Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Folk Religion

There is now only one Harvest service to go. It is the big Harvest service, but I'm presiding and not preaching so apart from keeping going and projecting my voice above the hubbub it shouldn't be too problematic. We have now had: Harvest Songs of Praise at the Day Centre; Toddler Praise Harvest; Harvest for a local nursery; Harvest for the Infants School. It isn't even as though we are a particularly agricultural area. Our former curate went to look after a group of churches in the middle of Norfolk, and their Harvest goes on for weeks, which makes sense in the context: I shouldn't think Swanvale Halt church is within five miles of a working tractor, and what I believe is our nearest farm grows everything under miles of polytunnel (q.v. The Archers). There are lots of 'Farms' around with Range Rovers parked outside, but nothing grows in such locations apart from the residents' investment schemes. It is a good thing, this occasion to give thanks to God for the bounty of the earth, remember how dependent, ultimately, we all are on the natural world, and how not all of us have the same advantages, but it always surprises me how engrained it is in people's consciousness. 

Not far away from here is a church whose previous incumbent-but-one ran it into the ground. Among his idiosyncrasies was scorning such festivities as the Harvest Festival and Remembrance Sunday, which he denounced as 'folk religion' and would have nothing to do with. Now our Anglican Harvest Festival, as we now know it, we owe to that equally idiosyncratic High Churchman Parson Hawker of Morwenstow, that latter-day Celtic Saint who was almost definitely the first Anglican clergyman to celebrate Mass in a chasuble (home-made) and led his pets into church in a procession. But he was very much in favour of 'folk religion'; High Anglicans who came after him were often more fastidious.

'Harvest Festivals have been much abused by excessive displays of greengrocery', declares Percy Dearmer in The Parson's Handbook of 1904, 'but this is no reason why they should not be observed'. Such observation, suggests this most tasteful of clerics, could take the form of the principal Mass of the day, provided 'the appointed order of Psalms and Lessons at Mattins and Evensong not be interfered with'; or, alternatively, there may be 'a procession and Te Deum after Evensong'. However, the great Percy warns,

As for the decorations, let them be mainly flowers and greenery. A few typical fruits of the earth, such as grapes and corn, might be added; but these should not be placed on the Holy Table nor on any of its ornaments, and all should be removed after the Te Deum in the evening.

The more Romanist Ritual Notes is even firmer:

Thanksgiving for the Harvest ought not to be treated as a festival of the Church and should not be allowed to displace a feast of red-letter rank, and certainly not a Sunday or feast of the 1st class. If a special mass be celebrated - with the permission of the bishop - it should be additional to the parochial mass of the day and conform to the rules for solemn votives ... It is most undesirable to deck the church with displays of bread, fruits and greengrocery. Such articles, if offered for presentation to the sick and poor, should be arranged decorously and inconspicuously, but not within the chancel or sanctuary.

However a priest could mark the Harvest by adding the prescribed Collect to the Collect of the Sunday at Mass, offer the compilers.

Of course what you have in all this, quite apart from considerations of taste, is a perfectly understandable concern to defend the church building and the Sacred Mysteries to which it is dedicated from being taken over by non-religious concerns and interests. Sanctity should be defined, calibrated, and generated by the sacrifice of Christ, and the business of the Church is to state and restate that sacrifice forever. That's what the Church is for.

And yet at the same time it's all unspeakably prissy. God's presence is not only signified by the Mass and nothing but the Mass, still less the calendrical rules and rubrics by which is quite rightly governed. There is room for Godly vulgarity.

And here is some: the Harvest Loaf, made by a mother from the congregation and placed resplendently on the Holy Table (which also bore, at least for the Infants Harvest, a gigantic brass stone-studded cross and a pair of positively outrageous Gothic candlesticks in the same style). I think it looks fantastic.
To spare Bd Percy from in sepulchro gyration at the horrendous sight, I have not photographed the masses of tinned goods and pasta surrounding the Holy Table and waiting to be shipped off to the Food Bank in Hornington.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Keep Them Waiting

A few days ago I mentioned my friend Cylene's problems. They haven't finished yet. 

