Friday, 27 February 2015


Through the ongoing autopsy of the Saville Business in the media the question ‘How was it allowed to happen?' continually recurs. Among the answers that get offered nobody talks very much about the institutional inertia which permits wrongdoing to carry on, based around what, I am absolutely sure, is an unspoken but nevertheless real assessment on a brutally rational level of what exposing the wrong will cost. A person who acts abusively, in any way, within an organisation is ipso facto going to be someone with a degree of power within it, which means that pulling them out of the structure is going to hurt. It’s going to take time and energy, and will entail loss. The other cost is that everyone else within the structure is going to have to reassess their relationships with the offender and therefore with the organisation. The offender is almost certainly going to have had a positive influence on the organisation over some time, otherwise they wouldn't be important to it, which means that some people at least will like them personally and find it hard to believe they've done anything wrong. Anyone who decides, against all these considerations, that the allegation, whatever it is, should be acted on, is going to have their work cut out for them. The brutal truth is that, very often, it is far less costly for an institution to stifle and ignore victims, who are powerless, have few relationships with other people within it, and are more likely just to go away.

I wonder how often we face such questions in churches? There are of course many well-publicised instances of sexual abuse, some covered up for decades, some swiftly acted on, but I suspect there are plenty of other sorts of hurt which go under the radar.

Once upon a time Miss Brown complained to me about Miss Black, who held a responsible position in the church. Miss Black had offered to do some cleaning for Miss Brown and, Miss Brown alleged, had found papers alluding to an old family matter; Miss Black was now going around the congregation and the area generally spreading rumours about her. When I asked about it, Miss Black said she had indeed found the papers while tidying up, realised they were personal, and put them back. Nobody else had said anything to me about this, and I hadn't noticed anything amiss in people's attitude towards Miss Brown. I asked the director of a local charity Miss Black had been active with whether there had ever been any hint of trouble during her involvement (as Miss Brown had alleged there had been), and got a negative response.

Over subsequent months Miss Brown’s allegations became more involved. Miss Black had somehow got hold of her bank details and was making online purchases with her money, then stealing the items from outside her house. Miss Brown changed her bank cards, saying that Miss Black had stolen them repeatedly. Finally she phoned me up to say ‘I reported it to the police and I'm pleased to say that woman has been arrested, so everything is all right.’ I even called Miss Black on the pretence of speaking about something completely different, just to see what she said; she had not, as far as I could ascertain, been collared by the constabulary.  

I was uncomfortably aware of the disparity of power between Miss Brown and Miss Black, and, although my minimal investigations hadn't discovered anything that suggested her allegations were true, I knew that reaching this conclusion was very much in my interests and the church’s. It would be so much easier just to dismiss Miss Brown, in her own words, as ‘a mad old woman’, as losing her would cost the church next to nothing on an institutional level. I think I drew the right conclusions about it all, but I look elsewhere, at other cases, and retain a tremor of discomfort.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Something Beyond

One of the books I got for Christmas was Roy Tricker’s Anglicans On High, an account of the Catholic Revival as it affected the churches and clergy of Suffolk. What he said about the little parish of Stansfield intrigued me:

A later Rector here was the Revd Archie F Webling, who came to this - his first parish - from a curacy at St Matthew, Southsea, with great ideas of turning it into a centre of the advanced Catholicism to which he was used. In the end he did not attempt to do so … His autobiography Something Beyond sincerely and sensitively describes how he dealt with the ‘crises of faith’ and the ‘dark nights of the soul’ – things that were very real to him and to many Christians.

