Friday, 30 January 2015


I was delighted to find this plate on offer for a few pounds at a local antiques centre. It has (you will see by careful inspection) a charming depiction of a very Rococo garden landscape complete with fountain, Gothic exedra, bridge and Chinoiserie boat paddling across the lake. I looked at the style and the lettering on the back and thought it might actually be quite old. It is - it turns out that these plates were made between 1840 and 1850 by two Midlands firms called Adams and Allcock.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Collateral Damage

The thing with leaving the church open most of the day is that you never know quite what you will find when you come to say Evensong and lock up. Usually it's nothing more problematic than the youngsters who hang around the building after school chucking-out time having left behind a can of revolting sugary drink or a pungent polystyrene carton from the kebab shop on the corner.

On Sunday, however, I noticed that the horrid little golden curtain that covers up the Aumbry where the reserved sacrament is stored was askew; it often is, so thinking no more of it I went to straighten it out. It was then I found that the entire wooden frame which supports the curtain and surrounds the door of the Aumbry itself had been wrenched off the wall, and then, curiously, put back again in place to make it look as though nothing had happened. It's not serious damage, as the Aumbry itself was unopened and all it required was an awful lot of polyfiller to repair. I'm not sure how old the frame is: the church first received permission to reserve the sacrament in 1924, but it's not clear that the decorative surround goes back to that time. There was a base of newspaper which you can just see in this photo, wedged along the bottom of the frame to level it out, but I didn't uncrinkle it to find a date.

I suppose that this exploit was also the responsibility of some of our more enterprising young visitors who thought that there would be something valuable stored in this cupboard and then surprised themselves by pulling the frame off the wall. Sally the churchwarden who I showed the damage to on Monday found it 'rather sweet' that it had been put back. I read it as trying to convince yourself psychologically that you haven't really done anything. It reminds me of the time I went to do a check over the Mound in the grounds of the Museum back in Wycombe, and finding a group of lads who'd very, very obviously just pulled up a sapling newly-planted by the Council in an attempt to stop this ancient monument eroding. One sheepish youngster tried to push the broken tree-let back into the ground. 'It'll grow back, won't it?' he said, so ludicrously it was pathetic.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Deja Vu

The Treasurer of Churches Together in Hornington & District sent an email to the executive saying he was, as usual, about to send out the requests for subscriptions to church treasurers (not to the ministers, as they just lose the letters). We discussed this at the executive meeting - how we didn't know what the individual rates for each church were (they're not equal), and how we thought that they must surely be itemised somewhere (perhaps in the financial report to the AGM in October?) but that none of us could lay hands on them at the moment; and how we might let the figures pass without discussion or amendment this year, but really get a grip on the matter and review them next year. I pointed out that that's what we said last year, and, I'm sure, the year before that.

Why do we keep being caught out by this cycle? Is the inertia within organisations such as Churches Together (at least this branch, but it fits in with my experience of others too) a result of the people running it necessarily not having much spare mental energy to devote to thinking about it, the majority of their attention being focused elsewhere; or does it reflect the same cognitive lacuna that results in so many of us being faintly surprised when it's cold in the winter or hot in the summer? And why does so much of what one does feel vaguely like this?

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Perhaps Not

'We don't want Geoff's funeral to be too solemn,' his family told me. 'What was that song we talked about?' asked his daughter-in-law. 'We thought how it was just like him, he liked everything done just so. The Bernard Cribbins one. Don't dig it here, dig it there.'

'I can't remember', I asked, 'Are we going from the church to the crematorium, or the cemetery?'

'The cemetery', they said.

'In that case', I suggested, 'Are you sure that a song about digging a hole is what you want to go out to?'

They decided, on reflection, it probably wasn't.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Bournemouth Religion

Talking about Church history, as we are, it's not unnatural that I should have a particular interest in that of my home town of Bournemouth. This was piqued a few years ago by discovering that the first Vicar of Bournemouth, Alexander Mordern Bennett, was an ardent Tractarian who formed a slightly more moderate counterpart to the famous Fr Wagner along the coast in Brighton, a similarly wealthy clergyman who built churches and schools and set up a convent (for which innovations he ended up being burned in effigy by the more Evangelical local Anglicans). Bennett is a highly interesting character, having been ordained several years before John Keble preached the Assize Sermon that sparked off the Oxford Movement, so he must have been captivated by its ideals at an older age.