Cylene went to see her GP who ordered an 'urgent' visit from the Community Mental Health Team, a visit which was scheduled for a week later (not my definition of 'urgent', but there you are). Cylene puts little faith in the mental health system, but every visit from professionals at least provides the chance that somebody might listen and offer some sort of appropriate help. The GP seems to know what she's doing, anyway.

An hour and a half before the appointment, the CMHT phoned to say they wouldn't be coming after all. They'd discovered that Cylene should be under the care of the Personality Disorder Intensive Treatment Team, based at Richmond Hospital, and that PDITT were positively insisting that the CMHT not be involved in her case. 

That was on Wednesday 16th, already, remember, a week after Cylene's GP requested an urgent appointment for her. Since then she has heard nothing from anyone. I asked her whether she'd tried to make contact with anyone - the GP, CMHT, or PDITT itself. She replied, via a set of texts.

'No, I haven't decided if I want to in order to get somewhere or if I want to see how long they drag this out so I can be justifiably the biggest bitch ever to PDITT. Either way, my nonstop 24/7 every minute of every day rage towards them has made me just slightly less suicidal. Admittedly, it's been swapped for homicidal, but that's fine.'

We agreed that probably wasn't a deliberate therapeutic strategy.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Waggoners Wells

Given that it's so close to where I am, I couldn't work out why I'd never managed to make it to Waggoners Wells, just over the county boundary in Hampshire. It's only twenty minutes or so away by car, and I'd known about it for years. Last week I popped out on my day off and zoomed down the A3 to Grayshott where the beauty spot is to be found. The 'Wells' are in fact a series of three pools set in deeply wooded countryside, with a feeling of tremendous isolation and remoteness despite being only half a mile from a built-up area; and despite the fact that it was a lovely day on the whole circuit I saw only an old couple walking, a chap fishing, a man jogging with a dog, and two mums with a collection of children. The history of the site is a bit obscure: the pools are clearly artificial but while they are often explained with reference to iron working in the district there is no sign of any historic industrial activity close by. 

Next to a house just west of the topmost pool is the Wishing Well, a very pleasing spring flowing from beneath a wall as you can see in the photograph. It is said that Lord Tennyson composed 'The Flower in the Crannied Wall' here in 1863 (and a plaque calls attention to the story), and website after website will tell you that novelist Flora Thompson (assistant postmistress at Grayshott for three years around 1900) referred to it. At that time it would have looked significantly different, as you can see in this photograph and this one. In fact if the dates are accurate they imply that the well was reconstructed between 1925 and 1928 to form what seems to be a large-ish pool with a stone surround, and then again some time later in the shape we see it today, demonstrating again how a well which may look as though it's been there since time immemorial may actually be relatively recent in form. 

Flora Thompson refers to pins being dropped into the water as a wishing charm ('quite a number of them dropped in by herself'), but when she revisited the site in the 1920s (around the time of the Frith photo, therefore) she found the well much neglected and no memory of its wishing powers. It's possible that the Wishing Well is a truly ancient folkloric spring that found itself part of the 19th-century tourist circuit, but my guess is that the stories about it took off after Waggoners Wells became a popular picnicking spot. It's also worth noting that the Flora Thompson accounts seem to come from John Owen Smith's 1997 book On the Trail of Flora Thompson which argues that her novel Heatherley contains a disguised account of her time in Grayshott - which may not be entirely unproblematic.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

From Ruthless Compassion to Extreme Altruism

Image result for altruismGiving the Biblical tithe of one’s income isn’t that hard for me, thanks to a generous stipend, house and tax arrangements. This makes me considerably more charitable than the majority of people, though nowhere near as much as the people this article characterises as ‘extreme altruists’. Julia and Jeff, the couple it describes, give away the majority of what they earn, and scrutinise every life decision, including having children, to see whether it will increase or reduce the amount they are able to give. If you find the account of their behaviour challenging, avoid the comments (always wise advice when venturing online) which may upset you in a completely different way.

A friend once described a similar sort of individual, a member of his church. This gentleman (let’s call him Walter), who died a couple of years ago, had inherited a significant property portfolio in and around London which enabled him to become a one-man housing agency for poor and vulnerable people, while himself living a life of such extreme frugality that even Julia and Jeff might have balked at such privations: he slept in an overcoat (considering bedclothes unnecessary), had no heating in his own house, and washed in rainwater. He affected for good the lives of many, many other people, even if his own life was odd (while to him it was entirely rational). His funeral was packed with mainly his current and former tenants, which is not something most landlords can hope for.

