Thursday, 31 December 2015

Outside View

My regular interlocutor Trevor, a lot of the time, ascribes his misfortunes to a curse. The source of the curse varies, and occasionally he concludes that it doesn't actually exist and his belief in it is a function of his illness, but most of the time he's emphatic about it, to the point that we don't talk about it and when he raises the matter I don't pursue it. Now and again he will get very angry with me that I can't do anything to combat it, that there are no rituals or ceremonies the Church of England can use for curse-breaking, or that there are but I refuse to make use of them. Actually there are things we can do to counteract, let's say, malign spiritual influences, and he and I have done them ad infinitum, but his model that somewhere there are witches whose ill-wishing has caused every unhappiness in his life from a business failing to friends deserting him to agoraphobia to constantly having to give way to other drivers on the road - which was a matter he raised a few weeks ago - isn't something the Church can accommodate.

Yesterday I found myself having a long conversation with a man who came to the church and whose story I was struggling to grasp when he mentioned a non-existent person and thus alerted me to the presence of delusion. His problems in life, he believes, are down to a group of people who can make things happen, including illness in his family, by means of bugs, tracking devices and satellites. His great sadness is that nobody believes him, and, as politely as I could, I had to say, because he asked me, that without more specifics I couldn't either. This is clearly a non-religious version of the same rationalisation of misfortune Trevor has arrived at as well. Mr A's persecutors are not witches, but their powers are just as pervasive, invisible and invincible.

Neither Mr A nor Trevor's experiences are unreal in the sense that there is genuine misfortune at the heart of both, but of course their rationalisations of those experiences, no matter how comforting it may be to have a story to tell themselves, will lock both of them into patterns of thought and behaviour that make it impossible to change their circumstances for the better. How very sad to live like this.

Monday, 28 December 2015

Christmas 2015

For some reason Christmas has been especially trying this year, not for any particular reason beyond the enforced jollity grating unsually hard on the nerves. I'm starting to see Christmas as no longer a mission opportunity but as a positive rival to active Christian faith and practice, which is perhaps a bit extreme. The wave of sickness, sadness and death this festive season has been particularly high. It came to a point for me when one bereaved person told me in tears about how they would be opening cards received in the post not knowing whether they would be expressing sympathy or upbeat seasonal wishes. I'm thinking very seriously that we should hold a Blue Christmas service next year to help digest these feelings and contradictions. 

The excitements of the services of the Holy Nativity itself offered very little compensation as the numbers were somewhat down this year. Even the mighty Crib Service on Christmas Eve was a bit deflated (though the church was still full, it wasn't quite bursting), though while communicants on Christmas Day were down actual numbers were up thanks to the presence of a lot of children. But the Midnight was about a third lower - from the best attendance since I arrived in Swanvale Halt last year, to the worst. It's a salutary lesson in many things, especially perhaps my own psychological reliance on things I shouldn't rely on. Onwards to 2016!

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Stumbling Blocks

Amid reports about the persecution of Christians around the world - or at least difficulties being put in the way of any public expressions of faith, such as the Chinese authorities removing crosses from church buildings - we may like to reflect how much more fortunate we are in the UK, notwithstanding the tendency of Christians to want to imagine themselves persecuted (for which see here and here among other places). And yet, sceptical though I tend to be about the more shrill expressions of outrage and dismay that emanate from some bits of British Christendom about the way we get treated, I have to admit that modern life is throwing more and more obstacles in the path of the faithful. For the younger among us, these tend to be the pressures of work, travel and social arrangements. For the older, it's different.

Marion the curate regularly takes communion to a very faithful lady in the parish. She lives with her family and although she's not up to walking very far she'd be perfectly capable of sitting in a pew through a service and joining in with other people worshipping - but nobody will take her on a Sunday morning, a matter she naturally doesn't want to push. We will see whether we can organise a lift for her now and again. 

Another faithful regular congregant told me she'd be away over Christmas visiting family, 'so I won't be in church'. 'That's fine', I said half-joking, 'provided you make it somewhere else!' She looked even more apologetic. 'That's the trouble,' she said, 'I don't see how I'll be able to.' She doesn't drive any more and will be dependent on her family for travel; if they don't want to go anywhere near a church, how can an older person who is long-accustomed to subordinate their own wants and desires to those of others, especially their children, insist that their own faith is important? What you end up with is a category of people who are less likely rather than more to get to church over the Christmas season, arguably precisely because their Christian programming makes them less willing to make demands on the people around them. 

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

St Nicholas, St Nicholas

A couple of Sundays ago, on his feast day, we unveiled and blessed the icon of St Nicholas I've long wanted to install in the church. Why St Nicholas? There was a medieval chapel dedicated to him in an outlying part of the parish, so his presence reminds us that that area belongs to us, too; and he's the patron saint of children, who need someone special to pray for them. Appropriately the icon sits over the children's area, hence the floppy bunny just below it in this picture.

