Thursday, 31 December 2015

Outside View

My regular interlocutor Trevor, a lot of the time, ascribes his misfortunes to a curse. The source of the curse varies, and occasionally he concludes that it doesn't actually exist and his belief in it is a function of his illness, but most of the time he's emphatic about it, to the point that we don't talk about it and when he raises the matter I don't pursue it. Now and again he will get very angry with me that I can't do anything to combat it, that there are no rituals or ceremonies the Church of England can use for curse-breaking, or that there are but I refuse to make use of them. Actually there are things we can do to counteract, let's say, malign spiritual influences, and he and I have done them ad infinitum, but his model that somewhere there are witches whose ill-wishing has caused every unhappiness in his life from a business failing to friends deserting him to agoraphobia to constantly having to give way to other drivers on the road - which was a matter he raised a few weeks ago - isn't something the Church can accommodate.

Yesterday I found myself having a long conversation with a man who came to the church and whose story I was struggling to grasp when he mentioned a non-existent person and thus alerted me to the presence of delusion. His problems in life, he believes, are down to a group of people who can make things happen, including illness in his family, by means of bugs, tracking devices and satellites. His great sadness is that nobody believes him, and, as politely as I could, I had to say, because he asked me, that without more specifics I couldn't either. This is clearly a non-religious version of the same rationalisation of misfortune Trevor has arrived at as well. Mr A's persecutors are not witches, but their powers are just as pervasive, invisible and invincible.

Neither Mr A nor Trevor's experiences are unreal in the sense that there is genuine misfortune at the heart of both, but of course their rationalisations of those experiences, no matter how comforting it may be to have a story to tell themselves, will lock both of them into patterns of thought and behaviour that make it impossible to change their circumstances for the better. How very sad to live like this.

Monday, 28 December 2015

Christmas 2015

For some reason Christmas has been especially trying this year, not for any particular reason beyond the enforced jollity grating unsually hard on the nerves. I'm starting to see Christmas as no longer a mission opportunity but as a positive rival to active Christian faith and practice, which is perhaps a bit extreme. The wave of sickness, sadness and death this festive season has been particularly high. It came to a point for me when one bereaved person told me in tears about how they would be opening cards received in the post not knowing whether they would be expressing sympathy or upbeat seasonal wishes. I'm thinking very seriously that we should hold a Blue Christmas service next year to help digest these feelings and contradictions. 

The excitements of the services of the Holy Nativity itself offered very little compensation as the numbers were somewhat down this year. Even the mighty Crib Service on Christmas Eve was a bit deflated (though the church was still full, it wasn't quite bursting), though while communicants on Christmas Day were down actual numbers were up thanks to the presence of a lot of children. But the Midnight was about a third lower - from the best attendance since I arrived in Swanvale Halt last year, to the worst. It's a salutary lesson in many things, especially perhaps my own psychological reliance on things I shouldn't rely on. Onwards to 2016!

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Stumbling Blocks

Amid reports about the persecution of Christians around the world - or at least difficulties being put in the way of any public expressions of faith, such as the Chinese authorities removing crosses from church buildings - we may like to reflect how much more fortunate we are in the UK, notwithstanding the tendency of Christians to want to imagine themselves persecuted (for which see here and here among other places). And yet, sceptical though I tend to be about the more shrill expressions of outrage and dismay that emanate from some bits of British Christendom about the way we get treated, I have to admit that modern life is throwing more and more obstacles in the path of the faithful. For the younger among us, these tend to be the pressures of work, travel and social arrangements. For the older, it's different.

Marion the curate regularly takes communion to a very faithful lady in the parish. She lives with her family and although she's not up to walking very far she'd be perfectly capable of sitting in a pew through a service and joining in with other people worshipping - but nobody will take her on a Sunday morning, a matter she naturally doesn't want to push. We will see whether we can organise a lift for her now and again. 

Another faithful regular congregant told me she'd be away over Christmas visiting family, 'so I won't be in church'. 'That's fine', I said half-joking, 'provided you make it somewhere else!' She looked even more apologetic. 'That's the trouble,' she said, 'I don't see how I'll be able to.' She doesn't drive any more and will be dependent on her family for travel; if they don't want to go anywhere near a church, how can an older person who is long-accustomed to subordinate their own wants and desires to those of others, especially their children, insist that their own faith is important? What you end up with is a category of people who are less likely rather than more to get to church over the Christmas season, arguably precisely because their Christian programming makes them less willing to make demands on the people around them. 

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

St Nicholas, St Nicholas

A couple of Sundays ago, on his feast day, we unveiled and blessed the icon of St Nicholas I've long wanted to install in the church. Why St Nicholas? There was a medieval chapel dedicated to him in an outlying part of the parish, so his presence reminds us that that area belongs to us, too; and he's the patron saint of children, who need someone special to pray for them. Appropriately the icon sits over the children's area, hence the floppy bunny just below it in this picture.

I picked the icon up on eBay some while ago, being sold for a pittance by an antique dealer in the north of England somewhere. From a distance it has the venerable look of battered antiquity, but I suspect it is nothing more than battered, and has been languishing in someone's garage or something. It definitely has not been painted in the 'approved manner', with layer after layer of gesso being applied to the wood before the image is put down, and has a mysterious hole towards the bottom which I have filled up with a badge bearing the idiosyncratic cross-symbol devised under one of my predecessors and which used to appear all over the church stationery at one time (I can never prevent myself thinking of it as the Nuremberg Rally Cross). I quite like all these inadequacies. A little while ago we went to an exhibition at Two Temple Place in London which included a variety of really antique icons, and they hadn't been done in the approved manner either, painted directly on whatever bit of wood the artist happened to have around. Our St Nicholas must have been made by an amateur having a go at producing a traditional image with some love and seriousness, even if they haven't followed the rules.

