Friday, 29 July 2016

How Did This Happen?

When, some years ago, I became the Bishop’s Surrogate for this area – the person deputed to hear oaths which, technically, should be sworn before the bishop for the purpose of getting married without banns being read and things of that order – I said I’d do it provided I got appropriate training as I was very unsure what to do. My training arrived in a brown envelope from the Bishop’s Registry and consisted of a booklet. Well, I thought, that’s distance learning.

As you know not so long ago I became Chaplain to the local squadron of the Air Cadets as I thought it was a helpful institution to have links with. My predecessor didn’t do a great deal apart from turn up for enrolment services, but it was suggested to me that I might be a bit more involved and do ‘Padre’s Hour’ with the cadets from time to time, to which I breezily said Yes, it being entirely open as to what Padre’s Hour might comprise. I was advised to contact one of the other padres in the area, who, it turned out, had moved. A second I haven’t been able to coincide diaries with. A third was friendly but uninformative apart from advising me to pay as much attention to the welfare of the adults as to the cadets. There was a ‘manual’, I was told, which followed the national RAF chaplains’ ‘Patterns for Life’ scheme, dealing with a variety of big moral and emotional matters such as ‘Respect’ or ‘Integrity’.

And so in advance of my first session this Tuesday I looked through the bewildering pages of ‘Patterns for Life’ and battered together something which I hoped would take about 40-50 minutes depending on how talkative the cadets turned out to be. I was terrified. Of course these teenagers were likely to be more tolerant, helpful and respectful than any other group I am ever likely to encounter, but I still had next to no idea how what I wanted to do or say would go down. They weren’t awfully talkative although probably more so than they would have been had I simply launched into the work without the ice-breaking exercise I worked out beforehand. I do sometimes get the impression that I just suck the initiative and confidence out of any group of people I deal with. I came home, insisted on doing the washing-up alone (Ms Formerly Aldgate and I would normally do it together), and had some port to recover. I spend so much of my time doing things I seem attitudinally completely unsuited to. There must be some purpose to it, mustn’t there? 

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Carry On

‘Speak to your community police about the measures you can take to maximise security’, says the Diocese, ‘the advice is to be alert, but not alarmed’. One understands they have to say something, but this something is next to nothing. Our own community police officer shrugged. ‘What can you do?’ he queried. Well, synagogues are sometimes guarded, or mosques; but a synagogue, or a mosque, belongs to an identifiable group of people, and not to anyone else. In theory a church doesn’t.  One might suspect that such pious thoughts might go by the wayside were the threat more concentrated and focused, but it’s not, and its diffuse nature means that we can effectively hide and not face the question.

Does Swanvale Halt look like a landscape of danger out of the rectory window this morning? It looks the same as ever, if a bit greyer and wetter than over the last couple of weeks. Although the schools are out and therefore I won’t meet quite as many people I know on my first morning journey to the church as I usually would, there will very probably be a range of encounters with parishioners here and there. It will be no different from the way it always is.

And that normality includes danger and sorrow. There have been a couple of murders and a couple of suicides here in the years since I arrived. There have of course been far more sorrows and horrors at the lower level, abuses and neglect and fallings-out and rage, things that come to the notice only of the people directly involved in them. These are just as much part of ‘community’ as the happier, cuddlier, more celebratory things. Part of the business, and the risk, of living. 

Monday, 25 July 2016

Speak Up!

