Saturday, 27 February 2016

Michael Houlihan, 'The Holy Wells of County Clare' (2015)

The arrival of a new book about holy wells at Swanvale Halt rectory is of course a moment of great and greatly-anticipated delight, and I was very thankful for the tip-off that led me to Michael Houlihan's The Holy Wells of County Clare. I was expecting something in the manner of a gazzetteer of holy well sites but Mr Houlihan's survey instead takes an historical/analytical approach - understandably when you discover that the number of venerated springs in the county runs to something like 240. The book is lucidly written and tackles a variety of interesting topics, relating the wells to the local topography, the presence of Cillini or unofficial burial-grounds for unbaptised children, and the availability of medical provision, or the lack of it, in the 19th century. The historical side of the survey is heavily slanted to the 19th and 20th centuries, disposing of the period 'From Pre-Christian Times to the Famine' in a single short chapter, but as there is actually rather little to be said about that whole epoch beyond surmise it allows greater space to be given to a more intriguing theme. Basically Mr Houlihan's thesis is that holy well devotion really took off as an aspect of popular Catholicism during the Penal period, a time during which, for the most part, the Catholic peasantry of Ireland were left to fend for themselves devotionally - one of a piece with mass-rocks and outdoor liturgies. Once the Roman Catholic hierarchy began to re-establish itself in the second quarter of the 19th century it found itself looking rather askance at such outré observances as holy wells, especially the riotous and undecorous 'pattern' celebrations held at them on the feast days of their patron saint, and slowly the whole world of holy wells began to be brought to heel by clerical officialdom.

One very rarely indeed sees anything written about holy wells being buttressed by the usual historical apparatus of statistics and maps, but Mr Houlihan provides some as well as a fantastic collection of sixty or so photographs. The two things that strike me most from these are the lovely shots of Irish people who proudly care for their local holy well (St Anastasia's Well, Ennistymon, and St Flannan's Well, Inagh, for instance); and the eye-watering garishness of some of the well-structures, dispelling any notion you might have had that all Irish holy wells are unchanged relics of an immemorial Celtic past. The blazing red and white slap of The Well of the Creator of the World, Killard, is astonishing; Our Lady's Well, Kilmacduane, sits on a slope in blue-and-white splendour like a bit of Samarkand dumped in a field; and the Gothic candlelit concrete sideboard that is St Martin's Well, Ballynacally, sporting not one but two statues of the Infant of Prague, is a revelation. However the selection of ten sites examined and photographed in detail reveals the diversity of Clare wells, not surprisingly, I suppose, when there are so many around.

The concluding chapter is a deft account of the way well-devotion has changed, and the possible conflict between Christian and pagan forms of reverence at these sites, as well as the potential damage that can be done by tourism along with the advantages it brings. In short this is a model well book and could only have been made even more enjoyable by the addition of more wells!

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Stick and Carrot

A friend of mine posted this story on Facebook a few days ago. I apologise for the offence of reproducing an image of Mr Bieber here, but you get the point. Further down the comment thread, somebody else stated, 'One of my favourite TV quotes ever, from True Detective: "If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward, then, brother, that person is a piece of shit." ' 

'Piece of shit' isn't language I can imagine St Augustine using, but if it's the only sort of language on offer, I can accept and own it. I know I'm not the person I could be, and in fact admitting it seems to me to be nothing more than sanity. If you look in the mirror in the morning and think to yourself, 'Nothing about me needs change or improvement; I am the best I could possibly be', what does that say about the sort of person you are? Are you Donald Trump, perhaps?

I remember a similar conversation with an atheist friend years ago who claimed I was exaggerating my faults and that rationally viewed I was not that bad a person and perfectly capable of behaving decently without imaginary divine assistance. I suppose that as one moves forward in the spiritual life one discovers more about one's own sins, revealed by the light of God shining on your thoughts, words, acts and motivations. It doesn't surprise me that atheists can't grasp the significance of the inner life and its external ramifications. 