We blessed the icon and lit its lamp at the evening mass. St Nicholas appeared in the worship at the Family Service in the morning. St Nicholas, St Nicholas/You were a good and holy man we sang to the tune of O Tannenbaum, a delightfully awful little song with which I joined in with great enthusiasm, and Marion the curate preached without mentioning pickled boys at all, which was a great shame.

Last Sunday after an evening hymn practice I turned the lights off in church and went through to the hall for tea, taking delight in the varicoloured lamps glinting in the darkness, including the red one at St Nicholas. Candles make a church seem alive (and vanishingly rarely, despite what you might assume, make them burn down).

I came back in a few minutes later to say Evening Prayer, and after a while realised that the lamp at St Nicholas was out. This was strange as there should have been hours of the candle left. Closer investigation revealed that the entire red glass candle-holder had gone. I felt a crushing sense of disappointment until I realised it was at the bottom of the font, when disappointment changed to mere bewilderment. 

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

St Catherine Fourfold

The school not far away where we held our PCC Away Day last month has a chapel dedicated to St Catherine, with no fewer than four representations of the blessed martyr, in glass, wood, embroidery, and stone. Here they are!

Friday, 4 December 2015

First Duty

Image result for RAFOn the day that the UK began taking part in bombing Islamic State, there was some irony - not quite a bitter irony, I settled on the adjective 'sour' - that in the evening I did my first duty as Chaplain of the local Air Cadet Squadron, helping to enrol a group of new cadets. Years ago I used to work for the Army (only as a museum curator, very civilian) and came out of that experience with a great deal of sympathy with the Force, which I manage somehow to combine with near-pacifism in political terms. 

The Drill Hall area is like a little world to itself at the end of a street, surrounded by houses. It was raining quite heavily last night so out of compassion for the families of the new cadets to be enrolled the parade and enrolment took place indoors in the rather cramped surroundings of the hall. It strikes me as rather quaint that the local rector is seen to have a natural role in this process (although the guidance notes you get from the RAF do at least recognise that, shockingly, some cadets may well not be even nominal Christians), and equally quaint to be referred to as 'Sir'. Being confronted with a lad I knew from the infants school a few years ago as one of the recruits, saluting and heel-clicking, was something for which 'quaint' was hardly the word, as was the fact that the staff refer to the recruits' mums and dads as 'the parental units'. 

I am usually very reluctant indeed to take on new responsibilities but have done in this case as it gives me a rare opportunity to talk to young people who I get next to no chance to interact with in any other context. Having a padré around to 'do moral leadership' with the cadets offers, in the o/c's words, 'a slight counterbalance to some of the more gung-ho chaps who think the answer to anything is probably to bomb it'. Perhaps Mr Cameron could come and take part. I am trying to think of the ritual of the military as similar to the ritual of the Church, somewhat silly but with a serious purpose. As opposed to somewhat serious but with a silly purpose.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Inside the Bubble

Before heading off on Monday to the Bishop’s study morning at the Cathedral – or rather in a large marquee next to it as the Cathedral itself is being refurbished – I’d heard some statistics on the radio about global infant mortality, which is in 2015 little more than a third what it was in 1970. Deaths among Chinese children in their first year is down 90% over that time; even in sub-Saharan Africa the decline is in the order of 60%. I’ve been trying and failing to find statistics about global decline in rates of death from violence this century, which were discussed a few days ago in some programme or other: I remember the interviewee saying that though there’d been a blip up in the last three years due to the civil war in Syria, the long-term trend was very clear both in terms of war and other forms of homicide. Then there’s the generational decline in crime in (as far as I remember) every developed economy, no matter what sort of judicial policies they have adopted, the best explanation for which analysts have come up with is the cutting of the lead content of petrol and thus the brain-affecting poisons we breathe in. There seems little doubt that, Islamic State notwithstanding, we live in a world in which human beings are, by and large, better off, healthier, and less inclined to kill each other. It is also a world in which religious observance is in decline, most prominently in the developed West but not only there. Of course it may not carry on this way; we may be heading towards a collapse like that of Rome. But it’s what seems to be the case now.

The Bishop wanted to gather us all together to report on and discuss the results of a diocesan survey I could vaguely remember doing although my actual answers have long since fled my memory. I seem to spend half my life ‘breaking into small groups’ at the moment, and that's what we did. There were two striking moments in our group. One of my colleagues demanded (more than once) that the bishops provide a ‘cultural counter-narrative’ to the prevailing fear of talking about the Christian Gospel ‘because even if it’s not true people feel they will get cut down if they talk about Jesus, and they think the bishops have capitulated in terms of the Bible, truth, and morality’. Another, who combines a parish and diocesan role, complained that ‘the diocese expects me to do a vicar’s job with half the time and money’ and that when he desperately asked his colleagues in the local Deanery for some help ‘I got less than zero response, including from some of the biggest churches in the diocese’. I thought, Good for you for saying it. The marquee shrieked, howled and rattled around us, beaten about by high winds. 