We met after the main Mass on Sunday to discuss the final, final draft of the church mission plan. It's taken about two years to get to this point, beginning with me thinking about the state the church was in after my fifth year as incumbent, through the working-group which drafted a document for the consideration of the PCC, the Away Day in November and the further working groups established to batter our pious intentions into things like actions and lay out the resources required, and finally the PCC talking about it a few days ago. As always people take a bit of coaxing to say anything (apart from the church members who never miss an opportunity to argue that the services should be 'simplified' to attract all the mythical hordes who are champing at the bit to get into the church, and only put off by what we currently do in it) but we managed to have some discussion, at least, about the ideas and the situation we're in. The document we've adopted is a collection of bits and pieces, really: small, comprehensible little actions which nevertheless will take us all the time we've allotted ourselves, and perhaps more, to do. Even then I've tried to stress that considering things like 'communication inside and outside the church' and 'welcoming newcomers' are really just laying down the groundworks for the far more challenging business of re-engaging with the community of Swanvale Halt in new ways which will have to come later. I was tired out by the end of it, surprisingly.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Not A Dry Eye

It happens every year, of course - a cohort of children from the Infants School leave to go to their new schools in the Autumn. And every year it catches us all in exactly the same way. 

This year the teachers had discovered 'Friendship Song' from Out of the Ark Music's output of Christian or Christian-inspired songs for primary schools. Did they think about this? Did they really imagine anyone would get away without their lower lip trembling uncontrollably, at the very least?

Clearing up afterwards, I found an opened packet of tissues on a pew. 

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Having Another Go

You may have read mentions here of St John’s church in Chatham, where I used to live and worship. A correspondent points me towards this report from Archbishop Cranmer’s blog, not a place where I often go (at least not without a spiritual gas mask), in turn quoting thisone about the Diocese of Rochester, known in some quarters as The Troubled Diocese of Rochester, being given a central CofE grant of £665K to ‘re-establish mission in Chatham Town Centre’, a project which includes ‘planting a new worshipping community alongside missional outreach’. David Jennings from the Archbishops’ Council replied to His Grace’s blog post by referring to ‘a new town centre church’. There are already, of course, two churches available there: one called Emmaus, led at the moment by an Anglican priest and based in the former United Reformed Church building, spectacularly ugly but in the right sort of place; and secondly the lovely old St John the Divine which I knew over twenty years ago, an early-19th century church hopelessly islanded on the wrong side of the central ring road, which the diocese has fruitlessly been attempting to dispose of for years. The Emmaus website is a bit thin and there isn’t anything datable on it, so I wonder how well they’re doing: the Anglican churchwardens are names I recognise from when I worshipped there. As for old St John’s, it still sits there, looking rather sullen and resentful to me, as well it might, apparently wanted by nobody and yet not able to be destroyed thanks to its listed status. Is the Church actually planning to build yet a third building? Were it me, I would be tempted either to try and make old St John’s work (a romantic dream, I fear), or pull down half or more of the Clover Street building and put something nice in its place. But surely £665K isn’t enough for that – even in Chatham?

Friday, 15 July 2016


After another episode of horror in France it seems bathetic to turn again to the minor machinations of the Church of England, but that was the last news I had. Wednesday was one of those days when I went straight from one thing to another, two of which were Deanery-related events, Chapter over lunch and Synod in the evening. The Deaneries, if you don’t know, form the middle range of the Church’s organisation, groupings of parishes which are themselves subdivisions of an Archdeaconry two or three of which make up a bishop’s diocese. We tell ourselves Deaneries are terribly important but a lot of the time they flap around a bit in search of a clear role. This week Chapter was etiolated indeed with only six of us there (it was quite fun actually) and Synod was barely better supported, fewer than twenty people from across quite a significant chunk of territory.

We had been charged with bringing to the meeting an example of ‘best practice’ from our parishes. I and our Deanery Synod rep, Hannah, were geared up to speak about our Mission Planning process, for want of anything better, because we thought we’d gone about that moderately well. As the various attendants around the room took their turns what we were increasingly getting was not a single example of ‘best practice’ doing a particular thing but a series of descriptions of wonderful things this or that parish had done to evangelise. Strangely attention passed over Hannah and myself completely, and in a sotto voce consultation we agreed we weren’t especially displeased to be omitted.