I recently came across Bright's Guide to Bournemouth, dating from 1896, which very helpfully gives a list of all the churches and their services. How far had the Catholic Revival gone in the town by that stage? Of course, a mere list of services doesn't tell you how the services were conducted; whether any of the clergy were burning incense, wearing vestments, using the Roman Canon or doing other such naughty things. But you get some clues as to, arguably, more important and long-lasting changes. Bear in mind that a couple of decades earlier a weekly Communion service would have been a rarity, but by century's end it was relatively common.
Evening communion services are a sure sign of an Evangelical church; at a Catholic Anglican church congregants would have been instructed only to receive communion fasting. Sure enough, the church deliberately founded in rebellion at the predominately Tractarian flavour of Bournemouth Anglicanism, Holy Trinity, has evening communion services, along with St Paul in Littledown. Most churches now have communion every week, but at St John's Surrey Road the only chance worshippers have to take communion is 8am on a Sunday morning: almost all the other churches provide more opportunities, even the Evangelical ones (St Luke's in Winton only has a communion service at 8am every third Sunday, but then it's just a little mission church; it's somewhat unfair to judge the smaller Chapels of Ease (CE) by these data, too). 

I had previously thought that weekday celebrations of communion were a better indication of 'advanced' churchmanship than celebrations on holy and saints' days, because a common move for a Victorian churchman keen to shuffle his church along was to introduce communion on the holy days authorised by the Prayer Book, as this was hard for Protestant parishioners to object to (that was what happened at Lamford and Swanvale Halt). This table suggests otherwise, however, because weekday celebration is slightly more widespread in 1890s Bournemouth than observance of the holy days; even Holy Trinity has a Thursday communion service ('for invalids'), and there's a stronger correlation between churches that have red-letter-day services and those who have multiple celebrations of the eucharist every Sunday. 

Even though many of the Bournemouth churches were set up by Revd Bennett, they don't all show the same advanced churchmanship of the original parish church, St Peter's in the town centre, from which they were founded. However it might be unfair to judge them by these figures as you might expect the big town-centre churches to be better resourced and staffed. St Swithun's in Gervis Place, for instance, doesn't look especially advanced, though it's a chapel-of-ease to St Peter's. 

The most advanced churches are at the bottom of the table. St Peter's, the original church, and St Michael's, are fairly in the forefront of High Church practice at this time with multiple celebrations of the Eucharist every Sunday and services on some weekdays as well as red-letter-days. St Stephen's, built as a memorial to Revd Bennett and from the start somewhat more Catholic than its parent church, has a daily communion, one of fewer than 500 churches across the country at this time (and probably now). St Aldhelm's Branksome, split off from the slightly more conservative All Saints in that part of the town, doesn't have a daily celebration but the eucharist is the main service every Sunday (and I see that the church still has a splendid rood screen and six candles on the altar). Finally, the most advanced church in the town is St Clement's Springbourne, with a daily mass and the communion as the centrepiece of Sunday worship, the goals (at least interim goals) of many Anglo-Catholic clergy. The church then was being cared for by Fr Towle, who appears in the photograph below. Sound fellow.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Preparing to Sell Out

My post-Christmas book-buying spree has included a range of items relating to the history of Anglo-Catholicism. I've already referred to Michael Yelton's More Empty Tabernacles; then there was Roy Tricker's Anglicans On High, about the hitherto-overlooked history of the Catholic Revival in Anglican churches in Suffolk; it contains stories of the vicar who had to cope with a Protestant-minded farmer who insisted on sitting in church with his back to the altar as a protest, the dreadful episode of the Akenham Burial Case, and the priest who required all boys confirmed in his parish to receive the additional name of Clement (his own), which is possibly taking paternalism a bit far. This photograph shows the aumbry at Barsham church, a rather fine devotional image in its own right.