I picked the icon up on eBay some while ago, being sold for a pittance by an antique dealer in the north of England somewhere. From a distance it has the venerable look of battered antiquity, but I suspect it is nothing more than battered, and has been languishing in someone's garage or something. It definitely has not been painted in the 'approved manner', with layer after layer of gesso being applied to the wood before the image is put down, and has a mysterious hole towards the bottom which I have filled up with a badge bearing the idiosyncratic cross-symbol devised under one of my predecessors and which used to appear all over the church stationery at one time (I can never prevent myself thinking of it as the Nuremberg Rally Cross). I quite like all these inadequacies. A little while ago we went to an exhibition at Two Temple Place in London which included a variety of really antique icons, and they hadn't been done in the approved manner either, painted directly on whatever bit of wood the artist happened to have around. Our St Nicholas must have been made by an amateur having a go at producing a traditional image with some love and seriousness, even if they haven't followed the rules.

We blessed the icon and lit its lamp at the evening mass. St Nicholas appeared in the worship at the Family Service in the morning. St Nicholas, St Nicholas/You were a good and holy man we sang to the tune of O Tannenbaum, a delightfully awful little song with which I joined in with great enthusiasm, and Marion the curate preached without mentioning pickled boys at all, which was a great shame.

Last Sunday after an evening hymn practice I turned the lights off in church and went through to the hall for tea, taking delight in the varicoloured lamps glinting in the darkness, including the red one at St Nicholas. Candles make a church seem alive (and vanishingly rarely, despite what you might assume, make them burn down).

I came back in a few minutes later to say Evening Prayer, and after a while realised that the lamp at St Nicholas was out. This was strange as there should have been hours of the candle left. Closer investigation revealed that the entire red glass candle-holder had gone. I felt a crushing sense of disappointment until I realised it was at the bottom of the font, when disappointment changed to mere bewilderment. 

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

St Catherine Fourfold

The school not far away where we held our PCC Away Day last month has a chapel dedicated to St Catherine, with no fewer than four representations of the blessed martyr, in glass, wood, embroidery, and stone. Here they are!

Friday, 4 December 2015

First Duty

Image result for RAFOn the day that the UK began taking part in bombing Islamic State, there was some irony - not quite a bitter irony, I settled on the adjective 'sour' - that in the evening I did my first duty as Chaplain of the local Air Cadet Squadron, helping to enrol a group of new cadets. Years ago I used to work for the Army (only as a museum curator, very civilian) and came out of that experience with a great deal of sympathy with the Force, which I manage somehow to combine with near-pacifism in political terms. 

The Drill Hall area is like a little world to itself at the end of a street, surrounded by houses. It was raining quite heavily last night so out of compassion for the families of the new cadets to be enrolled the parade and enrolment took place indoors in the rather cramped surroundings of the hall. It strikes me as rather quaint that the local rector is seen to have a natural role in this process (although the guidance notes you get from the RAF do at least recognise that, shockingly, some cadets may well not be even nominal Christians), and equally quaint to be referred to as 'Sir'. Being confronted with a lad I knew from the infants school a few years ago as one of the recruits, saluting and heel-clicking, was something for which 'quaint' was hardly the word, as was the fact that the staff refer to the recruits' mums and dads as 'the parental units'. 

I am usually very reluctant indeed to take on new responsibilities but have done in this case as it gives me a rare opportunity to talk to young people who I get next to no chance to interact with in any other context. Having a padré around to 'do moral leadership' with the cadets offers, in the o/c's words, 'a slight counterbalance to some of the more gung-ho chaps who think the answer to anything is probably to bomb it'. Perhaps Mr Cameron could come and take part. I am trying to think of the ritual of the military as similar to the ritual of the Church, somewhat silly but with a serious purpose. As opposed to somewhat serious but with a silly purpose.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Inside the Bubble

Before heading off on Monday to the Bishop’s study morning at the Cathedral – or rather in a large marquee next to it as the Cathedral itself is being refurbished – I’d heard some statistics on the radio about global infant mortality, which is in 2015 little more than a third what it was in 1970. Deaths among Chinese children in their first year is down 90% over that time; even in sub-Saharan Africa the decline is in the order of 60%. I’ve been trying and failing to find statistics about global decline in rates of death from violence this century, which were discussed a few days ago in some programme or other: I remember the interviewee saying that though there’d been a blip up in the last three years due to the civil war in Syria, the long-term trend was very clear both in terms of war and other forms of homicide. Then there’s the generational decline in crime in (as far as I remember) every developed economy, no matter what sort of judicial policies they have adopted, the best explanation for which analysts have come up with is the cutting of the lead content of petrol and thus the brain-affecting poisons we breathe in. There seems little doubt that, Islamic State notwithstanding, we live in a world in which human beings are, by and large, better off, healthier, and less inclined to kill each other. It is also a world in which religious observance is in decline, most prominently in the developed West but not only there. Of course it may not carry on this way; we may be heading towards a collapse like that of Rome. But it’s what seems to be the case now.