I decided to find a copy of Something Beyond. Published in 1933, it’s volume ten in the ‘Cambridge Miscellany’, whatever that was, a small brown-bound and closely-printed book, written in a slightly orotund manner which comes from Fr Webling’s Victorian education. Names and places are heavily disguised (the author refers to himself as ‘Wolfe’ throughout). Archie Webling was an unusual priest. Brought up by his uncle and aunt, he was raised as a Presbyterian but in his teens finds himself in an Anglo-Catholic church in the City of London:

I only knew that I felt helped and uplifted by the service … All combined to flood my soul with a sense of the wonder of holiness and beauty, and, thus far, to draw me nearer to God … This state of perfect tranquillity, combined with full consciousness, passed in a flash … But I learned at that moment just enough to feel that, while man remains man, retaining his mysterious intuitions of things that lie Beyond, so long will the Mass afford to hearts attuned to its significance the most precious link between earth and heaven.

'Wolfe' decides eventually, without any strong sense of internal call, that the life of a clergyman would be both pleasing to him in allowing him to follow the intellectual pursuits he values, and socially useful, and so he determines to be ordained. Weak though his sense of vocation is, this choice requires great sacrifice: he has intelligence but only basic education, and spends twelve years clerking to save the money to put himself through part-time courses which eventually lead to his being accepted for the priesthood.

One of his student friends ordained at the same time is a vigorous though not obviously saintly Anglo-Catholic. They are both accepted as curates in Southsea, though it’s not the easiest of experiences. ‘Wolfe’s’ friend Hallam has suggested they come here deliberately to be deprived of Catholic externals to test whether they are really meaningful, and find a dreary, run-down parish whose church is largely ignored by most of the people it’s supposed to look after. On a Sunday, ‘in the evening little streams of humanity trickled into various places of worship, one such diffusing itself in twos and threes throughout the wide spaces of the parish church’. After some years the Rector retires and Hallam, as senior curate, is appointed his successor by the new patron of the living, a young aristocrat who has become convinced of the claims of Anglo-Catholicism, and both set about transforming the church aesthetically and spiritually. This bears fruit: attendance at worship and involvement in the institutions of the parish rockets and the church starts to do real good for the community around it.

This zealous effort begins to change both the clergymen who are spearheading it. Wolfe discovers a depth of faith that was hardly present when he was ordained, and adds theological and emotional conviction to the affective sense of wonder that he found in Catholic Christianity in his teens. Hallam transforms into little short of a saint – that’s clearly how Wolfe sees him – a man of intense, passionate faith devoted to his work, with a warm heart.

With the Catholic faith secured in the parish and the congregation ten times the size it was when he became rector, Hallam decides God is calling him to missionary work, and resigns. He wants Wolfe to take over but his reticence and humility are hard to overcome; instead the patron turns elsewhere and Frs Hildebrand and Forsse arrive, two Anglo-Catholics of a very different stamp. For them the Catholic faith is hard, severe and clear, and the rules are there to be rigorously and inflexibly enforced. Wolfe realises that his days in the church are numbered, and applies for a parish in rural Suffolk (Stansfield, in reality). His colleagues are only too glad to see him go, viewing him as a relic of a lax regime, and as he leaves the church is contracting and retreating, which they mind not a bit.

Webling now sees how much of his Catholic piety and conviction were driven by the powerful personality of his friend – luckily, a benign personality. In the relative quiet of his new parish he begins to re-assess his beliefs and those of traditional Christianity, concluding that much of what he thinks he has believed has very little solid basis to it: neither Scripture nor the ‘tradition of the Church’, both of which he has tended to accept with little question, seem to have enough security to support the great edifice of Christian faith and practice.

He receives the news that the saintly Hallam is dead, killed in a ridiculous accident far away in Africa (surely the choice of the name ‘Hallam’ relates to that Arthur Hallam in response to whose death Tennyson wrote In Memoriam, that great Victorian exposition of faith and doubt). This and the funerals Fr Webling conducts prompt desperate reflections:

Was it for this, I thought, that man has been evolved throughout countless aeons? Was that amazing thing, the human body, painfully built up, through millions of years of preparation, from the formless amoeba to the glory of that cunningly compacted structure of nerve and muscle, of graceful limbs, the bloom of a maiden’s cheek, the brown soft hair, the laughing loving eyes, in order, at length, a mass of fetid corruption, to rot in this oozy bed? Is there indeed to be a glorious resurrection of this corruption? Paul … speaks impossibly of the magical evolution of a living body out of dead matter … Can I reckon on a miracle so unbelievable on the bare ipse dixit of an oriental visionary?

