Thursday, 22 June 2017

Emergency

On Sunday the priest in charge of St Clement’s, North Kensington, was interviewed on the radio, describing the lack of contact his church, and other places of worship, had from the local authority while caring for those affected by the fire at Grenfell Tower over the previous few days. When a disastrous event occurs, places of worship have an assumed place in helping to deal with the aftermath. They provide space, shelter, and ready-to-hand networks of people to channel effort. What they lack is strategic oversight of whatever the event is: that needs to come from elsewhere, from a statutory body.

In 1968 we had floods in this part of Surrey. The then new-ish incumbent of Swanvale Halt church, Father Barlow, took to a dinghy to pluck residents out of their homes and take them to safety, and this did public perception of him no harm at all – he’d previously been viewed as a slightly dangerous Anglo-Catholic extremist who wanted to make the services at the church invisible with incense-smoke. People remembered it for a long time: I wish there’d been photographs taken. When we had (somewhat less serious) floods a few years ago, as a church we had no direct involvement, although one of our pastoral assistants worked very closely with groups of local residents campaigning about the painfully slow refurbishment of their flooded homes. Nevertheless we recalled the story of Fr Barlow and wondered what we should do as a church to respond more directly to any such event in the future. We discovered that almost every public space in the vicinity is registered with the local Council as a ‘designated place of assembly’ and there are also emergency generators round about too, so that puts any effort we might provide into perspective.

The point is that the local authority has, as it’s supposed to have, a plan to manage emergencies and in this part of Surrey that certainly includes interaction with the voluntary bodies in the area, such as churches. It happens here: why not in a western district of central London?

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Getting Together

There’s a new cherry tree in the church garden, with a new brass plaque next to it, provided by one of our local firms of undertakers. In years to come, I wonder whether people will think that Jo Cox, who the plaque mentions, was our MP. Will anyone long remember what happened to her in the summer of 2016, in the hot days before the UK voted to leave the European Union?

The series of events in commemoration of Ms Cox went under the title of the Great Get Together and the branding was a work of genius. The Gill Sans lettering subconsciously recalls Keep Calm and Carry On and any number of wartime propaganda posters, and is laid out against a red-and-white chequer tablecloth. You can find endless photographs online from the weekend of communities up and down the land taking part in the event, usually with a lady or two in a hijab to make the point that this includes everyone: the whole of England, united by what else but tea and cake, that alchemical universal solvent that takes different races, cultures and background and makes a nation of them. I strike a slightly ironic tone, but don’t mean to inject any note of cynicism: I know it’s about aspiration, about saying (as Jo Cox did, blandly but unchallengeably) ‘Far more unites us than divides us’; even when what divides us is actually very important indeed.

We are not quite so multicultural in Swanvale Halt. The event here was driven by a couple of members of the congregation with a long involvement in local politics from the liberal-leftward direction, so I didn’t have much to do with its planning. We had tea, dedicated the tree (for which I had to devise a tiny liturgy as there doesn’t seem to be anything available even in the Rituale Romanum), and went into the church for some apposite readings and hymns. The local choral society sang Fauré’s ‘Cantique de Jean Racine’. A church member in his early 90s talked about why he’d chosen ‘Father I give into your hands’ as his hymn: ‘I thought, We all have to rely on someone else, and this hymn is about that, in a way’.

It is of course true, all the community-togetherness stuff, and true too that ‘more unites us than divides us’. But I thought about the business round the corner, run by a young mum whose children go to the infants school, that recently had to close down after getting going with such aspiration and optimism, because the landlord lost patience with not receiving the full rent – and had a better offer for the site from a property developer. The landlord also lives in the area, is part of exactly the same ‘community’ as the people involved in the business. Sometimes what unites us only goes so far when you’re up against the facts of economics and of power.

It’s not that such conflicts of interest illegitimate events like the Great Get Together: they are liturgies of what we want to be. It’s just that it isn’t that simple: community needs hard work, if only the hard work of mutual interaction and listening; it needs people, structures, and sometimes sacrifice. It needs the diligent, careful cultivation of hope and trust. We all have to look after the cherry trees.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Father's Day

We never went in much for Father's Day in our family: my dad dismissed it as American nonsense (which it isn't really). I didn't think anyone much did but now I find people mentioning it more and more.

Outside church times (of which there have been a lot), my dad has come into my mind more than usual. This is his old sovereign ring, which I can't wear, not that I like rings a lot anyway: if it were to slip over the weir of the knuckle of my ring finger it probably wouldn't go back. But it's the object that reminds me most of him.

Even five years after he died, my feelings about my dad remain ambiguous. I never talked to him as much as I should have, and by the time I felt I really wanted to, Alzheimer's disease was taking its hold on him and there was little he could say. He appears in my dreams now and again, and he is never ill in those, but that restoration seems to bring with it no sense of pleasure - instead there's a vague apprehension, a subterranean awareness that something isn't right. Even in my waking recollection, there's a distance which isn't just the separation of memory, but something which I find hard to fathom. I was too different from him, probably. For the most part, I keep coming back to the unkindness of his death and the life he led for some time before it. He was a good man who should have got better for it. 

Friday, 16 June 2017

No Smooth Faith

Usually I go to visit my spiritual director in the afternoon, but our date yesterday was fixed for 11 so from Mattins I had to tear across the rail bridge from the church to catch the train, panting and gasping after my recent bug (on Wednesday I could barely drag myself out of bed, and Ms Formerly Aldgate has had three days off work this week - we share these things, you see). S.D. is fine and we actually discussed some vaguely spiritual matters as well as the discomfiture of the Government, the unsustainability of the Church's position on same-sex relationships, and the Grunewald Altarpiece, which he has just seen. We didn't touch on the Kensington fire and its aftermath, but the site is two bare miles from where we were sitting - even though London miles seem longer than miles anywhere else because they have so much crammed into them, I felt oddly aware of that smoking ruin.

On the train I'd been reading Dame Felicitas Corrigan's biography of Helen Waddell, someone I will be talking about here quite soon. Dame Felicitas deals with the generally ecstatic reception given to Waddell's 1933 novel Peter Abelard. One passage of the book, where Abelard the theologian finally learns the nature of the Atonement through a dying rabbit caught in a trap, has found its way into Christian spiritual writing. But that's by-the-by for now. One of the most perceptive critics of the book, says Dame Felicitas, was the German Catholic writer Ida Gorres, of whom I had never heard and whose work I'm now going to have to find out more about. Gorres had an extraordinary background: her father was an Austro-Hungarian count and her mother the daughter of an antiques dealer in Tokyo, and they met after Count Heinrich, then on the Austrian diplomatic mission in Japan, fell off his horse outside the shop and Mitsuko came to help him (Helen Waddell had grown up in Japan where her father was a missionary). 

In the 1950s Gorres was railing against the prevailing style of Catholic apologetics, which attempted at every point to tie all truth together, to pretend that everything was done and dusted, to deny all ambiguities, contradictions and lacunae:

The corpus of Catholic opinion mustn't be like a sack full of balls and glass marbles, all smoothly rounded, for these just roll away in all directions and get lost: it must rather consist of sharp-edged bits, which can be fitted together to form a mosaic ... [no art work need be] a compendium of every truth in the catechism. All the difference between false completeness and true wholeness.

