Saturday, 31 December 2016

Swanvale Halt Ecouerée

There was once a Lebanese rapper who went by the name of Clotaire K: I am no fan generally of that genre but liked a couple of his tracks I heard John Peel playing in the early 2000s. French is an ideal language for rap, lending the fundamental daftness of the form a profundity by its unfamiliar distance: it may sound less impressive if you actually are French, of course. Clotaire K combined rap and the French tongue with a variety of (literally) Arabesque touches which added up to something quite beguiling. ‘Beyrouth Ecouerée’, one of the tracks was called, ‘Beirut made sick’, but literally ‘de-hearted’: a reminder of the days when that once-grand city and its long, gradual disintegration was at the centre of the world’s concerns, a time which seems a long way away now. It was a startling image.

As buses trundled out of East Aleppo evacuating those who wanted to leave I thought of ‘Beyrouth Ecouerée’ on my way down the hill to church, just before Christmas. The buildings of this parish are so familiar to me. It doesn’t take a leap of imagination to imagine mortar shells and bombs falling here, blowing them to bits, eviscerating a community and the familiar signs and marks by which it understands itself: there goes the butcher’s, the old cottage opposite the cul-de-sac, the railway station, the church. Or the children at the centre of it, not just general, abstract children but real ones, the ones I know from the Infants School and elsewhere, maimed and damaged by mines and bullets and rushed to the Royal Surrey Hospital, a hospital made chaotic and dangerous as bombs fall around it, too. The children here are not that much different from the ones there. Swanvale Halt with its heart cut out. Or anywhere, it could be.

Of course Beirut, once as much a byword for horror and destruction as Aleppo is now, is doing OK these days, a place where people flee to rather than away from. A heart refound. Happy New Year. 

Friday, 30 December 2016

Holding On To Both Ends

Partway through the morning’s printing and copying, I discovered that we had no white copier paper in the church office. For heaven’s sake, it shouldn’t be hard to keep stocked up with such basics, I chuntered to myself, and headed out to the Post Office to buy a ream of 80gsm white. In the church I met Karly, who I’ve seen in and out over the last seven years. ‘I’ve got terminal cancer, I’m so frightened’, she blurted out. We sat for a bit while she unloaded some of the hurt. ‘I’m only 32 and I’ve got nothing to show for my life … I came out of prison and was really going to turn things around. I hadn’t had a drink for 14 months and now I’m drinking again. I don’t even like it. This is my punishment for everything I’ve done.’ Karly had to see the doctor that afternoon and then tell her family. ‘My mum knows there’s something wrong. How does that happen? I’ve got to try and do something good so people remember me well’.

I feel no more confident at dealing with these emotions than anyone else would, apart from making it clear to Karly that what she’s undergoing isn’t a punishment. I’ve told her to come back again and we’ll speak to try and work out what she might do with the time she has left, but I don’t know whether she will. For some reason this strikes me very hard, harder than when my lovely college friend Sean had the diagnosis which led to his death at 38. How do you even begin to assimilate news like this? How would I?

In the evening it was the annual Christmas service at Smallham Chapel (as in the photo), part of my routine even though it’s outside my parish, having taken the service, shockingly, for six years now. For some reason there were more people there than ever, and about 8 souls had to stand at the back. Lots of people told me it was their first visit, including a family who’d just moved into one of the farmhouses on the estate who all solemnly crossed themselves at the blessing, always a good sign. Two small girls played clarinet and flute for the quiet carols. ‘As a lapsed Catholic with a lapsed vocation,’ one man said to me, ‘that service and what you said had more real religion to it than many a cathedral’. And I hadn’t said anything earth-shattering, just the usual kind of thing about God coming to take part in all the mess of human life, born in the less-than-propitious (or sanitary) surroundings of an animal stall. But you somehow have to hold together children petting a sheep to the sound of a clarinet on the one hand, and on the other a young woman being told she’s going to die: otherwise religion ends up far from real, far from true.  

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Knowlton Rings

As the light failed towards the end of a bright Boxing Day afternoon we managed to get to Knowlton Rings, another of my favourite Dorset places, on the way back home from my mum's birthday. It's a site that invariably appears in any book or account of numinous ancient places in Britain, a Norman church strangely set in a henge monument many centuries older, the pared landscape of Cranborne Chase around it scattered with bowl barrows. Some will talk rashly of ley lines and earth energies, but what the thinking of the builders of St Michael's Knowlton truly was is anyone's guess. 