He maintains such faith as he can through the work of the parish, and meeting its people.

The fact that Old Master Rayner is in need of pastoral visitation brings me … into healthful contact with reality. … His theology consists of chance-gleaned fragments. “I trust in his precious Blood”, he says, “and I pray to him as well as I can. I don’t suppose he will be hard on me. He knows what I have had to put up with from her, poor dear.” He indicates his wife, paralysed and tearful, nodding on the other side of the fireplace … I pray with old Master Rayner before I go. He repeats with me the Lord’s Prayer and the Grace. We remain silent for a little while … He is still praying. “For ever and ever. For ever and ever”, he repeats … “Oh, ain’t that beautiful! I often think of that when I can’t sleep at nights.” … The ritual concludes with my presentation of the customary offering of tobacco.

I enter the cottage of old Widow Spareman. I find her poring over a tattered paper. It is, she tells me, a letter she received from her brother when he was serving in the Crimean War. … “I wish the Lord would take me home. Sometimes as I sit here all by myself I think I can hear them blessed angels a-singing.” But old Widow Spareman does not rashly charge God with the ills that flesh is heir to. By some subtle reasoning she can harmonise the omnipotence with the love of the Creator. “If it hadn’t been for him”, she says, “where would I have been? I know where to look for help.” I am thankful for that much of the grace of humility which has prevented me ever assuming the air of teacher in the presence of such folk. They are the teachers.

Fr Webling gradually comes to see some means of rescue for Christian belief in the evidence of the survival of the human personality afforded by psychic research – a very 1920s/30s way of looking at things. And thus the book ends.

I mention all this in such detail not to draw any grand conclusions, but because it’s such a fascinating example of somebody finding their way very honestly through Christian life generally and the Anglo-Catholic movement in particular. In so far as there is a lesson, it’s about the impossibility of ignoring doubt. ‘The doubter is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does’, says St James: ‘that man need not think he will receive anything from the Lord’ (James 1.6 & 7). True, if we are discussing praying the prayer of faith, but thoughts cannot be unthought, and if we are to develop faith it has to grow through what we do; a form which the heart takes on, not primarily through an act of will, but by the living of it. Faith must grow by moving through doubt, not through turning away from it.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Coming Around Again

Image result for bad pennyYou may recall Mad Trevor's ex-friend Mad Terry, who I'd thought I'd seen the back of after he was ejected from the apartment he rented in the village. He turned up again at Christmas, very unexpectedly bringing with him a fiancée from Lithuania who turns out to have been his mother's carer before that unfortunate lady's death. She doesn't speak much English. They want to get married 'as soon as possible', which won't be very soon given the legal implications and the amount it'll cost.

Mad Terry has been resettled not far away by the Council in a shared house, and wants me to come and bless it. I am definitely not going on my own after my experience last time and the palpable atmosphere of disturbance and discomfort that infested the apartment here.

He called at 7.15 this morning. 'I've been under spiritual attack,' he said. It turned out that he'd been making lots of noise in the new room in the middle of the night and one of the other residents had banged on the wall, then left a note on the communal noticeboard asking everyone in the house to keep the noise down after 10pm. This didn't seem unreasonable to me, albeit a bit passive-aggressive. Anyway, I agreed to see him after the first Ash Wednesday mass this morning to talk through the matter.

Talking through it took over an hour, endlessly trying to keep the conversation to the point, ploughing through references to spiritual warfare, the welfare system, David Cameron, lawyers and landlords, trying to work out exactly what was happening. Terry is now living round the corner from a large evangelical church. 'I went there for a blessing, and boy, are they in danger. They're all in the houses opposite, waiting.' It turned out, from the context, that 'they' are Muslims who are itching to take the place over.

