Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Heavenly Bodies

It wasn't entirely clear why this book was displayed so prominently in the shop at Two Temple Place in London the last time we went there, but it made it very tempting to buy, especially when I discovered it concerned a aspect of religious history I knew absolutely nothing about. Paul Koudounaris's previous sumptuous book, The Empire of Death, covered the various caches of human remains in catacombs and crypts around Europe and the elaborate means sometimes adopted to display them. The story behind Heavenly Bodies is different. In 1578 the authorities in Rome discovered the Catacombs there, the vast labyrinth of underground tombs in which much of the citizenry of the ancient city had been interred. Over the subsequent 200 years, many of these skeletons, assumed to be Christians and therefore martyrs and therefore saints, were disinterred, sent north to mainly German-speaking parts of Europe ravaged by religious conflict, and reassembled as cult objects, lavished with expensive decoration and much public affection and reverence. They became mute foot-soldiers in the Catholic Church's attempt to reconquer the hearts and minds of middle-Europeans.

Even at the time sceptical voices pointed out that the identification of many of these figures with saints was, let us say, a little optimistic. Despite the authentications sent out with the bodies from the office at the Vatican concerned with such matters, which detailed as much as could be gleaned about the life of whichever particular warrior of the Faith whose remains were being posted out to some small town in Bavaria or Austria - a lot of these saints are named things like Benedictus or Felicianus - it was not actually clear that the bones had belonged to people who were even Christians in life, let alone martyrs; not everyone buried in the Catacombs had been either. Notwithstanding the miracles they worked and the devotion they provoked, as the nineteenth century drew on the Catacomb Saints became something of an embarrassment, their insistently carnal presence felt to be a bit grotesque as well as dubious historically. Many disappeared, others were covered up or banished to obscure sacristies; only occasionally do they still remain in situ, reigning still from an altarpiece or shrine.

Clearly something for our Mission Planning Group to consider.

Monday, 27 April 2015

St Jean de Montmartre

I was due to go on leave last week anyway, but any intentions at adding to this blog were rather stymied by a bout of food poisoning (or something like it) last weekend whose final weakening effects didn't disappear until the Thursday of our holiday. Although my first meal for several days was a very welcome one indeed, there was some irony in going all the way to Paris to eat beans on toast.

We steered clear of the main touristy sites, so no visits to Notre-Dame or the Sacre-Coeur, though we did get into the Sainte Chapelle, a church interior (if you can still so describe it) rendered somewhat less numinous by the very loud hoovering going on somewhere to the left of the sanctuary as well as the visitors milling around the space. Instead I was much more pleased that we decided to nip into St Jean de Montmartre, a late-19th-century church facing the Place des Abbesses. Formed from concrete and clad in red brick, this remarkable Art Nouveau building is a bold and confident attempt to do something different with the normal vocabulary of church art and architecture, while remaining within a recognisable tradition: what the New Liturgical Movement might refer to as 'The Other Modern'. My only regret is not taking more photographs!

Thursday, 16 April 2015

From Denial to Part-Denial

The evening before last I went with one of our Mission Planning group to the diocesan Parish Development Office's presentation of the latest slew of research to be produced by the Church centrally on church growth. From Evidence to Action (FETA for short, very cheesy, ho-ho) is a follow-up to an earlier document, From Anecdote to Evidence (or FATE, possibly. I'm not sure what came before that –‘From Vague Impression to Anecdote’, perhaps). In fact the presentation wasn't about the research in any detail, just used the findings as a framework for talking about the next steps churches might take in mission planning, and making sure they know what support is available from the diocese.

I'd heard a lot of this before and my main impression was how agreeable it was to be listening to people who were talking optimistically and enthusiastically about the ways church communities can go about being more deliberative and definite about what they're trying to do evangelistically, within a framework of understanding that we're not really doing it very well at the moment. That's quite refreshing.

I haven't read a great deal of the research, or looked at the glossy and impressive accompanying website, in much detail: I tend to be a bit sceptical about this sort of thing. Nevertheless, it seems no more than obvious that, at the very least, being deliberative, open to change, welcoming to different groups of people, and providing opportunities to grow in discipleship will all maximise the chances of a church being able to maintain its viability, to say nothing about fulfilling the Great Commission given by Jesus to the Apostles, regardless of the statistical basis for the FETA documents.