These places seem timeless, and across the years my photographs of them barely differ apart from the varying moods of weather and light: I have one from 2010 taken from almost the same angle as the above shot, with my dad just leaving the ruin. I was looking after him for a few days when my mum was in hospital, trying to find things to do that would distract and not distress his fragmenting, dementia-disfigured mind. Time does, nevertheless, affect these ancient sites, biting the walls and sprouting encroaching plants, but much more slowly than it does us, so we can imagine that they stand changeless, compass points of who we really are.

'I hope you don't mind me bringing you here', I said to Ms Formerly Aldgate. 'It's peaceful', she said, which of course it is. 

Sunday, 25 December 2016

All Over Again

Attendance at the indefatigable Crib Service was down a bit this year, although part of that fall may have been due to ‘accounting error’ – two different people doing the counting, one of whom tends to err on the side of generosity, and the other regularly underestimating. The other services were all up a bit, enough for them all to feel upbeat and encouraging rather than threadbare, even the 1662 Prayer Book service this morning at 8am, and a high proportion of the congregations weren't regular members of the church.

Every year I tell myself I need to revise the order for the Midnight Mass, and every year I forget as soon as it’s over: I must do it this year. The benefit of celebrating the mass facing east was revealed at the Midnight as the thurible came open while I was censing the gifts and sprayed ash over everything. The choice was whether to empty everything out and start again, or soldier on and cope – given that time was ticking I picked the latter, and scooped the ash out of the chalice with an extra host. Clearing up, I got to the bottom of the hosts in the ciborium and found a little pile of ash, which having again screwed up my fortitude I ate in case there were fragments of bread in it (rather than go to the palaver of burying it). I’m still here so presumably no harm done. Of course all this was entirely hidden from the congregation and you are not to tell anyone, especially not if they are wearing a pointy hat or a purple shirt.I am filled with gratitude for all the lovely people I am privileged enough to have around, the players who act out the Nativity at the Cribbage with such gentleness and sensitivity (especially when this year a collection of small girls came up impromptu to inspect the baby), and the servers and helpers who make everything work so smoothly despite me mucking it up now and again.

At four-ish, having been to the local lunch for those who would otherwise be alone (I escaped before Citizen Elizabeth Mountbatten-Windsor's speech), I got down to the church to say Evensong. I sat and prayed through the prayer slips left at the candle stand and the stars written out at the NCT nativity service and the Blue Christmas extravaganza a few days ago. A strangely child-like hand relates a prayer ‘to help me get rid of my fear of death’. Someone else prays for their father with dementia and their mother who cares for him. There are a scattering of memorial prayers for lost loved ones: one says ‘blessed are the broken-hearted, for they will be reunited’. A child I know thanks Mary for having Jesus. And so they go on, all the way through the pile. A few I can’t read at all and just commend them to God. For being able to take part in these prayers, ‘privilege’ is hardly the word. Merry Christmas, one and all.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Blue Christmas

It seems to have developed in the USA, the Blue Christmas idea: a church service that acknowledges that Christmas isn't all children singing and general loveliness, but is bloody hard for a surprising number of people, because of bereavement, bad circumstances, or many other reasons, all of which seem to be thrown into pitilessly sharp relief by the surrounding standardised mirth. These people still quite want to mark the season, but don't necessarily feel able to buy into the whole package (and 'buy' is an apposite metaphor). So many conversations I have with people around this time of year revolve around similar feelings, feelings which go unrecognised by what happens in church. 

I thought doing Blue Christmas might be helpful. I considered it last year but ran out of time, and this year spent a while planning how it might work. Using material drawn from elsewhere, including from an Anglican church in Teddington which seems to be the closest to us trying something similar, I put together an order of service, consisting of prayers, a couple of readings and quiet hymns, and made up a plainchant office hymn which nobody spotted was a made-up plainchant office hymn. I sang this with Marion our curate's son and despite my incipient cold and his lately broken voice which at the moment wobbles around tenor we managed to get through it, and the Nunc Dimittis. Another congregation member who is a very accomplished musician played the violin. I arranged the church as in the photo, the icon of the Nativity I mentioned a few days ago surrounded by candles and the benches arranged in a semicircle around. Everyone was issued with a paper star to write a prayer on, if desired, and these were left in front of the icon during the quiet bits. 

