Tuesday, 29 November 2016

What Happens When Priests Get Together

It's like an episode of Father Ted, of course.

- Were you ordained in Guildford diocese?
- No, I used to be at Wantage.
- Ah, were you there when Frank Frinton was there?
- No, he'd already gone to Birmingham by my time. My rector was Fr Bendybus.
- Is that the same Fr Bendybus who was at St Frottage-by-the-Gasworks with old Doddy Manhole?'
- No, there was a curate who looked like him though. But you can tell Fr Bendybus because he's got the, y'now, the thing.
- Of course, the thing, I'd forgotten.
- How could you forget the thing?

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Playing Host

Before 2013 it had been back in the 1990s that Swanvale Halt had hosted a confirmation service. Apparently the 2013 gig went so well that our Area Dean asked us to do it again last Sunday. It was a somewhat smaller affair because the whole Deanery could only rustle up four candidates as opposed to the 16 we had last time, but our new suffragan bishop was happy to come for that many, or few (she is 'keen to get out and about' according to the diocesan newspaper) and apart from asking to change one of the readings acceded to everything we would normally do here. That meant a touch of smoke and wearing my old gold Roman set to preside.

Bp: What do you want me to wear? I've bought my cope.
Me: Well, we'd normally use a chasuble.
Bp: Ah good, wearing a cope at the eucharist is really hard work. Have you got everything?
Me (opening drawer): Yes, it's all here.
Bp: What's that?
Me: It's a chasuble.
Bp: I've never seen one like that!

Considering the bishop is married to a prominent incumbent in the City of London this is quite a surprise, but doubtless when she does the New Bishops Course they'll explain the differences between Roman and Gothic. If anyone running it knows. I didn't mind at all, as our former diocesan positively blanched when I showed him the Old Gold Set whereas our new suffragan was blithely unconcerned. 

St Rita of Cascia made her presence felt during the proceedings only in the fact that our visitors from other churches of course had no idea what to do at communion (next time I will prime everyone what to expect), and that I, acting as thurifer, and the bishop had great fun with the business of passing the thurible to one another. She'd told me she was left-handed, so I tried to pass it the opposite way round to usual, but we got so confused we both ended up crossing our arms over in all sorts of bizarre ways, biting our lower lips to stop ourselves giggling. Jesus would have done the same. 

As ever Swanvale Halt did itself proud and provided a wonderful spread after the service. The bishop and everyone else who expressed an opinion were fulsome in their praise of the building, the service, the food, and the general ambience. It was a lovely party to celebrate four people's faithfulness. 

Friday, 25 November 2016

Ainete Ekaterini

The good folk of St Nicolas Parish in Guildford once more gathered at mid-day to mark St Catherine's Day at the ruined chapel on the hilltop and, unlike last year, I was able to join them. The air was pellucidly clear and blue - the few wispy clouds you can see in this photo were gone by the time we started. We were joined for the first time by a dog, and by the youngest-ever attendant at the service, Dora, who looked to me as though she was between 2 and 3. She was fascinated particularly by the turret on the corner of the chapel: 'I'm in the castle', I think she stated.

Earlier on I'd introduced the Swanvale Halt Toddler Group to St Catherine at Toddler Praise. One little girl fixated on the holy martyr's identity as a princess and her mum ruefully commented that she'd be having that conversation for the rest of the day.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Calling Who?

Image result for diocese of guildfordTo be fair, the Diocese is aware that there is something of an imbalance in the sorts of people who are training locally for the Divine Ministry. Actually there is a whole set of imbalances, but the one that most concerns us here is the great preponderance of candidates from evangelical backgrounds of different sorts. Too monochromatic a flavour to the CofE is deemed to be undesirable, so the ministry department has been gathering together incumbents from various churches they inadequately but comprehensibly describe as ‘central-plus’ to talk about the matter. I offered to host the first meeting, mainly because I knew the bishop would be there and I was keen for him to have an idea what Swanvale Halt parish was like. Il Rettore was there, all the way from Lamford. In fact there aren’t that many outright ‘catholic’ parishes in communion with His Grace of Guildford; probably about half a dozen, so, as I say, ‘central-plus’ isn’t that bad a denominator to delineate a miscellaneous collection of catholic, ‘floral-and-choral’, ‘high’, and not-quite-evangelical churches.

