Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Resisting Vanity Fair

In the aftermath of the Referendum I wondered where the Church’s responsibility lay in responding to the deep division of British society revealed by the vote, something which seems to have drifted into the background over the Summer. It might be fruitful to think about ways of interpreting that society to itself, I thought. The other day I spoke to my American Goth accountant friend Ms DeathAndTaxes who swore angrily on Facebook the day after the vote that she’d disavow anyone she knew who’d voted Leave (which made me feel a bit uncomfortable as I only decided not to with a few days to go). In the meantime she’d been to an event in a small town in Gloucestershire and, looking around at a social milieu utterly separate from cosmopolitan, diverse London which she inhabits most of the rest of the time, ended up feeling differently, and more understanding. But there are deeper things that need tackling. What are the radical motors of social change that have brought us to where we are, and where might they be taking us next? Do we want to go there, or to choose something else? I thought about running a series of talks in the church from people who might have interesting things to say about where society is from specific points of view. But we’re not a town-centre church, just a suburb that thinks it’s a village, at whose railway station people stumble blearily off trains and totter home for a few hours before going out to do it all again. They may not feel very much like coming to evening talks.

More basically, I struggle to find a point of connection between my own lingering radical instincts and the prophetic role the Church is called to take on. It’s all too easy for Church life to be a matter of tea and cake, I thought at the Rectory garden party for new members of the congregation on Saturday, comfortable, decent, meekly falling in line with the world as it is. Where’s the grit in the oyster, the points of disagreement, the jagged edges?

I think – have thought for years – that they probably lie thickest around our modern relationship with work. Although as we all know productivity in Britain is woefully low compared with many other countries, work is the great fact of our lives around which everything else is adapted to fit. Most of us travel considerable distances to work and our home and work lives are sharply disconnected, so the transportation system has to be structured to accommodate commuting. Much of the work we do, therefore, isn’t about serving the community we belong to, and doesn’t contribute towards the development of human relationships. It’s a means of producing money which, we are promised, we can then use to pursue the things we really want to do. But so much of that is now consumed by travel and housing costs, and we have so little time and energy left over, and the community life within which we once used to pursue our desires is now so etiolated, that that promise rings a bit hollow. If we are parents we defer the fulfilment of the promise to our children: they are the ones who will reap the benefit of our hard work even if we don’t. Of course this is a fiction too, because when their time comes, they will be sold exactly the same bargain. We all know that for the most part our work is deeply unfulfilling, and so there is a minor industry devoted to convincing us that this is not the case, and employees who really do treat photocopying as though it bears deep social significance are given (equally meaningless) rewards. It’s Vanity Fair, brethren, and it's appropriate to think about these things on the day the Church remembers John Bunyan.

Of course someone benefits from this. The money goes somewhere. We are all working to support something and somebody, and you might question who it is, and the specious ideology of competition which justifies the whole thing and keeps human beings soaked in anxiety from their school days to their care homes. Yet it seems hidden, the complexities of the structure obscuring what is actually happening. Dr Johnson said a man is scarcely more innocently employed than in making money, and the Doctor is always right; but his society was not ideologically structured around work in the way ours seems to be. He was himself, after all, a profound practitioner of the art of idling about, and the benefits that flowed from it.

Being a priest (as I’ve said before) I don’t really work and am not really paid, so I’m not part of this business directly. More abstractly, the Church by its mere existence and doggedly insisting on carrying on the sacramental life of the coming Kingdom points to a separate scale of worth and values. But is it really enough for us simply to signpost the things of the Spirit and expect that to have any kind of effect, without pointing out the truth? That this is a society telling itself lies, devoting itself to idols, worshipping at high-places and Asherah poles? And when might we find it incumbent on us actually to ‘break the images in pieces, and cut down the groves, and fill their places with the bones of men’?

