Friday, 29 August 2014

Praying Positions

There was a time when I found it impossible to pray indoors. I don't mean reading or reciting prayers, but longer-scale, silent, sitting-alone-and-concentrating kind of prayer. I think the noises and sensations of the outdoors made it easier to forget all the various chatter that clutters up one's mind and silencing which is part of the point of prayer. So when I was in Lamford I tended to go and sit in a shelter in the garden, and here I have done the same - although until recently when I built the Grotto there wasn't really anywhere to escape from rain when there was rain.

Gradually I found myself more and more reluctant to go outside for my early-morning prayers. This was mainly because there was a spell of bad weather a couple of years ago when the meteorological conditions would have provided somewhat too much of a distraction from my own thoughts, and encouraged me to stay indoors instead. But eventually I would look out at the garden and take a slight breeze shaking the upper branches of the oak tree as a good enough reason not to venture out.

This was clearly little more than laziness linked to a reluctance to pray generally. As part of my discipline I aim at having a second short prayer session between noon and 1pm, if I happen to be at home to do it; my resistance to complying with this observance shocks even me, and I am at something of a loss to account for it. It should not be the case that concerted contact with God is something I subconsciously try to avoid, yet it seems to be at the root of my hesitancy.

I now try to go outside and stay indoors to pray roughly on alternate days, though I'm not completely sure, these days, what effect either has.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Choose Your Change

I mentioned in my last post about Swanvale Halt’s ecumenical history, and the Swanvale Sisters’ role in that. By accident the other day I came across the website of Revd Murdoch Mackenzie, who had connections with the Sisters and the organisations that succeeded to their work after the community itself came to an end in 1989: he had worked in India with Sister Caroline who had founded the Sisterhood. On the website is the text of a lecture from 2002 given by Revd Mackenzie headed ‘Christianity Must Change or Die’, which is the sort of title that makes you scan an eye over a bit of text if nothing else.

As the author points out, changing, in spiritual language dying to self and rising to something new, is what Christianity is about, figuratively and very literally in terms of what happens to Jesus. No individual Christian or Christian institution can avoid engaging with dying-that-we-may-live. But it’s abundantly easy to tell yourself that at the same time as shying away from thinking about those actual, concrete things to which we must die, the ways in which we must change: working that out is far harder.

The answers proponents of Change give to that question are revealing. Murdoch Mackenzie reveals a rage at the encasing of Christians within dogmatic denominational boundaries which he struggled against for decades, and wants to see them disappear: they are all reflections, he argues, of how human beings have re-created the ‘religion’ which Christ abolished on the Cross. I have a great deal of sympathy with that. But then he starts to discuss the Eucharist as a prime example of how ‘religion’ has crept back into the humble, simple faith of Jesus. ‘It began just as a meal around a breakfast table’ he says (actually there is quite some debate about that) and it’s that to which we should essentially return. It’s clear that when Revd Mackenzie talks about the Church ‘changing’, the kind of change he envisages is in the direction of a purified Protestantism, a shape of Christian life which he equally clearly favours for strongly-held ideological reasons.

I often find that people who demand that Christianity changes have already decided firmly what that change should look like; but this is to demand really that other Christians change, not themselves. Not to specify in advance what the change should be, but to wait to see what arises from discussion, interaction, thought, and necessity – the ways in which the Holy Spirit speaks to the Church – is far more risky. I am happy, basically, with the way we do things at Swanvale Halt: I like Catholic Anglican worship and if there were to be a ‘change’ to my taste it would be more in the Catholic direction than less. But that’s not good enough. Standstill is no good to the Spirit, and nor is reshaping a church community simply according to my own predilections: it may be them to which I must inwardly die. When we do change, it will be driven by a reassessment of our basic purposes, and contact with new situations and new people, and it’s likely not to look completely like anything we envisage before we begin.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Rubbing Along

Swanvale Halt parish has a history of involvement with ecumenism, the effort to foster positive relations between Christian denominations. For some years the parish housed the Swanvale Sisters, a group of women dedicated to praying for inter-church unity which had been established by a former deaconess of the Church of South India, and the sisters often came to address the congregation. This year marks the fortieth anniversary of our sharing the church building with the local Roman Catholic congregation who squeeze their Sunday mass in between our two.