We chatted through a couple of meetings about what might be wrong. My thinking is that, at the moment, catholic congregations tend to be small and find it hard to develop the sense of excitement, involvement and wellbeing that bubbles over the top of the pot in the form of people seeking to explore a sense of vocation. It happens, of course, but not that often. Smaller churches are likely to be finding it harder to keep the show on the road (not a very Christian concept anyway), and so, on the whole, it feels less fun being a Christian in them than in a big church throbbing with souls. I suggested that if the diocese really wants to increase the number of catholic-minded ordinands it needs to pick a couple of likely parishes and work on them in the long term, put resources into them, send them curates even when they don’t qualify under the existing rules and subsidise youth-and-families workers even when they don’t have the money to pay for them, that sort of thing, and not expect to see much return for ten years or more. Of course they won’t do that, because it’s too complicated. The powers-that-be from the department talked instead about publicity and vocations events, the stuff they know they can do without shaking things up too much. It’s not just institutional inertia: they’re as overworked as everyone else.

At our second meeting the incumbent of one of the more prestigious churches in the diocese boldly told them they’d got all this the wrong way round (he’s long since given up any thoughts of being a bishop so can say what he likes). ‘We keep talking in terms of individual people’s vocations to this and that’, he said, ‘when I’ve becoming increasingly aware of the common nature of the enterprise. We discover our priesthood, if that’s what we’re talking about, as the Body of Christ together, not as individuals on our own.’ He’s got together a group of people who he’s identified as likely characters, not to fill any particular roles, but to think about how the parish might assist its people in realising their own vocation as members of the Body, meeting together regularly over the course of six months or so running up to Easter. The group (‘I wrote to 14 people but we’ve ended up with 12, coincidentally’) hasn’t got much of an agenda as such, and isn’t aiming at identifying people to send up into the diocesan system of vocations-discernment (though that might happen), but about affecting the way the congregation thinks.

It all sounds a bit vague, but I rather like it. It isn’t actually linked to any particular kind of church identity at all, but sounds like the sort of low-key, discursive and open-ended venture that could work well for the sort of people who find themselves in smaller, non-evangelical churches, and at least has more roots in the life of the Church than roadshows and mailshots. We have other fish to fry at Swanvale Halt at the moment – many, many others – but it will be worth remembering.

(And anything will be an improvement on the truly shuddersome images you can discover, mainly emanating from our Roman brethren, by merely asking Dr Google to search the word 'vocations' for you.)

Friday, 18 November 2016


A bit of a filler, today. A couple of weeks ago on my day off I went to Odiham, undeterred by the rain. Odiham is a large village with what Pevsner would call 'a main street of a distinctly urban character' a few miles to the west of Farnham. It has a castle which I went to see, albeit what seems like a surprisingly small one for Henry III's sister, resident there in the mid-1200s. It is very, very ruined indeed, with only the bare indications of windows and features, but the authorities keep it tidy and have installed a sort of steel and glass canopy in the entrance which looks rather handsome (though is hard to photograph convincingly, so I haven't).

And then there's the Basingstoke Canal, which skirts Odiham and provides a pleasant walk to the north of the village, and parallel with it. Notoriously the Basingstoke is often low in water and boats are restricted in how far and fast they're allowed to move along it, and although this stretch of the canal is navigable, several parts are very narrow and it doesn't look as though much traffic has been along it in months. 

In the churchyard at Odiham is a Pest House, a tiny one-room cottage where you were put if you were suspected of suffering from some appalling lurgy to see whether you died or not: I'd heard of these before but not seen one in the brick, as it were. And, on my walk, amid the tedious Union Jacks and St George's Crosses flying in the gardens of various tidy houses, I saw a bold-striped flag of blue, black and white, which turned out to be the national ensign of Estonia. One lives and learns. 

