Monday, 30 November 2015

How Many Churchwardens Does It Take to Open a Door

It was the Advent Service of Light yesterday evening. I'm still not sure how this got transplanted from Salisbury Cathedral where I think it originated to little Swanvale Halt in the mid-1980s; now quite a number of churches do something similar, although I think in those days we must have been virtually unique. 

The service consists of seasonal readings and carols, starting and finishing in candlelight, with every candle we can muster lit around the building. It culminates in a procession out of the church and round the side of the churchyard into the hall, attempting to sing in something like unison. Yesterday the hymn at that point was the old Advent carol O Veni Emmanuel - albeit in English rather than Latin. 

There were about 80 of us. The wind blew out all our candles almost instantly but we were prepared for that. We were singing the verse that begins

O come thou Key of David, come
And open wide our heavenly home

just as the crucifer arrived at the hall door - and found nobody had unlocked it. Marion the curate could hardly contain herself. The churchwardens rushed inside to locate keys and discovered they didn't know their way around the bunches as well as they thought. I like to think the surrealism prompted extra gusto in the singing.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Sunday Vignettes

Three visitors to the church struck me last Sunday morning.

1. An elderly gent who came to the 8am Mass and lingered rather suspiciously in front of the statue of the BVM. Roman Catholic, I assumed, and indeed he turned out to be the French grandfather of two children who live round the corner and who have been baptised in the church. He took the sacrament very happily from me; I presume his son will have told him which Archbishop we're actually in communion with!

2. I came through the empty church after the 10am service and found a woman in her 30s sat in a chair in a Buddhist posture of meditation. I thought better of disturbing her. 'I suppose the church is the closest thing in the area to a Buddhist meditation centre', commented Ms Formerly Aldgate.

3. Then a bit later crossing back through the church I found a young fellow of about 17 sat with a skateboard and a hymnbook singing (rather beautifully), of all things, 'Hark the herald-angels sing'. He was a bit emotional. 'I think I'll be spending more time here', he told me, and I assured him we'd be here to help. 

I have offered the odd prayer that all these people may be back again.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Doubt, Public and Private

The radio news report at 5.30 yesterday was frankly dismaying. ‘The Archbishop of Canterbury has admitted that the killings in Paris led him to doubt God,’ the report went, ‘but he said he spoke to God who reassured him of his presence’. The dismay, as far as I was concerned, arose not from the news that ABC has had flashes of faithlessness in response to a terrible event, but the resolution of those doubts which must surely come across to any non-Christian as glib and weird. The wording of the headline changed as the day proceeded, thankfully, and the original interview on the never-failingly gruesome Songs of Praise made it clear that Abp Justin was not hearing divine voices: ‘God told me’ turned out to mean ‘I went for a walk and thought about it and remembered a bit from the Psalms that helped me to see things differently’. So not much different from the rest of us, then.

I suppose Abp Justin wanted to suggest that questioning the presence of God in such extreme events was normal and understandable. As friends of mine pointed out, this is on the face of it odd, as there is plenty of cruel and unnecessary death around all of the time without the need for mass-murder by terrorists to shake one’s faith. An act of very human evil, too, surely calls God into question rather less than a natural calamity, but even disasters of almost inconceivable magnitude are curiously rarely cited as reasons for doubt: Christians in the West seem to have been able very easily to mentally brush aside the 230,000 people who died in the great Tsunami of 2004, for instance.

The things that prompt us to doubt, if we have anything to doubt, are strangely personal and random. Terrible events such as the Paris killings don’t affect me on this level: I sort of discount them as the kind of thing one should expect in a fallen world. Instead, for many years the thing that set me off on a spiral of anger was the senseless suffering of my mother from arthritis and other frailties, which seemed not just random but strangely directed at her. I couldn’t see, and still don’t even though her situation is much better than it used to be, that this served any spiritual purpose or was of any benefit to anyone. I seem to have been able to digest that as time has gone on, and my own lapses into faithlessness are now caused, when they come, by tiredness or a succession of silly little personal frustrations which less make me doubt God as make me indifferent as to what I believe – an emotional disturbance rather than a philosophical shift. Then gradually I discover I do care once again.