I am angry with myself for giving the man so much time, and only write this to get it off my chest. I tell people God can speak through unlikely individuals, that you have to be alive to the possibility of the Holy Spirit working through challenging people and circumstances. Even Mad Trevor just occasionally comes up with something that makes me think. So I keep an open mind: perhaps too open.

This was the exchange that made me give up:

Terry: That time you refused to hug me after the service, I was really offended. But it's all right, brother, I've forgiven you. But you were wrong. Didn't Jesus hug Peter? That was the first time a man had ever hugged another man.
Me: Where does it say Jesus hugged Peter?
Terry: Well, he forgave him.
Me: Yes he did, but where does it say he hugged him?
Terry: (after a silence) There's more to it than the words.

And a few minutes later:

Terry: That time you asked who in the church had read the Bible, and I was the only one who put my hand up. I probably know more about it than you do.

And then, after he handed me a note to decipher:

Me: This just says 'Colin Brown' and has a phone number.
Terry: Ah yes, can you sign that, I need your signature.
Me: Why?
Terry: So when we go on tour in Europe we can send you money to give to the church.
Me: How will having my signature let you send me money?
Terry: Well, it's so that the people we deal with will trust you and you can sign for the money when we send it.
Me: You aren't allowed just to send bundles of money between countries. I'm not signing that. If you're abroad and anyone official needs my signature they can get in touch with me.
Terry (after a moment): Good, you passed the test. Sorry I had to test you like that.

I have proceeded on the basis that, in amidst the garbage of mental illness, God might have something to say to me.

He doesn't.


A local undertaker, though not one of the ones I usually deal with, calls. 'I'm talking to the family of Moira Brown from Widelake House', says the friendly lady on the line. 'They would like you to take her funeral service as you take services there'. 'I'd be very pleased to,' I reply. 'We've booked the service at the crematorium at 11am on Thursday 12th,' she goes on. I explain that I'm off work on Thursdays though I could do another day. 'Oh, OK', she says, and hangs up. I know that undertakers are often confronted by families who understandably want to get all the funeral arrangements sorted in a single quick visit to the office, but would it really be very hard to ask when a particular minister was free before booking the crematorium? It's obvious that my services weren't really required on this occasion at all.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

A Matter of Time

The jovial fellow from the Parish Development Office suggested that, for my own interest, I do a time-recording exercise and compare what I actually do day-by-day with what I think I do. I picked two weeks back in September.

Over that time I worked 57 1/2 hours each week, which breaks down as follows:

Admin and dealing with emails                                           11.5
Services and immediate service preparation                         7.0
Meetings and preparation for meetings                                 6.9
Morning & Evening Prayer                                                  5.2
Preparation for services and sermons                                  4.9
Private prayer                                                                  4.0
Work-related travel                                                           3.4
Outreach and outreach preparation (mostly school work)        3.0
Reading and study                                                            2.8
Pastoral work, including home communion                            2.3
Church maintenance and preparation                                  1.8
Funerals and funeral administration                                     1.8
Post-service interaction with congregation                           1.1
Bible study                                                                      0.9
Planning and reviewing church activities                               0.9
Marketing and fundraising                                                   0.6
Ecumenical business                                                          0.1

Some of these categories of activity are on the edge of work and non-work; if I were not a priest I would still be praying and probably doing a bit of Bible-reading. It's a relief to discover that, although at the moment I'm collecting Ms Formerly Aldgate from work most days and when I carried out this exercise we were going out for driving practice almost every day, I'm still doing a respectable amount of work around that, even taking into account the fact that I work six days out of seven. It's not an excessive amount of work compared to many other professions, although were I not in a relationship I would certainly be working more.