Marion thought it was 'the best Christmas service this year', which was gratifying, but it only attracted one person who wasn't a regular member of the congregation (who came 'because I heard you were doing it and wanted to see what happens'). It's a far cry from what the Teddington folk said happened there, where lots of people turned up merely from a few flyers left in the pews. It wasn't really intended for those who'd be in church over Christmas anyway. It may be one of those things that everyone says is a good idea but turns out not to work here even if it does elsewhere. We'll see what happens next year. 

PS. Marion took the order of service to someone whose husband's funeral she'd taken and she prayed through it on her own.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

No Blinding Light to be Had Anywhere

This is a very lazy post indeed as it mostly consists of someone else's words, but it's too good to let go by. Dr Abacus points me towards the recently-late AA Gill's account of his conversion to Christianity. I see it as a model exemplar of how to 'do evangelism': always be truthful and don't care too much.

"I am a reluctant Christian. I was once interviewed by Lynn Barber and I told her I was a Christian but not a homosexual . . . she didn’t believe either. “You can’t be a Christian,” she said, in her parlour maid’s voice, “you just can’t.” Well I can, that’s the thing with religion. Absolutely anyone can. “But you’re not remotely Christian,” she continued. “It’s another contrarian affectation.” What, like bow ties? “Yes.”

"I wish it were. Having a dose of religion, in my milieu, at this time, is as awkward and inconvenient as not having it in 17th-century Norwich. It would be so much more socially easy to be a vain fashion atheist.

"I was brought up by atheists. I honestly thought I was immune to religiosity. And I didn’t catch it in a Methodist way after signing the pledge, I began to have vague spiritual unease because of art at the Slade and that really was contrarian. I’d go and sit in the back of churches and feel wordlessly moved.

"There was a family friend, an Irish Jesuit and university professor, who occasionally took me out to lunch and I would confide in him. He was a radical libertarian theologist, which was exciting, and he said if at all possible religion was something to be avoided.
Who would willingly lumber themselves with a book full of medieval rules, superstitions and the possibility of an eternity’s agony by choice? Far better, he said, to adopt a general humanitarian goodness, be thoughtful, charitable and kind and trust in the benevolence of providence to see you all right. He pointed out that, statistically, religious belief had no actuarial benefits: you didn’t get to live longer, or have less cancer; religious people didn’t have prettier spouses, politer children, more sex — quite possibly less sex — nicer offices or better weather. They did, on the other hand, get guilt (point of order here: it’s the Catholics and Jews who get guilt, Protestants and Muslims get shame). And of course remorse.

"You don’t really believe that, do you, I said. “Adrian, I wish to God I did, but I can’t because the space is already filled with a belief in God.” I think I’ve got it too, I said. “Which flavour are you?” Well, that’s rather the thing, I’ve got a formless faith.
He said: “If you want my advice, go with what’s closest to home. Faith is ethereal, the practice of faith is cultural. If you become a Zoroastrian or a follower of Cao Dai, a marvellous Vietnamese Christianity that believes Muhammed, Moses, Louis Pasteur, Shakespeare, Lenin and Victor Hugo are all saints, then you’re going to have to learn a lot of stuff . . . and get over a whole lot of other stuff before you get to the good stuff and it’ll have very little to do with your soul.

"“Weren’t you baptised into the Church of Scotland? I’d stick with Protestantism. Actually, I think it rather suits you . . . low to middle. Anglo-Catholicism would bring out the worst in you, all the dressing-up would get out of control and you’d become an architectural pedant doing brass rubbing.”

"So that’s essentially what I am — a lazy, middle-range Protestant with a mildly pedantic crush on the King James Version and the Book of Common Prayer."

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Heresy in Unexpected Places

Image result for holy family iconFor an upcoming service I wanted, or thought I wanted, an image of an icon of the Holy Family, so I did what anyone in my situation would do and went Googling for one. Partway down the page of images came one of an icon defaced with a large red cross, as you see here. What’s that about, I wondered, and it led to this Orthodox website.