I’ve said before that my problem with the very sincere attempt to plan for the future our diocese and its offices are involved with is that it has the faint feeling of ‘one-more-heavism’, that only if we do what we do a bit harder and a bit sharper we can save the whole thing, or at least a lot of it. The top seven answers to the survey question ‘What most hinders growth in your parish?’ were apparently all internal churchy factors, that we don’t do A or aren’t very good at B or have to spend too much time on X: I was astonished that nobody seemed to have responded that the biggest thing that hinders growth is vast cultural change that we can do very, very little about, that makes people work all hours Jupiter sends and produces families so scattered that even our most devout folk spend half their weekends away visiting them. Focusing only on internal matters while not remembering what’s going outside our church walls is a recipe for angst, guilt, and disappointment.

What nobody wanted to talk about was the massive question of what we think we’re doing it all for. Those statistics I mentioned at the start of this piece point to a world which, in all sorts of ways, is improving (at least for human beings), materially and morally, and largely doing it without any great contribution from Christians qua Christians. The traditional Christian narrative is to maintain that human beings are deeply wicked, that they both deserve punishment from God and can’t manage without his help, and his demand is that we seek forgiveness or get pitchforked into Hell. Now, once you have converted you begin to appreciate your own flawed nature and God’s holiness with, if anything, greater clarity as you go forward, so even this caricature of the Gospel carries some truth with it; but to someone who isn’t already on that trajectory, its account is at total odds with what they see and experience. This is the problem with what the first of my colleagues I quoted above suggested about the role of the bishops: we Christians (I don’t think it’s a problem that only afflicts the Church of England), in many ways, do not agree what the Gospel is. I suspect my understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is significantly at odds with that gentleman’s, coincide though it may do in most respects; I think the way in which we describe the Gospel to a sceptical world has to take account of that world. Once we get beyond platitudes those differences will emerge.

Faced with a world that looks, to all appearance and evidence, as if it can get on perfectly well without us and without God, what can we do? We can claim that appearance and evidence doesn’t matter, that God isn’t interested in that stuff, and that people face eternal damnation unless they follow certain steps.* Not all of us, however, can say that as we do not see in Jesus Christ a God who is indifferent towards real suffering (or the reduction of it) and instead arbitrarily demands obeisance as the price of survival. It isn’t that I think you can buy your way into Heaven by being good; it’s that a God who is disconnected from suffering isn’t the God Jesus reveals. Such a God works to make things better, to make people suffer less. If he was not interested in our hurting, there would be no grounds on which to demand repentance of us: God would become incoherent and irrational, and he is not, he is the definition of reason. If the world is getting 'better', in so far as you can measure such things, how does that relate to God? 

Could it be that the material and moral betterment of the human world is intended to teach the Church something? It cannot, it simply cannot be, that fewer children dying and fewer people killing each other is not a movement of God in the world. And if it is, Christians cannot, in the end, avoid reframing the story we tell ourselves and seek to tell others in terms of that great fact; though we may be too blinded by it, still, to be able to make that shift without more pain.

I know that my life is better with Jesus Christ than it would have been, and was, without him; that I am more fully human, more capable of love. And if that’s true of me, then probably it will be of others. Is that enough of a story? Enough of a promise?
*PS. I’d forgotten that the Church of England has grappled with this before, the fruit of the deliberations then emerging in Article 13 of the sixteenth-century set of 39:

Works done before the grace of Christ and the Inspiration of his Spirit, are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ, neither do they make men meet to receive grace … We doubt not but that they have the nature of sin.

This is an effort to combat the thought that people can work their way into heaven by being good: it's an attempt to preserve the idea of the undeserved grace of God. I have in the past glossed this Article to mean that normal human goodness cannot root out from the human character the causes of sin and the results of the Fall; but, on its own, attempting to argue that patent goods (fewer babies dying) are not good at all is desperate reasoning, and nowhere to be found in Scripture. Rather, Isaiah 5.20 warns ‘woe to those who call evil good, and good evil’. It's not only desperate, but spiritually dangerous.

Monday, 30 November 2015

How Many Churchwardens Does It Take to Open a Door

It was the Advent Service of Light yesterday evening. I'm still not sure how this got transplanted from Salisbury Cathedral where I think it originated to little Swanvale Halt in the mid-1980s; now quite a number of churches do something similar, although I think in those days we must have been virtually unique. 

The service consists of seasonal readings and carols, starting and finishing in candlelight, with every candle we can muster lit around the building. It culminates in a procession out of the church and round the side of the churchyard into the hall, attempting to sing in something like unison. Yesterday the hymn at that point was the old Advent carol O Veni Emmanuel - albeit in English rather than Latin. 

There were about 80 of us. The wind blew out all our candles almost instantly but we were prepared for that. We were singing the verse that begins

O come thou Key of David, come
And open wide our heavenly home

just as the crucifer arrived at the hall door - and found nobody had unlocked it. Marion the curate could hardly contain herself. The churchwardens rushed inside to locate keys and discovered they didn't know their way around the bunches as well as they thought. I like to think the surrealism prompted extra gusto in the singing.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Sunday Vignettes

Three visitors to the church struck me last Sunday morning.

1. An elderly gent who came to the 8am Mass and lingered rather suspiciously in front of the statue of the BVM. Roman Catholic, I assumed, and indeed he turned out to be the French grandfather of two children who live round the corner and who have been baptised in the church. He took the sacrament very happily from me; I presume his son will have told him which Archbishop we're actually in communion with!