Saturday, 27 August 2016

St Peter's Hascombe

A church interior for you today. I've celebrated mass at St Peter's, Hascombe, which thanks to its great 19th-century Tractarian incumbent Canon Musgrave is a bit of an Anglo-Catholic adventure playground, but didn't have a chance to look around. The week before last I went back for a good poke about and even found the light switches which illuminate the dazzling gold on the rood screen. It's a riot of paint, brass and mosaic. The fish motifs are especially fun, and I haven't seen the candle sconces with reflectors anywhere else. The lavish interior is rather belied by the quiet and unremarkable outside.


Was the lady herself anywhere around, I wondered? At first I thought not, then found a list of the saints depicted in the paintings around the altar and there St Catherine was. She's right at the bottom, against the floor. I can't tell you how hard it was to get this snap. I wouldn't have recognised it as her, either, though that is indeed a spike of a wheel just below her somewhat frond-like hand. She seems to be hefting it on her shoulder which, if it's anything like that jaw, is well up to the task.

Thursday, 25 August 2016


Image result for l'aquila earthquakeThe previous major earthquake in Italy was the one that centred on the medieval town of L'Aquila and its surroundings in 2009. Yesterday The World at One interviewed Maria Spenati (spelling!) whose house in historic L'Aquila was demolished ready for reconstruction only at the end of last year, over six years since the quake. 'The reconstruction of the churches was first', she told the programme. 

Now, checking this bald statement is somewhat beyond my means, and, were it to be true, finding out why this was the case, who took the decisions over what to rebuild first, even further beyond them. But let us take it as agreed. Doesn't sound right, does it? 

There are reasons you can think of for prioritising the reconstruction of churches after a disaster. Historic buildings are the property of everyone, and the restoration of beauty and the signs of order is not a negligible matter to a community. Where a locality derives a significant proportion of its income from tourists who come to look at those buildings, too, it might want to make sure they are up and attracting them again as soon as possible. But, but, but. 

I love churches, particularly the one I look after, which isn't even especially old or architecturally distinguished ('George Gilbert Scott', ours is, in name, though I doubt the great man did much more than cast an approving eye over the sketch done by one of his juniors). In a couple of days' time I will do another post including some nice pictures of a nearby church interior which is thoroughly splendid. A devoted church building is a space dedicated to God: it represents in stone his promises, his presence. It is itself a sacrament. It is a good thing to have. But, in the Prayer Book's phrase, 'necessary to salvation' it is not. Christians can, should they have to, go elsewhere and take the Sacraments of the Kingdom with them. In some circumstances it might even do them a lot of good to do so.

'The churches were reconstructed first' when seven years later homes still lie in ruins, just doesn't sound good, however you spin it. It's not putting God first. It's prioritising something else, though without more information I'd hesitate to guess what it might be. 

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

The Risk of Caring

That doughty first-generation Tractarian, Fr Francis Murray of Chislehurst (though he was Rector of Chislehurst for so long that he counts as a second- and third-generation Tractarian as well), died in 1902 at his prie-dieu in his room: 'often and often, while men slept, the Rector was striving with God in prayer for the souls entrusted to his keeping'. I am a poor priest who drags himself often less than joyfully to his prayers, and less than prepared in heart, but it struck me while I was there yesterday how hazardous a business caring is.

Here I am nearly at the end of my seventh year in Swanvale Halt and I think of the lovely people of the parish who have died over that time. I also wonder about how my life will pan out - not so much my own mortality but how it interacts with the mortality of those I care about. Ms Formerly Aldgate is quite a bit younger than me so, should we stay together, it's more likely that she will have to cope with the loss of me than me with hers. But my sister is only seven years my junior; it's not impossible that I could outlive her. There is someone I feel much for (though I have never met them) and who is my exact contemporary, to within six weeks: which of us will leave this mortal life first? If it's them, what will it feel like to live in a world in which they are not there? I was speaking on Friday to my Goth accountant and friend Ms DeathAndTaxes and we touched on the speculations several of my chums are engaging in about the possibility of setting up a Goth retirement home, and considerations of mortality come into that as well.