Their claim is that this image is heretical and has no place in Christian tradition. That may make you blink a little, as it did me: it’s quite a statement to make, as the picture looks entirely innocuous, touching even. But the argument is this: that it attempts to corral the truth of the Incarnation, that God is come among us and that human life is therefore transformed, into an essentially worldly agenda by creating an image of the eternal Son embedded into a human family, rather than a human family changed by the eternal Son coming into it. It makes Christ marginal in his own story, makes him the son of the couple called Mary and Joseph, rather than the everlasting Second Person of the Trinity to bear and care for whom their vocation is. The website then links this with arguments about the perpetual virginity of Mary, arguments which go back a long, long way (those who doubted it on the basis of some passages of Scripture were ‘enemies of Mary’, said St John Climacus in the 6th century), but I think these are a bit beside the point, especially as I don't have much of a problem with the idea of Mary having borne children after Jesus. 

It was a point which had its effect, though, I have to say. As I looked at the Holy Family icon I could see more and more what this faintly extreme corner of Orthodoxy meant. That image, of Mary embracing Jesus and Joseph embracing them both in an attitude of fatherly, husbandly concern, may well be what happened historically, but that’s not what icons are supposed to depict: they delineate heavenly, not earthly realities, eternal dogmas and not the fleeting accidents of what happens here. And in heaven Jesus is the focus, Mary is eternally his mother, and Joseph looks on supportively from the side. This is not an ordinary family, nor should it be reorganised to serve propaganda that elevates the human family into a religious principle.

So I won’t be using that image. Instead I found this one, from the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem (where better), and that seems more correct.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Duae Divae

Once upon a time I corresponded, via the intermediary of her agent, with Diamanda Galás. I wanted permission to use some of her lyrics in a compendium of Gothic culture I was putting together. ‘Ah yes, this is the gentleman who wrote that lovely piece about me … Of course he can use it’, she said, purring away, I liked to imagine. Phew. I’m not sure what she’d make of this.

I first came across Diamanda Galás in the form of her very uncharacteristic ‘speed gospel’ album from 1988, You Must Be Certain of the Devil, which I picked up at a second-hand record store in Oxford. That recording is pretty accessible, but I swiftly discovered how challenging the rest of her output tends to be. Nevertheless, I could hear a genuinely prophetic voice in her concern for people with AIDS and mental illness, or the victims of genocides the world preferred to forget about.

In case you don’t know, Galás’s masterpiece is the Plague Mass of 1991, a scarifying but spellbinding examination of the malign relationship between religion and disease which uses liturgical texts to align the bodies of those who suffer sickness with that of Christ in the Eucharist. I see it as a Christian meditation of profound meaning and importance. I’m also slightly and scandalously tickled that when I lent it to a Goth music journalist friend to listen to in 2000 she turned it off after ten minutes saying it was ‘the most disturbed thing I’ve ever heard’. I saw the diva herself perform in London in 2001 and again two years later: I felt as though I should have a medal really, with a bar for the second occasion.

My impression was that Diamanda had gone off the boil in recent years. I watched a couple of recent concert videos on Youtube which suggested that the famous multi-octave voice might be getting a bit ropey as she edged through her sixth decade, and failed to find anything new that she may have been doing (actually there was a bit, though her publicity seemed to be somewhat neglectful, and she is still performing – this year more than most). So I hadn’t given her much thought of late, though I continue to pray for her in recognition of her at-least-once-prophetic role.

I had no idea until very recently that Ms Galás had expressed any opinion at all about PJ Harvey. But, in 2009, I see, she remembered back to 1995 when ‘There were friends of mine, drag queens, calling me saying “there’s somebody who’s dressing like you, wearing your hair, studying your vocals, wearing your makeup.” At first I said “I don’t want to know, I’m working”, but then I went to one of her concerts. And I’m telling you, if you’re gonna do me in drag? You’d better be taller than me. And tougher than me. And you’d better be a man.’

Oh dear. It reminds me a bit of what Ms G said about Patricia Morrison, then of the Sisters of Mercy, another very inappropriate comparison: ‘she’s so much taller and fatter than me [I think poor Morrison is 5 foot nothing] and she dresses so badly’. But then you can find film of PJH being terribly snarky about Kylie Minogue. It’s more than a little perplexing that charismatic women musicians feel the need to scorn one another so and, even when they’re outspoken feminists, to enlist gendered imagery to do it.

