort of thing for a very long while. Last year I acquired a fascinating book from the Methodist stable, called Towards a Radical Church: it bears so strongly the stamp of its time (1970), and yet rehearses the same arguments and complaints that we go through now. I like the way it blithely assumes that most married women will continue to eschew paid work and therefore will, once their children are at school, be available to run the new, shiny, radical church's activities. Visions of the future so soon become overtaken by reality.

Capitalist businesses sell a product or range of products for profit, and a particular business defines itself around its product. If things change and that product becomes harder to sell, the business faces the challenge of what to do. Now, there is nothing inherent about a business which marries it inextricably to its product; it could survive in a time of change by deciding to sell something else, and sometimes this happens. Practically, though, there are constraints, because at least in the short term a business has to use the skills and experience of the staff it has and the capabilities of the equipment it has, and even if it does want to revolutionise the business it’s in, it’s normally a process that takes some time and so the new line, whatever it is, will exist alongside the old until it takes over. Most often, however, what stymies business change is not these practical considerations but simply not seeing what’s happening, and the inertia that comes from not being able to imagine radical change. It’s much easier to think that you can make your business succeed by better marketing, internal reorganisation, or things like that, rather than actually rethinking the whole enterprise, by recognising that your business isn’t really defined by what you’re selling, just by institutional continuity.

Thinking about the Church in these terms is an interesting exercise. What is the product we’re selling, and how might that change? How much change is possible, even – because, whereas a business, if it looks at things in a hard-headed way, isn’t essentially about its product, the Church is an ideological organisation whose form is related to its principles.

It seems to me that what the Church sells is relationship with God, expressed uniquely in Jesus of Nazareth, mediated by committed communities of people engaged in various activities. That’s its product, essentially. What about that might be open to change?

The part about God and Jesus clearly isn’t capable of being changed without the Church ceasing to be Christian. It could choose to do so, but a) it would no longer be committed to the same ideology that now gives it meaning, and b) it isn’t clear that it’s that bit of the product which is the problem. It’s the community and activity elements which seem to be under the most challenge: churches with too few people and too little money to carry on their traditional work, traditional subgroups such as Sunday Schools and Mothers’ Union branches unable to operate, social change making it very hard even for people who want to be part of a physical, geographical church community and its life actually to get involved.

It seems to me that most churches focus on the activity element of their product as the one changing which involves least pain and upset (though not none). They try doing new stuff and, if they’re exceptionally brave, stopping doing old stuff, in an attempt to get more people interested: outreach, social action, new sorts of services, ‘fresh expressions of church’. Sometimes these do work, but they’re limited in scope, and don’t touch the core nature of the business.

Now, Blockbuster (for instance) managed the technological shift from video to DVD rental fairly smoothly, but has been done in by not adapting to a world in which too few people want to rent films on physical media to make that business model feasible. The shift to an online and virtual economy is one of the great facts of our time. Might the Church learn from that? There have been experiments in this area for about ten years, online churches and internet chaplains and so on, but they’ve never really caught on, and I don’t know whether any thinking has been done as to why they haven’t worked. It may be that such online communities don’t actually provide people with enough of what they want from a church, that it brings a degree of face-to-face, physical relationship; that they recognise it for not being the real thing. At the moment Swanvale Halt uses its (limited) online presence as a marketing tool, telling people what’s going on and acting as a shop window for the real church. What if we could devise something which functioned in the same way as Messy Church does: that is, another means of allowing people to maintain contact with the core church of physical relationship and commitment in social circumstances which make doing that very difficult? It’s a possibility.

Yet even that doesn’t really break free from the idea of the physical church community being at the centre of the life of Christians. I’m not sure it’s possible to do so; I suspect that relationship is an essential element of the core ideological product which we can’t jettison without ceasing to be what we are.

None of this results in much clarity, I’m afraid. During its series of articles, The Church Times printed many comments and letters saying things along the lines of, ‘The Church needs to wake up to what’s happening and change or it’ll die’. Such statements do annoy me. The truth is that the Church is perfectly aware of the problems it faces; it’s just that nobody really has the faintest idea what to do about them. 