I looked down my parish lists for my prayers, and knew full well that, by the time I leave this place, many of the people on it will have died. I thought of Brenda and Alistair, a humorous pair in their early 80s who live further up the hill with one of their sons, a quiet fellow who scoots up and down every day to the station to go to work and who I've never really had much of a conversation with. It was Brenda who told me she had a dream the night before the Referendum that Britain had voted to leave the EU 'and I woke up crying, and then I found it was true'. She photocopies our weekly news notes and Alistair checks the light bulbs in the church hall as he has done for the thirty years since he was churchwarden. Assuming I stick around in Swanvale Halt (and I have no reason not to) they will go before I do.

Being a Christian, at least being part of a Christian community, means doing the strange thing of deliberately opening yourself up to loss. As well as the communities of family and friendship which nearly everyone has, someone who is part of a church contracts a whole set of additional relationships. Of course as well as sharing in sorrows they would otherwise have avoided, they share in joys as well, weddings and the birth of children, watching them grow and develop. But there are risks even there: not all children make it through intact. This is the vocation of us all, the risk we all take and the privilege we all share, but the parish priest shares it to a uniquely intense degree, or should. And all this is only a tiny, pale reflection of God's involvement in our lives. 

I am a cold fish a lot of the time and I was struck by the description Fr Richard Coles gives in Fathomless Riches of the priest who was largely responsible for his briefish conversion to Roman Catholicism, Fr Derek Jennings ('Dazzle') 'for whom intimacy was so difficult, and who could be so waspish and sometimes snarly, but who was finally able to love people through his priesthood'. I certainly didn't really know anything about love before God came my way, and what I thought was love was delusory and self-bolstering fantasy. I still don't know much, but I learn, a little.

Sunday, 21 August 2016


Parish life in Swanvale Halt is simply a medley of extemporanea at the moment. Among these events is the Village Show, which I can't remember whether I've ever shared with you. It is the Saturday in the middle of August when the church is taken over by marrows, dahlias and tomatoes so red and shiny they represent virtually the Platonic Ideal of a tomato. Lots of people come in and look admiringly at them and we serve them tea and cake. It's called 'community building'.

Entries in the Show were down by about a third this year, for which there may have been several reasons, ranging from the weather, both generally (not a good growing year) and specifically (a deluge in the morning which possibly kept exhibitors away), to a lapse in publicity. In the kitchen the tea team muttered about young people not having time to grow things, and covering front gardens with paving. I'm not sure this is the case. Many of the winning exhibitors were relatively youthful. 'Best In Show', in fact, went to a young woman for a brace of glossy aubergines which, the judges opined, were awfully hard to grow.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Day Out

Something lighter hearted. Last Saturday the church provided teas and took Messy Church to the Swanvale Halt Family Fete, provided by the council, on the recreation ground. This is the latter. Sheila who co-ordinates Messy Church was very proud of herself having managed to recycle the crafts she did at the last Messy Church and at Toddler Group on Friday. 'Haven't we done this before?' asked one of the parents. 'Though I don't suppose it matters.'

Monday, 15 August 2016

Pick A Side

Image result for public interest lawyersWhen I heard on the radio this morning about the collapse of Public Interest Lawyers and saw the crowing headlines in some of the right-wing newspapers I remembered that PIL’s boss, Phil Shiner, had appeared on PJ Harvey’s act of assault-and-battery on the Today programme back in early 2014. At that point he was embroiled in the case which has led to his firm’s downfall, the claim that a number of Iraqi insurgents had not been lawfully killed in a military engagement in 2004 during the Second Iraq War, but were in fact murdered and mutilated while detained by British forces, although on the programme itself he was mainly talking about torture and mistreatment. John Humphrys gave him quite a hard time, as a journalist should, bringing up allegations which have proven not without some foundation, that PIL went hunting for claims of mistreatment against UK troops. In 2009 the High Court found that the Ministry of Defence had indeed investigated the claims of murder inadequately; but the subsequent public enquiry, named Al-Sweady after one of the young men who died, concluded at the end of last year that there was no basis for the claims and that the complainants were politically motivated. At that point the bubble burst: the Legal Aid Foundation removed its funding from PIL and another law firm which was representing Iraqi detainees, Leigh Day, and the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal is now investigating both companies, as well as Phil Shiner personally. The questions centre on whether PIL and Leigh Day did indeed scout around for Iraqis willing to allege that British troops had mistreated them, and whether, as seems to be the case, PIL even made upfront payments to complainants ‘in advance of’ compensation settlements. The mass of over a thousand mistreatment cases on PIL’s books will now, likely, vanish.

