Saturday, 27 June 2015

News from the Churchyard

Gentleman Joe and Candlestub Clem were on the churchyard bench this sunny afternoon as I was leaving the church after today's wedding. They told me Irish Alan had died. 

Irish Alan was the first of Swanvale Halt's alcoholics and vulnerable people I got to know when I arrived here six years ago. I actually didn't know a great deal about him apart from what came out of our direct dealings: his unkempt state sometimes made his presence a bit hard to cope with, which I know is wrong, and one should probably steel oneself in the knowledge that, one's impressions to the contrary aside, this person won't be around forever and you should do your best to engage with them. Sometimes I would meet him and he would drop his voice and tell me how he was a bit short this week and could I help with a fiver or a tenner. He always returned it, when he remembered. He would always, in so far as he could, help similarly vulnerable people, such as Micky the tramp who he took to buy clothes. He should have a requiem, but I will try to get some details from whichever local funeral director is dealing with the arrangements. 

UPDATE: When I called the Council yesterday they confirmed that they were still trying to sort out Alan's arrangements, but this morning Gentleman Joe told me he'd heard that Alan might not have died at all. The village undertakers have just called me to pass on the following message from the Council's Environmental Health department: 'It turns out reports of Alan's death have been much exaggerated and he is in fact at the Royal Surrey Hospital. I will accordingly stop trying to arrange his funeral.'

I will be able to re-use the post on a future occasion.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

An Uncommon Lectionary

Image result for uncommon lectionaryI was inspired to buy The Uncommon Lectionary by a brief excerpt I came across on Google Books while searching for something else. The extract was one of the bits where the author describes the experience of a long-established urban US Episcopal church, ‘Old Trinity’, which adopts the book's recommendations and is transformed as a result. I felt more than a little swindled by discovering, once I had the book, that Old Trinity doesn't exist, but is Thomas Bandy’s imagining of what might happen to a church of its type going through this transformative process. What looked at first glance like a case study is actually a fantasy; in fact I can’t find any evidence that a single church, whether in the US or anywhere else, has actually adopted this strategy, although a pastor or two has used Mr Bandy’s lectionary as a basis for planning their own sermons – not the root-and-branch reform he intended at all.

The book’s contention is this: that the Revised Common Lectionary, as used by Anglican, Roman Catholic, and a variety of other Churches, is intended to develop Christians as disciples through its three-year cycle of Bible readings organised around the Christian year. It fails, because its assumptions are outdated. There is no longer enough background knowledge of the Biblical narrative for people to contextualise the extracts; the Christian year no longer patterns secular life and so makes no sense to most people; and people do not worship often enough or consistently enough to be effectively discipled in this way. It is also not missionary, and so is of limited use in a secularizing society in which Christians are increasingly a minority. Instead, churches wanting to grow and deepen should develop two parallel worship cycles which are designed to introduce non-Christians to the faith via ‘the 52 Bible passages which everyone should know’ (the ‘Seeker Cycle’) and to strengthen the faith of existing Christians (the ‘Disciple Cycle’). A church might decide to carry on with a traditional Common Lectionary-based cycle as well for those that want it. Both Seeker and Disciple Cycles should reflect the secular year which actually conditions the lives of worshippers, not a liturgical-mystical year disconnected from it. Worship in both Cycles is designed by small teams to use a variety of stimuli and media to communicate the message of each service.

I was enthused by the idea of The Uncommon Lectionary as its theme tied in exactly with some of the thoughts I was having about our own services: how the late-1960s model Parish Eucharist is intended to teach and equip the Body of Christ for its work by means of the liturgical year and the cycle of associated readings, and how this both no longer worked in its own terms, nor was actually adapted to the needs of people exploring the Christian faith. That aspect of what the book had to say did not disappoint, notwithstanding the fantasy story of Old Trinity that runs through it. However I had serious misgivings about other elements.

For a start, The Uncommon Lectionary puts all its emphasis on worship. It envisages the two Cycles being at the heart of worship events which each include teaching, discussion, and music. The trouble is that this still locks together all forms of Christian ‘development’ in one event, just like more traditional forms. It ignores the need for people to develop relationships of trust with one another before they become open to the kind of sharing and discipleship the scheme envisages, which commonly happens in small groups not driven by ‘worship’ except in the very broadest sense. Although it recognises that different groups of people need different things according to which stage in their spiritual development they may have reached, it still envisages those things being provided by worship events.

