Thursday, 31 March 2016

Museums and Libraries

The news about the decline in library employment – a quarter of posts disappearing in six years – made me think about the connections with the museum profession, of which I used to be a member. Many libraries have closed while others are now significantly (and sometimes entirely) volunteer-staffed. Although the museum world provides a different sort of knowledge-based service to that libraries deal with – artefacts, rather than books - there have always been close links between the two and both have been subject to the same sort of pressures since the current squeeze on public finances began in 2010 (and in fact a lot longer than that).

The provision of libraries, though you may not have noticed given what’s happening to them, is a statutory duty laid on local authorities; but providing museums isn’t, and councils have periodically cast baleful eyes over their heritage-related responsibilities, once they got over the heady days of the late 1980s when they thought museums could actually make money. We faced this at Wimborne while I was there, when East Dorset District threatened to withdraw its support for the two curatorial staff; we underwent it at Wycombe, too, when the results of a Council-wide review initiated by the most right-wing Cabinet members (including, we knew, the axing of the museum service) were spiked the very morning they were due to be unveiled to the Council staff, after the rest of the Tory group discovered them and rebelled: the only outcome of that was the £90,000 of ratepayers’ money poured into the pockets of PriceWaterhouseCooper who conducted the review.

The current decimation of museum services, then, comes as no great surprise. It seems to run counter to the Government’s decision to maintain free access to the great national museums in the capital, but that looks rather more like one of the contrarily populist gestures Messrs Cameron and Osborne are fond of making than an example of a wider policy. It’s certainly scant comfort to communities losing their local heritage institutions.

And yet the volunteer-run museum is a proud tradition, and across the land stalwart groups of enthusiasts can do very well in this respect. Surely there is no reason why the library service should be any different.

There isn’t: but anyone who takes any interest in museums will know that their quality varies hugely. Museum professionals often play a key role in pulling up the standards of volunteer-run museums, and even when there are no professional curators directly associated with this or that institution, the Museums Association and the Association of Independent Museums perform the same role, encouraging even small museums to try to maintain conservation standards rather than becoming the charnel-houses of objects they might otherwise be, and to stage displays that inform the visitor rather than mystify or intimidate them.

Libraries have long been more professionalised institutions, and ones more directly under municipal control, than museums; the history of museums throughout the later twentieth century has been one of the gradual drawing of various voluntary local efforts into the ambit of the professional element, and the consequent ratcheting-up of standards. You don't necessarily need professionals in any particular institution, but professional standards are a good thing, and those do require a core of people and groups committed to them; and as far as museums are concerned, that core has resided not so much in the free-floating national collections (which seem to be fairly safe even in the current climate) as in the local authority services (which aren't). 

Since the 1980s we have been culturally suspicious of professions. This can be traced to the Thatcher government's wholesale buying into public choice theory, which holds, among other things, that public servants so-called are not really engaged in service of any kind, but in consciously or unconsciously fleecing the body politic in their own interests. It's no secret how highly Mrs Thatcher thought of the TV series Yes Minister: we all remember the self-serving circumlocution of Sir Humphrey, but less episodes such as The National Education Service which promoted the position that publicly-funded education was organised in the interests of the teaching profession rather than for any actual educational purpose. Professionals are suspect: ideally they should be disposed of. Well, we may well start finding out what happens when we do, though anyone who makes an effort might discover what things were like before various areas of public life did have structures dedicated to raising standards that aren't just the mechanisms of the market.

Not that the market can apply to museums and libraries, which are never going to make money: there are not the same possibilities for private enrichment that the academised education sector offers. The danger now is that the gains secured by professionalisation go into reverse. It’s hard to imagine, so far as libraries are concerned, what that might look like, but that’s only because they’ve been so well-run for so long; I know what it’ll look like in the museum world all too well.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Easter 2016

Image result for easterEaster at Swanvale Halt was a bit lacklustre this year: numbers were down at most of the services, and the Passion service for families which went so well last year was a complete disaster this, the attenders halved to twelve only two of whom were children. Partly I suspect this was because Good Friday was the only day forecast to be sunny over the holiday weekend! I can also see signs that Easter is now becoming another occasion, like Christmas, when dispersed families are under pressure to make an effort to see one another, so even in households which have some faith the emphasis is not on that but on providing huge meals and competitive present-buying followed (or, depending on the weather, preceded by) a trip out somewhere to stop children going completely ape.