Years ago, when I had to do my little personal profile for the LGMG, I said that 'the jagged edges of things' were what interested me most. God is perfect and whole, but as we are limited we can never comprehend all of him: instead, as far as we are concerned, we find him most in the jagged lines, the broken fragments, the sharp-edged bits of things. 

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Inconsistencies Here and There

There were a number of reasons why poor Tim Farron (sad that the phrase 'poor Tim Farron' trips so easily off the keyboard) should have resigned as leader of the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems' election strategy of trumpeting themselves as the Voice of the EU-Remainers got them nowhere, or next to nowhere. Mr Farron barely held on to his own constituency, and the former leader Mr Clegg was chucked out of his Sheffield seat. The resignation of a front-bench spokesman could have turned into a stream of similar events, explaining why the announcement was made when there were, well, other news stories ongoing. But Mr Farron himself put his decision to go down mainly to the difficulty he found combining leading a political party ('especially a progressive, liberal party') with his Christian faith.

Over the course of the last couple of years Mr Farron has been questioned repeatedly about his attitude to homosexuality and has never been able to come up with a clear enough answer to stop the question being asked again. 'A better, wiser person than me might have been able to deal with this more successfully', he admitted in his resignation statement, but humble though that is the rest of his announcement makes it clear that he thinks virtually any liberal-minded Christian faces an almost impossible task. He can't reconcile political leadership with 'holding faithfully to the Bible's teaching', and has found himself 'the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in'; from which, he concludes, 'we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society'. 

Sad though Tim Farron's statement is, I don't agree with him. What his experience perhaps shows is that, indeed, someone who aspires to be the Prime Minister of the UK can't believe that a whole segment of the population is morally repugnant when this is not what the country at large thinks. I'm not sure this is a sign of intolerance: a government and the person who (potentially) leads it should, to some degree, represent the way the polity conceives itself. It'd be a bit like arguing that it's OK to be a racist if you're not going to do anything about it. And in any case, not all Christians accept that 'the Bible's teaching' points inexorably in one direction, the direction that does indeed demonise a segment of the population. We do not all think this, and the calamitous aspect of Mr Farron's departure is that it reinforces the impression the general public already has that we do

Yesterday our Deanery Chapter met and the Area Dean related some of the matters that had come up in a recent meeting with the Bishop. Our Bishop is apparently scared that the decision of the Anglican Church in Scotland to endorse same-sex marriage will embolden his own clergy to bless same-sex relationships and he's made it clear that anyone who does so will be disciplined. We can, as has been stated before, 'say prayers with' same-sex couples, but not bless them. So what might be the tone of those prayers that we can say? 'Dear Lord, your servants Ellie and Isla come before you here today. We just bring them before you, Lord, and we just ask that you will draw them away from the vile and unnatural path that they have taken. We just hold them before you, Lord, we just, we just, we just ...' And if that's not what you pray, but your prayers are in some sense positive and generous, then how does that differ from 'pronouncing a blessing'? I have sworn an oath of canonical obedience to my Bishop, and so I have to do as I am told, but I don't have to like it, and I don't have to pretend otherwise.

The other day I looked up the Naval Military and Air Force Bible Society's Cadets Prayer Book to see whether it might be of any help to me with the ATC. In its pages it includes 'a prayer for accepting my sexuality' which is a non-committal enough bit of text but whose mere existence indicates the ambiguous position in which Christian clergy find themselves. Anyone who works with secular organisations of any kind now finds themselves in a world which is absolutely and unshakeably committed to equality between different forms of sexual expression and, if they are so inclined, has to go through hoops and convolutions in order to toe the party line against it. The whole exercise disgusts me, and I hope to God that sooner rather than later the bishops will damn well get over themselves. 

Monday, 12 June 2017

Pastorates New

Debbie our ordinand was not produced by the congregation at Swanvale Halt: she was sent to us by the diocese to experience a different sort of church from her own. It seems absolutely impossible that it’s been three years since she and I had our initial conversations about it, but it is so, and as her training draws to a close the time came this Trinity Sunday for her to move on, to go to the diocese of Bury St Edmunds where she will (barring any exceptionally unusual event) be ordained at the end of this month.

You will remember that there have been certain ups and downs in Debbie’s journey so far – family and health issues, and the questionable behaviour of the powers-that-be that resulted in Debbie’s having to uproot herself and her loved ones from this area and cart her life to East Anglia. She’s certainly a subtly different character from what she was when she started: there’s a little bit of steel in her now, a greater knowledge of the less ideal aspects of the life of the Body of Christ. I’ve seen that happen in others, sometimes before they get ordained, sometimes over the course of their curacy.

The hope, perhaps, is that that awareness, that determination in the face of the rubbish Church life can throw at you, doesn’t harden into cynicism but can develop further into a sort of serenity. At my very best moments I can manage something like that, looking beyond the circumstances of the event and their frustrations and place a foot in eternity which is where, I tell myself, our true home is. ‘Moments’ is all they are, though, for now.

As we are all Church of England, Debbie bought cake and cards and good wishes were exchanged. ‘Thank you for being you!’ she told me, generously, which reminds me that I’ve been very little practical help to her indeed and that when we met for supervision meetings I would flail around to find some illustrative anecdote which she would welcome as some kind of pearl of wisdom. ‘Well’, I said, ‘the trouble is that I can’t really be anyone else’. ‘Yes, but you’re always you with gusto’ she added. I found myself saying ‘I suppose over the years I’ve sort of grown into the part’. 

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Foot Note

For several years I’ve suffered from periodic foot pain, which I partly put down to a slipped disc I had about ten years ago and the attendant nerve damage resulting in numbness on the left side of my left foot. I’ve had a couple of bouts of plantar fasciitis but mercifully they’ve been short – they can go on for months so I’ve got off lightly. More of a problem is a pain that curls around my left little toe, pulsing irritatingly every few seconds. When that arrives, it can keep me awake at night and nothing seems to stop it. Eventually this summer I decided to ask the doctor about it. It turned out there’s nothing structurally wrong, and the musculo-skeletal lady at the hospital thought it was due not to any nerve disruption as such, but to a very longstanding irregularity in my gait which pushed the little toe out of alignment and irritates the nerves in between that and the next one. I also have some calcification in the Achilles tendon, which sounds dreadful but can be helped by manipulation and exercise.

The point of mentioning it is not the medical issue itself, but the effort the NHS has put into dealing with it. In addition to the original GP appointment, I had:

A scan
An x-ray
Two sessions with the musculo-skeletal specialist
Two sessions to measure for and then fit therapeutic insoles
Two sessions with a physiotherapist

The insoles were a bit of a disaster: it was like having new shoes which couldn't be broken in. Even when I only wore them for a little while each day, I developed such large and painful blisters that in the end I gave up, hoping they might have done their work. However working with the physiotherapist was interesting. He informed me that my toes 'lacked muscle tone', which I would have thought might have been an issue for monkeys rather than human beings, but there you go. I have a range of exercises to do now. 