2. I came through the empty church after the 10am service and found a woman in her 30s sat in a chair in a Buddhist posture of meditation. I thought better of disturbing her. 'I suppose the church is the closest thing in the area to a Buddhist meditation centre', commented Ms Formerly Aldgate.

3. Then a bit later crossing back through the church I found a young fellow of about 17 sat with a skateboard and a hymnbook singing (rather beautifully), of all things, 'Hark the herald-angels sing'. He was a bit emotional. 'I think I'll be spending more time here', he told me, and I assured him we'd be here to help. 

I have offered the odd prayer that all these people may be back again.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Doubt, Public and Private

The radio news report at 5.30 yesterday was frankly dismaying. ‘The Archbishop of Canterbury has admitted that the killings in Paris led him to doubt God,’ the report went, ‘but he said he spoke to God who reassured him of his presence’. The dismay, as far as I was concerned, arose not from the news that ABC has had flashes of faithlessness in response to a terrible event, but the resolution of those doubts which must surely come across to any non-Christian as glib and weird. The wording of the headline changed as the day proceeded, thankfully, and the original interview on the never-failingly gruesome Songs of Praise made it clear that Abp Justin was not hearing divine voices: ‘God told me’ turned out to mean ‘I went for a walk and thought about it and remembered a bit from the Psalms that helped me to see things differently’. So not much different from the rest of us, then.

I suppose Abp Justin wanted to suggest that questioning the presence of God in such extreme events was normal and understandable. As friends of mine pointed out, this is on the face of it odd, as there is plenty of cruel and unnecessary death around all of the time without the need for mass-murder by terrorists to shake one’s faith. An act of very human evil, too, surely calls God into question rather less than a natural calamity, but even disasters of almost inconceivable magnitude are curiously rarely cited as reasons for doubt: Christians in the West seem to have been able very easily to mentally brush aside the 230,000 people who died in the great Tsunami of 2004, for instance.

The things that prompt us to doubt, if we have anything to doubt, are strangely personal and random. Terrible events such as the Paris killings don’t affect me on this level: I sort of discount them as the kind of thing one should expect in a fallen world. Instead, for many years the thing that set me off on a spiral of anger was the senseless suffering of my mother from arthritis and other frailties, which seemed not just random but strangely directed at her. I couldn’t see, and still don’t even though her situation is much better than it used to be, that this served any spiritual purpose or was of any benefit to anyone. I seem to have been able to digest that as time has gone on, and my own lapses into faithlessness are now caused, when they come, by tiredness or a succession of silly little personal frustrations which less make me doubt God as make me indifferent as to what I believe – an emotional disturbance rather than a philosophical shift. Then gradually I discover I do care once again.

If we conceived God as a remote and Olympian figure, these problems wouldn’t arise – they only appear when we believe that God takes an interest in what happens to us. Despite what I said about the Paris killings being an act of human evil, why God does not rescue people from such things is not as daft a question as it might appear. I can remember several occasions in my life when I might well have died, and one particular episode when I still can’t understand why I didn’t; talking to people suggests that this kind of experience is more common than one might think. If Christians are tempted to see in such events signs of God’s care for them as individuals (and the Scriptures encourage us to think this way), the question necessarily arises, Why these interventions and not those?

Of course there is no answer. Christians live in a world which is full of hazard and pain, and also one in which a man died and was alive again. Somehow we have to hold these two facts together, and the only connection between them is two pieces of bloodstained wood hammered into a cross, the site of that man’s death. That’s as much of a response from Heaven as we get. For some of us, it’s enough to keep us moving forward, and to provide the means of trying to understand and assimilate the disasters which afflict us; and for some it isn’t. 

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Away With the PCC

As we've said before, the process of 'Mission Planning' will not of and by itself save the church in Swanvale Halt, let alone the Church more generally. That doesn't mean it's not worth doing: if nothing else it encourages people to think about the life of their particular Christian community in a less passive and more deliberative and conscious way, less as something that merely happens around them and more as something they take part in and help to shape. 

So the Church Council and I found ourselves at a local school on Saturday being 'facilitated' by an affable chap from the Diocese and plied with nice sandwiches provided by the school caterers for a small consideration. We discussed the results of our church membership survey and a more focused one which tried to identify what we thought the strengths and weaknesses of the church were, and spent a while thinking about realistic ways of tackling the latter. There were no very radical surprises in any of this process, though Mr Facilitator told us there sometimes are when churches do this exercise. I was pleased at how enthusiastic and positive everyone was, and will wait to see how many tasks we set ourselves end up being a joint enterprise and how many have my initials put next to them ...

Friday, 13 November 2015

You, Too, Could Be Vulnerable

I lose track of which sort of safeguarding training I've done. I get offered it via the diocese and also as a school governor, and as both streams of training happen in the same place it's not easy to know which you're swimming in at any one time. The last lot I did was online which was a new experience; downloading my certificate just wasn't as thrilling as picking it up from a formica table.

This week I was down to do another training session, and went along wondering how they were going to repackage the same thing as usual yet again. In fact it turned out to be about safeguarding adults. Now, the legislation talks about 'vulnerable adults', defined as people of 'reduced capacity' and/or those in receipt of social support of some kind. However, the Church of England has chosen in its own guidelines not to talk about 'vulnerable adults' but 'adults who are vulnerable', thus widening the definition. 'Anyone can be vulnerable in certain circumstances', the trainer told us, which is nothing other than the truth. As is the manner of these things we were shown a range of filmed scenarios. 'Who is vulnerable in this situation?' we were asked, and eventually concluded that virtually everyone on the screen was, one way or another. Although thinking in these terms does make you alert to the ways in which people in a given situation may be hurting, or capable of being hurt, I couldn't help wondering whether a definition without boundaries was of any use as an analytical category. If everyone is potentially vulnerable, who do you look out for most?