As it turns out, that statistical basis may not be terribly sound. The concept is reasonable enough: some churches grow, some don't: identify the factors that connect them and you have a basis for action. However, this analysis suggests that identifying which churches are growing is not as obvious as it might seem: the original research relied a great deal on self-reporting by clergy, and it hardly takes a genius to work out that this may not be the soundest methodological approach. I've mentioned before the almost impossible questions the Diocese asks me about ‘joiners and leavers’ over the course of the year, and the difficulties deciding who fits into what category, and some of the work was apparently based on such estimations. Even I'm probably inclined to overestimate church attendance, though I'm sure that the overestimation doesn't affect year-on-year comparisons. Worse than that, both FATE and FETA have taken the nuances of the original, unpublished report on the statistics, and exaggerated its positive findings, simplified its conclusions, and misreported its language. There is no mention, for instance, of the fact that a very significant degree of numerical growth in churches results from people moving between congregations, rather than moving in from unbelief.

The practical outcome is that the documents overstate the effect an individual church can have on its fortunes, completely missing out those larger and wider factors which work powerfully to vitiate the laudable efforts of local church communities. It suggests that the Church of England can be saved by those local efforts without answering the question of how best to structure a national Church to carry out God's work in this time and place.

I can't do anything about those great structural issues: my job is to make it easier for souls in the parish of Swanvale Halt to discover God, and at the moment it looks as though that's compatible with at least maintaining the parish church of Swanvale Halt as a going concern. I have no illusions as to whether that's really the case, or whether our activity will actually result in growth. FATE and FETA are not a blueprint for making local churches work, still less for re-evangelising the nation.

Despite the implications of its marketing, this process won't save the Church of the present, or bring into existence the Church of the future, but it may be the first steps we have to take to create the conditions for the Church of the future to emerge. Local churches have long since known what the problems are, but haven't had any idea what to do about them; FATE and FETA give some pointers towards moving towards a new way of doing things that may prove fruitful. And that's about as positive as you can be. I just wonder whether, although the Church as a whole is at last facing up to the truth about its decline, it still doesn't seem quite able to face up to becoming something different, and implies instead that a little more work will keep the show as it is on the road. 

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Back to Malling

Just a few images from my annual visit to Malling Abbey just before Easter - for the sake of it.

Monday, 13 April 2015

The Economics of Good Friday

Walking along Hornington High Street on Good Friday, as I said, brought it home to me how the day is for very many people no different from any other working day. This is the case with most 'Bank Holidays' - the banks are about the only businesses that don't open.

When I was small in the early '70s my mum spent rather a lot of her time shopping, going from one smallish shop to another every couple of days; the closest we had to a supermarket was Fine Fare, no bigger than the Co-Op in Swanvale Halt is now, and that was a couple of miles away. Bank Holidays then, and for a long time afterwards, required careful management because families knew that all the shops would be shut and you would have had to stock up on necessary supplies beforehand. If you went out for a drive on a Bank Holiday Monday that also demanded care because places that would be open to sell you petrol were far from plentiful.

Gradually the supermarkets became commercially dominant, and all those smaller shops my mum used to visit went out of business. This meant that Bank Holidays were if anything even more traumatic as everyone in a given area had to converge on a few major shops in order to stock up. At the same time, changes in the gendered structure of work and the fragmentation of the working environment meant that even having a single day when shops were shut became increasingly inconvenient for many families; British society could no longer see a convincing reason why it couldn't buy a packet of biscuits on a Sunday when Mum was no longer available to get it during the week, because she was probably at work like Dad.

The supermarkets, as the major providers of necessities, therefore pioneered and campaigned for Sunday trading and then Bank Holiday trading as well. However, although they'd out-competed most of their rivals there were still other shops selling lots of non-necessary goods. Nobody was ever going to be beating on the door of the Edinburgh Woollen Mill or Jojo Maman Bébé or even the Oxfam shop demanding to get in at, say, 11am on Good Friday and feeling deeply resentful if they couldn't, but in places such as Hornington with two major supermarkets fairly contiguous to the High Street it began to make economic sense for those businesses to open on Bank Holidays as well: if people are going to be around anyway, why miss a day's trading? Of course demanding that your staff come in and work on those days, even if you pay them extra or allow them time off to compensate, itself contributes towards the fragmentation and individualisation of working life which fuelled the entire process in the first place.