A little while ago we hosted the local King’s Church for a couple of events, and out of this came a suggestion to our curate that it might be a good thing to get together to pray for the village and its concerns. And that’s what she’s done. The group has been meeting for a couple of months and last week I went along for the first time.

The composition for that event was four members of local Charismatic congregations, four Anglicans, and one Roman Catholic. The experience is not entirely an uncomplicated one as the Charismatics tend to be vocal in their prayers and the Anglicans tend to incorporate more silence. I can let it wash over me to a certain degree, and doing some thinking about it came to see the sort of torrent of words you get with Charismatic prayer as being in some sense a groping after the same suspension of ego and the seeking of God that absolute silence aims for – a different kind of silence. Not everyone can manage that, though. We’ve had a couple of members of our church who’ve tried this group and have decided not to come back. You have to be very robust and settled in your own prayer life not to be disconcerted by a different style. For me the only very hard moment was when a member of the local Free Evangelical church who our curate didn’t know and who had never been to the group before began praying about the Eastern European care assistants on the staff of a local home where she works – ‘They’re often staunch Roman Catholics, Lord, and we just pray that you will enable them to be released from their darkness’ – unaware there was a Roman Catholic sat yards away from her. There will have to be some ground rules set down (such as no praying against other Christian Churches), and some minimal structure placed on the proceedings so that silent silence doesn’t get squeezed out.

That said, our two lay Anglican attenders were entirely comfortable with the way things went. One, Mary, is a former Companion of the Swanvale Sisters and commented later ‘while I have previously experienced the Charismatic Movement from time to time, nevertheless it was not in conjunction with other Christian Groups, so this is a very unique venture that we’re fostering, and we will stick with it!’ Plus it’s worth remembering what a journey into the unknown our Charismatic colleagues are taking – walking past a statue of the Blessed Virgin with a candle next to it and praying in a chapel beside an altar surrounded by Gothic arches and with the Sacrament reserved in an aumbry in the wall. 

Monday, 18 August 2014

Catechism Complete

As you may remember I’ve been trying for a couple of years to collect all the volumes of the Haggerston Catechism at a not-completely-eyewatering price, and a couple of weeks ago finally achieved this ambition, as the last volume – no.IV, The Lord’s Prayer – wended its way to me from a bookseller in the United States. It prompted me to read through Fr Trevor Jones’s short biography of Fr Herbert Wilson, the man responsible for the Haggerston Catechism, A Life Simply Offered. It’s a loving picture not only of the priest but also of the culture of the Anglo-Catholic East End which no longer really exists (except, in a shrunken form, around Fr Jones’s own church of St Peter London Docks, and a scattering of other such churches). That culture was destroyed by World War Two, by slum clearance and depopulation, by immigration and by economic devastation, quite apart from the depredations meted out on Church life generally by social change. Anglo-Catholicism is still there, but, notwithstanding the vigour of some churches, in shreds and pieces compared to what it was in Fr Wilson’s day.

Reading the book, you see what a different world it was. The lack of opportunity, the deference, the willingness to defer delight and pleasure in the interest of duty – which was, perhaps, a gloss of virtue painted over the ugly truth of people having no choice in the matter. Perhaps it was the Church itself, by teaching people, as Fr Wilson himself said, to raise their eyes from their sins and look upward to heaven, that gave them the very sort of aspiration which, converted to material and secular forms, undermined their allegiance to Christianity. St Augustine’s Haggerston could rely on its organisations and structures supplying a stream of new Christians for Fr Wilson and his curates to drill and order in sports clubs, servers’ teams, and of course the Catechism Class itself – Scouts, Guides, Boys Brigades. None of that now. I have to beg the uniformed organisations to come anywhere near the church no more than twice a year – not that I do beg, as what’s the point of that? The parish had Mother Kate and the Sisters round the corner from the church, from the order founded by JM Neale 80 years before: a nun or two to do the linens and play the piano for the Catechism Class. That’s what you need, more nuns.