The trouble with ‘sharing’ what you’ve done in a particular place is that context is so important in what churches do; this or that event may work well in a particular place and not elsewhere, and without more detail as to why a church chose a course of action and how it assessed what it did this kind of thing is almost useless. As we saw, it also degenerates into the usual self-congratulatory middle-class Surreyness. And finally, I couldn’t help thinking, why aren’t all these wonderful initiatives filling our churches with folk? If it’s all this great, why isn’t it better?

Wednesday, 13 July 2016


A few weeks ago I got terribly angsty about what to do over the conflict between accommodating our small Mothers' Union meeting and a potential booking by a theatre group. As it happens, the theatre group has decided they don't have the money to make a long-term booking after all so the conflict doesn't arise.

Meanwhile I've had another report of Irish Alan's death to add to the one I received last year. I think it's genuine this time. He's been living in a nursing home some distance away ever since his departure from Swanvale Halt so I'm not sure I'll have anything to do with his obsequies. 

You see, I don't make these stories up. They do develop.

Sunday, 10 July 2016


This isn't a poem, as I gave up writing poetry a long time ago. It's a protracted thought, trying to make peace internally with the place I find myself. 

I am a Dorsetman. And my beloved county
has a brutal and a sacred past.
The Romans scoured it, fired arrowheads into Celtic backs at Maiden Castle.
Cromwell’s men shot the local lads on Hambledon Hill
where I pulled up the ragwort thirty years ago.
Six grim souls sat round the oak at Tolpuddle
to talk about a different sort of world
where a man earns enough to buy his children bread –
and they still sit there as we pass on the Dorchester road.

I am an Englishman. And my beloved country
has a brutal and a sacred past.
Battered one by Athelstan in the face of the Danes,
it grew from the fields a law, a sort of liberty, that never quite died
and the Normans never quite grasped.
Red and red ran the ditches around Towton – the ruins cried with crows – and crowns got smelted
In that first black blast-furnace at fiery Coalbrookdale.
That, and the ships, the billowing wooden ships,
were what we sent around the world.

I am a Briton. And my beloved union-state
has a brutal and a sacred past.
It was always the means by which the greater duped the lesser:
and yet the lesser mined it for their own advantage
and by some miracle recoined the frauds of Empire Day and Flag
into a kind of good,
and clambered into spitfires to defend it.
Somehow we escaped revolution. Somehow we evaded invasion.
Somehow we let go that stain across the globe we called an Empire,
and made what was left work, at least a bit, at least sometimes.

My county and my country and my union-state
are not the property of the brutes and the deceivers.
At the very least I have the right to share them.
Those flags, those bloody banners, are also mine,
And you, you will not seize them for your own.
They have a different ancestry from what you think,

and a different future.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Abbotsbury 2016

I've just had a few days in Dorset, its customary loveliness only partly mitigated by the prevalence of nationalist flags. The Union Jacks lining the streets of Blandford, Dorchester and Wimborne can perhaps be blamed on the Queen's birthday, and perhaps some of the St George's Crosses in back gardens on the recent glorious progress of our national soccer team, but somehow I suspect that's not the whole story, and it makes me feel slightly uncomfortable. 

But I found my way to Abbotsbury on a grey and misty day to make my pilgrimage to the chapel of St Catherine, where I seem not to have been for some time. The mist invested the hills on the way from Winterborne Abbas, but cleared as soon as the road dropped down to Portesham. I was eyed by cattle all the way up Chapel Hill ...

and found the chapel full of birds, nesting on the statue-pedestals. The building rather whiffs a bit as a result. They were keeping up a heavy sussuration amplified by the chapel's deep acoustic, but shut up reverently as I sang the office hymn to the holy Martyr.

The upsurge in interest in the chapel and in St Catherine which affected Abbotsbury around Millennium time seems now completely to have died down. The 'votive deposit' in the little niche on the south side which used to be full of scribbled prayers and other offerings now has just a couple of dried flowers, shells, and remains of a candle or two (of course I left a prayer there). I can't remember whether the west window used to be blocked up - it now has an exceptionally ugly bit of board blocking it off. However there is still an angel in residence at the moment, just by the door.