However I will remember two things. At the Liturgy of the Passion on Good Friday the thirty-ish parishioners present come forward to venerate the cross in a variety of different ways while the Reproaches are sung and, as I said last year, this is always a moment of deep significance. It struck me this time how important this quiet demonstration of faith is in binding us together as the Body of Christ: our making clear to one another (though not in any self-conscious way, because our attention is focused on him) what is most crucial in our lives means we all go through this experience together. Then, after the Dawn Mass on Easter Day I watched the congregation partaking of our now-traditional breakfast of champagne and pain au chocolat and saw the same people who went through that experience of desolation now united in doing something very different, in celebrating a return to light and hope. Christ is here, too.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

The Closing of Options

A few years ago OfStEd downgraded our super parish infants school from 'good' to 'satisfactory' (a category that no longer exists) after a particularly brutal and insensitive inspection that left teachers in tears. The school turned that around very quickly and the next set of inspectors were much more reasonable. The governors' meeting immediately after that downgrading, angry though it was, wasn't as depressing as the one we had the day the Government announced that all schools are to be forced to move to academy status. In the first case, we could do something about it; this time, we can't. 

The governors and the staff are dead set against the school becoming an academy. We have never seen the advantages. When devised, academy status was explained as a mechanism enabling troubled schools to be freed of institutional shackles and to innovate to bring about improvement; early academies were showered with extra money and incentives by the DofE. Not surprisingly, becoming academies seemed to work for those schools. Presumably the Government expected such improvement to prompt every school to opt out of local government 'control' (not that councils have really 'controlled' schools in any detail since the 1980s), but they refused. Governing bodies voted against doing so, as did polls of parents. I understand that about half of secondary schools have become academies, some bonding together in Multi-Academy Trusts to reach the pupil numbers - 1500 to 2000, says the DofE - needed to make such groupings viable. But very, very few schools in the primary sector have. As the number of academies have increased, correspondingly the data suggesting that academy status actually brings any benefit have weakened and weakened.

The arms-length relationship between our infants school and the County Council operating since 1988 has worked very well for us and we see no reason to change it. Some of what the County used to do - training, human resources, IT support - is now supplied by a firm called Babcock 4S, itself a subsidiary of Babcock International, a huge consultancy company founded as long ago as 1900. Babcock 4S's only two shareholders are a holding company which is itself part of Babcock (80%) and Surrey County Council (20%); we get on well enough with Babcock although it's difficult to see why it's any better, or more value-efficient, at providing these services than the Council itself would be. Now Babcock's charges are rocketing as it tries to recoup some of the money lost by schools disappearing from the Surrey system.

Two of our governors attended a meeting a few days ago, led by a great proponent of academy status who was chairing a MAT. He described himself as a convert to academies, but when asked why he changed his mind said disarmingly that he couldn't remember! He was unable to bring any arguments to bear on why any school should opt for academy status, merely stating, 'This is going to happen so it's basically a matter of picking who you're going to work with or they'll be picked for you.' When asked about how a school like ours would be represented in a MAT he said 'You won't be. You've got 150 pupils; you won't even get a representative on the board of trustees. Not every school can be represented or it won't work. You'll just have to do as you're told.' How are trusts to find these trustees, who will be responsible for budgets of millions, up to 2000 pupils, 15 or so sites, and hundreds of staff? 'They'll be volunteers.' Will they? Who's going to volunteer to do that? Will MATs not end up employing trustees - directors, perhaps we ought to call them - as well as the people who actually run the schools?

This is all proposed on the grounds of improving school standards, but one could just as easily read it as a means of syphoning off more public money into the pockets of private businesses and individuals. I know what I think, and how depressing it is to live in Britain now. Well, England, anyway.

Today there is another announcement: that governing bodies will not have to include parents, on the grounds that the Government wants to ensure 'skills' are represented on them rather than sectional interests. Of course parents don't know anything about the education of their children, do they?

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

A Fantasy of the End

Image result for cinema paradiso demolitionAs neither I nor Ms Formerly Aldgate had ever seen Cinema Paradiso we watched it over a couple of evenings this week. This post isn't about the movie, but about thoughts provoked by the scene of the demolition of the cinema building, towards the end. 

The film makes clear the emotions embedded in the destruction of the cinema, how it represents a nostalgia for a past world, memory, and experience; things the characters have shared, not all of them positive, but all important, having made them who they are. The loss of the cinema means that those experiences retreat into the internal world of memory, and become even more fragile. So in the real world we often strive to preserve elements of our built environment, less for their utility or attractiveness (though we might justify it in those terms) than because they provide continuity, remind us of who we are, a shared landscape of meaning and understanding - a code for things we don't have to keep explaining to each other. Churches are converted into housing, art galleries, or businesses, in an effort to keep them around, for instance. 