Whether this means I am giving proper attention to the right things I'm not sure. We're encouraged to consider whether our work activities are more orientated towards maintaining the Church as it is or towards developing it, and it's not easy to see how the above headings break down into those broad areas. Some meetings, for instance, will be more focused on one or the other. Perhaps that's the way I should think about it the next time I do it.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Mr Fry and the Worm

The religious views of Stephen Fry are well known so I am as befuddled as he says he is by the shocked reaction to his recently-publicised interview with Gay Byrne on RTE. Mind you, Mr Byrne himself looks strangely shocked in the video. Perhaps he didn't really know who this Fry cove was. Asked what he would say to God at the gates of heaven, Mr Fry answered that he would confront him with the horror of earthly life which his divine fiat has caused, and refuse to enter the Empyrean on God’s terms even if he were given the chance.

“Yes, the world is splendid, but it also has in it insects,” he said, “whose whole life cycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind. They eat outwards from the eyes. Why? Why did you do that to us? You could easily have made a creation in which that didn't exist.”

I'm not sure there is such an insect, in point of fact. There is a range of ocular parasites, but they are mostly fungi or nematodes rather than insects, and don’t eat the eyes of their host. Some of them seem to infest children or young adults disproportionately, but that’s not the same as their life cycle depending on human children.

What Mr Fry probably had in mind is river-blindness, an affliction widespread in some African countries, and which, rather famously, was the reason David Attenborough gave for not believing in God. Once again, the cause of the disease is a worm rather than an insect, although insects spread it. Still, although human beings are the worm’s definitive host, it doesn't particularly afflict children, and only a minority of people who are infested end up having ocular problems, since the worms can inhabit other areas of the body too. Nor does it eat its way out through the eyes: instead, the blindness is caused by scarring to the eye tissue brought about by the body’s reaction to the bacteria released by immature worms when they die.

Mr Fry is also, I expect, half-recalling the reason that other great naturalist Charles Darwin gave for not believing in God, the ichneumon wasp. It lays its eggs in caterpillars and the larvae do, indeed, eat their way out of their hosts. Ichneumon wasps don’t bother human beings, though.
Put all these elements together and you get an insect whose life cycle depends on burrowing into children’s eyes and then eats its way out of them, which is a great rhetorical device but doesn't exist; a Gothic trope, a testament to our horror at the idea of being consumed from within. It’s a QI fact, something you think you've heard somewhere but is really invented from bits and pieces of other things which are true.

Enough fun. None of this matters very much. Any one of these horrible afflictions would be enough to accuse God, and for Creationist Christians this is a real problem. You might be tempted to lay such evils at the feet of the Devil, but traditional Christianity has always insisted that the Devil can’t actually create anything, only make up illusions and tricks; another way of absolving God is to put the horrors of life down to the Fall, the effects of human sin echoing and reverberating through the created order (perhaps this is not far off the mark: earthquakes, floods and volcanoes aside, diseases that affect humans have always, necessarily, coincided with human wickedness). Even then, God has allowed it to happen. More liberal Christians can’t hide God behind the random processes of evolution, either, because ultimately he is responsible for their specific results even if he hasn't deliberately designed them, and why he has chosen to work through such a colossally wasteful, violent mechanism is a speechless mystery. 

The only comfort is that, of course, Christians (and the ancient Jews) have always been aware of the problem. It is an unusual believer to whom these thoughts have never occurred and who has never turned over the same questions in their mind. Behind Stephen Fry and David Attenborough's blinded children lies Dostoevsky, Ivan and Alyosha’s conversation in The Brothers Karamazov:

I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don't want more suffering. And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. … too high a price is asked for harmony; it's beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It's not God that I don't accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.

And behind Dostoevsky lies the Book of Job, written into the very Scriptures themselves. The only answer Job gets from God to the question of why he, an innocent, has suffered, is basically ‘Look, I know what I'm doing, all right? Hush yer wheesht.’ It’s not much of answer, to be honest.

