Friday, 30 September 2016

Ahem, Ahem

Image result for larynxThe cold first showed itself last Wednesday week and has taken the usual course, declining into an annoying cough and persistent phlegmminess. Most of the time my voice is good, and handling it reasonably effectively is one of the few things I can confidently say I do quite well: not at the moment, as the attendants at the Day Centre Songs of Praise a couple of days ago can testify. It wasn't a very pleasurable experience for me and I dare say not for them either, as I croaked and wavered my way, with them, through five partly harvest-related hymns. 

Having a resonant voice is a distinct benefit and means that I start with an advantage in liturgy and in speaking. But it's a very vulnerable instrument. When I had my nasty bout of food-poisoning last Spring the repeated soaking in acidic body fluids did my vocal chords no good at all and I remained a bit sub-optimal for some weeks afterwards. 

The Roman Catholic priest who came to stand in for our regular celebrant at their Sunday mass a few weeks ago told me as he fiddled with his microphone, 'I used to have a good strong voice, then I was speaking at a retreat and began to get laryngitis. Of course like a fool I just carried on regardless rather than resting and I never quite got it back again.'

Doubtless the effect of this cold, like all those before it, will be temporary, but I always have that little tremor of doubt in my mind!

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

A Flash of Recognition

As Debbie sat on my sofa describing two churches where she was considering spending her time as curate, a strange sense of familiarity began to dawn in my mind. You will remember that Debbie has been 'released' by the diocese: released, it seems, high into the air to land wherever she will, or wherever she will that will meet the requirements of her family as well as herself. 'Curates are loved wherever they go, unless they make a complete mess of it, and God will bring good things out of whatever situation you find yourself in - you'll end up loving the place and the people almost whatever happens', I told her, 'so think about what sustains you and stops you getting lonely and isolated and how you're going to maintain those relationships. Your family is key and if your children aren't happy that will drain you too.'

Well, Debbie's account of one of these two churches rang peculiar bells in my memory and these turned out to be accurate. It was the former incumbency of someone I know (and strangely enough had written a letter to that very day) and who had to leave after a complete breakdown in pastoral relationships there. I remember him saying that the congregation had described their previous vicar in no complimentary terms, either, so I have some concerns whether this church has long-term problems (you sometimes come across churches that are dysfunctional in this way): however, Debbie says the current incumbent, who's been there for a couple of years now, seems to be doing all right. 

What a strange relationship it is between a Christian community and its pastor, and what a bizarre coincidence that I should know the very place Debbie was talking about (for once it's right to play long with the Church of England's customary game of Secret Squirrel by not letting on where it is). But, as Yuuko-San says, 'There is no such thing as coincidence in this world, there is only inevitability'. 

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Transforming Something

TCTL-GraphicIt wasn't me who was present at the Cathedral on Wednesday for the presentation about our Bishop's new diocesan initiative, but Marion our curate, who came back with a bag of gubbins including posters, bookmarks for our congregations, and a memory stick with a variety of publicity materials, ready to be handed over to me. Swanvale Halt was supposed to introduce 'Transforming Church, Transforming Lives' today, as were all the other churches in the diocese.

I watched the video that came on the memory stick, illustrating how various churches around the diocese were doing things to fulfil the development goals which the Bishop would like us to concentrate on, with unobjectionable but determinedly upbeat music in the background and some swirly but simple graphics. As is the manner of all these corporate promotional efforts, it has something of North Korea about it, a world in which everyone grins and everything is wonderful. The video lasts 15 minutes, and I counted that 6 minutes 30 seconds of it concerns alternative forms of worship of varying degrees of wackiness. Fifteen minutes later I was entirely demoralised and, with my usual sense of extremity, wondered whether I shouldn't just chuck it all in. Whatever I have to offer it isn't what the Diocese of Guildford seems to want, and it may not be anything the Church as a whole wants, either. I watched it again with Ms Formerly Aldgate: what was her response? 'Everyone's very keen', she said. 'Is this what people mean by evangelical? How is it relevant to Swanvale Halt?' The intention from the powers-that-be was that everyone should be shown the film, but I was little inclined to do so even though this might amount to mild disobedience.

The following morning I sat reading Nehemiah's account of the unreliable prophets trying to intimidate him into abandoning the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, and also St Dorotheos warning that an emotional person shouldn't be surprised by discouragement and should resist it. Enough of this, I thought. There was no point demoralising the good people of Swanvale Halt by confronting them with a whole set of initiatives that other churches had tried and they couldn't do: I would butcher the diocesan video, extract the bits that seemed most appropriate to us, and reframe them in a presentation which actually explained what the Bishop was trying to achieve. So this morning at the 10am mass I did so, and it worked quite well. At least the congregation now knows that there is a diocesan strategy to replace our former Bishop's less-than-fully-engaging one, why it's there, and how it might fit in with what we're doing here. People even felt enthused enough to take away the promotional bookmarks, thoughtfully provided in different colours so you can pick your own. 