A lot of the accounts in Anglicans On High describe the advance in parishes in terms of services; when they adopted communion services on saints' days, or as the main service on Sunday, or a daily mass (which didn't happen that often). My own investigations into what happened here in Swanvale Halt suggest that the ritual of the church began to advance from the late 1870s onwards, first to celebrating communion on alternate Sundays and Saints' Days, then every Sunday from the mid-1880s, and a daily mass in the 1920s. It took all the way till 1947 for there to be a mid-morning Parish Communion every Sunday, however, and even then it wasn't perceived as the 'main service' until the late 1960s.

When I see how my great predecessors, in this parish and elsewhere, battled for the act of Communion to be the centrepiece of the Church's worship and identity, I feel a certain sense of unease. Our Mission Planning process on which we are embarking might, conceivably if not probably, turn our worshipping life inside-out. How far can the Mass be used to evangelise, and how far are other forms of event or worship appropriate? The old Anglo-Catholics were arguing and educating for a more sacramental view of the life of the Christian disciple within a society already primed to accept it; now the world is different. I had rather hoped that, as others have said, mere prayerful and God-centred celebration of the sacraments will be enough to draw more souls; five years in the parish suggests that it doesn't seem to be, even if it makes the church itself, internally, happier and more prayerful. If we are to do more which is designed to bring new people into contact with God, do we have to do less of what we do now? There's only a limited amount of time, people and energy and a Sung Eucharist takes quite a lot of all three to provide. Yet I remain committed to the idea that only the Eucharist makes the Church, being the unique way Christ has chosen to express our relationship with him. Can you do Catholicism with less bread and wine? Am I about to be the one who betrays the legacy of my forebears?

Monday, 12 January 2015

St Saviour's Poplar

As a postscript to the last entry, when I was on my placement in Poplar in 2003 I went poking around one of the former churches, St Saviour's Northumbria Street, once the stamping-ground of the great Fr Robert Dolling and the arguably even greater Fr Philip Bartlett. I wasn't completely sure anything was going on there at all, as it looked very unkempt and the doors were battered and didn't quite fit, until I heard what sounded like snatches of singing from inside. The building was at that point being used by the Celestial Church of Christ, a Benin-based Pentecostal connexion.

I learned from my recently-purchased copy of Michael Yelton's second book on some of the lost Anglo-Catholic churches of London, More Empty Tabernacles, that St Saviour's caught fire in 2007 (caused by a cooker, according to Paul Talling's brilliant It's a listed building, so can't be demolished, but nobody has the money to do anything else with it, so the shell sits within a ring of new houses on the edge of Bartlett Park, surrounded by high green fences, a monument to - well, something or other, but hardly to the thousands of souls who worshipped there across the years.
Photo from

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Reprehensible Nostalgia

Snobbishly, it feels slightly embarrassing to admit to enjoying something as popular as the BBC drama Call The Midwife, but I and Ms Formerly Aldgate have indeed rather delighted in catching up with the series over the last year since discovering it. There are those who react very unfavourably to its saccharine approach to the 1950s and depictions of 'posh people being nice', but then the caring professions were full of posh people being nice, and watching an hour of human beings struggling to be as good as they can be is a healthy change from serial killers, of which, in reality, there are rather fewer about than television might have us believe.

I feel a particular connection with the events because of my albeit short stay in Poplar while I was at theological college. Although the real convent which Jennifer Worth's midwifery memoirs were based on is the Community of St John the Divine in Whitechapel, most of the action is still set in Poplar, somewhat to the south and east, where I did my placement in 2002. The parish of Poplar, in common with most of the rest of the East End, was a great centre of Anglo-Catholicism, once upon a time comprising nine churches and a staff of twelve curates (or was it twelve churches and nine curates?) as well as the Rector, not counting all the lay workers and Sisters of various religious orders. In the 1950s the then Rector of Poplar, Fr Eastaugh, who later become Bishop of Hereford, came to Swanvale Halt at our incumbent's invitation to lead a Mission. That whole world, of course, is now long-gone, thanks to wartime depredation, depopulation, immigration and economic change; of all those Poplar churches only two survive, one of which (St Nicholas, Blackwall Steps) has now been moved to an entirely different location. Only the original parish church, Georgian All Saints, maintains a tenuous link with the culture the TV series shows.