Monday, 24 March 2014

Mixing Signals

At the end of March, the legislation allowing people of the same sex to marry under the State comes into force. A month ago the House of Bishops sent out their Pastoral Letter and attached Advice relating to same-sex marriage.

Now, the bishops are struggling to come up with some way of proceeding which preserves their sense of themselves, and the Anglican Church as a whole, as nice, liberal, tolerant people, and their equally compelling self-image as people attempting to follow conscientiously Scripture and the tradition of the Christian Church. They don’t want to be horrible to anyone, and that isn’t actually a bad thing to aim at. The trouble, of course, is that where there are irreconcilable opinions you can’t help doing or saying something that one side or another will interpret as being horrible. There is a lot in the statement which is positive, and even humble: in fact, the bishops seem to fall over themselves in their insistence on ‘acknowledging that as yet our knowledge and understanding are partial’. The whole document gives the sense of groping towards understanding rather than trumpeting a settled opinion of the magisterium, and that, too, is not a bad thing. The negative aspects of the statement – that clergy, subject to ordination vows and canon law which demand a certain representative mode of life which is not that of laypeople, should not marry members of their own sex themselves and that people in a same-sex marriage will not be recommended for ordination – are convoluted, handwringing efforts to bring about some sort of consistency of behaviour where no consensus exists; or, viewed more cynically, efforts to make it look as though the bishops want such consistency for the benefit of hostile observers. But I can see where they’re coming from.

I saw a letter from a bishop to his own local clergy, passing on the link to the document to ensure they all knew it was there. He went on, again, in what I think is a tremendous effort to be positive:
You will notice, that a pastoral response of prayers is encouraged, where appropriate, to gay couples who may enquire about the possibility of some form of service. This would not be any formal rite or liturgy but, as paragraph 22 of the Appendix states, a 'more informal kind of prayer, at the request of the couple, might be appropriate in the light of circumstances'.

It was the last sentence which made my heart sink:

My own view is that this might be best done in the couple's home.

Why might that be? I’m writing as somebody who doesn’t think two people of the same sex can celebrate the sacrament of matrimony, and when I said that some time ago was regarded with incredulity by some of my more liberal Christian friends who couldn’t believe I could express such wicked and objectionable opinions. And even I gib at this. Surely, if we’re trying to be consistent, a person, thing or activity which can be prayed for in private can be prayed for in public? To say otherwise in this case implies either that you think the relationship you’re praying for is sinful; or that you think others will, and so publicity should be avoided. The former idea would be bizarre: to ‘pray with’ a homosexual couple surely assumes that there is nothing inherently sinful about their relationship; you wouldn’t go to someone’s house to pray, say, for God’s purposes and will to be revealed as they were about to engage in adultery – would you? If it’s the latter thought behind the bishop’s words, well, the best you can say is that it’s understandable. What it really represents is the desire to make the Church appear welcoming and pastorally sensitive while not actually being willing to follow through and face the trouble that would result even from the comparatively moderate position of praying for gay couples in a church.

Note, also, the conditional, personal tone of the sentence: ‘my own view’, ‘might best be done’. The bishop knows that we clergy are canonically bound to do what we are told when given direct instructions, and quite rightly. But this stops short of issuing an instruction and instead disguises it as a personal opinion. I wonder which it’s actually intended to be. I suppose it may also be the case that this bishop suspects there are some clergy who would actively disobey any instruction not to pray for gay couples in church, so he doesn’t issue one, to avoid the confrontation.

It’s really trying to have one’s cake and eat it in two entirely different matters, sex and authority, within a mere 14 words, and tells you a great deal about how the Church of England works – or doesn’t. 

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Sad Church Syndrome

I sat in Hornington Parish Church some time ago, reflecting, as I usually do when there, how relieved I am not to be looking after it. It’s a sprawling great building on a medieval plan, and however quaint its little corners and features seem to be, it doesn’t work as a liturgical space. Little Swanvale Halt church, conversely, is basically a single square space with a chancel attached, and that makes it much easier to manage.

It isn’t just that, though. It isn’t even the thunderous dark pews and utterly inadequate lighting, which battles forlornly against the vastness of the building whenever the sun goes in, that make Hornington feel miserable and strangely empty. There’s a vague, undefinable sense that something isn’t right there; of unhappiness, unfriendliness. I don’t often pick up on ‘atmospheres’, but I feel it there.