It’s an ugly business. But it shouldn’t obscure the fact that PIL brought to light the appalling death of Baha Mousa at the hands of the British Army in 2003, about which there is no doubt, and for which case Mr Shiner was applauded by Liberty and the Law Society. Neither should people overlook the Al-Sweady enquiry’s conclusion that Iraqi detainees were indeed maltreated in exactly the same ways that eventually led to the death of Baha Mousa, even if the most lurid accusations were untrue.

‘You’re making a good living at this, aren’t you?’ John Humphrys challenged Mr Shiner on Today. He doesn’t, it seems to me, look as though that’s his motivation. He looks to me like an awkward bugger, a belligerent and unreasonable fellow at least as far as his work is concerned. I was put rather in mind of the collapse of Kids Company and its parallel sucking-in of taxpayers’ money to do profoundly good work which never quite achieved what it was supposed to. I was also put in mind of the thought that sometimes occurs to me, that it's only unreasonable people who ever really achieve anything.

What’s really going on in these sorts of scandals? It seems a shame that they blow up and then disappear, and that nobody is really interested in uncovering the truth. We rather expect the Right to turn up scoundrels and bastards, and are unsurprised when it happens. The fall of liberal-leftish campaigners uncovers nerves, however: it represents a collapse of our ideals. It could be the case that such people begin with high aspirations and are somehow misled by them, deluded by great successes into a self-enclosed, self-confirming pattern of thinking which assumes that one is acting in the interests of truth and justice and that one’s more questionable deeds will one day be vindicated by the greater good. Unreasonable people have fewer inner constraints than the rest of us. It could be, alternatively, that they really are frauds and deceivers, duping the idealistic and the trusting in their own interest. It would be very, very helpful to know which.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Black, Black, Black

"Aren't you hot, wearing all black?" people say to me in the summer. Depending on the mood I'm in, I will say either "Oh, yes" in a cheerfully disarming way, as though it was absurd to imagine any differently, or conversely claim that I'm impervious to heat. I think my interlocutors sometimes imagine I am obliged to wear black, which is of course not the case. Marion our curate will wear a black shirt a lot of the time, although for Toddler Group and other such occasions she adopts a variety of amiable sweaters which are doubtless supposed to suggest warmth and approachability but some of which I find a bit challenging. Dr Bones's father, the estimable vicar of Oakington, hardly ever wears clerical gear of any kind, as he says everyone in the village knows him anyway; evangelical clergy like him are much more likely than Anglo-Catholics to adopt a less monochrome dress code, although the great Fr Maurice Child of Cranford scorned clerical dress too. Most of his parish is now under Heathrow Airport (I'm not claiming there's a causal connection). 

In my Lamford days Il Rettore once shared with me SJ Forrest's rhyme 'A Clergyman in Black':

I never, never like to see
A clergyman in black.
It speaks of dark disloyalty,
And clandestine attack;
Of sabotage, conspiracy,
And stabbings in the back.

This black fanaticism bears
The label of the Beast;
An aping of the Romanists,
A masquerade at least,
That makes a clergyman appear
A veritable priest.

Though ministers are difficult
To sift and classify,
I find the deeds of darkness
In the men of deepest dye;
And those in black are normally
So very, very High.

Although I do not like High Church
I'd stomach one or two
(The Church of England's big enough
To tolerate a few).
If only they would not behave
As if their faith were true.

A clergyman in corduroys
Or dressed in Harris tweed,
Will generally compromise,
And readily accede;
His safety and his sympathy,
Are wholly guaranteed.

So let us warn our ordinands
Of folly and excess,
And only pass the ministers
Who honestly profess
A variegated churchmanship,
In varicoloured dress.