If we conceived God as a remote and Olympian figure, these problems wouldn’t arise – they only appear when we believe that God takes an interest in what happens to us. Despite what I said about the Paris killings being an act of human evil, why God does not rescue people from such things is not as daft a question as it might appear. I can remember several occasions in my life when I might well have died, and one particular episode when I still can’t understand why I didn’t; talking to people suggests that this kind of experience is more common than one might think. If Christians are tempted to see in such events signs of God’s care for them as individuals (and the Scriptures encourage us to think this way), the question necessarily arises, Why these interventions and not those?

Of course there is no answer. Christians live in a world which is full of hazard and pain, and also one in which a man died and was alive again. Somehow we have to hold these two facts together, and the only connection between them is two pieces of bloodstained wood hammered into a cross, the site of that man’s death. That’s as much of a response from Heaven as we get. For some of us, it’s enough to keep us moving forward, and to provide the means of trying to understand and assimilate the disasters which afflict us; and for some it isn’t. 

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Away With the PCC

As we've said before, the process of 'Mission Planning' will not of and by itself save the church in Swanvale Halt, let alone the Church more generally. That doesn't mean it's not worth doing: if nothing else it encourages people to think about the life of their particular Christian community in a less passive and more deliberative and conscious way, less as something that merely happens around them and more as something they take part in and help to shape. 

So the Church Council and I found ourselves at a local school on Saturday being 'facilitated' by an affable chap from the Diocese and plied with nice sandwiches provided by the school caterers for a small consideration. We discussed the results of our church membership survey and a more focused one which tried to identify what we thought the strengths and weaknesses of the church were, and spent a while thinking about realistic ways of tackling the latter. There were no very radical surprises in any of this process, though Mr Facilitator told us there sometimes are when churches do this exercise. I was pleased at how enthusiastic and positive everyone was, and will wait to see how many tasks we set ourselves end up being a joint enterprise and how many have my initials put next to them ...

Friday, 13 November 2015

You, Too, Could Be Vulnerable

I lose track of which sort of safeguarding training I've done. I get offered it via the diocese and also as a school governor, and as both streams of training happen in the same place it's not easy to know which you're swimming in at any one time. The last lot I did was online which was a new experience; downloading my certificate just wasn't as thrilling as picking it up from a formica table.

This week I was down to do another training session, and went along wondering how they were going to repackage the same thing as usual yet again. In fact it turned out to be about safeguarding adults. Now, the legislation talks about 'vulnerable adults', defined as people of 'reduced capacity' and/or those in receipt of social support of some kind. However, the Church of England has chosen in its own guidelines not to talk about 'vulnerable adults' but 'adults who are vulnerable', thus widening the definition. 'Anyone can be vulnerable in certain circumstances', the trainer told us, which is nothing other than the truth. As is the manner of these things we were shown a range of filmed scenarios. 'Who is vulnerable in this situation?' we were asked, and eventually concluded that virtually everyone on the screen was, one way or another. Although thinking in these terms does make you alert to the ways in which people in a given situation may be hurting, or capable of being hurt, I couldn't help wondering whether a definition without boundaries was of any use as an analytical category. If everyone is potentially vulnerable, who do you look out for most?

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

You Can't Please All Of the People

Image result for remembranceSwanvale Halt church thinks of itself as friendly, as all churches do, but as more than that, as, thankfully, relatively free of some of the sorts of conflicts which afflict church communities. I think this is fair enough as it fits in with my own observations of this and other churches. Which is why when disagreement suddenly blows up out of nowhere it's all the more surprising.