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Who Is Sent My Way

A middle-aged professional gentleman sits in my living room talking to me about his spiritual journey and his sense of being called to be ordained. I'm one of the local vocations advisors, my role being to meet with people who feel a call to some kind of 'authorised ministry' in the Church and to help them work out what that might be, if they aren't already sure. Most of the ones who come my way are from an evangelical background, some from a non-Anglican one and who have been directed to this or that evangelical Anglican church to be gently inducted into the ways of the Church of England. This man, however, is very much an Anglo-Catholic, which is unusual. He has a devotion to a rather obscure European shrine of the Virgin Mary, rather than Walsingham like everyone else, which is also unusual; his experience of Anglicanism runs the whole gamut from All Saints Margaret Street to St Mary's Bourne Street (a bit unfair but you know what I mean). He has by his own admission a somewhat rambling style of discussing any particular topic - our discussions are punctuated by statements such as 'how did we get there?' and 'what was the question?' - which is rather fun. I listen to him and hear curious echoes of other people I've known over the years, including me. 
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Later in the day Evening Prayer is interrupted by a young man who comes through the darkness of the church to tell me he's decided to become a Christian as a result of going to a Traveller-oriented church meeting some miles away. It's not convenient for him to get there regularly, so he asks what time our services are. I listen to him and conclude that plunging him straight into the deep waters of a Swanvale Halt Sung Eucharist is probably not what he needs at this stage, so I say I will make enquiries locally and get back to him.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I head off for an evening at the Air Cadets to go through the enrolment promise with nine new recruits aged 12 to 14 or so. We are wedged into a tiny classroom as I go through the things they will have to say. They're brilliant, actually, and I have a great time, quite apart from what they may think of it all. When I mention that when Mr Trump becomes President of the US he will also have to make public promises, they all groan and cough. It takes me a while to twig that the most articulate of them, disguised in short hair and identikit combats, is a girl. It's rather exciting to have a group of teenagers listening to my every word, no matter how inadequate and bluffing those words sometimes are, and I must make sure it doesn't get too exciting. They are not my cadre of acolytes! 

Monday, 14 November 2016

Mess and Un-Mess

This is my new favourite image of the church, drawn by Sofia for her visit to Messy Church on Saturday. I think the figure may be me, although it's not completely clear. 'I have allwais been happy when I have been to Mesee Church', she comments on the reverse, and she seemed fairly happy on this occasion. It was our highest attendance at M.C. for nearly two years, though mainly because it was wet and a selection of Toddler Group families agreed that they were going to come along for something to do.

Our Messy Church has evolved over the seven years it's been running. Intended by its originators as 'church for people who don't do church', we've never found that that is the case: instead our congregation tends to be a mixture of church families, members of other churches, and only a minority of folk for whom M.C. is their only contact with Church life at all. It functions instead as part of our children's and families work more generally, and there's a lot of crossover with the Toddler Group and the club we run at the Infants School. We've noticed over the last couple of years that the children are on average getting younger, which is probably a function of the fact that our Toddler Group has been doing well and producing more contacts.

So that was that. Sunday was something of a contrast as I was drafted in to lead the main Remembrance service at Hornington as the parish church is in a vacancy at the moment. As in most places, we start with a parade and wreath-laying at the War Memorial in the park and then go back to the church for a service. It's all fairly standard: town band, councillors, uniformed organisations of sundry sorts and varieties. It was the ATC's turn to carry the Union flag this year and I like to think they acquitted themselves pretty well. I have of course had a lot of relevant thoughts running round my mind lately in preparing my sermon for what's always the biggest congregation of the year at Hornington. I was going to allude to intra-national conflict and the need for reconciliation but gradually thoughts provoked by my recent intensive immersion in PJ Harvey's work took me back to the nature of Englishness, war, and how God's judgement differs from ours. This was going to be my Let England Shake sermon, although it would be unlikely that anyone there would recognise the submerged references scattered through it. I did wonder whether this was all terribly self-indulgent, but thinking and praying didn't result in anything else coming to my mind so I went ahead. 