The Blessed Diamanda’s friends were somewhat misinforming her, anyway: although she and Polly share an interest in extremity and therefore both inhabit corners of the great Gothic continuum, there’s barely any other correspondence between them on any level, musical, thematic, stylistic, or personal. That To Bring You My Love moment in 1995 marked the sole point of convergence, and that’s because they were both looking to something beyond them rather than one to the other: a Goth-girl visual rhetoric that stretches back into the past as far as Theda Bara and the Marquesa Casati, and ultimately to Romantic and Symbolist depictions of ‘fatal women’ in the art of the last quarter of the 19th century. Ms Galás might relate her black ensemble to culture and heritage (‘ever since the age of 12, my brother and I dressed like this. All my relatives in Sparta have these immaculate white houses, and then they come out and it’s black, black, black in the middle of the day’), but, really, no Pelopennese peasant woman ever looked like that. Maila Nurmi may have done, but she was Finnish. One reviewer in Uncut’s recent Polly festschrift says that in the mid-90s she began copying ‘Diamanda Galás’s rictus-grin’, but that’s not what Galás herself took exception to, and frankly as a singer you have to make some fairly funny faces to get the sounds out. She still does that, twenty-odd years later.

Never someone to love so much as to admire from a safe distance, Galás has not merely obscured the truth about herself but actively distorted it, making it hard to warm to the person that might lay behind. She invented a lesbian vigilante squadron, the Black Leather Beaver Patrol, which she would periodically claim she led, and gleefully informed one interviewer that ‘everything I tell you will be lies anyway’. So when the genuinely moving truth poked through the surface – the death of her brother from AIDS, as well that of as her best friend – you didn’t know quite how much salt to take it with. Was she really married to that best friend, or was that another piece of embroidery? Has her father really died in a road accident at the age of 91? That there might be a gap, or several gaps, between appearance and reality seemed very probable from an exchange in the correspondence columns of avant-garde music magazine The Wire in 2000 after someone questioned whether Galás could have studied the subject she claimed at the ‘Scripps Institute’ in California, at the time she claimed. This provoked a frosty, detailed, and clearly furious response from the singer, quite different from her usual dramatic and expletive-laden statements; but a very curious one, which, according to how you interpret the dates she gave, implied that she was an undergraduate at the age either of 14 or 10. Neither of which is likely.

This 2011 concert in Barcelona tells you everything you need to know about my current issues with Ms G. There is no mistaking the virtuosity of her piano-playing or vocalising; in that, in fact, lies the issue. The texts she musicalizes and the songs she covers tend to be overwhelmed by what she does to them. The first number, ‘Anoixe Petra’, is a gorgeous 1960s Greek laika song which she strangles with arpeggiation and vocal gymnastics (it led me to the original, much more moving version by Marinella). There are often absolutely luscious introductions to the songs (her version of ‘O lieb, so lang du lieben kanst’ a poem by Ferdinand Freiligrath set to music by Liszt, is a case in point) but then the Galás-isms start and the text is swiftly crushed beneath the pyrotechnics. Vocally, it isn’t that she can’t sing gently and intimately, but she steers away from it into a snarl that sounds impossibly comic more often than I suspect she intends. The set concludes with that melancholy standard ‘Gloomy Sunday’, in a significantly more mannered form than the recorded version on Malediction and Prayer (1998): this is an artist of unimaginable talent becoming, perhaps, misled by her own ability.

It’s all frustrating, because when you read Galás’s offerings about life and art, as in the 2013 lecture assemblage of poetry and essays, ‘The Mouth of the Crocodile’, it can be both interesting and moving, and you can see her point notwithstanding the uncomfortably violent expressions she sometimes employs. But despite her insistence on musical radicalism and the pointlessness of standing still artistically (exactly as Polly does), truth be told, she hasn’t shifted very far at all, continuing to deploy the same weaponry she’s been polishing for the last thirty years – unless there are subtleties this non-musician can’t appreciate. ‘Anoixe Petra’ in the Barcelona concert contains elements that are exactly the same as the wonderful performance of ‘Keigome Keigome’ on Malediction and Prayer. I know what she’s trying to do – to capture the incantatory and exorcismatory qualities of texts as a form of activism, as part of a conversation between the dead and the living, and a call to arms, which is all entirely admirable. But I’m not convinced the exercise really achieves that. Sitting at the piano, she’s entering the world of these texts, but can anyone else follow her?