We kept Remembrance Sunday on the 8th this year, as usual, and Laura our Lay Reader was down to preach. She gave the subject her customary thoughtfulness, arising from a generally sceptical frame of mind, and examined the concept of heroism, the real and mixed motivations of the people we were remembering in joining armed conflict, and the nature of God's call on us. Thought-provoking, which is perfectly in order considering the occasion. The trouble with being thought-provoking is that sometimes you provoke thought, and not everyone finds it a comfortable experience. 

A very well-spoken late middle-aged couple had come to the church for the first time the previous week. This time they were absolutely irate. He queried why we hadn't had a collection for an ex-service charity; I hadn't thought of it. Specific Remembrance Services I've been at in the past do this but I can't remember it happening at Mass - nevertheless actually a reasonable suggestion, Her objections to the service were more forcibly expressed. 'I hope you never preach another sermon,' she told Laura. 'I believe in heroism. Our soldiers fight for Queen and country. I agree with David Cameron. I don't think we will be coming to this church again.' And out they went.

Of course we all awkwardly shrugged it off but knowing full well how this kind of thing feels I called round on Laura later on and talked it through with her. One tries to be rational but when objections to something you've done (and thought very hard about) are so personal they are all you can remember. What one also needs to remember, and lament, is that although there is no way of 'fixing' this sort of situation or of avoiding it - unless you say and do nothing anyone could possibly object to, and there is no point in that - it is still nevertheless tragic that anyone leaves a place that stands for peace in such violence and disturbance of spirit, even if that tragedy is their own choice. Such an extreme reaction suggests 'issues' to delve into, but will they find a place to do so?

Monday, 9 November 2015

A Better Bonfire

For the last couple of years we've attended Bonfire celebrations at first Godalming and then Guildford which, you may remember, turned out to be intimidatingly and in fact tediously massive. This year, as threatened, we decided to try one of the local villages for something a bit more communitarian and low-key. Chiddingfold was recommended: apparently the whole village is closed to traffic for the occasion and buses convey revellers from Witley Station some distance away, so that we thought would probably not be what we wanted. Puttenham's Firework Night cost £10 a head which we considered cheeky. Instead we thought we'd try Hascombe, which is tiny and inhabited by almost nobody.

That may be the case, but by the time we arrived about twenty minutes before the fireworks were due to start (we thought we could live without the children's procession to light the bonfire) the whole mile or so of road through the village was lined with cars, and more people picking their way through the dark with torches. We eventually found a place right at the south end of the village and joined those still making the journey to the field outside the Village Hall. The somewhat inadequate photos here don't give much of an idea of the scale - the bonfire is an impressive pile and there were probably between 700 and 1000 people there, milling around in front of the Hall and a couple of food and drink tents erected for the occasion. It was just about acceptable, we thought - we were able to linger on the edge and not get crushed with people, the fireworks were every bit as good as at the larger shows, and there was no inane commentary from a local radio DJ. 

Lots of children were wearing multi-coloured flashing-light rabbit ears, which I can't recall seeing before. It leads me to reflect yet again how big the Bonfire season is now, compared to what I remember from my childhood forty years ago; Hascombe's celebration is modest compared to those around it (that's why we went), but still a pretty large business. 

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Ding Dong

A week late, but I meant to show off our Halloween pumpkin. The one I bought turned out a bit lopsided, so having been given the task of doing the eyes I carved one squinting and one wide open. However with Ms Formerly Aldgate's grinning mouth it acquired more of a sort of Leslie Phillips feel about it. I say.