That's what I thought, anyway.

Friday, 10 April 2015

An Unusual Liturgical Observance

As the traditional Churches Together in Hornington Good Friday Walk of Witness got under way a week ago, it was clear that the drizzly weather had proved a disincentive to many: there were, generously estimated (I didn't count) no more than sixty of us and probably fewer. It brought into sharper focus than usual all the questions I have about what it is we are doing.  In cultures which have a stronger sense of Christian self-identification than ours, public expressions of Christian faith are also expressions of community identity; but in ours it's more about sectarian identity, about Christians saying we are still here, that the day as a holiday has something to do with the story we own and communicate. But we walked along a High Street where virtually all the shops were open, making the point that Good Friday is hardly even a day off for many people now, let alone anything like a religious observance. Are we really just making ourselves feel better? Is that enough to justify doing it? Twenty years ago my vicar in Chatham suggested we should do away with the Walk because nobody understood what it was about, and just have somebody stood silently with a cross in a corner of the local shopping centre. I didn't think he was right then: I wonder now whether the time for his idea has well and truly come.

Our local Baptist minister has argued for some years that as well as marking the gloom of Good Friday we ought as a group of churches also to mark the Resurrection. That makes sense but the we're all so exhausted by Easter Day that the idea of adding something else to the cursus ritualorum had very limited appeal. Anyway, this year the Baptists bit the bullet and did it, and a group of us - not a very extensive or ecumenically-mixed group - turned up to do the Good Friday walk in reverse on Easter Day. The question arises of what you actually do: on Good Friday you rather logically carry a cross, but what object can express Easter, whose central motif is the absence of a body? The organisers decided on a stone, the stone that closed Jesus's tomb and was rolled away when the women arrived that first Easter morning. Roll a stone along the High Street, that sounds good. Firstly the chicken-wire and painted-cloth stone turned out not to be disc-shaped, as I'd always imagined it, but spherical: and discovering it was a bit less robust than imagined the decision was taken not to roll it but carry it in a sheet. This added an element of weirdness not even I had anticipated.

I wish I'd had my camera.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Revelations of Divine Love (of a kind)

I don't really expect many people to be interested in this, but don't really mind.

It was Ms Formerly Aldgate who introduced me, in its anime form, to xxxHolic, the story of Watanuki, the student who sees spirits and wants not to, and Yuuko Ichihara, the ‘transdimensional witch’ who promises to rid him of them if he’ll clean and cook for her. Over the course of many cases in which he assists her in dealing with people with supernatural problems, and encounters with the denizens of Japanese folklore, their relationship deepens. By the time, long after, that Yuuko-San is compelled to leave the ‘shop’ where she grants wishes – and, in doing so, this world – Watanuki knows he’s losing the central element of his life, his lodestone. The latest instalment of xxxHolic, only recently put online in its manga form, has him experiencing his loss of her all over again. It’s very tender.

Fans debate what sort of love it is that Watanuki and Yuuko-San share. Some want it desperately to be a romantic relationship; others insist that it’s more maternal-filial (in the manga, Watanuki has lost his own parents at a young age). The intimidatingly glamorous Yuuko-San does flirt with Watanuki, to his intense embarrassment, but it’s more than that; she does coach him and look out for him as much as he does for her, but it’s more than that as well. Their love has a blush of sexuality and a tint of familial bond, but isn’t defined by either; and it’s more intense than what we usually describe as ‘friendship’. It came to me that it might best be termed a divine love: the love Yuuko-San and Watanuki experience is closest to that between a god and a soul, and part of the peculiar appeal of xxxHolic is its power to make us feel that ache, the awareness of  desire both incommensurable and beyond consummation in this world.

Watanuki finds Yuuko-San enigmatic, gnomic, occasionally infuriating, and impossible to live without: she fills his consciousness and shapes the whole pattern of who he becomes. Without her, he takes over the wishing shop, smokes her pipe, and wears her clothes, waiting for her unattainable return. No relationship with an ordinary human being will ever compare to what he feels for her. In the scene where she departs, he can’t say the word ‘love’, only managing to tell her that she is ‘someone who is important to me’. For her part, we recognise the intense affection she feels for him, but she remains reticent, conscious of the existential distance between them. To be who she wants him to be and knows he can be, she has perpetually to hold something back, withdraw, allow him to find things out for himself. Those of us in love with a god know what this is like; and we may even glimpse elements of this kind of love in some of our relationships, though not necessarily the ones most central to us, which are of different stamps and sorts, as most of us will never encounter a transdimensional witch. 