Although it stresses the nature of ‘great worship’ (as opposed to professionalised ‘good worship) as an encounter with the divine, The Uncommon Lectionary’s actual instances of worship are jejune, contrived, and weak. On p.83 the fantasy worship design team discusses an event intended as part of a community carnival:

as the drum rolls, the diver slowly climbs to the top. A big sign on the ladder says This is you! A big sign on the pool of water says This is grace! We lead the whole crowd to say the Lord’s Prayer. The diver plummets 50 feet; the splash gets everybody wet … the organist and choir plunge into the Hallelujah Chorus … we could pour kerosene on the water and light it … it would dramatize even more the extinguishing of sin and the hope of salvation.

It doesn’t seem to strike the imaginary team that nothing symbolises baptism as effectively as … baptism. The Christian tradition already has a battery of ways of expressing the process of salvation which work precisely because they are not just symbols, made up by people, but sacraments devised by God that map out the sites of his promises and ours - as opposed to, clod-hopping, cloth-eared, ham-fisted attempts at symbolism and allegory which come out of a committee; some examples of which many of us have experienced.

The Uncommon Lectionary overplays its rhetoric of de-professionalisation. Although it talks about worship emerging from the Christian community, designed and adapted for its own needs, the worship events are still being devised and designed by a group of people for other people, notwithstanding the rhetoric of consultation and evaluation; and the evaluation criteria are hopelessly unquantifiable (‘have people had an experience of grace?’). One of the great virtues of liturgical worship is that it is owned by the Church as a whole and not controlled by small groups; worship leaders and musicians do not decide what happens or how many times a chorus is repeated. Everyone serves the liturgy, and no one is its master.

The Uncommon Lectionary doesn’t grasp the Christian virtue of obedience. The Christian spiritual tradition places such a heavy emphasis on obedience because this is how we learn to step outside our own wills and to discover the will of God. Nothing else is more important. The great worth of having a lectionary of any sort is that it takes control out of the hands of the preacher and subjects them to a discipline beyond themselves. An Uncommon Lectionary still does this, even when it’s devised by a church community together and its origins are visible, but the effect is hopelessly vitiated when the process is surrounded by the rhetoric of choice, artistry, and self-determination. This is entirely the wrong direction in which to point our wills.

I can see the suggestions of this book being very applicable to house groups and perhaps even adapted to worship. But any such process would need to take place within a church context which takes far more seriously the rest of the Christian tradition and its insights. 

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Mixed Messages

Image result for question markI came away from my meeting with the vicar of Northam Mead thoroughly confused. The Parish Development Department of the diocese had pointed me towards the parish as an example of one they'd worked with which was working through the business of re-energising a church in the Catholic ambit and finding out, with some success, what that meant. Now, in my thinking and debate with others I have imbibed, and repeated, the following principles among others:

- that it's not primarily about 'getting people in' and thus just institutional maintenance
- that worship events are not the drivers of evangelism
- that Messy Church, specifically, is 'Church' in its own right and not a feeder for 'proper' church

At Northam Mead, however, they've operated on what seem to be the exact opposite of all these assumptions. The key of their strategy is that the easiest way to grow a church, and thus ensure its institutional survival, is via 4-7 year-old children and their parents, and they have used their Messy Church precisely as the feeder for Sunday worship, by encouraging attenders to have their children baptised, to be confirmed themselves (using those confirmation groups first as a version of Alpha and then as the basis for home groups) and to come to the Mass on Sundays.

I am going to have to ask about this, if only to clarify what I think. 

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Self Expression

At the crematorium you can look on the display screen in the vestry and see what music has been played or is about to be played at the services either side of the one you're conducting. Yesterday the preceding one to mine, clearly a civil service, included three items: Queen's 'Another One Bites the Dust', 'Bittersweet Symphony' by The Verve, and Talking Heads' 'Road to Nowhere'. It was only a step away from Joy Division. 'He had a few demons', commented the chapel attendant. I'd've found it hard to deal with, but then I get a bit touchy and have to grit my teeth through 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life'.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Betchworth Castle

Last week the afternoon of my day off was so pleasant it would have been a shame to waste it, so I went for a walk to look at Betchworth Castle. The way I intended to go, from a glance at the map, turned out to have a large sign at the entrance reading 'Castle Gardens: No Access To Castle' and so I went walking along a bridleway through the golf course adjoining to see whether I could at least get a glimpse of the ruins. No ruins; only views of middle-aged gentleman ambling from tee to tee. I had abandoned the idea and was going to follow a different looped path around the hill to the south when I met another man, not visibly involved in golf, who told me there was in fact another access path opened up too recently to appear on the OS map when conservation work had begun on the Castle remains.