The aspect of Call The Midwife which impresses itself most on me is its generous depiction of Christian faith and life. The more quotidian and twee features of an Anglican parish in the 1950s, from cub scout troupes to nativity plays, one might expect to be gently ridiculed, but aren't, and are in any case balanced by the gentle intensity of the experience of the nuns and the laypeople who interact with them. When the Sisters sing Compline it's suspiciously professional (no ropey notes or coughing), but I recognise the chant tones with a sense of gratitude, and the way faith and life interpenetrate is shown seriously and realistically, almost as though Christianity might be something sensible people could adhere to and find it shaping their lives and helping them in both challenging and joyful times. So far as popular culture is concerned, it so very rarely is.

Monday, 5 January 2015

New Beginnings ...

By 7.20am on my first morning back at work (yesterday) I'd counted five things that annoyed me:

1. Litter in the church porch and a distinct smell of stale drink
2. The sofa and pews in the children's corner pushed out to crowd the font area despite me specifically telling people not to do this
3. No paper towels in the gents' toilet, the only working one as we are having the others refurbished
4. No newssheet produced despite me emailing the office manager about it
5. Glimpsing a mouse while I was saying Morning Prayer

Gosh. Some time ago I noticed that coming back to work after leave coincided more than once with me hurting my back, presumably as a result of not doing my normal exercises while I was off, and I've learned to take account of this vulnerability. Equally, I suppose I ought to be prepared for these little challenges to one's spiritual equilibrium that arise while you are away from work, ready to leap at you on your return and make you growl. Either that, or not go on leave at all, of course.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Alexandra Walsham, 'The Reformation of the Landscape' (OUP 2011)

Front CoverI am late coming to this book - I should have bought it long ago, but only discovered it in September in the bookshop at Salisbury Theological College. This is very neglectful, because it covers so beautifully the ground I have an especial interest in, not least holy wells.

The book grew out of an earlier essay Dr Walsham produced for a book on religious change in the 16th century, 'Reforming The Waters', which examined what exactly happened to holy wells during the Reformation upheavals, and whether it was true that many were transformed into spas and medicinal waters as writers of the old school claimed. The exercise demonstrated how what was true of holy wells was true of other categories of site, and eventually this volume emerged.

It's an enormous, stunning work of industry, a vast compilation of material chased down through the highways and byways of Reformation polemic and local history, and building into a portrait of the ways the numinous sites of the landscape, not just wells but churches, stones, trees and caves, among others, were contested between people of differing ideologies, reading those ideologies into what they saw around them and enforcing them on the elements of their topographical inheritance that did not fit them. Ultra-Protestants so wanted to eradicate the idea that divine power could be mediated in special places that they called for every church to be demolished; Catholics protected and rebuilt them and generated new holy sites. I find that the Holy Well of Battle Abbey, so fascinating in its revelation of these processes, has not passed without scholarly notice hitherto as I thought back in July - it's here, on p.220. Politely, nobody on the Wells and Spas Mailing List pointed this out to me when I made a fuss about the well at the time!

The massive scope and intensive detail mean that this survey could never result in a single, uncomplicated, unidirectional account. Dr Walsham points out the ambiguities and contradictions in the story of British Christians and their landscape, which led Puritans to preserve ruins and Catholics to be sceptical of miracles. That complexity, combined with the detail, is part of what makes the book quite tough going. The final paragraph finishes

Encrusted with signposts to the tangled religious histories of the nations that comprised it, the landscape helped early modern people to understand who they were and where they came from - to comprehend the past that shaped them, to come to terms with the challenges of the present, and to find a compass and anchor as they sailed into an uncertain future.

- and if that seems inconclusive, it's because it has to be. There is no one story. The most satisfying parts of the book are the accounts of individual sites over time, such as Glastonbury's Holy Thorn (and allied features) and Ffynnon Gwyddfaen in Carmarthenshire, where you can get some idea of the contradictory multilayering of history and conflict in each place; but the nature of the evidence being what it is, the locations which make such accounts possible are very few.  Yet although The Reformation of the Landscape may have the feel of an enormous Cabinet of Curiosities full of tiny tales bewildering in their number, they are stories of wonder and the ruination of wonder, and that can never fail to fascinate and spellbind.