But don't tell anyone that this was what I did.

Thursday, 22 September 2016


It happened to me in Lamford, too. Yesterday the NCT group that uses our church hall couldn't because we're having urgent plumbing work done, so they decamped to the church itself, perfectly happily. I said I'd pop down to rearrange the furniture and lock the door after them, and then come noon realised I'd forgotten. I'll cycle down, I thought, they'll already have gone so there's no urgency, and it'll be better for me and the world than driving.

Little did I know that as I cycled past the tandoori on the narrow part of the road a stationary van would open its driver-side door bang in front of me. I, and the van driver, were very lucky that I ended up with nothing more than scratches and bruises, and a buckled front wheel. I clearly landed on my left side, because it's that which hurts, but strangely I've banged my right cheek too and my cycle helmet is broken across the back, and I can't really account for either circumstance. 

It's so easy to do, and I can't swear that I look in the wing mirror every time I open my car door. Mr Van was probably as shaken as I was, and will pay for the repairs to my bike. 

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Oh Look There Are Children Here

Towards the beginning of 2014 we suspended running our Junior Church on a Sunday morning on what seemed the very reasonable grounds that there weren't any children. Well, there were one or two, but hadn't been any more than that for months. At that time it appeared that the young families who were part of the congregation had gravitated toward the Family Service we held on the first Sunday of each month. I reasoned (not without some evidence) that parents wanted to worship with their children, not hand them over to someone else while they stayed in the main service. 

This Spring we thought the time was right to have another go. A couple of years of more concerted contact with Messy Church, baptism families and Church Clubbers made it seem more likely that out of all those people we could build up enough of a group of regulars to make a Junior Church viable again. We'd begin modestly and relaunch it on the 3rd Sunday of each month. Part of the thinking is that, if you have young children and you want to come to worship, you might well conclude that the Family Service is the one that most suits you, but that's only once a month. Miss one and it's another four weeks before you can try again, and it's not enough.

We had six children on Sunday, which is plenty, and it made such a difference to the whole church. It made the Mass feel much more the offering of the whole of God's people in Swanvale Halt, not just part of it. That was something I hadn't expected at all: it's a ministry to children and their families, but also theirs to everyone else.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

You Can't Really Say That, Though

It was the funeral of a member of the congregation a couple of days ago. I wrote a homily and said how what I would remember about Leonard was his gentlemanliness and impeccable manners, and how they reflected a determination to assume that everyone he met was a decent human being deserving of respect, which is what manners do. That was true enough, but I found myself thinking that what I would actually, truly remember more about him are his eyes looking at me when I went to visit him in the care home where he spent his last couple of years. Leonard looked at me with the same kind of gaze I find in some of my oldest parishioners: and they look at me the same way as children do, with the same sort of perspicacity. They've reached a sort of purification, and to be on the receiving end of it is a blessing. It would be nice to think that we might, given the right circumstances, regain that childlike gaze when we are very old. 

Friday, 9 September 2016

Scandal among the Toddlers

Our Toddler Group reconvened this morning. I stood with a cup of tea observing the frolics and wondering which unsuspecting parent I was going to collar next and noticed that in the corner of the room among the detritus of play and infant disaster there was a toy church. I discovered this character, too, and for some reason found him unutterably offensive.
What denomination is he supposed to represent? Who wears a sort of pale grey cassock, and then a yellow stole on top of it? and how does he manage to put it on under his collar? I don't know, I really don't. 'He does look a bit stereotypical', commented Ms Formerly Aldgate when I showed her the photograph. 'In fact he looks a bit like the manager of the Oxfam bookshop where I used to work, only he used to wear a cardigan'. 'They all do', I countered. 

Even more shockingly, the toy church once came with a toy bride and groom. Somehow the bride has vanished, and Marion the curate told me that she originally located the clergyman shacked up with the groom in a toy castle. It just gets worse. 