There's not a lot left of what was once a very dramatic building, perched on the top of a bluff overlooking the River Mole and its valley stretching up to the feet of the North Downs. Medieval, Tudor, and 18th-century owners all changed the shape of the Castle, and the final, Classical, additions were made by Sir John Soane in 1799. Now you follow a path around the fenced perimeter, at one point rather excitingly having to step across a gap between outcrops of stone, and gaze alternately up at the ruins and down at the lake. The conservation group looking after the site has a dream of building a house in the curtilage of the ruins, and using the revenue to fund their maintenance: a long-term aim, one feels.

The ruinous state of the Castle is essentially if improbably due to Mr Hope of Deepdene Hall, who on buying the estate in 1835 decided to take the roof off Betchworth and charge people to come and look at it: before that it had been in good order. Within a few years it was a heap.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Not Today, Thank You

Following on from my previous post, there is almost no end to the reasons why I'm not going to join the Ordinariate. The business we are engaged in at Swanvale Halt – attempting to build bridges between the Catholic tradition as the Church of England has experienced it and the modern world, and translating the one in terms that the other can understand – seems to be a creative and worthwhile exercise, and one which enthuses me. I don't want to go anywhere else, and it certainly doesn't seem to me that the eternal fate of my soul or those of the people here depends on denominational boundaries.

Sometimes I regard the ranks of the Roman Catholic congregation at Swanvale Halt making their way into the church, and find myself envying their commitment, eclecticism and internationalism, but that's all I envy. It only takes a brief excursion into the wastelands of conservative Roman Catholicism to remind me why I don't want to go there, however much sympathy I may have with that way of doing things in liturgical terms. I did this a couple of days ago, and realised yet again how the blog of the New Liturgical Movement may be a helpful resource for recondite liturgical information or historical detail, but anything more ideological is deeply depressing. So this articleargues that the Synods on the Family convened by Pope Francis are the 'logical continuation and completion of the conciliar reforms', that is, the changes in ritual consequent on Vatican 2; alter the services and you end up being not quite as horrible to gays as the Church has been in the past, which is of course a terrible, terrible thing.

I am shocked that I am still shocked by things at my advanced age, but discovering the views of the NLM's poster-boy Cardinal Raymond Burke (whose liturgical activities are avidly reported on the blog) about gays did catch me out. It's one thing to regard it as impossible for two people of the same sex to celebrate the sacrament of matrimony (which is my line). It's another to view State promotion of same-sex marriage as wrong. It's another, still, to regard homosexual acts as sinful. But it strikes me that you can hold all, or any, of these beliefs, and still not argue that homosexuals should be ostracised by their families – or ‘discouraged from attending family occasions such as Christmas', as Cardinal Burke put it. The mere presence of sinners normalises sin, I suppose the idea is, and so the family as the core unit of value-formation must be kept clean and pure from such behaviour. Where such cruelty, even within its own terms, leaves a Lord who‘sits and eats with sinners', I am at a loss to understand.

None of this has anything to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It's about defending the integrity of the tribe, and if the Pope, as totem of the tribe as well as its titular chief, questions the nature and purpose of the tribe and its rites, the tribe reels and clutches its head and contemplates an act of expiatory violence. Mr Kwasniewski in the article cited above castigates Pope Paul VI for his ‘scandalous’ attacks on the Latin Mass, and by implication Pope Francis for his apostasy from Catholic truth (Francis notoriously removed Cardinal Burke from his judicial role in the Vatican and gave him an entirely honorary position looking after a chivalric order). If the basis of your ecclesiology is that the magisterium of the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit, and also that it chooses the Supreme Pontiff under the guidance of the same Spirit, is there not, to say the least, some cognitive dissonance involved in this business of picking which Popes you like and which you don't? Isn't this, effectively, chaos, Protestantism, in which only the monomanic voices of the Sede-Vacantists offer a logical way out?