I imagined watching the ruin of Swanvale Halt church, which could indeed happen within my lifetime - who knows? Would it be converted to another use, or simply done away with? Which would be more painful? Because as much as we tell ourselves 'the Church is the people and not the building', the building makes concrete the relationships between those people, it is one of the crucial things they share, the sign of the God they all serve and work for. It suggests the souls that have worshipped before you, and those who might come after. But if there are not going to be any coming after, how would that feel? I imagine I could give thanks for the work the church had done in the past, and the real role it (and we) had played in proclaiming and living in the Kingdom. Those things are not lost no matter what might happen. And the Church always continues, in other forms, because the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. It's the human relationships, including relationships with God, that matter; but we are flesh and blood too, and the death of one way of expressing those relationships, the way we had got used to and understood, could never be less than painful. 

Friday, 11 March 2016

Off Message

Image result for statistical declineMore statistics emerge to defy the picture of the world Christians paint. I mentioned this in the context of the Bishop's study morning back in November; now we are told that teenage pregnancies are now at their lowest ever recorded level, and have halved since 1999. Why this might be is a matter for debate: they talked about it on the Today programme (2.48 onwards, if you're interested), and while naturally enough the Government agencies charged with reducing pregnancies among the pre-20s are adamant that their campaign is responsible, I do wonder whether it isn't one of a piece with similar declines in crime, drinking, drug use, and other markers of delinquency over the same sort of time. 

We're having a considerable deal of annoyance from a little knot of local teenagers at the moment, minor disruption to the smooth running of the church which is most frustrating. But the few lads who hang around the village centre are conspicuous precisely because they're so unusual. All the others, perhaps, are either involved in various worthwhile activities, doing homework out of fear at the consequences of academic failure, or sequestered in their bedrooms plugged into social media, all of which keep them out of certain sorts of trouble, anyway.

So teenagers are behaving better, the social group perhaps furthest from the ministrations of the Church. Here is presented most starkly the paradox which Christians really must take account of if we are to recover any sort of intellectual credibility: that social order and goodness is not only apparently unrelated to anything we do, but directly increasing at the very time our influence has declined. In theory, it shouldn't be like this, should it? Without us, without God, society ought to be going to hell in a hand-cart. But it's not.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Defiantly Pink

What has been called the pinkification of the life of little girls annoys me colossally, the latest manifestation being when I went to buy Easter eggs for my nieces and found Thornton's were marketing a pair of gender-coded eggs, one pink with a butterfly on it and one blue with a football. This perhaps only increases the transgressive delight of celebrating the middle Sunday of Lent in rose-pink, as we did at Swanvale Halt this weekend (you can do the same on the middle Sunday of Advent, and in some places on Holy Innocents Day just after Christmas). A couple of years ago I dragged an old pink altar frontal out of the chest in church and began using it, but my pink vestments have only just been rendered even half suitable for public exposure. 

When I bought the green set off eBay the same seller was also selling a pink set for under £50, so I thought, why not complete the range, and bought that too. This was the only photograph available of it, showing just the chasuble. It was rather striking, I thought, a darkish pink with black or dark grey embroidery.

It was an object lesson in photographic indeterminacy. The background pink turned out to be a considerably lighter shade than it appeared, and the pattern of grey rushes was painted onto the fabric rather than embroidered. I don't know the age of the piece, but unsurprisingly the paint was cracked and flaking. Possibly worst of all, the braid around the orphreys and the edge of the chasuble, only just visible in the photo, was a sort of tangled silver wire which made the whole thing look as though it was recycled from truly distressingly fancy knicker fabric. It was entirely unusable, as was made clear to me when I shared its existence with others. I asked Janet the Goth embroiderer for advice: 'That is a slinky pinky number' she said, disconcertingly.

It was obvious that the orphreys had to be covered up, so I did that with a vermilion red brocade. Sewing it around the silver bullion roundel in the middle of the back was particularly tricky and hard-going. 

Next I had to obscure that offensive silvery braid, and found some nice broad machined braid with a light gold and maroon ivy-like pattern on a deep purply-brown background, which covered the wire. I felt I ought to leave the crosses on the stole and maniple exposed, so there you can still see what the original decoration was like. 

There was still rather too much of the original pink silk around, and though I'd considered dyeing it with a deep red pattern a bit of experimentation on the inside of the chasuble failed so miserably I realised there was no other option than just covering up more of it with additional red brocade panels around the orphreys. These I edged with a different sort of braid, as you can see in this picture:
The final result is bold, but in the context of the church building and in combination with the altar frontal not completely displeasing:
All that cloth as well as the silver bullion bits makes it the most massively weighty of my vestment sets and even I have to admit that the maniple is a bit of a liability.