The typical response of most of us is defensive as we seek to justify not doing the same kind of thing. We know there is much suffering in the world, and that much of the way we live is strictly unnecessary, superfluous. So we categorise ‘extreme altruism’ as weird and pathological, and come up with convoluted reasons to condemn it morally too (you can, should you choose, read some of them in the responses to the Guardian article).

To be honest, Julia does seem motivated by a sort of ‘survivor guilt’, which compels her to see every pleasure of her own life as paid for by the suffering of someone else; you could indeed describe these thoughts as obsessive-compulsive, and her charitableness as an attempt to buy them off – an attempt which can only ever be in vain, because there will always be more suffering somewhere in the world, and always more one could do, more sacrifices one could make, to alleviate it. No wonder she gets episodes of depression. However this doesn’t seem applicable to Walter, at least in so far as I know his story. As the article suggests, some ‘extreme altruists’ are constitutionally happy, and some aren’t; their life choices actually seem to relate very little to their mental health.

Nor do they seem constrained by ideology that much. Obviously Walter was a Christian and his altruism was framed in a Christian structure. Julia, very interestingly, started out life as a Christian, abandoning her faith in her early teens on realising that ‘other people must believe just as strongly in their holy books’ – a pretty jejune line of reasoning, I think, but there it is. However her altruism remained unaffected by her ideological change. She remained haunted by the sufferings of others, and the conviction that every human being is of equal value continued to demand of her that all her spare resources had to be devoted to their support.

I must say I would question the philosophical basis of this assertion. For assertion it seems to be: if I think what ‘value’ I, or any other person, has, what I find is not something intrinsic, something absolute, at all, but something relational. My own feelings of my worth to myself aside, I am valuable to the degree that I contribute to the life of others; the whole notion of value requires someone else to be of value to. Equally, people I don’t know, who have no social or economic relation with me, are of no value to me. The last human being in existence would be of precisely no value at all, there being nobody else to whom they could be valuable. That is, unless you bring in to the equation an external arbiter of value in the form of God; secular altruism justified in terms of ‘the equal value of all human beings’ seems to me completely baseless; without God, they simply aren’t.

Well. Even Julia and Jeff set a limit on their giving, allotting themselves a minimal allowance which does give scope for occasional unnecessary treats. They have to do this to avoid madness, to escape analysing every tiny action in terms of its effect on their ability to give, to erect a boundary against the limitless need of the world which will otherwise crush them, because, as we said above, there’s always more you can do, always another sacrifice you can make. It’s just that they set that limit at a different level to most of us, even those of us who do choose to give away a proportion of our income.

I don’t feel able to criticise ‘extreme altruists’ too much, because I know I am a bit of a sociopath. In my case, Christian ethics does provide a prod to be more charitable and altruistic than I would otherwise be, and a significant part of my journey as a Christian has been coming to understand the sufferings of others far more than I am inclined to do – especially those around me, rather than abstract and notional human beings far away. But I feel nothing like the guilt that motivates Julia, and find it perfectly, and worryingly, easy to forget that other people are hurting. Last night, work over, I sat and watched a film received from the rental company I subscribe to, drank a glass of wine, had a slice of bread and jam for supper. None of these three things were necessary to my existence, they were merely pleasurable. All of them, strictly analysed, cost money which I could have given away. Yet I don’t feel particularly bad about it; the knowledge, the absolute knowledge, that as I enjoy my pleasures other people somewhere are suffering, doesn’t overly disturb me. 