I can say nothing about Mr Bieber and would prefer to say as little about him as possible, but I can't say that 'divine stick and carrot' has any motivating effect on my behaviour. I leave my ultimate fate to him, knowing that finally I can't change it by what I do. God is perfectly just: so, if in the end I am flung into the outer darkness where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, that will only be what I deserve, and were I in my right mind I would take the same decision about myself. There is no point fearing or resenting perfect love and justice. Rather, any desire I have to be a better person is prompted by contact with the holiness of God and knowing that he loves and cares for me, and the desire to respond to this love and care; fear of what might otherwise happen to me, at least in that gross and brutal way of understanding it, plays next to no role at all.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Distance Learning

It's sufficiently unusual for a person in their 20s to come to Swanvale Halt church when they don't have to for some reason that I take notice. Rebecca has attended the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass on a number of occasions. She and her fiancé live in the parish and are having their wedding banns read out later in the year, but not yet, and so she doesn't have to be there. In fact she was in church when I began reading them last August, and therefore able to point out that I was a year early in doing so.

I spoke to Rebecca on Sunday. She and her chap aren't around much at the moment, she said, partly because they have to go to wedding preparation sessions at the church where they are marrying - which is not Hornington next door (as it often is) but in Gloucestershire. We don't have long-distance weddings at Swanvale Halt because it's not a pretty rural church and so we hardly have weddings of any kind. At Lamford we used to get lots, but they were almost always from within the local area. Goremead, however, drew a variety of couples who were looking for the nearest 'nice old-fashioned' church to the sundry reception venues in the area which they'd already booked: the farthest-flung of these couples came from Balham. They didn't mind coming to do wedding prep in my sitting-room in Lamford, but I was always aware it was quite a jaunt for them (and they had to attend worship at Goremead to qualify to get married at the church).

But Rebecca and her partner already qualify to marry at the Gloucester church because she was born there. I wonder at the policy which makes them travel periodically all that way so a clergyperson can lecture them on the importance of Christian marriage or go through the details of their order of service. If it had been me, I'd have tried to persuade their local incumbent to do it. It's not as though I have much else on ...

Friday, 19 February 2016

Capital Flight

It’s been a long, long time since I was last out in London in the evening. Ms Formerly Aldgate didn’t want to go to Silvia from the LGMG’s birthday party at Aces & Eights in Tufnell Park last Saturday, but I thought as I sat on the Tube of the times a couple of years ago when I was fighting my way through the crowds on weekday evenings a couple of nights a week to see her, as well as doing other things. The weekend travellers are very different from the commuters; and I felt a strange air of unreality. Perhaps young people now seem faintly unreal to me anyway, but I suspect it’s down to being surrounded by anonymous people in anonymous surroundings, as compared to the familiarity of Swanvale Halt whose streets and buildings I know well and where it’s unusual not to meet half a dozen people I know on my journey down the hill to the church (at least in term-time: this week it’s half-term and the streets are almost deserted at 8.45am).

It was worth the trip, however, as I had some pleasurable conversations with people I hadn’t seen for ages. The nub of these revolved around the following topics: 1. How old we all are; 2. How many people have moved out of London; 3. How with the removal of various clubs and events there’s increasingly little worth going to anymore; and 4. How we don’t have the energy to go to it even if there was. Ms MetalPole explained how her work at a dental surgery takes her out of the house at 7am and doesn’t allow her back home until 7.30pm. Silvia herself has decamped to Hertfordshire. Even my accountant Ms Death&Taxes, inveterate veteran of every Goth club you can think of, admitted that the delights of night life are less and less able to counteract inertia and the temptations of the sofa. I asked her whether she saw younger people coming into the Goth world. ‘I see some at Slimelight, and they’re often quite beautiful, very dressed up and creative, but they’re mainly coming from miles away’, she said. Of course people moving out of London because they reach the point where they want a different sort of life is nothing new, and that accounts for some of my friends’ moves, but there are newer factors creeping in. Later in the week I heard of another couple who are leaving London because they simply can’t afford to live there anymore, and relocating to Birmingham.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Calming the Twitter Storm

We had a discussion about this after Mattins yesterday morning - concerning the ludicrous little spat the CofE publicity department got itself into after posting a Tweet referring to praying for celebrity unbeliever Richard Dawkins after he suffered a minor stroke a couple of days ago. The assembled Anglicans at Morning Prayer in Swanvale Halt (all four of us) were unanimous in feeling thoroughly uncomfortable and sympathetic towards those who accused the Church of a bit of internet trolling.

I have no doubt that whoever stuck this on Twitter thought they meant it sincerely; although I also doubt that there cannot have been a little frisson of ironical pleasure at being able to do so. And that's probably the problem. It isn't just that Dr Dawkins will not care whether anyone is praying for him or not: I regularly pray for a great many people who have entirely different world-views from myself, and have no intention of stopping regardless of what they might think about it. These are people I love, I'm a Christian and it's What We Do. But I don't feel the need to publicise the fact. 