My interlocutor of a few days ago seemed quite well disposed towards Papa Francesco; but I'm not going to go anywhere near all this. The Church of England seems to me, for all its ambiguities and shabby compromises, to have got the Gospel so much more right. I'd rather have the arguments I have here than the bitterer arguments I'd surely have on the further bank of the Tiber. Haltg

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Left Field

On Thursday I was, as usual, off work, but aware that our curate was off as well I'd undertaken to open up the church. On my way back from shopping in the middle of the morning I suddenly realised I'd forgotten this duty, and was collecting the keys from home when I had a message on my phone: we have in Swanvale Halt church a memorial to a mildly well-known person and a gentleman had come from the Isle of Wight to look at places associated with him; could he have access to the church? As I was heading there anyway I stifled any suggestion that it might have been sensible to check the church was indeed going to be open before catching the ferry across the Solent, found the visitor outside, and let him in.

The traveller turned out to be a Roman Catholic gentleman who attends a church run by the Ordinariate, and spent most of our encounter trying to persuade me it would be a terribly good idea if I moved in that direction as well. 'It's about the beauty of holiness, isn't it. You could have all of that!' I used Archbishop Laud's line when he was offered a cardinal's hat if he would shift his allegiance to the Roman observance: 'My conscience would not suffer that to be until Rome is something other than it is'. In fact my appreciation of (what I believe to be) the special mission of the Church of England - its tension of different viewpoints, its commitment both to tradition and openness to change - has never been as definite as now. It helps that the local Roman Catholic parish here is dominated by a mixture of modernists and Charismatics, but I didn't point that out.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

You Don't Get Many of Them

Most of the time, the major problem clergy face in organising a parish's life is finding people to do things, as it is in any structure which largely relies on volunteers. People have little time to spare, or little confidence in their own abilities.

Occasionally you are landed with someone who is very determined to do exactly the thing they're not suited to: the person with a speech impediment who wants to read the lesson in services; the Sunday School teacher who scares children.

The difficulty most rarely presented is the person who wants to do too much. They may have very valuable talents and abilities, but their intervention in all sorts of areas causes confused lines of communication and accountability. As somebody who is very, and perhaps too much, governed by self-imposed and organisational boundaries - 'I don't need to think about this issue because it's so-and-so's task' - I find this hard to deal with to a degree which surprises me.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Out of the Way

This was my fourth Clergy Conference; assuming I retire at 70 and nothing strange happens to the triennial pattern of conferences in the interim, I have eight of these to go. Not that I'm counting. 

I felt less irritated this time than on the three previous occasions. You might put this down to advancing age and mellowness, but some others said the same. It may be due to the presence of our new diocesan, who being a moderate Evangelical at least engages with the general moderate Evangelical tone of the worship with some enthusiasm rather than seeming faintly embarrassed as his predecessor did, or I would if called on to do so. I can't quite make him out yet: I have the strange impression that his geniality and approachability is actually a means of keeping people at a distance, and gives no hint as to what the real person is like. 

His exposition of Elijah as a reflection of the Conference theme of 'taking care' was basically unconvincing but at least done in a way that kept us involved. On Wednesday Paula Gooder explained St Paul's approach to 'the body' with her usual enthusiasm, while yesterday Sam Wells of St-Martin-in-the-Fields delivered a rather dense lecture which he fully admitted was going to be dense and then during the Q&A session showed himself to be rather dry, in the better sense. The second questioner began 'I had to pop out for a moment during your lecture so you may already have dealt with this question'; 'Yes, I have', Dr Wells interrupted. Good though the speakers were, however, they would have been just as good somewhere in Surrey as in Derbyshire. 

For some bizarre reason the diocesan communications department were filming the whole thing. I spotted someone just before the final service being interviewed. 'I feel enthused, envigorated and refreshed!!' I felt strangely drained and enervated, so it was just as well I didn't get grabbed by the young men with the camera. 'Well, I feel a bit less pissed off than usual' is probably not a broadcastable response.

The most valuable insight I brought back with me came completely unbidden as I followed a trail of clergy back to the accommodation blocks to clear our rooms after breakfast, and found myself reflecting how ridiculous we all were. It wasn't a feeling of contempt, more of affection, seeing us all as not fundamentally very different from the six-year-olds at Church Club. We're all just overgrown children really, ludicrously trying our best, full of misconceptions and illusions and insecurities. Hopefully some good comes of all our efforts.