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

You Can't Please All Of the People

Image result for remembranceSwanvale Halt church thinks of itself as friendly, as all churches do, but as more than that, as, thankfully, relatively free of some of the sorts of conflicts which afflict church communities. I think this is fair enough as it fits in with my own observations of this and other churches. Which is why when disagreement suddenly blows up out of nowhere it's all the more surprising.

We kept Remembrance Sunday on the 8th this year, as usual, and Laura our Lay Reader was down to preach. She gave the subject her customary thoughtfulness, arising from a generally sceptical frame of mind, and examined the concept of heroism, the real and mixed motivations of the people we were remembering in joining armed conflict, and the nature of God's call on us. Thought-provoking, which is perfectly in order considering the occasion. The trouble with being thought-provoking is that sometimes you provoke thought, and not everyone finds it a comfortable experience. 

A very well-spoken late middle-aged couple had come to the church for the first time the previous week. This time they were absolutely irate. He queried why we hadn't had a collection for an ex-service charity; I hadn't thought of it. Specific Remembrance Services I've been at in the past do this but I can't remember it happening at Mass - nevertheless actually a reasonable suggestion, Her objections to the service were more forcibly expressed. 'I hope you never preach another sermon,' she told Laura. 'I believe in heroism. Our soldiers fight for Queen and country. I agree with David Cameron. I don't think we will be coming to this church again.' And out they went.

Of course we all awkwardly shrugged it off but knowing full well how this kind of thing feels I called round on Laura later on and talked it through with her. One tries to be rational but when objections to something you've done (and thought very hard about) are so personal they are all you can remember. What one also needs to remember, and lament, is that although there is no way of 'fixing' this sort of situation or of avoiding it - unless you say and do nothing anyone could possibly object to, and there is no point in that - it is still nevertheless tragic that anyone leaves a place that stands for peace in such violence and disturbance of spirit, even if that tragedy is their own choice. Such an extreme reaction suggests 'issues' to delve into, but will they find a place to do so?

Monday, 9 November 2015

A Better Bonfire

For the last couple of years we've attended Bonfire celebrations at first Godalming and then Guildford which, you may remember, turned out to be intimidatingly and in fact tediously massive. This year, as threatened, we decided to try one of the local villages for something a bit more communitarian and low-key. Chiddingfold was recommended: apparently the whole village is closed to traffic for the occasion and buses convey revellers from Witley Station some distance away, so that we thought would probably not be what we wanted. Puttenham's Firework Night cost £10 a head which we considered cheeky. Instead we thought we'd try Hascombe, which is tiny and inhabited by almost nobody.

That may be the case, but by the time we arrived about twenty minutes before the fireworks were due to start (we thought we could live without the children's procession to light the bonfire) the whole mile or so of road through the village was lined with cars, and more people picking their way through the dark with torches. We eventually found a place right at the south end of the village and joined those still making the journey to the field outside the Village Hall. The somewhat inadequate photos here don't give much of an idea of the scale - the bonfire is an impressive pile and there were probably between 700 and 1000 people there, milling around in front of the Hall and a couple of food and drink tents erected for the occasion. It was just about acceptable, we thought - we were able to linger on the edge and not get crushed with people, the fireworks were every bit as good as at the larger shows, and there was no inane commentary from a local radio DJ. 

Lots of children were wearing multi-coloured flashing-light rabbit ears, which I can't recall seeing before. It leads me to reflect yet again how big the Bonfire season is now, compared to what I remember from my childhood forty years ago; Hascombe's celebration is modest compared to those around it (that's why we went), but still a pretty large business. 

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Ding Dong

A week late, but I meant to show off our Halloween pumpkin. The one I bought turned out a bit lopsided, so having been given the task of doing the eyes I carved one squinting and one wide open. However with Ms Formerly Aldgate's grinning mouth it acquired more of a sort of Leslie Phillips feel about it. I say.

On the morning of the 1st there seemed to be someone going round our part of the village, at least, smashing up the pumpkins, and this fate befell ours and the little turnip lantern I left down at the church as usual. However in outlying regions of the parish the pumpkins survived, and this one was still extant yesterday, carved as a Minion.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Talking Jesus

You may remember a bit of research reported on a few days ago which was commissioned by the Church of England (among others) and came up with the statistic that 40% of people don't know that Jesus was a real person (although I know atheists who argue very adamantly that he wasn't). That was all very well, but the research also looked into the results of encounters between Christians and non-Christians, and found that the two groups remembered such encounters rather differently, and not just that. Now, bear in mind that for years the Church has been rather wringing its hands about the inarticulacy of its members in talking to their friends, neighbours, colleagues and relatives about their faith. 'Talk to people', says the Church, 'Spread the word. Gossip the Gospel. It's the only way of converting souls.' The research suggests it is, in the sense that people who did convert to Christianity put conversations with a Christian as one of the reasons for doing so, but the figures also point out that most of the time such encounters do more harm than good: non-Christians who had conversations with believers about faith were four times more likely to feel negatively about Christianity than to want to find out more. The findings were reported to the General Synod a few days ago and apparently had Synod members gasping in disbelief. 