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Giving It Time

Image result for society of catholic priestsWhen I had my biennial review it was suggested that I should get involved in some aspect of Church life on a broader base that the parish. Why not try the Society of Catholic Priests, my reviewer said. Now, the SCP is the pro-ordination of women counterpart to the traditionalist Society of the Holy Cross, and its priests members sometimes wear a little badge like the one to the left. It aims at providing support for priests from the Catholic end of the Church of England who aren't within the anti-women's ordination orbit. At least it reminds such clergy that they aren't entirely on their own, often in parishes that are ecclesiologically of a rather different colour to themselves. 
I've been to a couple of diocesan SCP gatherings so far and found them, well, less than inspiring. Folk have a habit of calling each other self-consciously 'Father' this and 'Mother' that, an affectation I do thoroughly despise when clergy use it among themselves. I know the point it's trying to make, but it's awfully precious. Although the SCP aims at mirroring the SSC, and its Rule has a sense of the Catholic disciplines to it, its style in practice is much more liberal (not that the SSC is as ascetic as it appears in theory): last night's do took place at Leighton church on the far side of Woking after a 'Rainbow Mass' which is dedicated to the LGBT community, although it's not a prominent element in Leighton's locale. I was tempted to say that go to some parts of the Diocese of London and every day's a rainbow mass. I actually feel rather more instinctive sympathy with my trad colleagues than the libs. 

So I trailed along last night feeling less than enthusiastic, missed the Mass (deliberately, I feared it would have grated on my nerves too much), and tried to miss the refreshments afterwards. In fact the Mass went on so long that there was very little time for the actual SCP meeting, but I dutifully sat with the six souls crammed into the awful vestry while we tried to get through all the business in ten minutes, and even with the secretary's determined recalling us to our purpose failed. I was very, very anxious to begin my half-hour drive home but didn't begin it until nearly 9.55. In fact, the SCP members are no weirder than any other group of clergy and after what I now see as a bit of an epiphany at the last Diocesan Conference which left me regarding my brethren as essentially as daft and harmless as everyone else, I might even get to like them. Leighton church has a lovely Lady Chapel and I sat in front of the Blessed Sacrament for a bit, so that was nice too.

Monday, 5 September 2016


We've been looking forward to the ATC Squadron's 75th anniversary for some time. I turned up to the parade in the afternoon to find that I wasn't obliged to do anything at all apart from provide moral support, so that was fine. I didn't even have that many remarks about my responsibility for the weather (it rained before the parade and afterwards, but not during). In passing the chairman then asked whether I'd say a grace at the celebratory meal in the evening: 'it seems right that we should have one', he said.

Now, you'd have thought there was a suitable RAF grace somewhere around that I could use or at least adapt, but a round of mild Googling revealed nothing at all. I did find the blog of a clerical colleague elsewhere with some sound advice on how not to offer grace at a meal; but nothing that was actually helpful. Consequently I felt constrained to make something up, which was something like this:

"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

God of grace, you ride upon the wings of the wind and make the cloud your chariot; look with tender mercy on all the business of this earth below, on those who serve and those who wait, and on this company gathered here as we mark the history that connects us. In what we share, both the benefits of this food and the fellowship of one another, may we be blessed, and tender to you the joy of gratitude, and the true service of the heart. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

It has a sort of pseudo-Prayer Book rhythm to it which rather pleased me. One can go either minimally religious or very religious indeed and I found myself veering towards the latter but did say to the multitudes that they could give thanks inwardly in whatever way they felt moved. Ms Formerly Aldgate liked it, anyway, though she was drinking her wine quite fast at that stage in the evening.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Not the Best

Me: How have you been today?
Trevor: I've been having a lot of problems with voodoo.
Me: Right, in what way?
Trevor: Adam has told me I'm under attack from voodoo, and I went to see a Christian counsellor called Jan who told me that voodoo was attacking me too.
Me: You've told me about her before, and the last time we spoke about her you said that she'd said that no evil influence could affect you because of God's protection, and you were encouraged by that.
Trevor: She said I was under attack and I know I am.
Me: Look, you know what I think about this, and I don't want to talk about it any more.
Trevor: You're a fucking idiot!
Me: Right, thank you and goodnight!

So that was a relatively short conversation with Trevor. On the one hand I don't have to put up with being sworn at (and feel resentful given that I am supposed to be cooking lunch for Trevor on Monday and filling out a form for him to apply for a grant to buy him a new bed), and I wonder how he treats other people who disagree with him, but on the other this is yet another failure. I should have told him, as I will do when he inevitably gets in touch again, that abuse is unacceptable, but even that arises out of his other problems. Today is the feast of St Gregory the Great, and I'm always haunted by blessed Gregory's warning that pastors all too often get into the terrible habit of behaving harshly to the weakest of the brethren because they lack the moral fibre to criticise the strong. 

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Melancholy and Passing Merry All of a Sudden

When someone comes to tell you they've had a diagnosis of depression, you don't expect it to turn into one of the more stimulating and interesting parochial encounters you've had in a while. A discussion of the Psalms opened out into a lively examination of the composition of the Gospels and the process of settling the Biblical canon. We went on for ages and it was quite fun as a matter of fact. Perhaps not the right thing to admit.