Making a point of announcing that you're praying about a particular matter leaves a bad taste and not just because we're English and feel embarrassed about religion and emotion. What's the point of doing so, especially in this particular way? I'm reminded of the 'Pray for Paris' hashtag that zipped around the globe after the terrorist shootings there in November, and which several people I know with close links to France and its very secularist official culture got thoroughly aerated about. The declaration that you're praying about something, unless it's only passed around other Christians for their encouragement and information, soon becomes less about the prayer, or who you're praying for, than about you and your self-image, and I think non-religious people - normal people - can see through this very easily.

For an organisation, a Twitter feed isn't just about sharing your thoughts or what you're having for dinner. It's part of your public relations. That's why you can access the CofE Twitter account through the Media and Communications section of the website. Therefore, what goes up on that feed is what the CofE wants people, especially media people, to know about it. You may note, if you have a look, that not much of its content relates to praying for this or that at all, and as there is so much stuff in the world Christians might pray about, you might well ask what's so special about Dr Dawkins. What's special about him, clearly, is that he's the world's most public atheist, and that's why I can't take at face value the Revd Arun Arora's very defensive defence of the original Tweet as something entirely innocent and with no edge to it whatever: a bit of Lenten self-examination might be in order. 

Public relations isn't just about sending out via social media the things you want people to know about you: it also involves having some sense of how normal people will react to that content, and it seems the CofE is still some distance away from that. 

Monday, 15 February 2016

Ashes To Go

No apologies made for posting yet again an illustration from the ministry of my friend Fr Newcombe of Hoxton who took the custom of Ashing on Ash Wednesday to Old Street Station this year. He hasn't invented it, as I understand His Grace of Chichester did it last year in Brighton (Bishop Warner can do with some distraction from other events in the Diocese of Chichester). I rather like this, and wonder how it would work in Swanvale Halt, as we have a very well-used commuter station. At least being ignored by dozens of people hurrying past attempting to pretend you aren't there would be a suitably mortifying start to Lent ...

Friday, 12 February 2016

Farewell to an Old World

Protests outside the Department of Health's offices in LondonWhen I was small, my dad, who was a car mechanic, used to work on Saturdays. Then he only worked on Saturday mornings, and finally didn't work on Saturdays at all. I don't know exactly when this happened, but I think the shift probably took place in the mid-1970s. When I went to work in the strange world of museums nearly twenty years later, working at a weekend attracted time-and-a-half pay because the Council considered it exceptional that people should work on Saturdays and Sundays.
I thought of this in respect of the junior doctors' dispute yesterday. The disagreement between the BMA and the Government seems to have concentrated on whether NHS staff are to be paid a higher rate for working on Saturdays, and at other times, which the Government deems to be 'normal hours', thus enabling them to avoid forking out any more cash to make sure hospital rosters are staffed to the level they say they want at those times. There is a sense in which the Government are right, because Saturday is now basically a working day the same as any other for great numbers of people, at least outside the public sector. 
My dad's working experience back in the 1970s reflected the culmination of a process which had begun in the 1930s, recognising the importance of life outside work. It was in the 1930s that big employers began to organise works outings and holidays, and legislation followed enshrining non-work within the social fabric. Work was still a necessity but there was a new sense that it had to be balanced with leisure and rest, and that these things had a legitimate place in the lives of individuals and families, and that place should be protected by the State. 
But the march of individualisation and consumerism since the 1980s has broken down the communal nature of both work and non-work: people now have a portfolio of both rather than fitting in with what most other people do. In about 2000, the Chief Exec of Wycombe Borough Council told us at a staff meeting how fantastic it was that he could phone up one of the public utilities at 3am and get a response to a billing question, and how the Council should move to a similar 24-hour service; then we thought he was nuts, but now such expectations seem almost to be mainstream, driven by our experience of dealing with online retailers and suppliers who never shut or sleep. Of course lots of people have always worked at weekends or in the evenings, mainly those who service the leisure activities of those who don't; what's changed is that such 'antisocial hours' are no longer considered to be antisocial, they are normal, to be expected. More and more people I speak to describe their working lives as involving shifts, evenings, weekends, part-time this-and-that. 
A lot of this is all very well and you may argue increases the control individual workers have over their own working practices, and after all a certain amount of non-work is still statutorily provided for. But it also works to the benefit of employers, who no longer need to recognise that there is any such thing as 'antisocial' work. The expectation that working on Saturday is exceptional has largely gone except in the reactionary bastions of the public sector such as the NHS, and Sunday can't be far behind. Eventually working on public holidays will no longer attract a higher rate of pay either. The high tide of communally-structured non-work has long since passed, and the junior doctors' dispute can be seen as one of the later battles in the struggle to preserve it, a war which has largely been fought, and lost, without anyone noticing. 
Although most of the focus in the furore over the Government's '7-day NHS' rhetoric has been on hospitals and junior doctors, Jeremy Hunt also talked a few months ago about making GP surgeries work on a similar basis: 'busy people should be able to see their doctor when it suits them, in the evening and at weekends'. Actually, of course, if you really need a GP during 'antisocial hours', there is usually a no-frills service organised by your local surgeries which covers such times already: I used the one in Wycombe (WYDOC) when I had chickenpox, and very good they were too, actually far better than my own GP who had misdiagnosed me. What Mr Hunt actually means is that people should be able to see their doctor at a time which suits their employer, so they don't have to take a couple of hours off in the day. It's as though the Government thinks illness is a leisure choice. I remember what Il Rettore said to me in one of his most shop-stewardish moods when we were talking about the difficulties of getting to the barber's: 'It grows in the firm's time, it can be cut in the firm's time!'
The world the Government is forcing on NHS staff is the world we have implicitly chosen to live in, a world in which work is the moral centre of human life and in which there is nothing in between the individual and the economic machinery they have to negotiate an existence with. A world in which there are only fuzzy, indistinct boundaries between times of work and leisure will work to the moral disadvantage of leisure which has no monetary value (except in terms of someone else's work); this is what lets the Government paint NHS staff as self-interested opponents of change, morally to blame for refusing to work for other people's benefit. It's Fatcher's Britain, as one who grew up in the 1980s might be tempted to describe it.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Upward and Downward Falls