Probably St Ailred of Rievaulx wrote something about this state of affairs, could I be bothered to read it. 

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Easter Passed

Nothing happens in the church on Easter Monday, so I had a pleasing day off yesterday. Nevertheless I'm somewhat reluctant to go out of the door back into the fray this morning! This doesn't mean that Holy Week and Easter were not splendid occasions at Swanvale Halt this year, which they were. Across the Triduum attendances at all our services were up - albeit sometimes up only by ones and twos - and the crunch point with the children's Tenebrae which we did for the first time last year was very pleasingly passed with double the number of people we had for that dry run, meaning that about sixty people marked the Passion in pretty traditional ways on Good Friday. At the Dawn Mass on Easter Day several people remarked how we were starting to get the hang of it (after four years!) - 'it felt a bit strange the first time we did it', said one of the servers, 'but it just seems normal now'. There were some very moving moments: the Liturgy of the Passion on Good Friday sticks in my mind, people lining up to venerate the Cross while the Choir sang the haunting version of the Reproaches written by our late organist at Lamford -

 'O my people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me' 

Somehow the sense of God's lament, so personal and so intense, came over more strongly to me than ever before, along with the sense that these people, the people I know and pray for, are his people, the ones for whom he cares with a passion that I can only glimpse the outline of.

Of course hardly anyone comes to everything: that's not the point, it seems to me, the point being for a church community to provide across the course of Holy Week and the Sacred Triduum some opportunity for everyone to enter into the reality of God's nature as both crucified and risen, both sides of who he eternally is, and what we are called to be.

I did also participate in a liturgical observance so peculiar it will have to feature in an entirely separate post ... !

Thursday, 2 April 2015

And So What Does This Tell Us?

We are in the middle of Mission Planning, or at least a small group of the congregation are meeting regularly to consider ideas towards a Mission Plan. The jargon is dreadful but the process is a worthwhile one - thinking deliberately, in very short terms, about what we want to do and how we might go about it, the sort of decision-making that most organisations are boringly familiar with but which churches have tended to shy away from (until now, as it seems that every church in the area is doing the same apart from the ones where the incumbent doesn't want to tell anyone else what his strategy is).

The process works best when the whole congregation has some involvement in and awareness of what's happening, rather than just producing a document that sits in a file. As part of the pump-priming I devised a little survey during Advent to try and gauge where the church was, and asked: What three things do you most value about this church? What would you most miss if it wasn't part of the church? What two things could the church do to help you in your spiritual life?

I didn't get many back, it's fair to say - fourteen forms of which mine was one (our Reader insisted I should do it like everyone else). As far as the things people said they liked most about the church, three themes emerged: the reverent atmosphere of the building, the way services were conducted, and the sense of fellowship in the congregation. There were no clear results from the question asking what people would miss most, and the answers to the query about what the church might do to help spiritual development tended to orbit around discipleship and teaching - but then they would, and it was a leading question. Several people commented that they couldn't think of anything and the church was fine as it was.

This, plus the low level of response to the survey, implies that people who are regulars in the church are very happy with it and can't really envisage ways in which it might be different, as well, perhaps, as suffering some inarticulacy about what it is they do like and value. Of course they know that everything isn't fine: that, most basically, we have a hard time paying our way and maintaining the things we do now, and if we were effectively carrying out our core purpose - to introduce souls to Jesus Christ - these things probably shouldn't be as much of a problem. The congregation wants that to change, but doesn't know how to do it.

Even more radically, the point about Mission Planning is to discover exactly what it is we do want to do and what we don't. Not far away from us is a big town-centre Evangelical Anglican church where they get hundreds of people at every service on a Sunday. Even if we could be that kind of church, would we want to be? One of the things members of this church say they value is a sense of 'family', and big churches struggle to provide that experience, mainly finding that it has to be experienced via a structure of smaller groups rather than in the church as a whole. Change means becoming different, and you have to work out which sort of 'different' you want to be.