The Haggerston Catechism creaks with age and the weight of its times, the devastation of the odd flying bomb and the occasion spot of casual unthinking anti-Semitism. You couldn’t do it now – 150 sessions taking three years to complete, with never much thought that the children copying Fr Wilson’s words and pictures from the blackboard would stray very far from the little network of grubby streets that formed their East End world. Of course they would – already were – and the most moving aspect of these six little books is Herbert Wilson’s introductions with stories of evacuated children kneeling to pray in country churches where they’ve been sent (‘Which church do you come from?’ asks the vicar; ‘St Orgerstin’s ‘Aggerston’, they reply), or airmen who scribble their old parish priest a few lines while waiting for the next mission: ‘Thanks for everything we learned, Father, I don’t know how I’d manage otherwise’.

No, you can’t do the Catechism now; but you need to do something, I feel more and more, and not just for children but for grown-ups too. The vague motions of the heart and mind don’t coalesce into rocks to hold onto when the nearer waters roll and tempest still is high. You need to learn the stuff that tells you God is real, that Jesus is what God is like; that there is hope. We don’t do enough of that, and rely too much on our own weak resolution and recollection. Fr Wilson knew better.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Festival Going

Following on from my post a while ago about the vicissitudes of Reptile, the start of this month saw another shock to the Goth fraternity with the sudden cancellation, with a fortnight to go, of AltFest. AltFest was a new, and vastly ambitious festival intended to take place near Northampton and which was supposed to bring together Goth, Metal and general alternative music in a wide-ranging event the type of which had never been attempted before. When news of its cancellation emerged there was a lot of sympathy for the organisers who are, after all, themselves part of the alternative community, and who insisted they faced personal bankruptcy as a result of the failure of the event. They blamed the cut-throat state of the festival market which ensures that suppliers and agents demand so much of their fees upfront that ticket sales must reach a certain volume long before the event actually happens in order for the whole thing to work: and, if it doesn’t, promoters have to take a decision at a certain point whether to proceed or not. The event might still have worked; it doesn’t matter. It has to have proved its workability before it begins, which is a great burden to place on a new event; and AltFest didn’t make it.
Now it seems as though this isn’t an isolated occurrence. Another festival, Jabberwocky, which described itself as ‘alternative’ but was distinctly more mainstream than AltFest, has joined it in its fate – this time with a mere three days to go. It seems that some more blame may in this case attach to the promoters who have something of a track record in cancelling events, but that aside there is the same pattern; and the same scramble among many of the acts to secure another place to play to avoid wasting their time completely. There is something of a perverse mechanism operating here: such caution over making a loss that making a loss becomes more likely. 

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Reigate Fakery

A couple of weeks ago we had an hour or two in Reigate. In the middle of Reigate, should you ever decide for some bizarre reason to make a trip there, you will find the Castle Gardens. Unlike Guildford, whose Castle Gardens surround an actual castle, there is no castle in Reigate. There used to be, until a group of recalcitrant Royalists used it as a base in the Civil War, hastening its demolition lest it shelter similar sedition in the future. In 1777 one of the town dignitaries decided to rebuild a bit of it as a sort of memorial to Earl William de Warenne, the magnate who founded the town in the 1150s and who, according to the inscription, was 'a loyal champion of our liberties'.

The 'Castle' is a delightful bit of Georgian nonsense which looks about as much like a genuine medieval castle gateway as the pyramid in the middle of the gardens,which we will come to in a minute, resembles its Egyptian forebears. It's quite fun, as it has two levels, an arched gateway you can walk through and an upper storey from which you can survey the visitors traipsing up the path, through the cross-slit windows.

Of course William de Warenne didn't give two hoots, or even one, about the ancient liberties of the town, which gives this memorial a level of fakery even beyond its physical shape. Towns such as Reigate were set up at the gates of castles and abbeys to take advantage of the opportunities for the control of trade that would result. You could argue, were you feeling generously disposed, that Reigate wouldn't exist otherwise, but it was a result of de Warenne being entrepreneurial rather than altruistic.

Ah now, the Pyramid. You can see that in the second photo. It sits atop the entrance to what is now known as the Baron's Cave, a network of underground passages which have nothing to do with the barons who compelled King John to sign Magna Carta (as the old story went) or even the fabric of the medieval castle. You can, however, book to go on a tour of these chambers, whose purpose remains mysterious. A delight which still awaits me ...