Theological speculations are probably of limited interest to most of the souls who read this blog, but my mind has been running in that direction over recent days (and there’s not much else to talk about). 

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the nature of spiritual growth and the paradoxes therein contained; of how we only discover our desire for God if he withdraws from us, for instance, or how conversion begins with a gradual awakening to the possibility of sin, and how this relates to our experience of God, which seems to be the sort of thing St Paul is grappling to express in the middle chapters of the Letter to the Romans. I found myself hunting the web for the concept of the ‘upward fall’, and discovering it’s an older idea than I imagined: Christian thinkers arguably from Immanuel Kant onwards have had a tendency to see the ‘Fall’, if it can be called such, as less a moment of decline from an original state of grace than a necessary step in human self-awareness and so, perhaps, not such a disaster after all, even understandable as part of God’s plan. The Christians of the Middle Ages were groping in this direction, aware of the paradox between the awareness of sin and the sweetness of being forgiven. There is Mother Julian declaring ‘it behoved that there was sin, that there might be forgiveness’, and the words of the Exultet, sung on Easter morning, words which take us back to the 9th century at least:

O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam,
That won for us so great a Redeemer!

And the haunting carol 'Adam lay y-bounden':

Had that apple not been taken
That apple not taken been
Never then would Our Lady
Have been Heaven’s Queen

You can see why this kind of rhetoric can lead in hazardous directions, directions Paul is keen to shut off firmly at the start of Romans 6: ‘Shall we sin so that grace may abound the more? By no means!’ But there is something to it, something to the sense that forgiveness is a greater spiritual gift than a simply sinless being can receive; because then they learn to forgive in turn, and forgiveness takes them to the heart of who God is.

As (most) Christians came to accept that the Biblical account of Creation could not be literally true, this sense fitted in rather well with the new view of human origins at the end of untold millennia of development driven by natural selection: it stressed a sort of progress, a racial coming-to-life which mirrored the progress the individual first makes when they discover their own sinfulness before God. An unconverted soul is in an almost animal state, unaware what sin actually means, and certainly unaware of its implications; the person takes a step towards true personhood as they discover the distance between themselves and God, and you can read the Fall as a parallel process. However such a reading does go against the nature of the Scriptural narrative.

My browsing led me to a piece about CS Lewis’s interpretation of the Fall. Lewis came to believe that it had a real historical basis and insisted on this despite his easy acceptance of the idea of evolution. I too have never seen a problem with believing that the Fall occurred in history. Animals do not know what it is deliberately to do something wrong; we do. Therefore, that there must have been a moment when one of our remote ancestors first committed an act they knew to be wrong is nothing more than logic.