Churches do acquire personalities. Despite its tattiness and batteredness, the first time I went into Swanvale Halt church I felt the warmth and sense of gentle devotion; Hornington feels different. Of course all this is just a set of subjective responses, until you discover that person after person says the same thing, and you may then start to suspect some objective factor behind it; and you discover that the atmosphere, whatever it is, affects the people who go to a church and what happens to it.

My old parish church had a difficult history. Two priests in succession had nervous breakdowns and the church gathered a reputation as odd and unkind. There was a story that the Abbess of a convent not far away had banned the church from visiting after two members of the congregation had had a fist-fight in the convent chapel during what was supposed to be a Quiet Day. The vicar had been told by the bishop that he was its last chance, and when I arrived he was off sick too having been found gibbering on the floor of his sitting room by a friend. As a result of his efforts to pull the church back towards mainstream Anglo-Catholicism he’d had dog shit posted through his door and other helpful support from members of the congregation. Eventually things began to turn around and the congregation started growing again. The vicar still bore the scars, though, and left at the first sensible opportunity he was offered.

Not long after moving in he detected the smell of woodbines in the vicarage at strange times of day, and when he acquired a dog the animal behaved very strangely. He was thoroughly freaked to discover that the hilltop where the church was built had been the site of a gallows in the 1700s. Eventually the whole area was prayed over by the area bishop and a selection of clergy. The woodbines were never smelled again, the dog got much happier, and things began to improve. If you accept the notion of a non-material aspect to reality and a linkage between that and the physical world, I see no reason why strong emotions should not affect particular places where they’ve been felt. It may not operate through any more mysterious process than suggestion, but, looking at it as rationalistically as you may, the history of a place affects the way people feel and hence their relationships with one another – and hence, in a cycle, the history of the place.

Not long ago, I discovered that one of Hornington church’s historical features pointed out to visitors is a beam built into the bell loft which came from the old gallows on the hilltop. I wonder if the screams have seeped into the rest of the building.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Enquiring Minds

Any church event requires cake, and our enquirers' course is no exception. We thought we ought to have one. Our biggest problem was finding a title for it that included neither of the faintly objectionable words 'enquirer' or 'course', while simultaneously managing to convey the information those words embody. We didn't want to produce something about giving people facts and information, which is what Alpha and Emmaus do, but which thinks about experience -  what it's like to be a Christian doing Christian things. We thought that was a good idea.

We also faced the issue of when to hold the sessions. It turned out that me, the curate and the lay reader could either do a Tuesday evening or a Sunday afternoon, while each of our potentially interested people could only do one or the other. However one was going to bring a friend, which tipped it in favour of Tuesday. She didn't.

So we have an enquirers' group with one enquirer. She's also attending an Alpha-type course at a big evangelical church not far away. However she maintains that the other people on her table are helpers from the church and one homeless man who comes because he gets a free meal somewhere warm, which is a useful purpose, certainly.

We just have cake. I walked down the hill to the steeple house with a cake tin in one hand and a bag of freshly laundered altarcloths in the other. This just sums up the Church of England, I thought.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Cream City

The Old Testament reading for the morning eucharist at a local sheltered accommodation development yesterday was from the Book of Jonah. Jonah the prophet has escaped from the great fish and has finally done what God wants him to, to go to the mighty city of Nineveh and warn it of its forthcoming destruction.

Bill always does the reading for this service. He consistently read 'Nineveh' as 'Nivea', which I'm sorry to say provoked all sorts of unScriptural reflections, at least in me.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Swanvale Halt Film Club: Beyond the Hills (2012)

A stray mention in a magazine describing a film festival in London led me to Beyond the Hills, a dour but compelling description of sad events in a Romanian convent. Alina and Voichita grew up in the same orphanage, but since leaving their lives have taken different courses, Alina going to Germany to work and Voichita becoming an Orthodox nun. Alina comes back to find her friend, and brings disturbance to her and the life of the convent, which eventually results in tragedy.