That all this activity is devoted to a tiny, modest twinge in my little toe is very impressive. God alone knows how much it costs - literally, because I doubt the system itself does. I have had my quarrels with the NHS in the past, bits of which arguably killed my father and had a good go at killing other relatives over the years, but I can’t quibble at the attention my toe’s received. Mind you, it may be that like me the medics are tempted to devote more effort than perhaps they should to simple things they know they can probably sort out rather than complex matters they can’t. 

Friday, 9 June 2017

Futility Reviewed

Well, that didn't turn out as anyone anticipated, did it? Very specific political commentary is not what I do here, and is almost certainly an unChristian vice anyway, so I will reply to my post of yesterday in relatively short order.

The Conservatives deserved what happened to them last night: it was just and proportionate. It is wrong to treat the nation as your own personal property which it is your inalienable right to govern. I am glad that was knocked back. I'm also glad that so many people defied the rage of the newspapers and the condescension of the media, and made up their own minds. Eric Pickles was on the wireless just now, commenting very candidly that he'd been doorknocking and pavement-pounding up and down the country in the Tory interest for weeks, and didn't pick up on what was going to happen in the slightest. I find hope in that: there is still an independence of mind among the English, even if it's often inarticulate.

I find myself satisfied, but not happy: the situation is too chaotic and hazardous for that. I wondered why I felt such a particular sense of investment in the result this time, such heart-pounding edginess, and think it's because humane and progressive thought has suffered so many cruel blows over the last year or so that another would have been hard to swallow. 

In the middle of the afternoon PJH came to my rescue, mentally. She and Egyptian musician Ramy Essam whose music helped galvanise the Egyptian revolution of 2011 have collaborated on a song to raise awareness of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and funds for a particular charity working in the field. There's a world outside these damp islands, and whatever happens here, there is good that can be done.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

An Exercise in Futility

There is no anarcho-syndicalist candidate for this constituency, and, although whenever election time comes up I can't help but have The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing's 'Doing It For The Whigs' rattling round my brain, nor is there anyone standing locally in the Whig interest. So I was in a quandary as to how to cast my ballot. I have never voted for a successful candidate in a parliamentary election, and 2017 will not, I fear, break the record. 

Hereabouts, several leading activists for the Opposition parties have decided to throw their weight behind an independent pro-NHS candidate in an almost-certainly vain effort to defenestrate sitting Member Mr Jeremy Richard Steynsham Hunt, and those of them who were members of the Labour Party have been expelled for this temerity. I've seen a lot of her posters round the streets, but I'm no very great fan of 'independents', most of the time. You can be an 'independent' anything: the label tells you nothing, even in the vaguest terms, about the position that individual might take on any given issue. I'd sooner a candidate had some ideological tag as a broad guide to their views. If you don't know who this 'independent' is personally, you may as well just close your eyes and stick your cross in a random box.

My ancient, residual affection for the Liberal Party, nursed over years, still makes for a little pang of glumness as I see that YouGov are predicting that both Mr Clegg and Mr Mulholland will lose their seats: my friend Professor Purplepen has been doughtily leafleting and doorknocking in the interests of the MP for Leeds NW, and I fear her efforts may receive a poor reward. The Prime Minister called this election on the assumption that she was going to walk into a landslide and had to do nothing to justify it except offer up empty, robotic sloganising, and she heads a party that see themselves as the rightful owners of the country and everything in it: it would have been gratifying (and no more than just) to see that arrogance slapped back, to see their shock and surprise. But it probably won't happen. 

Well: governments are elected to do a job, and we all know what job looms largest for the UK at the moment. Once that's out of the way things will look different, and there will be another chance, another window of hope, when we might choose to Do It For The Whigs. 

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Dorset Gramarye: Elisabeth Bletsoe's 'Landscape from a Dream' and the lyrics of PJ Harvey

There is no end to the things I don’t read enough of, but poetry is among them. For some time I’ve been haunted by the memory of a particular slim, self-published book of poetry by a Dorset writer I read in my mid-teens and one of whose lyrics has stayed with me ever since. I used to have it written out, but those notes are long since gone and I no longer know the name of the author. I had the library in West Howe, where I found it all those years ago, chasing it up for me, but they couldn’t identify it.

I decided to source some more Dorset poetry and ordered a series of books. I already knew that very probably the most remarkable of them would be Elisabeth Bletsoe’s Landscape from a Dream, a small 2008 collection which, from the extracts I found online, promised to be excitingly dense and interesting. And so it was: Ms Bletsoe has an intense, firm, allusive style that reminds me of my favourite poet of all, Geoffrey Hill, whose work I always admire even if I don’t entirely understand everything. Hill’s English is a language at war, but Bletsoe’s is even more militant: as opposed to his Classical, elegiac formality, her restless dissatisfaction with what English can currently do compels her to bend words out of shape, to scour dictionaries for weaponry, and sometimes to invent her own out of verbal fragments. I find myself having to read her poems with a dictionary at one hand to machete my way through the often botanical, anatomical and scientific terms: one small excerpt, ‘Interlude/The White Room’ furnishes sulcus, nephological, aquarelle, pruinate, and sintering. I sort-of guessed all this. But Elisabeth Bletsoe had a surprise in store for me.

Landscape is a brutal journey through a bloody but jewel-like visionary Dorset, with poems hung off that baleful figure, the Ooser; the illustrations of birds in the medieval Sherborne Missal; and Thomas Hardy’s heroines, among others. The final two poems in the book, ‘Cross-in-Hand’ and ‘Rainbarrows’ are both in that last category: they take elements of the Dorset landscape, and re-imagine the experiences of, respectively, Tess Durbeyfield and Eustacia Vye, two Hardyan women who both end their novels dead, victims of the society against which they have had the temerity to assert their own identities. The Cross-in-Hand, an unexplained pillar which sits by the roadside at the top of Batcombe Down looking over the Blackmore Vale, is where Tess swears never to ‘tempt’ Alec D’Urberville again – a lot of good that will do her. The Rainbarrows at Puddletown are the site of a November bonfire and squat on the heart of the great heath that Eustacia Vye both hates and is captivated by. Here, Elisabeth Bletsoe’s allusions and references are pressed into service to examine the fatal self-assertion of both women. What allusions they are, too: from Milton to Mishima to Hellraiser (the ‘lament configuration’) to Lady Gregory’s ‘Donal Og’ to Gustav Holst, to an essay by Florence Nightingale.

And there is also pop. Partly, the function of several song lyrics rifled for the verse is to provide images which clearly occurred to Bletsoe and which she couldn’t better: so we have Echo & the Bunnymen’s ‘killing moon’ and ‘your port in my heavy storm/harbours the blackest wave’. There’s also Bjork’s lovely androgynous line ‘Venus as a boy’ which expresses something about Eustacia Vye in a way Hardy could never have put. And then – and we now approach my point – there’s the way at the start of ‘Cross-in-Hand’ that Tess calls attention to her own ‘work-strong arms’.