A very interesting-sounding project on the extinguished cultures of the Near East, ‘Nekropolis’, never emerged, but Galás’s website mentions another work in development, Das Fieberspitalso I will do my best to keep tabs on that, and see what transpires. Her significance and worth transcend my queries, and I’ve been sadly neglectful of what she has to say. 

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

All Is Revealed

Related imageOn Monday, to the general amazement of all, my assembly at the Infants School had a Christmas theme. I talked about Christmas trees and what you might find on top of them. Remarkably none of the children offered 'a fairy': usually someone does.

'Who comes to visit the shepherds in the story?' I asked, only to have a voice shout out from the left among the Reception children 'An alien!' I blinked a bit, ignored that and picked someone else who gave the correct or at least expected response of a corporeal but non-physical intelligence whose existence is devoted to glorifying and communicating the will of God, i.e. an angel. 

This morning I discovered that one of the other local schools is doing a nativity play in which aliens in a broken-down spaceship do indeed visit Bethlehem, so the intervention on Monday is probably explained by an elder sibling who is involved in that production. Shame really, a spontaneous reimagining of the Christmas story along extraterrestrial lines would be so much more impressive. 

Monday, 12 December 2016

Wrapped Up

They were desperate for people to help at the Churches Together in Hornington stall at the town Christmas fair last Saturday, so I volunteered to go along for an hour. When I turned up there were in fact plenty of other attendants but I stayed anyway. We were supposed to be spreading the message of ecumenical peace and Christmas cheer by distributing packs of tea and biscuits from a Christian charity, tiny pots of bubble mixture for children, and wrapping shoppers’ presents. The ebullient member of the Roman Catholic congregation who shared my hour with me didn’t realise that most of the customers who visited us with presents to be inexpertly bundled in shiny paper and wreaths of sticky tape were members of other churches – I did – but eventually a few real people came by too. The very last, just as my hour was ending, was a young woman clutching a pink flamingo watering-can she’d selected as her workplace Secret Santa gift (an appalling custom which causes no end of angst and horror). ‘I was listening to a radio programme the other day which was saying how everything to do with flamingos is very popular at the moment’, I told her, a fashion of which she claimed to be unaware, having just grabbed it in a shop along the High Street. I decided that, along with my colleague, having wrapped that, there was nowhere else to go creatively, and I left to go and buy a helium-filled gold star for the nursery nativity service.ymnalHyman

Saturday, 10 December 2016


Some of the things that bring me satisfaction are perhaps a bit recherché. Last week I was unconscionably pleased to have done something I’ve been thinking about for at least two years. Just to fill you in in case you don’t know, the Great O Antiphons are little liturgical texts used in Advent. Antiphons are refrains used around psalms and canticles during the Office or Morning and Evening Prayer, often said but intended to be sung; they vary according to the season or the occasion. Uniquely, some time during the 8th century the custom developed of having a different antiphon framing the Magnificat at Evening Prayer every day in the run-up to Christmas Eve, based around the prophetic titles of the coming Messiah, each prefixed with the exclamation O – ‘O Wisdom’, ‘O Key of David’, and so on: hence ‘the Great O Antiphons’. In the medieval English Sarum Rite an eighth antiphon was added to the original seven, addressing the Virgin Mary – ‘O Virgo Virginum’ – but the modern rites are more Roman than Sarum, so miss that out and stick to the basic list.

The antiphons are sung to a single chant, but as they are prose texts and not verse the pattern is irregular and each one has to be separately scored and adapted to the chant. Now, the English Hymnal compiled by Percy Dearmer in the early 1900s provides a trad-language English text and arrangement for the Antiphons (and, as it follows the Sarum Rite, includes O Virgo Virginum): this may predate the Hymnal and go back to the revival of plainchant in the Church of England in the 19th century, but I’m not sure. What doesn’t exist, at least in any easily-accessible form, is an adaptation of the modern-language text of the O Antiphons, as included in Common Worship, to the old chant.

So that’s what I did. Surprisingly it only took a couple of hours plonking it all out on the piano, writing, scanning and typing, and here it is. As I say, I’m not sure my sense of achievement is completely legitimate given its tiny scope, but it’s comforting to have managed something, even if it’s only in the field of liturgy (the refuge of the idle, I sometimes suspect).

