Friday, 30 June 2017

Natural Church Development

Fr Andris, who is my ‘mission partner’, meaning he comes and has coffee with me every few months and we talk about how the mission development process is going, lent me Natural Church Development by Christian Schwarz. It wasn’t a work of great complexity and I was able to skim through its 130 large-printed pages in something over an hour. The book arises out of a research project carried out in the early 1990s among 1000 churches across 32 countries, so it represents a lot of data. The central contention is that it shouldn’t be hard for a church community to grow: growth should, and does, happen naturally when the right factors are in place, and those factors turn out not to be any particular form of worship, ideological assumptions, or even structures, but things such as whether people are enabled to develop and deploy their gifts, whether there are groups smaller than the church as a whole to let this happen, whether loving relationships within the church are facilitated. There are eight of these elements, Christian Schwarz avers, and none can be missing, drawing on the metaphor of a barrel which can only hold water to the top of its shortest strut. He then goes on to talk about ‘six biotic principles’, concluding from the way nature works that there are principles behind organisational development which reflect God’s will, and that bit of the book I find a bit harder to swallow; but the basic idea seems sound enough and reflects what I see looking around.

I sat down and tabulated Schwarz’s eight growth factors alongside our Twelve Church Principles, the diocese’s Twelve Transformation Goals and the Church of England’s Eight Signs of a Healthy Church (phew), and drew the connections between the statements, making a complicated, multi-coloured network: proper ‘messy church’, that is. The multifarious links make the point that these independently-derived systems are grasping at the same sort of ideas, which gives me some optimism.

I’ve already said to my lot, basically, you can’t choose to be a growing church, but you can choose to be a good church, and this research suggests that if you are a good church, you’re likely to grow. The caveat is that 1996, when the book was published, was a long time ago and much has happened since then. Many churches are much weaker, and the Church’s connection with society is much reduced, meaning that the pool of likely activists, likely well-wishers, and likely converts we have to draw on is that much shrunken. For many churches, growth may be beyond them, no matter what they do.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Happy Gardening

About a year after I moved in to Swanvale Halt rectory the cypress trees along my drive were cut back. Cypresses grow like nobody's business, however, and a couple of months ago my neighbours in the 1960s terrace adjoining the rectory asked nicely if I would consider restraining them again. They were certainly beyond me doing anything about them myself (the trees, not my neighbours) so I was given the name of a helpful tree surgeon by the Diocese and a little while ago he visited and did what was necessary. The difficulty presented by this horticultural exercise was that one of the trees had died and its removal has opened up the ugly and ragged gap you can see in the photograph. It's also opened up an unanticipated vista which allows me to sit on my sofa and regard my neighbour's kitchen, and them, uncomfortably, me. 

Last week I went to the garden centre and bought a conifer to plug this gap. What on earth possessed me simply to grab the first potted tree I saw on the unconscious assumption that they're all the same I can't imagine. They aren't. The one I bought will grow no more than about eight feet high, and I thought to look at the label, revealing this information, only once it was planted. So now I have a proper cypress to plant and will move the silly little conifer (which I can't exactly take back) to the site of a former tree in the back garden which died a year after I moved in. 

Clergy can claim against tax for their garden expenses, though I never have as mine have always been very modest. Other clergy I know have more justification in doing so: one of my former colleagues had a garden so big it could accommodate an entire Boy Scout jamboree and needed a sit-on petrol mower to deal with. But I think I will make a claim next year: not only has cutting back the cypresses cost nearly £600 but another neighbour has requested I cut back the big lime tree in the back garden, and the diocese says it only pays for tree works 'if it's a matter of health and safety'. 

This morning has already been enlivened by the visit of a cheeky bullfinch, and because such a visitor is a welcome one, here, albeit in a blurry photograph, he is.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Black Clouds and their Dispersal

That promised upbeat post isn't coming quite yet, I fear. S.D. likes the idea of there being clouds of melancholy which sort of hang around waiting for someone to encounter them, and that you can blunder into them unawares and take some time to re-emerge. 

As sometimes happens, I was in one of these over the weekend, and arrived in church on Sunday with my mind primed for misery. There weren’t very many people around and some of the most active people in the church are away for all sorts of different reasons. Anyone under 70 was in short supply. Debbie our ordinand (‘our ordinand’ no longer, but ordained) will now be reeling around the southern suburbs of Ipswich as she gets used to her training parish, removing another enthusiastic presence from Swanvale Halt. As I was on my way down the hill I was accosted from a car by another couple: ‘we won’t be in church this morning, our grandsons are with us’. Family as rival to faith rather than partner with it. Never have I got so close as I did yesterday just to walking out in despair at our ability to have any impact even on the lives of those who are the most faithful. ‘It’s hardly uplifting to suspect that you’re merely in the business of spiritual terminal care,’ S.D. had reflected when I saw him. Of course those people matter as much as anyone does, and our hearts should be set in heaven and not on earth and its vicissitudes. We know that; ‘It doesn’t really help, though, does it?’ S.D. concluded.