Quantitative research of this sort, important though it is, can't get at the quality and nature of the encounter which I expect is crucial to what happens as a result of it. Only yesterday our curate Marion, going to pick the family car up from a repair job at the local garage, had a conversation with one of the staff who related how he'd begun going to church at Christmas and Easter as a result of chats with a neighbour, a Baptist, who he knew and liked. This was clearly one of those encounters which, in evangelistic terms, had 'worked', probably because it took place within a context of trust and friendship and without the evangelisee feeling they were being evangelised: nobody likes feeling that someone else regards them as a means to an end rather than a person in their own right. 

Strangely enough I very rarely have deep conversations about faith, despite or, who knows, perhaps because of the collar; much of the time they happen when I come to the church and find someone in desperate circumstances who needs to talk, very often after their tongues have been loosened by a little alcohol. It's a bit of a shame because those aren't the best circumstances for such conversations to happen. I suspect many people assume that if they really open up to the vicar he will be judgemental and critical; perhaps this characterises the encounters they have with other sorts of Christians too, which is why they turn out so negatively. 

'We know that some people are good at this, and some aren't', they concluded at the Synod meeting, which seems, for the moment, to be as far as we can get.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Museum Quartet

My mental acuity has been decidedly lacking over the last few days, but I am perhaps now able to dredge my complaining ganglia just enough to post about the museums I visited on my Yorkshire sojourn. A mixed bag, as always.

The drum-shaped structure of The Rotunda at Scarborough sits by the central gardens. I went in and discovered very quickly that its main focus is not local or social history but geology, and my heart sank a bit: rocks are not one of my major interests. In fact the Rotunda is great fun, focusing on the role of William Smith, the 18th/19th-century geologist, who first devised the theory of geological stratification. The dome which tops the museum is a spectacular space, its gallery of lovely old Victorian cabinets filled with the collection of the Scarborough Philosophical Society's leading members.

Filey Museum just along the coast is a complete contrast, a volunteer-run collection of the usual miscellaneous domestic and local paraphernalia with a certain nautical preponderance. It reminded me rather of Sheringham Museum down in Norfolk, which I saw last year. 

I confess myself a bit frustrated by Beck Isle Museum in Pickering, a somewhat bigger affair than Filey and four times the price to get in. The lovely 18th-century house it inhabits doubtless has a fascinating history but the Museum tells you nothing about it, only mentioning the family who lived there in passing. It has a range of reconstructed shops and businesses, but while the gents' outfitters pictured here is indeed based on an actual Pickering shop, most are generic representations - a pub, a barber's, and so on - and you are given strangely little insight into Pickering and its history.

The museum at Hornsea, however, takes its history seriously: several of the room displays are organised around the story of the family who lived there, reminding me rather of the Priest's House in Wimborne where I worked once upon a time. There is also an in-depth display about the Hornsea Pottery, a major local employer until its closure in 2000, and although in the great scheme of things this one business is not of huge significance, nevertheless this focus on the development, growth and decline of a single company is a brilliant and in my experience unique exposé of modern capitalism and how it works. 

Wednesday, 28 October 2015


Until yesterday I had (thankfully) had no experience of courts. Somehow, however, I'd managed to agree to accompany Joan, a parishioner with a lot of problems I regularly deal with, and her partner to the magistrates' court to meet her solicitor to discuss her ongoing case, which is not going particularly well. Anyway, it was interesting just from the point of view of experiencing the environment. Her solicitor had been expecting to be called into court for two other cases before seeing Joan, but this wasn't happening. I boggled at the amount of paperwork she carried around with her for this particular, tiny case. I had no idea that when a case begins, the police make a judgement as to whether the defendant is likely to plead guilty or not, and this determines both which court the case will be dealt with and how much effort is put into providing statements and paperwork, for the sake of speed and efficiency in an overworked and under-resourced system. I had no idea how faintly daft barristers' wigs look in reality. When we came into the waiting area in front of the courtrooms, Joan greeted a fellow she knew, a very fidgetty chap of about 30 wearing a silvery grey suit. 'What are you here for?' 'Just a couple of assaults,' he said before adding hurriedly 'I didn't do it', and crossing to the water-fountain where he dropped plastic cups on the floor trying to fill one up.

When I got down to the church for Evensong I found a carer who'd been visiting a lady in the sheltered flats next door but in the course of this had met a very unhappy young man who'd been self-harming and needed a bit of help. Although after about half an hour, some prayers and reassurance he was a lot happier and not so tearful, I don't think I handled it very well and should have probed further about his self-destructive feelings. Dealing with people in this miserable state is not a matter of common sense and you can't wing it, and I've been caught out this way before. You actually have to learn what to do and do it, a sort of 'mirror-signal-manoeuvre' of  pastoral encounters. I will write myself a note.

Later on the carer who'd met this young man and brought him to the church phoned me up in tears, worrying that she hadn't done enough and had upset the lady she looks after in the process. It turned out that she'd got her care-ee to call 'the vicar' and ask him to come down to the church. Whoever that was, it wasn't me: I suspect I know who it would have been, but it took quite a conversation with the carer to work out exactly what she was talking about given the initial mistake.

Finally Mad Trevor called. He dreamt that a big divine boot kicked one of the witches he's convinced are tormenting him into Hell, which cheered him up. However other witches are still about their infernal tricks and he wanted me to 'pray for the whole world of football' because they are trying to 'make things not take their natural course'. He also asked me to call him at 7.50am this morning so he can make a hospital appointment. He was very insistent that I set my alarm, so I don't know when he thinks I get up. 