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Prodigal Daughters

Debbie, our ordinand, now knows where she’s going to go to serve her curacy, and she and I had a meeting to catch up last week. She told me how she’d help to facilitate a meditation session with a group from Al-Anon, the network supporting people who care for those with alcohol problems, working with a secular facilitator. Obviously this wasn’t about religion in any way, but Debbie suggested they retell the story of the Prodigal Son using an all-female ‘cast’ to think about issues of betrayal and forgiveness. They’d agreed they would stop at the point the errant child comes home, but the other facilitator ran ahead and, not actually being aware of how the story was supposed to end, as the parent welcomed the child and offered forgiveness.

When Debbie asked her about it, she said she’d been overtaken by some phrases she’d remembered and couldn’t get out of her mind: ‘Love is patient, love is kind, love bears all things, suffers all things’. She couldn’t remember where she’d heard them (my guess is at a wedding). ‘It comes from the Bible,’ Debbie gently offered, beginning a conversation about the Bible, about Jesus and about forgiveness.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

This Wicked Tongue Says

Related imageThis probably follows on rather well from last time.

It only takes a moment to say something stupid. Last night it was nothing to do with church, but a Christmas card from someone I know whose bland message for some reason prompted a mean, snide comment from me I probably wouldn’t have made had Ms Formerly Aldgate not been there, but merely thought.

It seems as though somewhere in me is a spring of scorn and cruelty that isn’t directed against anyone in particular, but which can emerge at moments when my guard is down. It’s happened before, rarely but mortifyingly when I remember the occasions. A lot of the time I can forget that it’s there at all.

I sit down with the Bible this morning as usual and read in Psalm 106,

      They angered the Lord at the waters of Meribah,
      and it went ill with Moses on their account;
      for they made his spirit bitter,
      and he spoke words that were rash.

I don’t know what it may have been that made some part of my spirit bitter, a long while ago. But it hardly matters: every time that spirit pokes through to the surface I pour a little bit of evil into the world around me. I can only thank God that this time only Ms FA was there and she sees the worst of me anyway and that, perhaps, I’m prepared against it happening again, at least for a little while. But sometimes it seems that I am no kinder or calmer than I was thirty years ago. 

Sunday, 4 December 2016

That Was a Lovely Sermon

Image result for applauseThis will probably come across as immensely ungrateful, but I’m thinking today about the business of a clergyperson being praised. A lot of the time you get thanked for doing nothing more than being there, and can mentally brush this off very easily as you know very well it’s nothing to do with you, really. You are God’s presence in that situation in the way anyone could be. But there are also compliments you get for something you have put some effort into and that feels more ambiguous. 

Today was the Family Service at Swanvale Halt, non-eucharistic and aimed at being more informal with elements of interaction and occasionally game-playing in the sermon slot. I had to arrange a projector and screen, discovered I’d left my notes at home with ten minutes to go, and was already feeling under-prepared and ill at ease. It all passed off OK, and people said very nice things, to which I reply as I always do, ‘I’m glad it all worked all right’. Anything which isn’t the Mass and involves unscripted speaking – Family Services, Messy Church, Church Club, school assemblies – I tend to find immensely stressful, even after ten years of leading them and even though nothing I do is really that demanding, and mostly I’m just relieved to have got through whatever it is.

I’m fairly indifferent to what people think of what I’ve done, as I know when it’s been good and when it hasn’t been. This morning, for instance, I covered ground I’m sure I’ve been over before and covered better, and it was far from cohesive. But what do I really want? Would it really feel better if nobody complimented me at all? Marion our curate usually gets a scathing and entirely unreasonable critique from her teenage son and that doesn’t sound comforting. What should I say in response, anyway? I remember advice from ages ago that when being complimented you should put the attention back onto Jesus, but it’s a challenge to do that without being weird. I have sometimes said ‘I just say what the Lord gives me to say’ but find myself putting a slightly sardonic edge on the statement because I don’t exactly receive my words by telepathy. Perhaps praise for the service as a whole is better, but that has an ambiguity about it too: what we ‘enjoy’ may not be what God wants us to take to heart at all.