PJ Harvey fans will have been brought up with a little start at this point. As we all know, ‘Sheela-na-gig’ begins

I’ve been trying to show you, over and over:
Look at these, my child-bearing hips
Look at these, my ruby-red ruby lips
Look at these, my work-strong arms, and
You’ve got to see my bottleful of charms …

Well; the phrase, you might think, is short and not completely outré, so you might dismiss it as a coincidence, until you spot in ‘Rainbarrows’ the line ‘O to be your stunning/Guide’ which can only be a borrowing from Harvey’s ‘Hair’ (the original line is ‘O to be your stunning bride’); that’s supported by Eustacia Vye’s ringing cry ‘I will call my ship VICTRIX’ – of course in the novel she dies by drowning – which by now must recall PJ’s parallel line ‘take a ship, I’d christen her Victory’. Finally, back in the poem ‘Cross-in-Hand’, Tess reaches Evershot, where in the novel she finally rejects any hope of a reconciliation with Angel Clare, and says

Swallows shuttle mandorlas of sound, dreamnets diverting my prayers for a softening, a break in fixation. Waiting defines me. Also a deliberate turning away before the goal is reached. Reinventing myself. Flowering myself inside out. A hedge of floating calixes: bind-wort and wound-wort.

‘Fruit flower myself inside out’, Harvey keens in ‘Happy and Bleeding’, the subtlest and most heartbreaking song on her first album. And opening from the Harveyan text, Tess sets her face towards death: her own and others’.

This is more than set-dressing, showing off, or a felicitous phrase borrowed from a lyric: this is taking someone else’s words and using them to prise open a completely separate narrative, slamming them together and seeing what happens. ‘Sheela-na-Gig’’s presentation of a woman rejected by a man who scorns her physicality and messiness could, despite its uneasy humour, be a modern gloss on Tess: Bletsoe takes that idea and turns it back on Hardy’s novel. ‘Happy and Bleeding’ (in so far as it’s ‘about’ anything) is an ambiguous, conflicted account of the aftermath of sex in which the whole sexual history of the human race seems to bear down on the narrator: whatever PJH meant by that line (written, after all, when she was in her very early twenties), it’s a suitable one for Tess to appropriate and misuse to express a new sense of self-assertion.

You will note that all these tender thefts are from one album, Dry. This was the recording that Polly spent a lot of time denying was ‘feminist’ in intention, a statement (or set of statements, given how she repeated it) that’s given rise to some controversy. I’m not getting into that discussion here, because to a certain extent it doesn’t matter. Merely to insist on the validity of certain sorts of experience has a revolutionary effect, and these poems show how PJ’s texts can be taken and related to other texts in a way that functions feministically, no matter what she may have intended in 1991. This is clearly where Bletsoe is coming from, in any case.

And of course the fact that these are all borrowings from a Dorset singer adds another front to the warfare Bletsoe is engaged in. Unlike some of PJ’s texts, Dry doesn’t have anything clearly to do with the county: imaginatively it’s rooted somewhere else. But Bletsoe shoots its lines like fecund arrows into the Dorset landscape where they bury, root, bud and bloom like Aaron’s rod: they belong there, it seems.

Music and novel are made to converse, and pronounce together a new argument. It’s not far from the kind of textual alchemy PJH herself would one day engage in for Let England Shake. A sort of witchery it is, and Elisabeth Bletsoe has something of a witchy Kate Bush about her, if you could be more witchy than La Bush already is. I may well have to call in at Sherborne Museum one day, see if she’s on duty, and congratulate her. 

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Home Front Religion

Radio 4 is almost invariably on in the background while I’m at my desk, which means that the long-running Home Front often drifts across my paperwork and keyboard. This is the drama cataloguing the experience of the Britons who didn’t go to war between 1914 and 1918, how World War One impacted on the lives of communities and individuals apart from the fighting itself. The characters are fictional but the situations in which they find themselves all too real. Obviously it’s a vast project, and I’ve only caught snatches. One of its impressive aspects I have picked up on, though, is the way it treats religion as a serious factor in people’s lives, as something that they talk, think and argue about. Characters are even heard praying.

World War One shook the Church of England, and in one aspect particularly: its treatment of the dead. One of the key results of the Reformation had been, as Eamonn Duffy expressed it, to redraw the boundaries of the human community so that the dead were excluded, beyond the reach of the kind of prayer which had been so great a concern of medieval Christians: the War reversed this process. The experience of death had been so traumatic and so universal that the pressure to include the dead once again in the community of God’s compassion was irresistible. A couple of decades earlier, Anglicans who’d wanted to pray for the dead kept quiet about it for fear of reprisal; over the course of the four years of horror, they were emboldened. They erected ‘War Shrines’ outside churches – not yet ‘War Memorials’, these were places of prayer and not simply remembrance; they began services of prayer, and, later on, in parish after parish, requiem eucharists for the souls of the departed.

This struggle emerges, to the writers’ great credit, in Home Front. Set, at the moment, in Folkestone, the town has just suffered the Tontine Street bombing, the loss of over sixty lives in one terrible moment. Funerals are being arranged. Alice Macknade, whose daughter was killed, begs Revd Walter Hamilton, vicar of St Stephen’s, to pray for her soul as part of the service, ‘just a small prayer’: as politely as he can, but definitely, he refuses. He doesn’t believe in that. Mrs Macknade meets Revd Winwood from St Jude’s who agrees to do what she wants, privately. And so, gradually, theology melts before the heat of sorrow and loss, as it should, and the Church reaches out to embrace those who have passed out of this earthly life. Well done, Radio 4 (it makes up, a bit, for some past howlers). 

Friday, 2 June 2017

Boundary Lines

My relationships with my most trying pastoral cases tend to develop in a predictable fashion. I try to help, which often involves giving out a bit of cash, lay down guidelines, eventually refuse to hand out any more, and risk the accusations and attempts at persuasion which usually form the final stage. As I’ve said here before, I’ve given up trying to fight my way through the thickets of people’s stories: I simply set boundaries to what I will give. That seems less judgemental towards them, and less stressful to me.

We’ve been through this cycle now with Karly. I gave her £200 over the course of a month, and at the last instalment I warned her that would be the last until over a month had passed. I got another series of tearful requests for money by text a couple of days ago, which I refused. Eventually I worked out Karly’s mum was demanding £25 to allow her to stay in her house. Karly told me she might as well be dead: she denied she was playing the suicide card, just ‘thinking out loud’, which may well be true. I put the cash through her mother’s letterbox, so I was, technically, sticking to the line of not giving it to her. ‘Woman kills herself because priest refused £25’ is not something I want to read in the Surrey Ad. I tried to be firm and straightforward in what I said to her, not dressing up my refusal to give with phrases like ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I can’t’, because neither of them were true: I’m not sorry, and I could. But some of my absolute rage almost certainly bled into that straightforwardness. 

Yesterday I had more requests for money – long-distance ones, as I was in Dorset on my day off – and responded with absolute refusal which Karly clearly didn’t believe. She spent the night out of doors. This morning I called the social services about the situation and dropped a note round to the mental health team office, who social services said they’d inform. When I told her, Karly said she’d never trust me again and that I’d ‘made everything ten times worse’. I tell myself I just want to help, but perhaps I’m deceiving myself. God knows.