A family I knew from Farncombe Infants were there so I could rope them in to begin the theme of how we think about ourselves and others. 'How would you describe yourself in three words?' I asked master Lee, sitting with the Cubs. 'Confident, chatty and cheeky,' he offered, having been coached by his Mum to say that and nothing else, and from there it was into the meat of the thing. I'd requested a lapel mike rather than using the pulpit - I do dislike pulpits, though we had one at Lamford, and for this occasion of all occasions which can so easily escalate from reverent solemnity into unrelieved pomposity, preaching from a pulpit is just too much. 

I think it was all right. Our MP had the affrontery to be complimentary, but then I suppose that's what he's there for and would have said the same had I read out a script from an episode of the Teletubbies. While I was on my way back to the car I was called back by a quartet of elderly medal-decked people who thanked me very heartily which is the memory I will be grateful for. They addressed me as 'Father', though I suppose I had been wearing my biretta, which I always do when I mean business. 

Saturday, 12 November 2016


Here’s a small diversion. I’ve just finished reading Pandaemonium by Humphrey Jennings, a compendium of extracts and commentary tracing the effects on human imagination of scientific and industrial change between the 17th and 19th centuries. Jennings was a leftish journalist, film-maker and critic who died in 1950 before Pandaemonium could be finished, and it wasn’t until 1985 that his daughter and friends managed to get a version published by Andre Deutsch; curiously the book looks older than that by about twenty years. My copy is ex-library stock, so that was probably where I bought it.

It was only when I’d finished the book that I paid attention to the inscription on the fly leaf. ‘David’ and ‘Charlotte’ were clearly two people involved in the making of the book, so this copy wasn’t just a gift but a gift of particular significance. There is, however, no hint in the text as to who they were: an editor, a publicist, staff at Andre Deutsch? How our lives move around and through the traces of the lives of others.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Cyrus is My Shepherd

'Guess who your niece found behind the car park at Waitrose today,' my sister texted me on November 1st. Knowing my younger niece's preferences my first thought was a fairy, and I hadn't banked on the real answer, Donald Trumpkin, as you can see in this photo. Like the real thing, this one is impressively orange-hued. Unlike the real thing, it can just be taken to the compost heap once you decide you don't want it anymore.

My Goth friends Amanda (who is American by birth) and Paul have a small son, Ryan. Amanda had a conversation with him yesterday:

Ryan: Donald Trump is a bad man. I'm going to kill him and his huge army and then I'll get the biggest present and he won't be able to cause trouble.
Amanda: I don't think killing is a good thing to do, Ryan. It would be better to take him away without hurting him.
Ryan: We could send him to the moon, but then he would make the aliens leave.

(When Ryan was a baby, he would laugh heartily at the Dementors in Harry Potter. He's hard to intimidate).

Yesterday, too, as we all struggled to assimilate the new world we are suddenly thrust into, the clergy of the Hornington Deanery gathered over lunch for Deanery Chapter. We gingerly tiptoed around the topic of nuclear holocaust ('I haven't given the red button any thought for years', said one priest, 'I'm doing it now') and focused rather on the chocolate cake brought along by a retiring colleague. One local incumbent pointed out that there were plenty of instances in the Scriptures of God using unlikely rulers for his own purposes. 'I really don't like that kind of theology', countered another. 'I'm not saying Trump was elected because God made it happen,' said the first, 'only that God can make use of anyone he wants.'