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Well Hunting In East Yorks

My trip to the East Riding was not marked by visits to a great variety of wells. The first I managed to get to was the now-dry Well of Our Lady in Scarborough Castle, glimpsed through the fog on a damp and dull morning; and I spent a while scrambling through various hedges and fields to discover the usual sort of damp holes in the ground and featureless ponds such as Knox Well at Reighton and Keld Spring at Grindale

Rather prettier are the three well-known wells at Lastingham over the boundary in North Yorkshire, St Chad's, St Cedd's, and St Ovin's, shown below in that order:

They are all dry now - an increasingly frequent fact and one which has a peculiar sadness as it applies to wells - and a lot could be said about their history by someone who wanted to devote some thought to the matter. St Ovin's Well seems to have been an ordinary village water supply given the name of a monk of Lastingham who appears in the writings of the Venerable Bede but who had no cult in the Middle Ages. It looks superficially similar to St Chad's Well but in fact has a different form. Similar remarks could be made about the equally well-known well of St John of Beverley at Harpham which I reckon has been extensively 'restored' at least three times to judge by the look of the thing. 

The best well, though, was St Helen's Well at Goodmanham which I called in on during my journey home. A brisk walk down a footpath led to a site which has clearly been very thoroughly adopted by the local authorities who have landscaped the area around the well, erected steps and a handrail, and put up a rather bright and cheerful information board despite the fact that virtually nothing is known about the history of the site at all. As Jeremy Harte points out in English Holy Wells, it wasn't until the 1920s that the well's earlier name of Sentenny Wells was reinterpreted as 'St Helen's' - although it's hard to see what else can have given rise to the name. Many writers mention the elder tree above the well, and it is speculated that Anglo-Saxon ellern has given rise to wells of St Helen elsewhere - but there's no evidence of that happening at Goodmanham, and how ellern might morph into Sentenny is a debatable matter.

St Helen's Well, having been a bit tumbledown for quite some time, is now very neat and tidy, arguably a bit too much so, but doubtless it will weather down over time. I can't quite work out how much of the original structure - in so far as there was one - has been incorporated in the modern version. Photographs from a mere six years ago seem to show virtually no stonework around the well-head at all, and the stump of the elder tree that lingered above it for some years has finally gone.
However the scale and secluded location of the site make it impressive, and people are clearly responding. The old custom of hanging rags near some wells so that whatever burden, psychological or medical, you bring to the well will slowly fade as the rag rots away, has now melded with the notion of ribbons for remembrance or commemoration and one of the trees at the bottom of St Helen's Well steps has a dazzling polychrome variety of ribbons. These are mainly polyester rather than cloth, and aren't going to go anywhere anytime soon. You can glimpse the odd CD and trinket; and I noticed that one visitor, apparently, has been on the Race For Life several years running and left her medals here, hanging together on one of the branches. 

Thursday, 22 October 2015

St Catherine at Pickering

Two Wednesdays ago I climbed the path in the pleasing Yorkshire town of Pickering to the parish church of SS Peter & Paul. Little did I suspect that the church houses a huge sequence of medieval wall paintings, uncovered and restored in the 1870s and 1880s; and furthermore, amazingly, I had no idea that among the images - St George and the Dragon, St Christopher, St Edmund shot with arrows, the Coronation of the Virgin and the Harrowing of Hell, is a beautiful depiction of the story of St Catherine. My photographs are a bit indistinct, even with some amendment, and you can doubtless find better ones elsewhere, but they are my photographs.

1. The Emperor Maxentius sets up an idol in Alexandria (a very devilish one, too) and announced that everyone must worship it, with sackbuts, trumpets and all kinds of music, as it says in the Prophet Daniel. Catherine, pious, learned, beautiful, and already handily crowned, refuses to join in.
 2. Maxentius sends a gang of pagan philosophers to convince Catherine of the error of her opinions: she converts them to Christianity instead, and so they are all done away with, post-haste.
 3. Catherine is imprisoned.
 4. Catherine is taken out of prison, where angels have been keeping an eye on her ...
 5. ... and is stripped to the waist to be scourged. Seeing the blessed Saint topless is a bit disconcerting, but presumably the medieval parishioners of Pickering were unfazed by such frankness. Her torturers do let her keep her crown on.
 6. Catherine is returned to prison ...
 7. ... where she is visited by the Empress, who she also converts to Christianity.
 8. Maxentius is now beside himself and orders Catherine's execution. Here she is between the razored wheels which are intended to flay her to pieces, but angels helpfully smash them up and the bits massacre the unfortunate pagans at the bottom.
 9. Finally Catherine is beheaded.
Funnily enough I am this very day in receipt of a copy of Katherine Lewis's 2000 book The Cult of St Katherine of Alexandria in Late Medieval England in which she points out that the Pickering murals were 'rather imaginatively repainted' and that the beheading scene in particular was almost completely reinvented (the detail of Catherine's hair being swept forward to expose her neck does look strangely un-medieval). Dr Lewis states mildly that 'the repainted nave as a whole does at least have the advantage of giving one an idea of what a brightly painted late medieval English church looked like'. 

Indeed, one supposes, it does. I found myself almost completely overcome by the unexpected presence of my Friend in Heaven and, had there not been quite a number of other people in the church at the time, might well have fallen to tears. As it was, it must have been peculiar to the other visitors to have me mooning around the nave in front of these particular images.