Why was I so very angry? I try to tell myself that what I do, whether I give or not, is what I choose to do and so I can’t blame anyone else, no matter what I might feel are the attempts to manipulate my reactions. Perhaps I am angry at being forced to face my own self-regard and meanness; perhaps there is anger at myself for going against my word. I am very far from being a ‘cheerful giver’: Louise Brooks’s words resonate with me, ‘I never gave anything away without wishing I had kept it, nor kept anything without wishing I had given it away.’ Either way, my internal conflicts aren’t Karly’s fault. I did what I chose to do, and Christ never raged at the poor and weak. Yet I do it all too often.

I don’t draw a clear line between me and these ‘vulnerable people’. The mingling of sentimentality, pleading, anger, and inability to help oneself, counter damaging patterns of behaviour or distinguish reality, isn’t all that far removed from traits I observe in myself. What I should perhaps do is to insist on first encountering somebody that I also interact with the statutory agencies dealing with them, and anything else is just laziness, a refusal to summon up the mental energy to do the hard work. 

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Navel Gazing

Over the months I’ve been secretly rather gratified to see traffic on this blog go up. It’s helped to think there might be souls out there interested enough in my varied maunderings to look up Mopsus and read. When, all of a sudden, the stats underwent a colossal reduction – a 75% decline in pageviews over the night of 19th-20th May – I was surprised by how personally I took it. It was a bit like the occasion when I lost my Facebook profile. Likes and pageviews are, we tell ourselves, not an index of personal worth, but their obvious quantifiability gives us a little emotional blip which kids us into thinking it’s the real thing. It’s the existential equivalent of refined sugar, a tiny but very pleasurable sensual hit which bears little relationship to proper nutrition. 

My friend Karla works in the online industry and reckons the decline is simply due to a shift in Google’s search criteria. She told me with a sense of weariness, ‘keeping up with Google's search algorithms to ensure that content ranks well is the actual full time job of a number of my friends. The fact that this is a profession gives me existential angst if I think too hard about it, mind’. Ah, the gods of our new world. ‘It’s essentially just another branch of advertising - an industry which doesn't really do anything,’ commented Ms Formerly Aldgate, and we found ourselves boggling rather more at the woman who makes a living making up new hashtags for wedding couples to use on Twitter. Looking back through the stats, I observe that things really took off in October last year, curiously just when I began my couple of weeks' regular posting about my musical journey with PJ Harvey. The individual pages themselves didn’t receive unusual levels of activity, but that may belie the way people came across them.

Well, I could happily post about the Dorset songstress every day. A little while ago, for instance, an LA-based photographer snapped her outside a coffee shop, suggesting that she’s been staying at the apartment in the city she cutely refers to as her ‘holiday cottage’ before heading back to the UK for an engagement at Lancaster University which my friend there Dr PostGothic is unspeakably excited about, as well she might be. There you go. But you don’t want tittle-tattle like that, do you? No, you want self-doubt, angst, vestments, and damp holes in the ground. In so far as I care what anyone wants, he says unconvincingly.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Terror

A lot of churches have a memorial book of some kind. Ours at Swanvale Halt is particularly intended to help remember those whose ashes are buried in our Garden of Remembrance but there are other names in it - not many, only about thirty. This is partly because a lot of the time the book has to stay closed, and so it's not found its way into the consciousness of most people, and you've never been able to come into the church during the week and look at the names. It sits shut in its display case. 

You might wonder why, in turn, that is. It's because my predecessor decided, very generously, to have a display case made for the book precisely so it could be left open during the week without danger of defacement or theft. Unfortunately there was some mistake in the measurements and the book didn't actually fit in the case. Only in the Church of England, you might sigh, although it puts me in mind of other incidents like expensive satellites whizzing off uselessly into outer space because the programmers were measuring in centimetres and the engineers in inches. It happens.

Now we have a new Memorial Book, partly paid for by our ex-churchwarden. It looks gorgeous: it's massive and heavy and leather-bound and gold-tooled, and when open will fit snugly into the case in the north aisle of the church. But it needs the names copied into it from the old book. That's expensive. So, in a moment of weakness, I said I'd do it: I have calligraphy pens, I find it relaxing. Then we have new names added professionally.

The book has sat in the Rectory for weeks, silently reproachful. My reluctance to approach it hasn't been predominately for lack of time. Instead, the prospect of marking those dintless pages with my pens has become more terrifying the closer I approach to it. I cleaned out the pens. I drew a border line around the title page; I marked out the lettering in pencil. I waited.

And yesterday the book was marked. My heart was positively pounding. The result would, I suspect, make any proper calligrapher burst into tears. But it will answer, and now I have scant excuse for not pressing on.

Friday, 26 May 2017

Ta-Ta Tanz Macabre

It was via my friend Madame Morbidfrog on Facebook that I discovered my favourite London Goth club night, Tanz Macabre, is no more. DJ Faith, who ran it, posted:

I have spent some considerable time since the closure of Canal 125, looking for a new home for Tanz Macabre; one that meets the very specific criteria required for the night to continue on it's own unique path. I have investigated many venues but unfortunately have not been able to find one that 'ticked all of the boxes' within the set time frame. This, in combination with other lesser factors, has led me to make the decision to bring Tanz Macabre to a close. I have achieved more than I ever hoped for with the night and I think that the time is right to end on a high, without the fear or possibility of lowering standards or repetition.

Thank you to Lucia for being the 'Hostess With The Mostess', Ben for being my fellow resident Dj, Paul for being our very regular guest Dj and to all of those who came before him. I want to thank everyone who has worked with us behind the scenes or contributed to Tanz Macabre in any way and helped to make it London's longest running independent Gothic night.

Most importantly, I would like to especially thank everyone over the years who has attended, supported and joined with us for 'An Evening Of Terpsichorean Terror'! With seven venues over eleven years, it has been a combination of Ghost Train and Roller Coaster & I hope that you have enjoyed the ride. : )

I first found my way to Tanz in the middle of 2007. Once I and Dr Bones had called it a day, I decided to re-establish my links with the Goth world, mainly in order to have some social life beyond the ever-so-slightly cloying environment of the Church. After Mass at Lamford one Sunday I donned my pseudo-Victorian gear and caught the train to London. The venue was the Arts Theatre Club in Frith Street, Soho. You’d disappear down a staircase off a usually busy London street, into the Stygian depths – that was a proper Gothic experience, that was – have your hand stamped and emerge into the tiny space that somehow managed to cram in a bar, fireplace, piano (which I think I actually witnessed someone try to play once – sadly not Ms Death-and-Taxes who is actually quite an accomplished pianist) – a wee dancefloor and a couple of cushioned C-shaped seats around tables. On busy nights, moving round was something of a challenge, but it was always fun. That first night I was on my own, and knew I think nobody else there at all, and went back home relatively early too, but in that couple of hours surrounded by loud music and sable-clad revellers (and cake, it was clearly someone’s birthday) I could feel stress and unhappiness draining gradually away: to be somewhere I had no responsibilities, with nothing to do but look and listen, and disappear into the umbrageous surroundings.

Tanz was ideal for me, as it opened at 6pm and closed at 11, allowing time to catch the last train home – even when I moved further out to Swanvale Halt, it could be done if I parked the car at an intervening station. I could rush off straight after an evening service and have a good couple of hours there, and still arrive home at a time which was not entirely unreasonable: the same couldn’t be said for the Saturday evening clubs, as they tended not to get going much before midnight by which time I had to be gone.