Ten per cent, the Bible suggests. Jesus tells one rich man to ‘give all you have to the poor and follow me’, but he doesn’t say it to everyone. He commends the wasteful pouring of expensive perfume over his feet; he goes to a party and, entirely unnecessarily and un-ascetically, keeps it going with a miraculous transformation of water into wine. He is both unsentimental and unhaunted. There is no hint in his life that superfluous pleasure is bad, which reassures my sociopathy. And yet: surely the inability to forget the suffering of others, even when it occurs in an unbeliever, is not far removed from the experience of God. Individuals so burdened do not deserve castigation; they are needed to drive society forward.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Ruthless Compassion: Lady Eboshi in 'Princess Mononoke'

Ms Formerly Aldgate has introduced me over the last two years to the work of the Japanese animated production house Studio Ghibli and its acclaimed output of quirky (Kiki’s Delivery Service), wacky (The Castle of Laputa), moving (The Wind Rises), achingly sad (Grave of the Fireflies) or plain weird films (Ponyo). I had half a mind, having watched Princess Mononoke (1997) some time ago, to post about the most striking character in that movie (and arguably any of the others), and having just completed Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds (1984) that half-a-mind has grown to a whole one. This is because of a clear resemblance between Lady Eboshi of the first film, whose characterisation first caught my attention, and Lady Kushana of the second, earlier animation.

Both movies dramatise the conflict between humanity and nature, although Mononoke is set in medieval Japan and Nausicaa in an imaginary future a millennium after the collapse of industrial society, and in many ways the earlier film seems a dry run for the subtler, later one. Both Kushana and Eboshi are strong women, military leaders of their respective social groups; both stand on the side of human conquest of the natural world; both act as antagonists to a pair of younger male and female heroes; both are extremely beautiful where their female opponents are merely girlishly pretty. Both, strangely, are mutilated; we discover that Kushana's left arm, clad in gold armour, is prosthetic, and it’s strongly implied that her similarly armoured legs are too; while Eboshi loses her right forearm towards the end of Princess Mononoke.

Image result for kushana nausicaaIn Nausicaa, Kushana acts on behalf of Tolmekia, a warlike kingdom which finds itself accidentally in conflict with the peaceable Valley of the Winds, of which Nausicaa is Princess. Her mission is to prepare and employ a Giant Fire Warrior, a living weapon whose use in the distant past proved catastrophic to human society, to burn and cleanse the Sea of Decay, a toxic jungle haunted by gigantic mutant insects whose gradual encroachment threatens the remnants of humanity. In the later narrative, Lady Eboshi leads a proto-industrial settlement called Irontown, whose citizens face destitution unless they can exploit the iron reserves hidden beneath an adjoining forest; this brings her into conflict with the creatures, both natural and magical, for whom the ancient woods are home. The women are, therefore, on parallel missions. Both are courageous and extremely brave; both show flashes of sardonic humour.

Image result for lady eboshiThis makes the divergence all the more striking. Kushana is never more than a sketch for Eboshi just as Nausicaa is a rough outline for Mononoke. Eboshi never exhibits Kushana's capacity for treachery or unnecessary cruelty. Kushana is also simply incorrect; she remains unaware of the crucial fact the film’s heroes, Nausicaa and Asbel, discover – that the Sea of Decay rests on a petrified forest where the air and water are clean, and is thus purifying the poisoned earth. Eboshi’s mission is more morally ambiguous, and is, very interestingly, presented with such a variety of positive aspects that it becomes very hard indeed to dislike her. Irontown is not merely an embryonic techno-capitalist society juxtaposed with an older, natural way of living: it’s a sanctuary for the damaged and marginalised and a place of social progress. Eboshi has personally rescued considerable numbers of prostitutes, buying them out of their contracts and taking them to Irontown to work in her factory. Another group of workers are lepers who are not only employed but cared for: no wonder they speak about her in glowing terms. In Irontown, men and women have different work but equal status: they both defend the town side-by-side when defence is required. Some reviewers characterise Eboshi as motivated by ‘greed’, but this is reading her domain wrong. The town is nothing less than an alternative society, a vision of something better than 16th-century Japan offered, unhampered by status and tradition. There is no doubt that Eboshi would export her revolution if she got the chance, and the world might not be a worse place for it. It’s not as though this is the last forest in existence, or that the natural world cares anything for the welfare of the humans who move across it: this is an era when people all too often have to grub a living from an unyielding earth, facing starvation the next time a harvest fails, and Eboshi’s vision, of human beings liberated and given their true worth by work and progress, is, surely, worth a few trees.