I have worn uniform black since the age of 18 or thereabouts and wouldn't feel very comfortable in anything else, although in my middle age I have become quite enamoured of striped shirts and ties in a variety of hues. It is of course the case that black garb speaks of the otherness of the ordained life, which is a point worth making even in an orderly village, but I probably would have chosen it anyway.

'I think the jacket and waistcoat are more likely to make you hot than the fact that they're black', said Ms Formerly Aldgate. She is as usual right.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Mutual Aid

Who would have anticipated that the most pleasing event in my work recently would have been visiting two old gentlemen in hospital?

I've been to see Colin many times and told you about one of them before. Now he is in a different hospital and waiting to go to an environment where he can be looked after a bit better than at home. 'Have I told you before how lucky I am? Made it to 94', he said. I noticed a lovely art card on his bedside table, brought by a couple of friends. I suspected it was Dorset, and so it was, Charmouth beach to be precise. 'It reminds me of holidays', said Colin.

Round the corner in another ward was Keith who is a bit more confused than Colin but is also ready to go, provided somewhere appropriate can be found for him. I discovered on this visit (the hospital social worker happened to be there) that he has a nephew who will help to sort things out. 

I was so grateful to be able to see Colin and Keith. There's nothing very explicitly churchy about these encounters, though we pray in very short and simple order and say the Lord's Prayer. What else is needed? My visits help to keep them part of the community, but then they perform the same office for me, don't they?

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

St Catherine at Arundel

On my day off last Thursday I went to Arundel, a place I hadn't visited in 30 years. At the east end of the Anglican parish church you can peek into the Fitzalan Chapel, the private chapel of the Catholic Dukes of Norfolk which is only accessible via the Castle. The east window of the chapel is a riotous Victorian catalogue of holy people (plus the then Duke and his family), and, lo and behold, blessed Catherine the Martyr is among them, complete with wheel and massive sword. The child next to her is probably not, as I first thought, a cherub thoughtfully holding her martyr's palm for her, but one of the Holy Innocents and his palm rightly belongs to him.

Catherine, like the rest of the assembled company, is supposed to be gazing rapt at Our Saviour in the centre of the window. 'She's rolling her eyes,' commented Ms Formerly Aldgate. 'She looks incredibly bored.' 'I think that's supposed to be piety rather than boredom,' I suggested, 'but it's often a fine line.'

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Medieval Mondegreen

One goes through cycles in listening to music, and I realised that had been ages since I paid attention to any of the lovely output of the Dufay Collective, the early-music ensemble who I once went to see in Leicester. Hiding on my iPod is a slightly less than clear recording of the title theme to a BBC TV programme about the art of the Middle Ages which the Dufays provided and which I taped using the very unsophisticated equipment available to me back in 1991 or thereabouts: it’s a rather luscious, yearning carol in honour of the Virgin Mary of which I have another version too, recorded by the York Waits – that one sounds very different, and probably more authentic. The lyric was one of the things that played on my mind and found its way into the thinking that led to my conversion to Christianity a few years later. ‘Sprong the blossom upon the root, the Holy Ghost he rest upon’ was what I heard. What a beautiful idea: the tree blossom being the sign of the Holy Spirit, a vision of the Incarnation which went beyond Christmas and everything that went along with it, and incorporated the natural world as well.

Yesterday I managed to work out what that song is: it’s a well-known carol which goes under the title of ‘Edi Beo Thu Hevene Quene’, which has been recorded by a variety of groups. Once I knew what it was, of course, I could find out what the text actually was:

Spronge blostme of one rote,
The Holi Gost thee reste upon

So the Holy Spirit is not resting on the blossom at all, but on the Virgin herself, which is of course much more sensible and orthodox. The spring blossom itself is the Virgin, sprung of the ‘one root’ which is the ancestry of Jesse.

Of course this mistake of mine doesn’t really matter now. However much in error I may have been about this particular text, I now know the Holy Spirit really does rest on the blossom, as he does everywhere. 