An historical Eden, which Lewis also argued for, is a more of a challenge: it isn’t a logical necessity, as one can make a case for the Fall being. Yet you can imagine a moment in which God makes himself known to our primitive ancestors, when they are finally ready, and their first response is adoration. This would be a step so dramatically away from the consciousness of the animal world that it could be said to amount to a new creation, to humans being taken from the dust of the earth, to their being made in God’s image, him breathing life into them. How long this state might have lasted is another question; it may well have been a very short time indeed; but to fall away from it would mean having to learn, slowly and painfully, how to draw close to God again – to learn by means of our corrupted will and evolutionary biology, by rebellion and its results rather than by obedience, as we were supposed to.  Like the resurrection of Jesus, an event of this sort would have left no trace discoverable by scientific means; it’s incapable of proof or disproof. You decide either that the evidence draws you towards it, or it doesn’t (and in the end, the veracity of the Biblical narrative as a whole depends on what you think happened to Jesus).

Though I’d long since imagined an historical Fall, an historical Eden was not something I had ever seriously considered. I’m not sure, yet, what allowing its possibility changes, apart from forcing me to re-examine the ‘blessed fault’ rhetoric I’ve been finding myself moving towards recently. That remains, because our redemption in Christ is not a return to our pre-lapsarian state, but an advance to something else which incorporates and transfigures our heritage of sin. Nevertheless huge questions arise. For instance - the ultimate content of our salvation is what the Orthodox call theosis, becoming like God – or as like God as we are capable of being. How does that differ from bearing the image of God as the creation story insists? If God is eternal, he is always the crucified one who gives up his life for the sheep; that has always been part of his nature. Could we have understood that and taken it into ourselves without an awareness of our capacity for sin? 

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Move Swiftly On

Our ordinand-in-training Debbie is studying with Sarum College in Salisbury and that means that I have to go there occasionally for training and information days. The first time I was there, the Old Testament tutor got the training-incumbents together to grapple with a knotty bit of text. She complained about the Church's tendency to skate over anything it finds hazardous and uncomfortable in the Scriptures. 'When you go back to your parish, check the lectionary and see whether the Rape of Dinah is included', she said, 'I bet it isn't.' We were, as it happened, going through the middle chapters of Genesis at Morning Prayer around that time, and lo and behold, she was right: Genesis 34, with the disagreeable story of Dinah and what happens to her and her relatives, is completely omitted. 

It happened again the other morning. I allocated the Lectionary readings at Morning Prayer and asked Marion the curate whether she would read 'Genesis chapter 19, up to verse 26 - but on no account are you to read verses 4 to 11 ...' We didn't recognise this until looking it up, but it's the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The bit we're not supposed to read out is where the men of Sodom visit Lot and threaten to rape the visiting angels. 'Don't do this dreadful thing, fellows!' says Lot out the window. 'Look, I have daughters here, aren't they good enough? Have them!'

Of course it's not especially edifying, but it is part of the Scripture, whatever you make of it. Sometimes the Anglican Lectionary spares us reading a lot of complicated names (not always - a few days ago we had to list all the kings in Genesis 17 who fell in the tar pits) - but surely we can cope with the unsavoury habits of the men of Sodom and poor Dinah's fate? Morning Prayer is usually said by clergy and a few faithful laity such as Readers, and I don't know any church that uses the morning readings for public services, as opposed to the Mass readings, which are much more selective and restricted. There's something bloodless and suspect about simply pretending all this stuff isn't there and hiding it.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

The End of Which Stick?

It's sometimes a struggle to know what theme to adopt at my assemblies at the Infants School. A few days ago I found myself talking to them about the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25, in which Jesus imagines the Judgement and the separation of the good and the bad. He pictures God saying to the righteous, 'You saw me hungry and gave me food, thirsty and gave me drink, naked and gave me clothing,' and so on. I hadn't imagined the children would pick up on the word 'naked' but one or two did and once one starts giggling they all do. Oh well.

One of the children is Nathan, son of the director of the ecumenical youth work charity which works with the churches in this area. His dad asked Nathan about what I'd said and got the answer that it was 'About goats and naked people' which, as he suggested, 'Sounds more like an extract from a Dennis Wheatley novel'. So I tell myself that my mere presence achieves more than anything I might actually say. How often that seems to be the case.