Image result for lady eboshiThe only characters without a good word to say for the dictator of Irontown are the heroes, the noble Ashitaka and the feral San. San stands alongside the creatures of the forest, and no longer even thinks of herself as human; Ashitaka is being slowly poisoned from a wound inflicted by a boar-god driven mad by an iron bullet forged, as it turns out, in Eboshi’s own factory. Her people, on the other hand, not only respect her – they love her. They adore her. She, for her part, is far from starry-eyed about them; she is nevertheless utterly clear and focused about how they can be helped, and about clearing whatever stands in the way, from trees to neighbouring lords to gods. Hers is a ruthless compassion. She is the embodiment of Enlightenment rationalism, as dismissive of the Emperor as she is of the forest spirits. The fact that Studio Ghibli’s auteur Hayao Miyazaki, with his environmentalist concerns, chooses to represent this ideology so positively is remarkable.

Image result for lady eboshiLady Eboshi finishes the movie humbled, recognising the devastation unleashed by her foolhardy assault on the Forest Spirit, and promising Ashitaka ‘we’ll build a better village’. She realises that the earth cannot simply be conquered, and that ultimately human welfare relies on it. But her vision remains intact: the devotion of her people is undimmed, her revolution unabandoned. She remains a compelling image of an almost ideal leadership.

I am not the first person to have written in praise of Lady Eboshi. Not at all. Certainly not. Far from it.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Girls and Boys

Our after-school Church Club at the Infants School met for the first time this Wednesday, twelve five-to-seven year-olds kept in loose order by three adults (usually including me) to be told a Bible story, and engage in various puzzles, games and craft activities. There has long been a gender imbalance in the group, but this term we have eleven girls to one boy, which is remarkable. Children of this age don't avoid the opposite sex in the way they do a bit later on, so it's hard to understand why this should be. Another church group for older, junior-school-age children kept going for a while with an entirely female membership before folding this term, hopefully only temporarily. Perhaps the purpose of a church group isn't as clear as some of the other groups available to children; and neither active enough to appeal to little boys themselves, nor aspirational enough to appeal to their parents, and so we tend to mop up a disproportionate number of girls whose parents are less concerned about what they do. 

Our one boy has more behavioural issues than anyone else in the school, which is another demographic Church Club has tended to cater for in the past. Having said that he was near-ecstatic to be there. 'Awesome!' was his almost unreasonably enthusiastic response to being given a folder to put his puzzle sheets in. He disappeared at one point and I wasn't sure whether he'd gone to see his mum who was waiting not far away in case there were any problems. 'Lewis is in the toilet,' one of the girls informed me, 'He's doing a poo so he'll be a while', helpfully if unnecessarily adding. 

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Does That Help?

At the moment my friend Cylene isn't much up to coming out, and adds to my general dislike of using the phone a reliance on unreliable technology, so we communicate most by text for the time being. Cylene is not very happy, and told me about a cycle of suicidal thoughts while waiting for her visit from the Community Mental Health Team and the help that might, or, experience suggests, might not, bring. I told her she had to hold on at least to discover how bad the new season of Dr Who would really be. 'Dude', she said, for she is a Colonial, 'comments like that at times like this, that's the sorta thing only you could pull off'. Well, only me with someone I know very well, it's not the kind of pastoral technique I'd attempt with someone from the parish.

We both share frustrations with the way people tend to approach those caught up in dark sadness. Perfectly understandably, confronted by the horror of irrational misery, folk often tend to offer, as Cylene puts it, ' "Hey, cheer up, let's go shopping!" Or, "It's OK! You can do it! Yay! Things aren't so bad, the only way left is up!" '  However those of us subject to these disturbances tend to have thought of all the reasons why we shouldn't be miserable already, and discounted them; or if we find ourselves remaining miserable despite those good reasons it's another cause for self-castigation. Dark sadness can't simply be willed away; it has to be digested first.