On my way home I dropped in at Leicester to see an old friend and visit the King. The Cathedral has this Catherine window which I suspect is mid-20th-century:

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Holiday Churches

I didn't get into a huge number of churches while I was in Yorkshire, but here are three of the more interesting. 

Firstly, St Andrew's Boynton, right next to the Hall on whose estate I was staying; a typical little village church from the outside, but within, distinctly unusual. There are those green pews, for a start, virtually unique as far as I know. Even more oddly, until the 1930s they faced inward, so worshippers at Boynton looked at one another across the nave aisle as though they were part of a college or monastery. Then there's the arrangement of pillars around the altar, forming a sort of integral baldacchino though I very much doubt that was the intended effect: Pevsner describes them as 'Gothick' although they have more of an Egyptian feel to me. Finally, the whole area east of the altar is a private memorial chapel to the Hall, and inaccessible from the rest of the church: you can only get in via an external door.

Next, St Mary's, Lastingham. This church is small, but massive, piling up in stages on a hillock to one side of the village. The space for the congregation is quite limited but the building is strangely lofty, albeit combining its spaciousness with the dark majesty of Norman churches. It has a Byzantine feel about it. Beneath the church is one of this country's ancient church crypts, a thousand and more years old. 

Finally, St Patrick's, Patrington. I was on a journey down through Holderness to Spurn Head and not intending to visit this church at all - I merely spotted it from the road and thought it was worth a look, mainly because of the unusual pillared coronet around the steeple. And so it proved: 'the Queen of Holderness', this church is referred to, far too grand for the settlement Patrington now is but most appropriate for a one-time important market town in a rich agricultural and trading area. Its gorgeous Decorated stone vaulting creates a sense of unity you rarely find in English churches, developed as they have over long periods of time. It has never been significantly altered or restored; it houses an Easter Sepulchre and a remarkable number of gargoyles.

As I went up the churchyard path to St Patrick's I looked at that stunning spire and noticed there was a solar halo exactly centred on it from where I stood. It was still there when I came out, slightly reeling from architectural sugar-shock.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Keeping In Touch

Image result for god adam sistine"When I'm retired I shall never go near a bloody church again", my old vicar told me when I met him for lunch on my way to the Dairy Cottage a fortnight ago. This regular statement is one of the ways I know he is basically all right. 

My October holiday is the only time I have any Sundays not leading worship at Swanvale Halt, two in succession. I normally go to an 8am service, as it will be quiet, directed Godward without too many distractions, and nobody is likely to ask me any questions. This year I was at Bridlington Priory for the first Sunday, and our local Cathedral for the second. I'd enquired about the 8am at Bridlington before going and, both when I asked and when I actually turned up for Mass, people kept trying to encourage me to go to the 10.30 service instead 'because our choir is very good': they obviously think it's their main selling point. I couldn't have cared less, to be honest, though I thought honesty was not required at that point.

When off work of course I still pray each day, although I don't say the Office. I still say the Benedictus and sometimes the Magnificat as a kind of reminder of the Office, but don't feel obliged to recite the public prayer of Holy Church as I normally would as I am not being a public Christian at such times. However once decoupled from my usual disciplines and routines even 'ordinary' prayer seems to become a bit harder and less fruitful. I continually find my mind distracted by the plans of the day ahead, even if they're only about gardening.

I also suspect it would be strangely easy to fall into not going to church. I often tell people that I feel my life would start to run out of control if I had a week not attending divine service, but that seems quite an abstract concern; it probably wouldn't be very noticeable at first. I wonder how long it would actually take before any sense of God's presence in my life began to fade and dissipate; it's hard enough to maintain at the best of times. If this is how I feel, it's easy enough to see how good Christians drift into separation and absence. Initially the difference it makes is all too hard to discern.

Friday, 16 October 2015

The Dairy Cottage, Boynton

Now I am back from hols I can begin a series of the usual sorts of posts about wells, museums, and other such pressing matters! Here was my location for the week: the Gothic Dairy Cottage at Boynton Hall in East Yorkshire. This fantastic folly is not a Landmark but is privately owned, the owners being the Marriotts who occupy the Hall and restored the Dairy Cottage from its previous ruinous state in the mid-1980s. I say 'Gothic', though in fact only the central bit of it is pointy, while the sitting room has a nicely Classical feel as you can see in the photograph below.

The interior fittings are not as precisely themed as they might be at a Landmark property, but have a charm of their own, ranging as they do from an 18th or early 19th century painting in a naive style in the dining room to theatrical costume watercolours in the sitting room which have the look of the Ballets Russes. They've sourced a set of Gothic dining chairs, though. The bedroom is above the dining room.

The oddest bit of furnishing is what looks bizarrely like an altar in the dining room ...
... behind which, to increase the religious atmosphere, are a set of Delftware tiles depicting various Biblical scenes. You might be able to recognise the weird episode of the bronze snake from the Book of Numbers:
The Dairy Cottage isn't the only folly on the estate. At the end of the walled garden which guests are welcome to wander around is an 18th-century hothouse with an arched brick entrance, and the Garden House sits within the main Hall garden, a building apparently plain and unremarkable before being Gothicised by a later owner:
The thing I found most trying about my stay was not being able to make my little travel radio work, something of a wrench for a Radio 4 addict.

While the housekeeper was showing me round she pointed towards a barred door and warned in tones which sounded slightly too offhand, 'And this door we never open.' I felt as though I might have strayed into a cheap 1970s horror film. It was somewhat disappointing to work out it only led to the outside.