The style is ultra-realistic and yet despite a complete lack of cinematic tricks and fireworks and a very understated mode of acting the film manages to be fascinating, probably because the story and characters are so real and involving. So they should be - the inspiration came from the terrible events of the Tanacu exorcism which took place in 2005, and it's a jolt sometimes to remember that despite the nuns' almost medieval lifestyle with drawing water from a well, shovelling snow and lack of electricity, theirs is actually a new and modern convent not far from a contemporary Romanian town. The town has its own problems: an under-resourced hospital, overworked medical staff, weary police, endless roadworks - the issues of a tired society struggling to make do in a tough and changing world. None of the characters are wicked, and you can see so easily how the little community deprived of both oversight and outside help falls into chaos and horror. In fact you learn very little about people's inner motivations, what is actually happening, even the exact nature of Alina and Voichita's relationship, and that reticence and ambiguity makes the narrative all the more affecting.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

How This Stuff Sometimes Works

I wake up with an unfocused but clear sense of dread which very swiftly turns into pointlessness and waste and could threaten to go disablingly deep. I recognise this kind of thing. It usually, though not always, gets dispersed by my early morning devotions. I reflect that the last time I felt this was on the Sunday when I was doing the talk at the Family Service, and on this occasion it coincides with a Messy Church day - and Messy Church days are always dominated by Messy Church, now matter what else you might or might not be doing. So I try to work out what's causing the ennui - or akedia, speaking spiritually.

Is it simply having many things to do and no time for my own things? Is it having things to do that I find especially taxing, that don't fall neatly within my comfort zone - and dealing with children always means that? Or is it something more significant? The other element that links Messy Church and Family Services is that the stakes are high in each. There's no guarantee how many people will come, and no guarantee that what I've prepared for the services in question will work. It could be fantastic, or it could be disastrous. I realise that the service I like best and get most out of is the little Tuesday morning mass where attendance varies from 3 to 12, and which, because we hold it in an intimate side chapel, works no matter whether you're at the bottom of that range or the top. The atmosphere is always prayerful, quiet, and devoted, and of course it's the mass which you'd have to work quite hard to muck up.

But exactly what do I have invested in the less structured, more risky services? Why do I feel there are high stakes? It occurs to me that I'm deriving too much sense of self-validation from 'success', from getting positive feedback, from numbers ('the sin of multitudinism', as Il Rettore used to call it). I'm resting too much of my sense of achievement on events such as this working. Of course one has to pay attention to what's getting people into a place where they can encounter God and what isn't, but in the nature of churches these things will wax and wane with time.

Every morning I try to read a few Bible verses. This occasion it was the turn of the Third Letter of St John. 'I have no greater joy than this', says the holy apostle, 'to hear that my children are walking in the truth'. It's perfectly right to be thankful and satisfied in a good piece of work, including a sermon, a talk, or a service. But the point of any of them is that they open a space where individual souls can meet God, a far more nebulous business which is not under our control. The only spiritual life which I am directly capable of influencing is mine, and that's a hard enough matter: and, while taking all legitimate satisfaction in doing good work, joy must come from seeing people grow in faith, and self-validation isn't even something I should be considering. Instead the wellspring of who I am needs to be the inner silence where I meet God, nothing else.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Right and Meat So To Do

Last year I gave up meat for Lent - not that I eat very much anyway - though I'm not sure I will do the same this year. I was invited to dinner by a couple of resolutely carnivore friends and forgot to tell them my decision, and had to be served the only vegetarian option they had in the house, a tiny and hastily-defrosted supermarket quiche.

A number of my resolutely non-carnivore friends could be found a few days very vocally approving the decision of the Danes to ban ritual slaughter of animals . 'Animal rights come before religion', commented the Danish minister of food and agriculture, and as far as many people are concerned virtually anything comes before religion, let alone animal rights. This has suddenly found an echo in this country as the new president of the National Veterinary Association has called for religious slaughter of animals to be banned here too.