Of course anyone engaged in any creative activity faces this. Only this morning on the wireless Adam Gopnik was reflecting on Bob Dylan, ‘a man who has known nothing but unimaginable adulation since he was absurdly young [and yet] who adopts a tone of aggrieved ill-will in almost every circumstance’ and concluding that ‘to idolise the indifferent puts us in touch with the first springs of love and religion’ and that ‘charisma’ means not the ability to seduce others but rather not caring at all about what they think. You produce some work: unless it communicates it isn’t doing what it’s supposed to: but, if you craft it to what you think people will accept, it will eventually collapse into mental and spiritual comfort-food. Hence the conflicted relationship with praise.

This gives me an opportunity to talk about Polly Harvey again (not that I really need one), another artist famously indifferent to what anyone beyond her immediate circle of family and friends thinks about her output. When she started out back in the early 1990s interviews with her were a journalist’s dream as she gabbled the first thing she thought of. She soon realised how damaging that was and became equally uncooperative.  My favourite example is the 1995 one with an unsuspecting Swedish music journalist who wanted to tackle her about her noted scorn for feminism:

Journo: I’ve just been reading Liz Evans’s Women, Sex and Rock ‘n’ Roll [goes on about it for a while]. Don’t you think any of that is relevant to you?
PJH: I’ve never really felt like a woman, I haven’t had much sex, and I don’t play rock ‘n’ roll. Apart from that, yes.


Journo: Is it true that you never interact with your fans?
PJH: Never.
Journo: Not even to –
PJH: No.
Journo: You don’t like interviews, do you?
PJH: They mean nothing to me.
Journo: Don’t you even use them to –
PJH: No.
Journo: What’s that written on the back of your hand?
PJH: It says ‘serum’. I’m not going to tell you what that means, either.

Eventually journalists gave up trying to winkle stuff out of her, and she grew less prickly, so by the late 1990s interviews were conducted more along the lines of ‘Do you have any other message for a grateful nation?’ Now she doesn’t do them at all. But unlike Mr Dylan, PJ remains impeccably polite even under insufferable provocation (such as being seated next to David Cameron on Andrew Marr’s TV show), and gracious if reticent in accepting the accolades that come her way: she manages to combine ‘indifference’ to passing opinion with grace, and unsurprisingly that’s what has more influence with me.

Given that I’m very sensitive to the danger of playing to the gallery, are people responding favourably to what I serve up because I am, or because I’m not, due to the 'adulation of indifference'? Having people listen to you, and listen avidly, is somewhat intoxicating and therefore dangerous. I suppose all you can do is keep firmly directed somewhere else (in my case, towards God), in the same way that Polly keeps the focus rigidly on her work rather than on the way it’s received. You can do that without being rude, though, and perhaps what I need to take into account is that what people say to me is a reflection of where they are: of their own receptiveness and grace, more than of anything I have done.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Some Different Music

We celebrated St Catherine's Day last week by heading out to see The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing at the Star in Guildford. Having both seen them before some years ago we knew what we were getting and wondered why they were straying to Guildford to play in the back room of a pub (there couldn't have been more than 60 people there - was it really worth everyone's while?). Still, it had to be done. The said back room, helpfully called 'The Back', is a long, narrow and awkward space for a band, accessed by negotiating the staircases and mezzanines of the Star's appealingly maze-like interior, but it meant we could loiter at the back and still see something. I don't much enjoy stand-up comedy, so I found Andrew O'Neill's warm-up routine only intermittently effective, and neither of us was ever going to respond to all the silly encouragement to the audience to bounce around the limited space, but the set was fun. The Men's lead singer and saw-player Andy Heintz had a tussle with cancer last year and is only just recovered, and has swapped his pith helmet and red military jacket for a bowler and tattered Dickensian urchin coat with a touch of makeup that makes him look rather like the Tiger Lillies' Martyn Jacques after a very late night. The new album, Not Your Typical Victorians, has a more political edge than their previous stuff as well as being more musically interesting, and I rather liked pieces such as 'This House is not Haunted' and 'Third Class Coffin'. I felt like taking Mr O'Neill to task on his lyric insisting 'Jesus was a Cockney (even though he didn't exist)', but I'm glad someone is doing this kind of thing.

PS: I forgot to mention that the audience included remarkably few visibly identifiable Steampunks. 'I thought all that business of sticking goggles on a cheap fancy-dress top hat had finished', opined Ms Formerly Aldgate.  Truth be told, the few folk dressed up looked more like Morris dancers than Steampunks, but it can be a fine line, I suppose.