Looking at my own experiences, and hearing those of other people, it seems to take something unexpected, unanticipated, to break in through the thick clouds. Readers with long memories may recall my encounter with the goldcrest in 2010 which was the beginning of the way out of a particularly nasty trough. Coming up with the unexpected thought, the unanticipated insight, is not a trick most of us can pull off; most of us, most of the time, do better work observing quiet sympathy.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Exclusive Company

While waiting for our booking for an intimidatingly expensive afternoon tea in celebration of Ms Formerly Aldgate's birthday the other week, we found ourselves on our wanderings outside St George's, Hanover Square, amid the boutiques and art galleries of the thoroughfares south of Oxford Street. A friend of mine used to come here for midweek mass when he worked in London, along with - at that time, anyway - usually north of a hundred other people. There is a wonderful aroma of varnish and dark oak: this is a sort of deep-hued Madeira among churches. Ms Aldgate remarked on the painting behind the altar, but this didn't strike me as particularly unusual: what caught my eye more was the names of churchwardens painted around the galleries, not something I've seen elsewhere. At a rough estimate, three-quarters of the names bore noble titles or knighthoods. I didn't feel compelled to put 50p in the donations box. 

Friday, 11 September 2015

And Great Was Its Fall

This chunk of graffiti-spattered concrete may not look particularly fascinating, which is partly why I photographed it between Dante and the glug-glug jug in the dining room. It represents part of my past, and many other people's. 

On Bank Holiday Monday I and Ms Formerly Aldgate went to Enslow to visit Dr Bones. We helped her (I think we helped) move the boat rather pointlessly down to the turning circle at Shipton and then back again, just to give us a trip, offered an apple pie which it turned out she couldn't eat having given up gluten, and she repaid us by taking us scrambling up a muddy bank to view the remains of the Cement Works. The works had sat beside the canal since the 1920s and closed in the 1980s; and its soaring chimney dominated the landscape around for much of that time. When I and Dr Bones spent a lot of our time traversing the waterway between Oxford and Lower Heyford in 2003-5, that chimney was a constant feature of almost whatever journey we made. Over the last 18 months the site has again been used for quarrying and Dr Bones reports that boaters moored just south of Enslow Lock have got used to finding their boats powdered in white dust. The old cement works buildings, however, were of no use to the quarrying company, and the programme of demolitions finally reached the chimney on the Saturday before the Bank Holiday. Dr Bones and Alex recorded the moment for posterity.

When we arrived at the top of the bank, the chimney lay across the undulating landscape of the quarry, I thought, rather like the bones of some gigantic beast. My tiny fragment of chimney will be a relic of those days spent churning up the waters of the Oxford Canal.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Now Concentrate

Over time I'd developed the habit of closing my eyes as I say the words of consecration. It felt more devout and respectful. 

I can't remember why I recently shifted to keeping my eyes open and fixed on the bread and wine as I say the prayer. It coincided with Ivan, an ordinand from an evangelical Anglican church not far away, being with us on placement over the summer, as I explained to him what we did and why, and went through in some detail all the little gestures of the Mass, so it may have been something to do with that, with suddenly rethinking what I was doing and changing my mind. If I say This Is My Body and This Is My Blood, perhaps I should be looking at it as I do so. And so I now am. One changes habits as one goes on.

You should treat the Sacrament tenderly: it is Christ given into your hands, the one you love, the centre, weight and lodestone of your life; the greatest of all treasures, the summit of all miracles, the gate of heaven opened in the middle of earthly things. You should look on Christ in your hands with gentleness and great care.

Until you break him. 'We break this bread [crack!] to share in the Body of Christ.' Until you snap his flesh in two, then in four. Because you do not approach the Throne of Grace without cost: the cost of his brokenness, of the Cross. 

(The priest in this photo is wearing a chasuble with really horrid gold lamé appliqué, but that probably doesn't matter very much.)

Monday, 7 September 2015


The theme we'd selected for the Family Service yesterday was 'helping' and in the course of my talk I thought the subject of the refugee crisis was unavoidable. Our Bishop has asked people in the parishes who'd be willing to give accommodation to a refugee to forward their details to the Barnabas Fund, and given my own somewhat pathetic feelings about this matter I thought I could hardly allow my situation to go without comment. I talked about how I needed a 'safe zone' which could be (more or less) secluded from the world outside, and so I couldn't envisage opening my home to a stranger, no matter how big or small it might be. There were things I could do, however: I could donate to an organisation working with refugees some of the money earned by my old house which is now let, and probably other things too. 'Don't waste time feeling guilty or self-justifying about what you can't do: get on with doing what you can', I suggested. 