As is often the way with such events, the Arts Theatre Club owners decided they wanted to refurbish the basement bar, and, while the Tanz organisers assured everyone that they expected their ousting was only temporary, somehow the club never went back. Instead it ended up on a boat moored off Embankment, which had a similarly quirky identity although – for me – never quite the charm of the elegant basement dive I’d got to know. I once took Cylene along and within 15 minutes we were heading back to Waterloo for a coffee as she’d turned dreadfully seasick. When Tanz moved again, it was to Canal 125 in Kings Cross. I and Ms Formerly Aldgate tried it out a couple of times, but while clambering up and down narrow staircases from one space to another offered an intriguing experience you couldn’t see who was coming and going and if you wanted to find who was about you’d have to pick up your drink and wander around. Far more importantly, Tanz not only had to shift venue but also time, to Friday night, which made it feel less special, more like a standard club night and less like the gentle come-down from the weekend the Sunday occasion had been. And of course my life shifted too, and I hadn’t been for ages. So although Faith mentions seven venues in his valediction, I can only recall three.

Running a club of any kind can be a thankless task and I was always tickled when Faith thanked me for coming even though he had very little idea who I was. Tanz – the Soho Tanz – will always be the Platonic ideal of the Goth club I will retain, gratefully, in my memory.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Difference in Perception

A reverse-charge message came to my mobile from my regular interlocutor Karly. I knew not to reply to this – the last time it cost me £4 – so I called her directly instead. ‘Father, can you call me a taxi? I’m at the church and need to get to my mum’s and haven’t got any credit on my phone’. I called the taxi company she suggested. ‘It’s not for me, but for a lady called Karly Talbot’, I said. ‘Ah, this is the same person we tried to pick up half an hour ago,’ said the man on the other end of the line. ‘She was supposed to be going to no.6 Larkspur Road. My driver waited around for ten minutes but couldn’t find her. I can send someone else, but she’ll have to pay for the first callout as well as the second.’ I related this information. ‘But I haven’t called a taxi today!’ Karly protested. It is not my habit to probe into people’s stories – I’ve learned it’s pointless – but just out of curiosity I couldn’t resist asking, ‘So how did the man at the taxi firm recognise your name straight away, and know where you wanted to go?’ ‘I don’t know. That’s scary!’ she answered. It’s not just scary, I thought, it’s bloody miraculous. There may be complex and involved explanations involving unknown third parties, but I didn’t have the energy to get into them. Of course I ended up taking her to her mum’s. 

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

The Crossroads of All Things

I say mass in a little side chapel of the church; there's about a dozen of us. I'm facing away from them, facing the cross. I pick up the paten and the chalice as usual. 'This is my body ... This is my blood'. But it's more than that. This is mangled and broken flesh, scattered blood among fragments of glass. It's all the blood shed from the first murder onwards, in one little silver cup. And I can hear sounds in my ears that almost drown out my own voice, even though I know the words better than I know anything else I ever say.

Jesus said the blood of all the murdered ‘from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary’ would come upon his generation. He meant that moment was the crux of all human history. As he was the one through whom all was created, so when he was nailed and killed it was the nailing and killing of all creation, and whenever his brothers and sisters suffered, or would ever suffer, so would he. ‘What you did to the least of these, you did also to me’.

And that means that every time I lift the chalice I lift all the pain of the world, past and future. Through him, I’m linked to all of it. I was warned about that, years ago, but I don’t always feel it. Which is just as well.

Monday, 22 May 2017

The View of the Young

Gatherings of Swanvale Halt Messy Church vary hugely from one occasion to the next. In March we had the highest numbers we'd drawn for two years and more; this month, we had the lowest attendance for two years, and the difference isn't marginal in absolute number terms. I wonder where everyone was.

It gave me a chance to speak to Megan, who is 13 and one of the very few young people who orbits around the church community. She was helping out on one of the craft tables, making spangly sequinned angels. Megan has been coming to the church with her family since she was small and naturally is questioning things a bit more as she gets older. She's taken communion a couple of times at Christmas and Easter, despite not being confirmed, so technically we ought to 'admit her to holy communion' which as far as I'm concerned just requires a conversation to make sure the communicant knows what it's about. 'I'm not sure I believe in God,' Megan said. 'I think there was a person called Jesus, but I look at things very logically and I'm not sure how all the rest of it fits'. Jesus is a start, I said.

I've tried to treat the handful of teens and near-teens we have at the church as a group, but the trouble is that they aren't. They go to different schools, they have a variety of different experiences, and there aren't enough of them seeing each other often enough to develop any sense of common identity. Even when they retain any sort of definite faith, the pull of bigger churches where they might find more young people like them is inexorable. It's hard for me to think my way into their situation, because when I was their age I couldn't abide other teenagers and sat in my room reading books.

Megan and I got on to gender stereotyping. She had two templates for her angels, one clearly supposed to be male and one female, with longer hair and a schematic skirt. Most of the children seemed to think angels are girls. The male figure doesn't appear to have any hair at all. 'They take the view that if you're bald you're male,' Megan told me. 'I asked, What if I lost my hair? and they said, You'd be a man.'

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Folk Wisdom

Candlestub Clem sat on a chair in church next to the candle stand where he’d just lit a light for his poorly sister. ‘You know me, Father, you know I’m an alcoholic and all that, and yeah, I never went to university, but I lived in Cambridge for twenty years, and you spend all that time somewhere like that, and stuff has to rub off on you a bit, hasn’t it? If you keep your eyes and ears open. My gran used to say to me, take the cotton wool out of your ears and put it in your gob, and you might learn something. I talk to people about apartheid and stuff, and they don’t know who Steve Biko was. How can you not know about Steve Biko? I could tell you his cell number. People just don’t know, they don’t pay attention. It’s a crazy world we live in, it really is.’

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Diversionary Tactics

Il Rettore is of the opinion, having read the analysis of Monday's meeting I'm intending to send out to the congregation - I think this is a matter of such importance that they need to know about it - that I should write to the Bishop with my concerns. He even stooped to using such Evangelical language as 'the Lord laying a call on you'. Well, I suppose I am the last priest in the diocese appointed with freehold, and perhaps this was why. I described the proposed new funding system to Ms Formerly Aldgate who described it as 'sounding like the Department for Work & Pensions: "rewarding hard-working churches" '. So I have written and now it awaits posting. If the diocese accepts that the language of punishment and reward is inappropriate, that at least renders the 'new definition of fairness' more palatable. We'll see what happens. 

Today was my day off and I went to Dorset to visit my mother and look for wells. I went to Swanage and it was most agreeable, so here are some nice images. 



Tuesday, 16 May 2017

All Flesshe ys Grasse

On another day, Reg’s funeral would have dominated my thinking yesterday (as it did until the evening). It’s not every funeral service that begins with a preamble from the departed laying out his thinking behind how it’s put together and the spirit with which we should all approach it. His outline notes include the instruction ‘Eulogy (if deserved)’: I have no idea what one does to ‘deserve’ a eulogy, and it’s not my place to decide anyway. The love and honour in which Reg was held was palpable, as was his sense of gratitude and joyousness – though shot through with the extremity of the way he died. I spoke to one of my predecessors as Rector for whom Reg had served as churchwarden in the 1960s: his predecessor had told him how ‘this is such a good parish. You’ll love them into heaven.’