This is of course true, as far as it goes. God brings the armies of the King of Assyria into Israel because Israel has proved faithless, then crushes Assyria in turn by the new empire of the Achaemenids. King Cyrus arranges for the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple and gets called 'Messiah' by the prophets, no less. The trouble with this simple picture is that it was painted retrospectively as the Jews analysed their own history to see where they'd gone wrong and where God's hand had been in the events of several centuries: whereas we have no such perspective and are just guessing. We can indeed have confidence that (ultimately) 'in all things God works for the good of those who love him', as St Paul puts it in Romans, but that doesn't mean he actively plans particular events. We are still given the capacity to screw it all up if we choose.

Sadly, in a fallen world necessary qualities are entangled in a single human soul with facets you would sooner not have. More radically, those negative aspects of a person's character may actually be the reverse side of the beneficial ones (think of our discussion of the bloodymindedness of Phil Shiner and his ilk a few months ago). The times may call for a leader who perceives something nobody else does, and has enough self-belief to push a response through against universal scepticism: and only the Lord may know what that is. But alongside self-belief often go ruthlessness and arrogance, over time if not at first. Such is the business of the world we have, rather than the one we might choose to have.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Over the Water

Image result for death valleyAlthough I've got friends in the US, and American friends here, I've never been there. However over the weekend I was talking to Cathleen, who's just spent several weeks there on holiday, partly in California, but partly exploring the inland southwestern states as well. Things that struck her most included:
  • How dreadful the food is. 'God knows what they do to the bread'. My friend actually lost weight, which is an achievement for a holiday, because she couldn't eat much of what was served up.
  • And yet, the quantity of food given you. Cathleen went to a Thai restaurant and on being presented with a vast platter of curry she couldn't possibly eat, was told by the Thai-born proprietors that the restaurant critics rate eateries less by the quality of what's served up than by how big the portions are, so they feel they don't have a choice.
  • Apparent levels of obesity, and homelessness. 
  • How shabby a lot of the hotels were, once you strayed beyond the top-level ones in big cities.
  • How limited even the nicest peoples' world-view was:
- Where do you come from?
- London, England.
- Wow! Aren't you frightened to live there?
- Er, no, why?
- Because you've got so many Muslims there.
- Well, yes, there are some Muslims, and there are lots of Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, everything. We all sort of get on.
- Don't you have a Muslim mayor?
- Yes, I think he's pretty good.
- But you're not a Muslim!
- Er, no, should I be?

As I spoke to Cathleen, I couldn't help thinking that this doesn't sound like a nation at the top of its game: it sounds distinctly, if obliquely, like one in decline in a very deep way, trading off its past and not making a very healthy transition to a new future. This should be familiar enough to us in the UK, and puts current events in a revealing light.

Having led the world for a century or thereabouts, the US is sliding, relatively and perhaps even absolutely. We went through this, nobody ever talked about it explicitly, and we reaped the results in the EU referendum. Even Mrs Thatcher, who swept aside with energetic brutality so much of the old post-war world which had entirely failed to face up to the truth about Britain's future, was still desperately deluded about the scope of its options. As for the choice the States faces today, Mrs Clinton barely wants to talk about decline at all, probably because she knows she can't do much about it, while Mr Trump talks about it incessantly but erroneously thinks he can.

Not that the rest of the world is doing that brilliantly. Russia throws its weight around but its economy is hollow. China's period of exponential growth is over and it has to work out how to settle down to something approaching economic normality without poisoning too many of its people. 'Well, India seems to be doing all right,' I suggested to the half-Indian Ms Formerly Aldgate when we discussed all this. I wish I could recall the details of her scornful reply.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

A Interruption and a Privilege

On Friday I was up earlier than I would normally be on a day off as I had to go to the hospital. Whoever was doing Thought for the Day on the Today programme was discussing having a break from digital media as a kind of Sabbath observance which led me into thinking idly about clergy time off and the times I've discovered clergy taking a perverse pleasure in working for weeks without a break. A great priest of yesteryear who worked in Swanvale Halt declared that a clergyperson who didn't take a day off a week was essentially breaking one of the commandments and should 'examine his conscience'. Quite right too, I agreed inwardly as I drank my tea.