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

A Diabolical Conflict

This appeared on the Facebook stream of a friend a couple of days ago - and I must point out it wasn't the friend who made the comment beneath the story. A hideous set of opinions countered by another hideous opinion.

I've commented before about the way the Palestine-Israel conflict is treated among the churches in this area. One of our churchwardens headed up to London to join one of the pro-Palestine demonstrations the weekend before last, and I came across very quiet and polite demonstrators carrying the Palestinian flag in Guildford High Street. There is one person in the local ecumenical structures who becomes virtually speechless with rage if you suggest that there might be more to the matter than simply the wickedness of Israel, and I've heard a local Christian making an incautious remark along the lines of 'that's what you'd expect of the Jews', followed immediately by 'oh, I probably shouldn't have said that'.

I touched on this - just touched, mind you - in a sermon the other day, considering the unique ability the Israel-Palestine conflict has to provoke rage in people who aren't actually involved in it, and wondered why this was, when there are other and bloodier wars around the world and inter-cultural struggles we seem to care about much less. Now that there is a second truce in Gaza and attention shifts elsewhere, I see more news reports about the polarisation it seems to have produced across Europe: the identification of Jews generally with the policy of the State of Israel, and the corresponding sense of vulnerability that European Jews feel in what were previously pretty safe environments. There is some question as to whether some of the reports of attacks on synagogues have arisen from lazy journalism, but the tendency is clear enough; and you will observe how querying the reports of antisemitic acts becomes itself part of the rival narratives of victimhood promoted by pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli camps. In fact, I've concluded that the only thing the rest of us can do is keep quiet, given that any criticism that might be voiced of either side gets fed immediately into their own narrative of persecution and self-justification, some of which is true, and some of which is less than true.

One might like to make a distinction between the State of Israel and the Jewish people one knows, and this is what anti-Israeli protesters like to claim they do. The trouble is that the Jewish people one knows now increasingly know people in Israel itself, go on holiday there, have relatives there, deliberately buy its products as an act of solidarity and, in general, tie up their own identity with it and what it does. Meanwhile that state has long since decided that, if it is to fulfil its mission as a refuge of last resort for the Jewish people, it must be secure against those who would threaten it and if that means doing things that the rest of the world doesn't like, so be it. This means that protests like this one in Manchester may be directed against investment in Israel, but that effectively means being directed against Jews. Meanwhile, Baroness Varsi resigns from the UK government citing its insufficiently anti-Israeli stance, and a journalist visiting her home town in Dewsbury (sorry, I don't have a source, but it was on the radio as usual) finds local Muslims 'furious' about Israel and the Government's behaviour towards it: 'they are facing a choice between being Muslim and being British, and choosing to be Muslim'. The Israel-Palestine conflict isn't essentially about religion, and yet it seems to be turning into a means by which Muslims identify themselves, in this country and elsewhere. Muslims are against Jews; secular western liberals are against Jews; leftish-minded Christians are against Jews. This of course paradoxically means that Jews in western Europe who feel increasingly insecure are thinking more seriously about emigrating to Israel and in some cases actually doing so ('I believe Jews will not be able openly to practice our religion in the UK in a generation or two' one rabbi told Radio 4 at the weekend), and that only fuels Israel's sense of mission and its urgent need for security - and, perhaps, expansion. Disapproval of Israel's actions and therefore of Jewish people's connections with Israel itself generates those actions and connections.

The Western powers created the State of Israel, and then essentially left it and the peoples around it to work out the consequences. Unless they reverse that criminally irresponsible policy, or unless God works some sudden miracle in the hearts of the peoples involved, I can't see any clear way forward that doesn't involve more polarisation. Essentially, we may all end up choosing whether we think the State of Israel needs to exist as a Jewish refuge or not, and accepting certain unpalatable consequences to that decision (although they may not necessarily be the ones the State of Israel itself accepts as necessary). If we decide not, when, in the future, the UK government begins to close synagogues and expel Jews, where will the Christians of southern Surrey be?