On the morning of the 1st there seemed to be someone going round our part of the village, at least, smashing up the pumpkins, and this fate befell ours and the little turnip lantern I left down at the church as usual. However in outlying regions of the parish the pumpkins survived, and this one was still extant yesterday, carved as a Minion.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Talking Jesus

You may remember a bit of research reported on a few days ago which was commissioned by the Church of England (among others) and came up with the statistic that 40% of people don't know that Jesus was a real person (although I know atheists who argue very adamantly that he wasn't). That was all very well, but the research also looked into the results of encounters between Christians and non-Christians, and found that the two groups remembered such encounters rather differently, and not just that. Now, bear in mind that for years the Church has been rather wringing its hands about the inarticulacy of its members in talking to their friends, neighbours, colleagues and relatives about their faith. 'Talk to people', says the Church, 'Spread the word. Gossip the Gospel. It's the only way of converting souls.' The research suggests it is, in the sense that people who did convert to Christianity put conversations with a Christian as one of the reasons for doing so, but the figures also point out that most of the time such encounters do more harm than good: non-Christians who had conversations with believers about faith were four times more likely to feel negatively about Christianity than to want to find out more. The findings were reported to the General Synod a few days ago and apparently had Synod members gasping in disbelief. 

Quantitative research of this sort, important though it is, can't get at the quality and nature of the encounter which I expect is crucial to what happens as a result of it. Only yesterday our curate Marion, going to pick the family car up from a repair job at the local garage, had a conversation with one of the staff who related how he'd begun going to church at Christmas and Easter as a result of chats with a neighbour, a Baptist, who he knew and liked. This was clearly one of those encounters which, in evangelistic terms, had 'worked', probably because it took place within a context of trust and friendship and without the evangelisee feeling they were being evangelised: nobody likes feeling that someone else regards them as a means to an end rather than a person in their own right. 

Strangely enough I very rarely have deep conversations about faith, despite or, who knows, perhaps because of the collar; much of the time they happen when I come to the church and find someone in desperate circumstances who needs to talk, very often after their tongues have been loosened by a little alcohol. It's a bit of a shame because those aren't the best circumstances for such conversations to happen. I suspect many people assume that if they really open up to the vicar he will be judgemental and critical; perhaps this characterises the encounters they have with other sorts of Christians too, which is why they turn out so negatively. 

'We know that some people are good at this, and some aren't', they concluded at the Synod meeting, which seems, for the moment, to be as far as we can get.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Museum Quartet

My mental acuity has been decidedly lacking over the last few days, but I am perhaps now able to dredge my complaining ganglia just enough to post about the museums I visited on my Yorkshire sojourn. A mixed bag, as always.

The drum-shaped structure of The Rotunda at Scarborough sits by the central gardens. I went in and discovered very quickly that its main focus is not local or social history but geology, and my heart sank a bit: rocks are not one of my major interests. In fact the Rotunda is great fun, focusing on the role of William Smith, the 18th/19th-century geologist, who first devised the theory of geological stratification. The dome which tops the museum is a spectacular space, its gallery of lovely old Victorian cabinets filled with the collection of the Scarborough Philosophical Society's leading members.

Filey Museum just along the coast is a complete contrast, a volunteer-run collection of the usual miscellaneous domestic and local paraphernalia with a certain nautical preponderance. It reminded me rather of Sheringham Museum down in Norfolk, which I saw last year. 

I confess myself a bit frustrated by Beck Isle Museum in Pickering, a somewhat bigger affair than Filey and four times the price to get in. The lovely 18th-century house it inhabits doubtless has a fascinating history but the Museum tells you nothing about it, only mentioning the family who lived there in passing. It has a range of reconstructed shops and businesses, but while the gents' outfitters pictured here is indeed based on an actual Pickering shop, most are generic representations - a pub, a barber's, and so on - and you are given strangely little insight into Pickering and its history.

The museum at Hornsea, however, takes its history seriously: several of the room displays are organised around the story of the family who lived there, reminding me rather of the Priest's House in Wimborne where I worked once upon a time. There is also an in-depth display about the Hornsea Pottery, a major local employer until its closure in 2000, and although in the great scheme of things this one business is not of huge significance, nevertheless this focus on the development, growth and decline of a single company is a brilliant and in my experience unique exposĂ© of modern capitalism and how it works.