Friday, 5 August 2016


Image result for house clipartThe email read 'This comes from a stranger ... Jack and Sarah Bradley suggested I contact you ... Could you find space in your vicarage or another home for a Nigerian Christian family who are having to move out of where they're staying?' Parents and three secondary-school-age children, who want to stay in the UK until April when the eldest daughter finishes her GCSEs. It was so specifically directed at me I didn't feel I could just shrug it off. 'Another home' was a non-starter: I don't know any Swanvale Halters with that much space. It was up to me to say yes or no.

I should have said no to start with, and instead spent several days trying to find ways of avoiding saying it, all of which have so far run into the sand. My spiritual director advised that I should in no circumstances say yes; I countered that one could argue it would be spiritually good for me, a suggestion to which he replied in very succinct and definite terms - in a single word, in fact. The archdeacon was more restrained, remarking guardedly that it would 'not be appropriate', which I think is probably code for calling attention to safeguarding issues. Of course I prayed about it, but to say that is to run the risk of doing what Christians so often do of roping in God to rubber-stamp what they had every intention of doing anyway. I know that in this case as in many others it seems 'the Lord does not answer by Urim or by Thummim or by dreams' (how I sympathise with poor King Saul), and though he commonly speaks through other people I don't necessarily swallow whole what those others say.

So I eventually replied to say No. I've had single lodgers here before, I offered a home to a couple of friends who it looked might face homelessness at the start of this year, and I might even manage to cohabit with a couple and a small child. But five largish people would occupy the whole house and make me the guest here. The necessary negotiations would be more stress than I can face on top of work.

What I've offered to do is augment the family's income so they may be able to afford to rent something more appropriate. This will require pulling our horns in quite significantly until the middle of next year, but even so I know that effectively it's paying a problem to go away, a sort of spiritual Danegeld.  

I barely know Jack and Sarah Bradley, by the way. I wonder how they ended up volunteering me?

Wednesday, 3 August 2016


The loft at church has been in a dreadful state for quite some time, and last Saturday we had a clear-up. In the course of this, young Carl who often comes up with bright ideas suggested that we move the boxes of books awaiting sale at the next Spring Fair down from the loft, where they are inaccessible and probably overloading the floor, down to the North Vestry. It took quite a long while and left me feeling a bit shaky, but they fitted in there rather neatly. However, that involved also clearing out some other junk, or at least what I thought of as junk, in boxes in the vestry: six brass vases, a metal finial, a pair of missal stands, a wooden cross, and a little prie-dieu whose penitential character consisted not only of the fact that of course you kneel at it but also its extremely uncomfortable narrowness. To these were added a dreadful parian statue of Our Lord which was once at least sound, if not exactly appealing, but which suffered a fall from the vestment chest during a break-in in about 1995 and was repaired in a somewhat rough-and-ready manner. They are the kind of things churches acquire over the years. The churchwardens were not averse to me disposing of them.

This morning I carted them all in the boot to Church Antiques in Walton, one of my favourite places in all the world. Mr Church Antiques cast a kindly eye over the vases, for which he was prepared to offer us 'Not quite nothing but close to it', and winced at the statue. 'That looks like wood glue,' he suggested. 'That's ... a project.' 'The prie-dieu is nice but we've got quite a lot of them.' As I rather suspected, the missal stands were 'the stars' of the batch (and the only items I was tempted to keep) and justified the bulk of the cheque for the PCC I got in return for their acceptance.

It goes against the grain to get rid of anything, but even those nice brass missal stands were just catalogue-bought stuff even in their prime, and we haven't used them in forty years to say the least. Even they are one element of the past I am not sorry to discard. 

I was so ashamed of the little plaster crib figures I didn't even get the box out of the boot.

Monday, 1 August 2016

The Dark House Revisited

It's nearly seven years since I discovered the dark, derelict house at the top of the hill. Then, the back door was open and I was able to wander around inside until I got too spooked and decided to leave. 

My travels had not taken me back along the footpath until last Thursday, a similarly drizzly and dull day to my first visit. The Dark House is now ringed with steel fencing and the gardens, such as they can be seen, are seven years more overgrown. I'd heard that the building had been bought for quite a considerable sum, but nothing is happening to it yet. Its austere 1930s brown-brick beauty is even more sad and run-down now.