As an antidote, in the evening I went with our treasurer to a meeting about the new Parish Share system the diocese is proposing. Now, this is all a bit complex, but bear with me. The Diocese of Guildford derives more of its £11.7M income from its parishes than any other Church of England diocese, 94% (in Lincoln it’s just over 40%), because it lacks the historic endowments and landholdings the older dioceses have. This means that if churches are subsidised for any reason, the money basically has to come from all the other churches, essentially reallocating resources from a handful of larger evangelical churches to smaller ones. The distortions arising from this system have in recent years been mitigated by a complex arrangement of caps and floors on the annual changes in the sum the diocese demands from each parish. It all means that how the figure for any parish is arrived at is opaque to say the least. The diocese also reckons that the actual cost of each stipendiary clergyperson has been significantly underestimated. ‘It’s not fair!’ the Bishop outlined at the start of the meeting: the system should not ‘penalise growth or reward decline’.

So there is to be a new system. Each parish’s quota will be calculated on what it gets (a vicar, for instance, calculated as costing £55K per year), a share of the common costs of the diocese, and an adjustment based on the relative prosperity of the parish. There will continue to be cross-subsidies, but they will be apparent and transparent rather than covert, and seen explicitly as ‘an investment for growth’. In the future, if a parish in Guildford Diocese is subsidised, it’ll know it.

Well. It struck me that this shift marks another stage in a huge process of centralisation which has gone on for decades. Once upon a time each parish in the Church of England was a virtually independent unit, financially and administratively; occasionally a bishop would turn up to confirm people or to discipline a naughty Anglo-Catholic clergyman but that was basically it. Then in the 1960s clerical incomes were standardised as the parishes handed their historic endowments over to the dioceses to be put into a central pool, possibly the greatest single act of Christian charity in this country’s history and one that nobody really talks about. Gradually clergy also began sending their fees for marriages and funerals into the diocesan pot as well. This financial centralisation should be seen alongside the long effort by the bishops to get more control over the patronage process, that is, who has the right to present a candidate to be incumbent of a parish; and the abolition of the Parson’s Freehold, the incumbent’s absolute security of tenure which is now (except for those who, like me, were already in place) replaced by licences for a term of years. Freehold gave clergy the freedom to innovate without worrying about being slapped over the wrist, but it also gave them the freedom to be alcoholics, depressives, oddballs, or plain idle buggers. Put all this together and the picture that emerges is of a massive and decades-long process in which the parish ceases to be the strategic unit for the mission of the Church of England, and is replaced by the diocese. The diocese’s hand may still be relatively light and respectful of the traditions of each parish, and bishops certainly tend not to behave with the brutal high-handedness that some once did, but the striking thing is that it has a hand at all. This is a shift from a situation in which parishes are given a priest and then left essentially to get on with it, to one in which strategic direction is set centrally and then implemented locally.

I said this, and the chaps from the diocesan offices didn’t like it at all, which suggests to me that I’m on to something. I didn’t at the time take the further step of summarising the proposed change, which I characterise – possibly caricature – as a shift from saying ‘every parish needs a priest and we will provide one’ to saying ‘every parish will have a priest if it earns one, and, if it can’t pay, we will decide what “earning” means’.

The change probably won’t cripple Swanvale Halt church. I and the treasurer guess that, when the new system comes in, we’ll have to find another £5-10K per annum, a challenging but not impossible amount. But far worse and more depressing than the shift in balance from parish to diocese, which is perhaps an inevitable process, is the managerialist and results-driven ideas behind the bishop’s statement about ‘penalising growth and rewarding decline’. What morally pejorative terms those are. The assumption is that a church can grow if only it tries, and therefore if it’s not growing it must be complacent and idle. This new model is very much ‘salvation by works’ rather than ‘salvation by grace’ – payment by results, rather than needs. It works entirely against everything we tell people about their essential value, about God valuing the lowly and weak. Whether centrally-directed strategy and incentivisation will ‘work’ better than hands-off universal provision, or will just accelerate decline, is an open question.

And it’s on God that I try to focus. Ultimately my value comes from him, from what I am in his eyes, not in the eyes of the Church of England. It doesn’t make me feel that good, though.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

"Child-saints rejoice you, small immaculate souls"

The thought occurred to me that I might mention the newly-canonised visionaries of Fatima during the consecration at mass this morning, but I realised I couldn’t remember which two of the three children it was. Was it Jacinta who was canonised yesterday or Lucia? I asked the Roman Catholic parish priest as he was on his way out (we share the church building with the Papists). Scandalously, he didn’t know either. The office computer and Professor Google came to my aid.

There are other child-saints in the annals of the Church, of course, but they’re mostly a bit distant (the Holy Innocents, for instance), or actually adolescents (St Agnes, St Pancras), or completely legendary (St Romwald, who preached a sermon on the Trinity as a newborn and died at the age of three days). Siblings Jacinta and Francisco Marto are the youngest saints declared in modern times, dying during the influenza epidemic of 1918 at the ages of 7 and 9 respectively. This only became possible after the Vatican relaxed the rules a bit in 1981: previously candidates for sainthood had to have achieved a degree of maturity, but now the regulations recognise that a child can be ‘precocious’ in faith and awareness. In fact, the resolve of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints crumbled in this respect precisely because of the campaign to canonise the children of Fatima. 

I've never paid that much attention to the Fatima manifestations, partly because I'm not that much of a Marian devotee and partly because they've become so embedded in the imaginary world of ultra-reactionary Roman Catholicism. There are still Catholics who believe that the Vatican has suppressed texts of the visions revealed to the three children in 1917, texts that suggest the Church of Rome will go into apostasy and that the end of the world will follow soon afterwards. Even leaving aside the conspiracy theories and nutcase enthusiasms, the illiterate peasant children who met the Virgin Mary in the pasture outside their village so epitomised the piety of their culture and age that they’ve become (literally) icons for that piety, a sort which is a bit of an embarrassment to modern Catholicism. The surviving photographs of the children (here, for instance, or here, or here) do show them somewhat as eerily adult and theatrically pious, though perhaps that’s what coming across the Virgin Mary in a field will do to you. It would be fairer to reflect that they’ve been dressed up in their best clothes by grown-ups, and their disconcerting expressions are what any poor children would have adopted when confronted with a camera around that time. If you look at photos of British schoolchildren lined up in classes just before the First World War, they scowl in the same way. They’re just being serious. One gets the slight impression that the children were already icons even during their lives, and, while nobody doubts their genuineness, they were clearly surrounded by an awful lot of people who had certain expectations of them. As an antidote, compare this photo of a tired St Jacinta being carried through a crowd. She’s not enjoying herself much, is she?


But the point about children is that they aren’t that serious, and roping the visionaries of Fatima into grown-up ideas of what religious people should be like would be a shame. Jacinta, Francisco and Lucia (yet to be canonised, her) would have run about and played and laughed around the early twentieth-century village of Aljustrel like children everywhere. Thankfully some of the art that’s emerged around the children is less weighted with the significance they must have had to bear at the time of their visions and since. The tombs at the Fatima basilica where Pope Francis went to pray are actually rather nice, especially the statue of St Jacinta, surrounded by stylised hills and sheep.