I hope the reason the congregation responded so well to this was not because I was effectively absolving them from responsibility. In fact I discovered that a couple of leading members of the church have already registered with Avaaz as potential hosts for a refugee. They will need help from the rest of us, rather than being left isolated. Nevertheless, I can't conscientiously guilt-trip anyone else about doing something I know full well I'm not going to do myself.

However, if I am going to put my money where my mouth is, where might it best be spent? Avaaz is an international campaigning organisation which isn't specifically interested in supporting refugees. The Barnabas Fund, to whom our Bishop directed our attention, very definitely works with Christians only; which is fair enough, but most of the refugees finding their way to Britain aren't going to be Christians, and it dedicates some of its resources to campaigning about the hazards of Islam. I heard a report on Radio 4's Broadcasting House yesterday about a gentleman who has hosted a succession of refugees, but the organisation he mentioned, ASSIST, works only around Sheffield. So I'm still looking. 

Friday, 4 September 2015

Safe Zone

Julie is one of the people I deal with quite a bit. She gets on very badly with her family, has had episodes of homelessness, disruptive relationships and bad luck. She has a car but can't afford to drive it at the moment. She asked whether she could leave it with me - 'you have a big drive'. I do, and said yes - after a bit of internal struggling.

I suppose having Julie's car stuck out in the drive would be, psychologically, my working world intruding inescapably though passively into my domestic one. I worked out long ago that, no matter how generous my living arrangements are (not by my choice), they have to be kept distinct from work and the disrupted people who come my way as a result of it, or I go a bit crazy. I know that it ought not really to be like this, and that a house full of anything from other people's stuff to Syrian refugees ought not to cause me that much of an issue. My need for peace in my surroundings is a reflection of the fact that I bring so much disruption into them myself. If I had internal peace I wouldn't need so much externally.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Exit Strategy

Image result for rev series 4 adam new jobAnyone who watched the final series of Rev a couple of years ago might remember Adam's attempt to find alternative work after his decision to leave the Church, and discovering he's been effectively de-skilled during his years as a priest and rendered incapable of doing anything else, or at least anything consonant with his self-respect. Were I ever to be asked to hand down my Advice For Young Clergy (which I never will be), probably the first point would be 'Decide what you would be doing if you weren't doing this'. My own answer to this question has altered over the years: I like clothes so thought I might like to do tailoring, but it's such an involved and technical business that gets less realistic as I get longer in the tooth, so now the alternative work I have in my mind is cycle repairing, which I think I could stand a realistic chance of learning, is socially useful, and, fundamentally, practical. 'You've got lots of transferable skills - dealing with people, public speaking, project management and so on', Ms Formerly Aldgate said when we talked about this; but they are probably skills I won't actually want to use because having to use them ad nauseam would have contributed to any decision to get out in the first place. 

I must stress at this point that this is all completely theoretical as far as I'm concerned: I'm very, very fortunate to have a church community which is enthusiastic, happy and supportive and, occasional frustrations aside, I enjoy what I do. But you do come across clergy who very clearly don't want to do what they're doing, and it behoves one to think how one might respond in the same position. The general existential insecurity of working for God, who never calls you in for a supervision meeting or professional review, or gives you feedback on how you're doing, can create a nagging feeling at the back of your mind that the whole exercise is pointless, and if that feeling moves to the front of your mind it can corrode your whole working life. I imagine being a teacher is rather the same: if you cease to feel that what you're doing is useful you can't really do it effectively. Belief is part of the motivating force. 

However, while clergy suffer from this existential insecurity, at the same time they tend to enjoy great practical security. I am one of the last parish clergy to be appointed with freehold, meaning my job is absolutely secure unless I do something positively illegal (and even then getting rid of me would be hard work). Most priests no longer have quite such security of tenure, but even then the disruption of sacking someone who isn't working effectively is so great that it takes a lot of provocation before the Church gets anywhere near taking such a step. Even if your heart's not in it anymore, you can cling on in the hope things might change, or until you retire, marking time with increasing desperation and ill-temper, because you can't think of doing anything else or haven't the energy to change. I can think of little worse - a sort of spiritual zombiedom. Of course it does you no good, nor the parish; but one can see how it happens.