However my friend Fr Peter Edwards of Bathwick has just had a very fine rose-pink Gothic set donated to the church which is doubtless much easier to manage:

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Self Diagnosis

Trevor, my long-term hard case, sat in the chair in his flat opposite me as we listened to Derek Prince, the late conservative-evangelical preacher, talking about driving out demons in a recording Trevor had downloaded. ‘I won’t come out, I won’t come out!’ Trevor said in a ‘demonic’ voice. ‘I’ll kill Trevor! I’m going to kill his family!’ They were the very words Mr Prince had a few seconds before reported a demon using that he had cast out of a Baptist lady in the US. I don’t think Trevor even knew he was copying what he was hearing. ‘Those words I used’, he said a day or two later, ‘they prove I have a demon in me.’ I tentatively pointed out that they were exactly the same as in the recording. ‘Yes, so that proves it,’ Trevor insisted, innocently as far as I can tell.

I only went to listen to the teachings of Brother Prince because Trevor has been raising some genuine matters over the last couple of months which seem to have some bearing on his particular anxieties and at least the form his illness takes. I think we could be on the brink of making some progress if we can only deal openly with those things and the damage they’ve done to Trevor over the years: there is the prospect that he might be freed up, just a bit, from some of the terrible constraints that keep him shut down. Then into the middle of it he mentioned coming across the Derek Prince Ministries website and so I felt I had to listen to what he’s listening to. It might be, I thought, it just might be, that Mr Prince could be able to tell me something I didn’t know, to convince me I was wrong on this issue.

He didn’t. The first time Derek Prince was involved in casting out a demon, he was invited by a Baptist minister to take part in the deliverance of a woman he’d never met before; he witnessed ‘a sulphurous light in her eyes’ at one point, and the assembled church members (men, it’s worth noting) found her hard to stop her choking herself. This took place in the context of a five-hour deliverance event in which the Baptist minister took the approach of shouting at the spirits infesting the woman. Mr Prince disagreed with this approach, and was much quieter when he took over. That experience changed his view about demonic infestation being possible among believers, and he began to preach about it in his own congregation. At first nothing happened until he was, by his own admission, getting particularly carried away one morning when the church pianist began screaming and fell to the ground. After that his conservative Presbyterian flock took it all more seriously and began coming forward with their own diabolical problems.

More stories followed. With one exception – a woman who Mr Prince maintained showed supernatural knowledge of the languages and cultures of east Africa – what I heard was accounts of what I ended up calling the traumatic breakdown of cognitive dissonance. Very often the phenomena are produced by people who have been nursing a secret sin or negative experience (or sometimes just a doubt) for many years and never talking about it: in many authoritarian religious settings it’s impossible to talk about such things without shame and damage. There then comes a moment when the sufferer is given permission to speak in the specific context of being ‘delivered’. In this way the unspeakable truth and the tension associated with it is released, in a way which enables the sufferer to distance both themselves and the church community from it, denying it was really anything to do with them, and following a pattern which they, the communities they belong to, and the authority figures dealing with them, expect. It’s a sort of catastrophic act of confession. Once a Christian minister or practitioner begins misinterpreting what they’re seeing, they start the dubious but understandable process of trying to build it into a coherent structure, which usually (even for Mr Prince, it turned out) involves going well beyond the Bible. Other Christian traditions both expect sins and problems to take some winkling out over time, rather than be solved instantly when someone first converts, and, through the sacramental life, provide some means of doing it.

Still, I thought, Jesus does a lot of exorcising and so do the apostles when he sends them out. In fact he goes into the synagogues and demons just shoot out of people at his mere presence. What was different then, I wondered? Eventually I realised that what was different was the Church. Exorcisms of a minor and undramatic sort are regularly incorporated in the sacraments, and the sacraments – God’s means of dealing with sin and damage – are the means of entry into the death and resurrection of Jesus. Those who came to hear Jesus during his earthly ministry could not enter into his healing death and resurrection and appropriate it for themselves because it hadn’t happened. There is much more one could say about this (of course), but that seems like an important thought.

None of that helps Trevor much. I am trying to delay answering the question of whether he is actually infested until we’ve tackled some of the genuine issues; if I’m compelled to say No he won’t engage at all. I am telling myself, somehow, that I'm still keeping an open mind.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Dona Eis Requiem

Back in Lamford I began a monthly Requiem Mass on a Saturday morning. For many years I've been a member of that venerable Anglican society, the Guild of All Souls, which encourages prayer for the dead and the care of the bereaved; the Guild asks all its priest members to celebrate a monthly requiem, but apart from the annual parish requiem on All Souls Day I haven't done it here in Swanvale Halt. I thought a monthly celebration would be too ambitious, but a quarterly one (including the November date) to pray for those whose funerals we've officiated at recently and anyone else whose name is offered up seemed feasible. So I first did this on Saturday, and the service found 16 of us squeezed into the Lady Chapel. The atmosphere was quiet and prayerful and in the photo you can see the candles lit as intercessions for the dead (stood on a plant stand, in actual fact, which was so rusty I nipped out for some shoe polish to blacken it up). I count it as a success; we'll see how things go subsequently.