The Bishop wanted to gather us all together to report on and discuss the results of a diocesan survey I could vaguely remember doing although my actual answers have long since fled my memory. I seem to spend half my life ‘breaking into small groups’ at the moment, and that's what we did. There were two striking moments in our group. One of my colleagues demanded (more than once) that the bishops provide a ‘cultural counter-narrative’ to the prevailing fear of talking about the Christian Gospel ‘because even if it’s not true people feel they will get cut down if they talk about Jesus, and they think the bishops have capitulated in terms of the Bible, truth, and morality’. Another, who combines a parish and diocesan role, complained that ‘the diocese expects me to do a vicar’s job with half the time and money’ and that when he desperately asked his colleagues in the local Deanery for some help ‘I got less than zero response, including from some of the biggest churches in the diocese’. I thought, Good for you for saying it. The marquee shrieked, howled and rattled around us, beaten about by high winds. 

I’ve said before that my problem with the very sincere attempt to plan for the future our diocese and its offices are involved with is that it has the faint feeling of ‘one-more-heavism’, that only if we do what we do a bit harder and a bit sharper we can save the whole thing, or at least a lot of it. The top seven answers to the survey question ‘What most hinders growth in your parish?’ were apparently all internal churchy factors, that we don’t do A or aren’t very good at B or have to spend too much time on X: I was astonished that nobody seemed to have responded that the biggest thing that hinders growth is vast cultural change that we can do very, very little about, that makes people work all hours Jupiter sends and produces families so scattered that even our most devout folk spend half their weekends away visiting them. Focusing only on internal matters while not remembering what’s going outside our church walls is a recipe for angst, guilt, and disappointment.

What nobody wanted to talk about was the massive question of what we think we’re doing it all for. Those statistics I mentioned at the start of this piece point to a world which, in all sorts of ways, is improving (at least for human beings), materially and morally, and largely doing it without any great contribution from Christians qua Christians. The traditional Christian narrative is to maintain that human beings are deeply wicked, that they both deserve punishment from God and can’t manage without his help, and his demand is that we seek forgiveness or get pitchforked into Hell. Now, once you have converted you begin to appreciate your own flawed nature and God’s holiness with, if anything, greater clarity as you go forward, so even this caricature of the Gospel carries some truth with it; but to someone who isn’t already on that trajectory, its account is at total odds with what they see and experience. This is the problem with what the first of my colleagues I quoted above suggested about the role of the bishops: we Christians (I don’t think it’s a problem that only afflicts the Church of England), in many ways, do not agree what the Gospel is. I suspect my understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is significantly at odds with that gentleman’s, coincide though it may do in most respects; I think the way in which we describe the Gospel to a sceptical world has to take account of that world. Once we get beyond platitudes those differences will emerge.

Faced with a world that looks, to all appearance and evidence, as if it can get on perfectly well without us and without God, what can we do? We can claim that appearance and evidence doesn’t matter, that God isn’t interested in that stuff, and that people face eternal damnation unless they follow certain steps.* Not all of us, however, can say that as we do not see in Jesus Christ a God who is indifferent towards real suffering (or the reduction of it) and instead arbitrarily demands obeisance as the price of survival. It isn’t that I think you can buy your way into Heaven by being good; it’s that a God who is disconnected from suffering isn’t the God Jesus reveals. Such a God works to make things better, to make people suffer less. If he was not interested in our hurting, there would be no grounds on which to demand repentance of us: God would become incoherent and irrational, and he is not, he is the definition of reason. If the world is getting 'better', in so far as you can measure such things, how does that relate to God? 

Could it be that the material and moral betterment of the human world is intended to teach the Church something? It cannot, it simply cannot be, that fewer children dying and fewer people killing each other is not a movement of God in the world. And if it is, Christians cannot, in the end, avoid reframing the story we tell ourselves and seek to tell others in terms of that great fact; though we may be too blinded by it, still, to be able to make that shift without more pain.

I know that my life is better with Jesus Christ than it would have been, and was, without him; that I am more fully human, more capable of love. And if that’s true of me, then probably it will be of others. Is that enough of a story? Enough of a promise?
*PS. I’d forgotten that the Church of England has grappled with this before, the fruit of the deliberations then emerging in Article 13 of the sixteenth-century set of 39:

Works done before the grace of Christ and the Inspiration of his Spirit, are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ, neither do they make men meet to receive grace … We doubt not but that they have the nature of sin.

This is an effort to combat the thought that people can work their way into heaven by being good: it's an attempt to preserve the idea of the undeserved grace of God. I have in the past glossed this Article to mean that normal human goodness cannot root out from the human character the causes of sin and the results of the Fall; but, on its own, attempting to argue that patent goods (fewer babies dying) are not good at all is desperate reasoning, and nowhere to be found in Scripture. Rather, Isaiah 5.20 warns ‘woe to those who call evil good, and good evil’. It's not only desperate, but spiritually dangerous.