Just as I was about to set off the phone rang. I recognised the number: it was the son of Colin, who I saw in hospital back in August and with whose family he has been staying since he was released and they couldn't immediately find a suitable place in a care home for him (it's as well that Colin's daughter-in-law is a nurse). On Monday he seemed to be fading so I'd visited the house and done everything necessary: 'Thank you so much for coming,' Colin had said, having mumbled through the prayers in between drifting off to sleep and back again. This call was 8.30am so I thought I knew what that would mean, and so it turned out. I went round en route to my hospital appointment, prayed with the family, and with Colin's body. He reminded me of my Dad after his death, despite being over twenty years older. I was so glad I was able to be there, that Colin hadn't died when I was somewhere else or unable to attend.

It was hardly a disruption to my day at all, but salutary that straight after feeling so self-satisfied at refusing to do any work, I should find myself doing work. 

Friday, 4 November 2016

Sharing the Love

Imagine my delight when I spotted a middle-aged gentleman in the south aisle during Mass last Sunday inclining his head as the cross was carried past and crossing himself in all the correct places. Someone who knows what they're doing! I thought. It turned out that I should have remembered he was going to be there, as he was one of the churchwardens from Ashbury, visiting Swanvale Halt to collect my spare set (well, one of my spare sets) of black vestments. Ashbury is a small town not far away from us. Fr Charles, the Nigerian-born curate at the church there, is apparently stiffening the Catholic resolve of his incumbent and as a result I had an email a couple of weeks ago from Mr Churchwarden asking whether Ashbury could borrow a black set to celebrate All Souls' Day on the 2nd. I can not only lend you a black set, I replied, I can give you a black set: the one given me by S.D. when he retired a couple of years ago. I take deep pleasure in the fact that such a thing could even occur to you down in the darkest Surrey wilds. 

That made me realise that although I have long since shared with you my lovely black set from Parmoor Abbey (a whole six years since, terrifyingly enough), I have another lot that has never yet found its way onto this blog. So, as All Souls' Day has now just passed, here it is.

Some years ago I was trawling eBay for ecclesiastical tat, not with the intention of buying anything but just amusing myself. And this appeared: I'd never seen its like before, and never have since. The silver embroidery is traditional on requiem sets, but the Art Deco styling definitely is not.

I battled with my conscience as to whether I should bid for it, egged on by some of my Goth chums (especially one with an enthusiasm for Art Deco). I had a black set and didn't need another one. But look at it. Look at it. It is, as far as I know, unique. The Lord remained resolutely silent on the matter, as he usually does. Eventually, as you can rationalise anything if you try hard enough, I reasoned that if I didn't buy it, it would only go to some tat-collector who would keep it in a drawer. As it turned out, nobody else seemed to want it, so it came to me and one day I will pass it on so that it can carry on being used. At the moment I use it for the quarterly requiems at Swanvale Halt and reserve the Parmoor set for All Souls. 

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

An Abundance

We had three lanterns this year, decorating the wall along the drive. The little one is a rather shrivelled turnip; the middle-sized one that looks a bit like a psychopathic Minion was one I found wedged into the mouth of a litterbin in the village a couple of days ago, untouched and undamaged, so I took it away. The large one I left to Ms Formerly Aldgate to carve and thought at first it looked relatively benign, before realising it had a menacingly sardonic quality about it. Together they made an appealing little group. We had a lot of trick-or-treaters, children who I didn't recognise with their parents loitering in the background. The last batch included a ten-or-so-year-old dressed as a sort of zombie nurse with a zip fastener mounted on her forehead. OK.

Our customary visit to the churchyard to toast the dead was curtailed a little by the presence of a group of teenagers round the corner, who may have been the ones responsible for the trail of pumpkin destruction evident around the centre of the village next morning. That's the second year it's happened, which thereby automatically makes late-night pumpkin-smashing an Ancient Tradition that must be taken account of next time. Ours survived.