I was deacon at the 10am mass, so not presiding, and as it happened not preaching either. I sat and listened to Marion our curate talking about Jeremiah 20 and how in church life we tend to cover up what we really feel, worried that it’s not appropriate. I wondered how far I could share what I felt, how far it was real, how far it was merely neurotic, and how far it would be helpful or harmful for my grimmer emotions to be let free to lash around the church. Gradually it became easier to ignore my sloshing inward negativity. The adrenalin of doing a big christening service with lots of children kicked in: at one point I was leading some prayers and opened my eyes to see a little girl in the process of knocking over the Paschal Candle, just in time for me to reach out and catch it.

This morning I sat with Zechariah the prophet and read what he had to say. ‘When you fasted and lamented in the fifth month and the seventh month for these seventy years, was it for me you fasted?’ the Lord asks the people. The answer is clearly no, which is why they end up driven out of their city and scattered abroad. But that’s not the end of the story: ‘old men and women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, and the streets shall be full of boys and girls playing. Even though it seems impossible to the remnant of my people, shall it seem impossible to me?’

Caught up in our own particular circumstances, it’s hard to see beyond them. This time of the purging of the Church, which still has to give up its desire for power and success, means it’s a surprise anyone still wants to come to church at all. We have fasted for entirely the wrong things. But this is the long story of God’s people, and this oscillation, this wave, moves through the narrative again and again. The remnant turns again to God, and things change. Our call is, as it always is, to persist.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Mutual Enrichment

The SCP was in something of a glum mood the other day (a splendid and very widely-applicable word, ‘glum’, I don’t use it enough), contemplating the depredations of evangelicalism across the diocese (and I hadn’t even raised the matter of the proposed parish share system).

The very first post I made on this blog, eight years ago, concerned a tall tale told in the parish of Elmham near Lamford, which I strongly suspect was put about by the then incumbent of that church, a man of some peculiarities himself. Fr Donald looks after Elmham now, and is in rather better favour with the powers-that-be than his predecessor. Because Donald is thought of as a safe pair of Anglo-Catholic hands he occasionally has ordinands or curates from evangelical parishes sent to him to get a dose of an alternative way of doing things, and has lately been working with one of these, a curate who’s been ordained for two years now. ‘He said that before he came to us he’d been warned that he should on no account receive communion from me, because I was gay and he’d go to hell,’ Donald told us. He’d go to hell! I related this to Ms Formerly Aldgate who commented ‘it’s like the idea people had in the ‘80s that you could catch gayness’.

That kind of prejudice is one thing, and Donald said the curate had admitted that ‘the idea seemed completely unsustainable within two days of me getting here’. More concerning, perhaps, was what Donald had also found out about this new priest’s experience: two years into his curacy and he’d only done one funeral service; he’d never led a school assembly; never taken part in a meeting of a community body. That’s not what his church does. Any kind of community-based, pastoral ministry isn’t on the agenda there. Clergy there are preachers and ‘mission leaders’, not pastors. The assembled SCP members fulminated and huffed about how pastoral ministry was the core of being a proper priest. ‘That’s what I got ordained to do’, said one.

When a church gets bigger, and more laypeople get involved with the work of the Body of Christ (which is exactly what you want to happen), it’s all too easy for a clergyperson to think that their role of leadership and strategy means that they should always delegate pastoral, community stuff to laypeople. The temptation is to create a hierarchy of church activity in which taking communion to an old lady who can’t get to church, or visiting a family with a poorly child, or helping distraught next-of-kin with a funeral service even if they’ve never been anywhere near the church, or speaking to a group of fidgety six-year-olds, or – God help me – going through with schizophrenic Trevor for the tenth time in a week why he isn’t being persecuted and needn’t be afraid, is fundamentally less important than writing a sermon or reorganising church committees. Perhaps I see this temptation more acutely because I’m not much of a pastor and am bad at it, and heading out to the hospital to see a member of the congregation is something I have to grit my teeth a bit to do. I didn’t get ordained for the sake of this aspect of the work, but it’s vital – it is, in metaphorical terms, washing the feet of Christ’s poor.

To miss it out or downgrade its importance is to miss what being an ordained person is, not just because it’s part of what you’re supposed to do, but because it’s part of what the Body of Christ is supposed to do and you are in yourself a sacrament of the Body of Christ. That is why you’re ordained, set aside from the laos as a whole. You represent what the whole of the Church is intended to do, and if you didn't do it, eventually nobody would. The pastoral ministry would wither from the heart of the Church first, and then from the whole of it.

Of course most evangelical churches are rooted in their local communities and do exactly the same kind of pastoral work as Anglo-Catholic ones. Also the training of curates in this diocese does insist that they should have experience of pastoral stuff, which may be exactly why they get sent to places like Elmham, not merely so they can learn what a thurible is and which way round you wear a chasuble. What a placement will find harder to do is to combat the instrumental, technocratic concept of priesthood which seems to be creeping across the Church – and that’s the deeper issue.

And at some point I will post something vaguely cheerful.

Thursday, 22 June 2017


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 calices: bride-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.