I don’t take very seriously Mr Fry’s insistence, later in the interview, that atheism is not just not believing in God, but also, assuming there is a God, rejecting him as malicious and insane: as Byron said, ‘to look the tyrant in his everlasting face, and tell him/His evil is not good’. Evolutionary biology has at least relieved us of that horror, of necessarily believing the universe to be actively malign, a place of persecution and dread; no, that’s just a pose. Nobody assuming that could survive mentally. There would be no reason for belief at all but for Christ’s cross and the empty tomb; and those of us who find ourselves Christians, working back from that point, we are committed thereby to a God who shares our suffering and redeems it, and yet also presides over it. We have to trust it makes sense somewhere, but can’t imagine how that might be.

Perhaps one day we might. One of the stories that brings me most comfort is Albert Einstein’s rueful admission that he’d come to a dead end developing a unified field theory because the maths didn't exist to enable him to do it. Criticising Christians for not being able to reconcile God and suffering is perhaps like having a go at the ancient Arab mathematicians who first conceptualised the zero for not being able to come up with differential calculus as well: we have more thinking to do yet. Perhaps a great deal. 

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Baby Go Boom

There are few things that arouse my ire more than spending my time on toilets, boilers and sound systems, dull practical things which should work in churches at least as well as the equivalent sorts of things we have at home. Yesterday I came in to the hall while our curate was setting up for the Toddler Group to be told the boiler was howling an alarm and was it all right to carry on? Eventually I found the number of the engineer and he advised that no, the boiler was not about to explode and the problem was probably that the pressurisation unit (the new, thousand-pound pressurisation unit) had malfunctioned and was showing a different and far higher pressure than was actually the case within the boilers. I relayed this information to our curate who was clearly relieved. 'I could just see the Surrey Advertiser reporting, "Tots Totalled in Toddler Tragedy" '. 'You've been working on that,' I said.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Marking the Day

'Always have something to look forward to doing', my spiritual director advised me a while ago. This time of the year there isn't necessarily much going on, and the things one looks forward to doing, such as holidays, are at some distance. As far as days off are concerned, too, the days are short and not much can be fitted into daylight hours, especially if I'm going to collect Ms Formerly Aldgate from work at 4.45ish. How to mark the day off and make it seem special? Which you surely must do, to energise you for your work the rest of the time.

I took to reflecting on the commandment to keep the Sabbath and realised I wasn't really doing it. Any Christian minister spends their Sunday helping other people observe the Sabbath, as a time set apart to remember and give thanks to God and to rest from labour (in so far as anyone does in contemporary society), and of course trying to bring God into our thinking every day means that the ring-fencing of a particular day to do so seems less obvious. However, it's vital: ignoring the Sabbath runs the risk of diluting the sense of God's importance the rest of the time as well.

I already have a 'shrine' beside the front door which includes a cross and images of my intercessor saints which is supposed to act as a place of recollection and calling the mind to God (not that I am always very disciplined in this). This seems an obvious place to observe my Sabbath consciously, and my day off the right time to do so, beginning, in proper fashion, the night before so that the Sabbath runs from night to night. I now have a small pewter cup which contains a very small amount of wine as a sign of joy, and a lantern. As Shinto is my third favourite religion, I also (when I remember) begin the Sabbath with two solemn hand-claps in front of the shrine, to gather the attention both of the angels, and me. We'll see how it goes.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Singular Iconography

Among the interesting facets of sharing a church building with a Roman Catholic congregation is the literature that sometimes gets left about. The other day I spotted a small collection of children's books, among which was volume 12 of Fr Lawrence Lovasik's Books of Saints. Volume 12, no less. Fr Lovasik was an extremely prolific clerical author with a passion for bringing the treasures of Church culture to the attention of its younger members, mainly through these little books.

The Book of Saints is of the same vintage as the great days of Ladybird Books, but its illustrations aim at something different: a sense of grandeur. The book doesn't credit its illustrator by name, but I get the strange but distinct impression that he or she was seeking inspiration in the mid-twentieth century cinema. See whether you find the same.

"Burt Lancaster IS St Bertrand of Le Mans"

"Claudia Cardinale IS St Lucy Filippini"

"Richard Chamberlain IS St William of York"

"Hayley Mills IS Blessed Mary Fontanella"