I hope the holy children of Fatima will, in their sainthood, be allowed to be children. Because that’s the radical, subversive quality of their witness: the fact they were poor, and the fact that they were young. Contemplating them might remind us more of God’s clear bias towards the child and the childlike. It might act as some reparation for a Church that, at the same time as it idolised some children, ignored and damaged others: the shadow side of the festivities yesterday in Portugal.

As for me, I’ll wait for the canonisation of Blessed Antonietta Meo, who was even younger than the Marto siblings: she died of cancer at six in 1937 a year after having a leg amputated. She looks like a little Louise Brooks. She would skip in front of the tabernacle at church and say ‘Jesus, come and play with me!’ and I defy you to repeat that without your eyes stinging more than is dignified for a grown-up.

Friday, 12 May 2017

A Confident Priesthood

On Monday evening it was the Archdeacon’s Visitation service at the Cathedral, where all the churchwardens from the parish churches, of all ages, shapes, sizes and churchpersonships, go to swear undying allegiance to the Bishop and hear the Archdeacon preach a variant on his usual sermon which, he always stresses, is not about drainpipes and insurance policies. One of our Swanvale Halt churchwardens is new this year, and this was her first proper engagement. Two more would follow in quick succession this week: a safeguarding training evening and a church council meeting. Gosh.

I sat during all this and contemplated the pillar next to me, which I realised was covered for some distance up in strange, small parallel scratch marks. A mischievous angel whispered in my ear that these were, according to legend, made by Bishop Reindorp as he marked off the days until his retirement, gnawing the hem of his surplice during Evensong. I will have to spread this fact now. On reflection, I’m not completely sure it was an angel.

In fact the spiritual entity, whatever it was, was misinformed as George Reindorp went on from Guildford to be Bishop of Salisbury. But it prompted me to look him up. Some while ago his former parish of St Stephen’s, Rochester Row, Westminster produced a booklet about his time there (1946-57) bits of which found its way into an article in the Church Times. A priest who went to the parish in the mid-1950s as a curate had kept Fr Reindorp’s letter to him before he arrived. ‘I want to see your manuscripts [of sermons] not less than one week before you preach’, the prospective curate was advised (and I use ‘advised’ in its strongest sense). ‘Learn by heart a) the Ten Commandments, b) the long Exhortation at Mattins and c) the exhortation from the 1928 Prayer Book …’ and so on, through paragraphs headed ‘Money’, ‘Punctuality’, and ‘The Vicar’s Wife’. I especially like this bit:

A small point with implications. In this parish there is a Vicar, and Mr Shepherd, Mr Case and Mr Todd. Don’t be led off by high-church coddlers into Father this or that. I like the term, but it is not expedient with this parish set in the midst of Cardinal Griffin’s Mission on one side, and a very "extreme" neighbour on the other. Then there are the loveable folk who refer to Philip Case and Bill Todd. Be advised by an old hand. Look polite and say, "Do you mean Mr Case?" It only has to be done once! Only a small point, you may say, but begin as you mean to go on.

Reindorp insisted on absolute uniformity of practice among all the clergy of the parish, and absolute uniformity of opinion, at least in public. ‘Don’t let it be dreamed that you could think differently from the Vicar on any important matter, although in point of fact you could willingly murder him’. In fact, he told curates that they were in their training parish to learn and not to think.

And then there’s the bit at the heart of the whole thing:

Above all, be prepared to challenge anyone. You are not ordained to be liked. When you leave St Stephen’s more people should love God than when you came, even if they can’t remember your name, and though some may not come to that knowledge till long after your departure.

Of course the curate in question, Timothy Raphael (later an Archdeacon) ‘found this maddening’ a lot of the time, but recognised in Reindorp someone who knew what he was doing, and in whom others could have similar confidence. ‘He cared about people rather than ideas. He had no great academic ability, nor claimed any. No one has ever infuriated me more, given me more, or supported me more.’

My own practice is less directive, partly by inclination, partly because of the time we live in. I inherited my first curate at Swanvale Halt and Marion came to us as what’s known as a Self-Supporting Minister from a moderately Evangelical background: she probably won’t have a parish of her own to run, and I wouldn’t have felt it appropriate to enforce on her complete uniformity with what I do (I have put in her final appraisal, however, that her disinclination to wear a maniple is an area for development). All that stuff from Reindorp’s letter about clergy being addressed as ‘Mister’, too, comes from a very bygone age in which the authority of the ordained person was deemed to be suitably maintained by a sense of distance.

But sometimes I wonder that I am not firm enough about some things. I want to believe that I choose my battles, and the issues that are worth drawing an absolute line on are few, but that can be an excuse for a laxity that does nobody any good. You’ve got to communicate that this business of the spiritual life is important, that choices have to be made, and that they are serious; and perhaps that requires not that a parish priest be rigid about any particular thing, but give the impression that he or she might be when it matters, and has no thought of being popular. ‘When you leave Swanvale Halt, more people should love God than when you came’.

(Most of the nicest pictures of George Reindorp available online seem to come from his famous Christmas cards, which usually showed him doing something priestly (including talking to the Queen), but they’re copyright to Getty. This one is from Guildford Cathedral, and shows him keeping an eye on the Supreme Governor of the Church of England signing the deed during the consecration of the Cathedral in 1961. He only wore his fantastically gigantic mitre once, on this occasion, before Mrs Reindorp told him it looked ridiculous. ‘The vicar’s wife’, he wrote in his letter to Timothy Raphael, ‘seldom interferes’; but, one might add, when she does … ).

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Surrogate Opinions

Now and again an idea for an assembly at the infant school bubbles to the surface which could go horribly awry. This Sunday at church we kept the feast of St John at the Latin Gate which is of significance to us, and, rather as a few years ago when I told the pupils the story of St Nicholas eating three children in a pie, I found myself being inexorably drawn towards telling them about St John being boiled in oil (of course the point of the story is that he’s all right, just as St Nicholas brings the children back to life). It was all very over-the-top – the Lives of the Saints as re-told by Roald Dahl – and was rewarded by gasps of horror and ripples of laughter at the right points.

But the point of this post is not that at all. As usual I went to the staff room for tea after assembly. Normally the conversation among the teachers, when not concerning the activities or achievements of this or that child, is about diets or what they’ve done over the weekend: yet on Monday it was the presidential election in France. The defeat of Marine le Pen was discussed with something like hysteria-tinged relief, which I thought was a surprisingly engaged reaction for a group of teachers at an infant school in Surrey none of whom had a particularly close connection with France, who I’ve never heard discussing politics as such before. Everyone I know was relieved on Monday, because I don’t know very many right-wing nationalists: the eclipse of Ms le Pen felt like a little chink of light and reason in a world which has seemed gripped by a sort of collective madness since last June. So the staff room at Swanvale Halt Infant School was no different in that respect. But it only struck me later that a fulsome endorsement of an election result in France is a way of expressing what people feel without wading into the painful and possibly divisive marshland of British politics. We can all safely have a go at Marine le Pen: our own situation is a different matter.