Friday, 8 August 2014

A Different Way of Doing Things

In the midst of thinking about leadership and what it means in the Church, I've been lent Andrew Goddard's Rowan Williams: His Legacy by a member of the congregation. This same gentleman has also lent me one part of Pope Benedict's grand work on Jesus so he clearly feels I could do with some reading. Now revere Rowan Williams as I have a tendency to do, there are nevertheless some telling criticisms of his time as ABC in this generally supportive volume, the most insightful one being from an episcopal colleague, that Abp Rowan articulated so consistently the sense of pain and angst that arose from the divisions of the Anglican Communion that everyone else started to feel it as well, to a perhaps unnecessary degree. 
One of the good things you get with this book is a meaty selection of quotations from Rowan's writings and speeches themselves, and criticisms aside they reveal the measure of the man. His absolute genius is a diplomatic one: the interpretation of differing points of view to one another, and the investigation of points of intersection in those views, as well as thinking about the deep patterns and movements which affect cultures - the uncovering of the true nature of things which is what the prophetic mission of the Church involves. Rowan's humility in dealing with a secular world, his refusal to engage with it via a metaphorical megaphone, and his consistent lack of concern about his own status and selfhood, speaks of the deepest kind of faith and, dare I say, the only sort of Church leadership the modern non-churched world can be expected to accord any respect. If only I could manage half as much.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Dramatic Dalmatic

I said that I would put up some photos of the red dalmatic I bought for the church on the occasion of our curate's first mass, so here is one. I think it's technically a tunicle as there is only one horizontal gold band rather than two; not all such vestments follow that pattern, but the sleeves are also closed making it impossible (or at least pointless) to wear a maniple with the garment, implying that it's intended for a subdeacon rather than a deacon to wear. I don't think that matters too much. It's very nice, anyway.

There is some wear to the seams and shoulders, and some of the fringing had come loose when I bought it: I repaired the latter pretty easily, but work on the frayed silk along the seams will take a bit more doing. I managed to get some completed before June 29th, but it's a remarkably slow process and one I am not especially keen to return to.

We won't use this very much, but if we get going with my attempts to ratchet up the main services on Easter Day, Pentecost and Christmas, it will get an outing on the second of those. I got it from Church Antiques in Walton: although I know it came from a St Alphege's somewhere I know no more and will have to make enquiries.

Friday, 1 August 2014


The 1st of August used to be known as Lammas Day, Loaf Mass, the occasion when bread was baked from the first-ripe corn of the year's crop and offered to God to ask for a blessing on the rest of the harvest. The modern version of Harvest-tide is a bit away yet - we usually mark it at the start of October - but as this is holiday time, and therefore a quiet period so far as Church matters go, it provides a useful window to take stock of where the church is and what we might do in the future: to do some thinking, planning, and catching up at a time when the usual pressures of the weekly and monthly round are somewhat relieved. If Lammas involves thanking God for his good gifts, it's a helpful moment to examine how our resources are used to their best advantage and his best glory. At least, this is what I usually tell myself as August starts, even if it doesn't always turn out like that. Or often.

My version of spiritual stocktaking this year is to put together an audit of where I see the church standing and what we've managed to do over the five years since I arrived in Swanvale Halt. If part of my role is the management of change, basic parameters and principles for that change need to be worked out. I have on file records of PCC Away Days and study sessions thinking about this going back at least to 2003, and they always reach the same sort of conclusions and come up with the same sort of ideas, so I think what we really need is the assessment of somebody from outside. I've posted what I've assembled off to the Parish Development Office at the Diocese and will see what they say.

More personally, during August stocktaking usually involves assembling my accounts for the past year with the aid of Psyche the Goth accountant to whom I send all my bits and pieces for her to put into the right places on the right forms. This includes the calculation of my allowances for heating and lighting the Rectory, devised according to an impenetrably complex formula by the Church Commissioners. This used to be done annually via what we all knew as The Pink Form (once referred to, formally, in an email from the Diocese as 'Those Wretched PUK Forms'), which got sent out around Easter and then typically sat in clergy in-trays for months before actually being filled out and returned. However, this year the Church has moved onto a system allowing clergy to make their return online. I say, 'has moved': more accurately it's announced that this is to happen and it still hasn't. A few days ago we all had an email apologising for the delay and promising we would get more information by the end of July. Well, hello August.