At the weekend, while preparing Sunday lunch (incorporating the leg of a chicken, in case you wonder) I found myself not bothering to turn off the Food Programme on Radio 4, a broadcast which annoys me as much as it occasionally interests me. I partly blame this on the lingering memory of its former presenter Derek Cooper whose near-recumbently laid-back delivery brought on, I found, a experience of mingled rage and somnolence. They do also go on a lot about artisan cheeses, and how the poor should go out and shop at farmers' markets and it would be so much better for them, and that sort of thing.

Anyway, on this occasion there was a feature on the astonishing Dario Cecchini, a Tuscan eighth-generation butcher and evangelist for traditional butchery. Here he is, as displayed on, in the middle of his 'act' - for act it very much is - in which he butchers a pig while quoting Dante. Sr Cecchini says that butchery is 'an ancient art, an art which in ancient times would have been practised by priests because it was their role to resolve the terrible dilemma of killing so that people could eat. They were the ones who carried the heavy responsibility of slaughter, but it came with a respect for the animals that provided the meat. Butchers are the link between life and death'.

I had never thought of it this way. The ancient ritual regulations on the slaughter of animals were intended to provide for the most humane death possible at the time, hedged and controlled by structure and form and only entrusted to technicians who, dedicated as they were to the God who controlled life and death, were supposed to approach slaughter with humility and care. That's what religious slaughter was supposed to ensure, for which any strictly ritual concerns with, for instance, draining the animal of blood, were just dressing.

But seeing it like this opens the possibility of change. Ritual forms of slaughter are no longer the best human beings can manage and, in the same way that we no longer expect religious professionals to be experts in the identification of infectious disease (as the Torah specifies), so we need no longer entrust animal welfare to religious regulation either. Banning ritual slaughter could be seen as a victory for the principle it was invented to safeguard.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014


This picture from the wonderful (if rather mad) My Book of the Church's Year by Enid Chadwick illustrates the fact that we're about to enter my least favourite time of the year, the forty days' privation and increased workload of Lent. I wonder whether the Cathedral will offer confessions this holy season or whether they will just not respond to my enquiries again.

Anyway. Before all that excitement happens we have Shrove Tuesday and later today I will be leading the Shriving Service at the Town Pancake Race. I have no idea what a Shriving Service involves, apart from, in broad terms, shriving, although searches on the interweb reveal that something of the kind happens in Olney, Bucks, in quite a big way each year, there isn't any clear idea of what the liturgy might include. So, in a manner which is theoretically very un-Anglo-Catholic but in fact pretty typical, I've made it all up.

Yesterday in the spirit of the season our Lay Reader said very seriously that she wanted to speak to me, and apologised for making some thoughtless and vaguely critical remark a few days ago. I couldn't even remember it, which perhaps shows that I am more thick-skinned than I sometimes imagine. We are enjoined as Christians to forgive those who sin against us, but what if we don't recognise those failures as sins? I don't think it makes a difference. I think I was right not just to brush the apology aside with a wave of the hand and say it didn't matter, but accept it as a movement of the Holy Spirit. It clearly meant a lot to her, even if the remark hadn't hurt me in the way she feared it had. Even if I don't feel I have anything to forgive, God does, and so the willingness in one soul to repent and confess is something to give thanks for.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

What A Find

This was lurking, positively lurking, in a binful of cut-price DVDs in a charity shop in Guildford, just waiting for me to come along. I remember the fuss about Popetown when it first came out. Actually I don't, strictly, what I remember is the article in The Guardian's media section at the time reporting on the fuss; the fuss itself was a different matter. I occasionally found my mind turning to it over subsequent years, and usually got the impression hardly anyone else knew it had existed. Coming across this was a complete surprise.

It only cost a pound, which was just as well. 'The banned TV series they didn't want you to see!' enthuses the cover; one episode is enough to make the point that 'they' had your interests very much at heart. It does rather make Father Ted look like it was written by Franz Kafka. The 'Ted' figure in Popetown, Fr Nicholas the Pope's handler, isn't normal enough to contrast with the lunatic figures around him, who are either impossibly ludicrous (the Pope) or too stereotypical to be amusing (the moneygrabbing cardinals). It may just be that the jokes aren't funny enough, though.

Not worth anyone banning, is my opinion. Shame, because the opening (live action) sequence of the desperate-to-please young priest doing animal impressions in a secondary school is actually rather fine.