Friday, 29 September 2017

Divine Discontent

Fr Andris came for a coffee this morning. I shared my experience of trying to kick-start a second round of Mission Planning by sharing the ideas that had arisen from various conversations over the months, and not getting a great deal of response as a result. I wondered whether I had presented the information in the wrong form, whether it was the wrong time of the year to expect people to think about things, or whether the whole approach was awry. We’d decided to seek another Away Day for the PCC facilitated by an outsider. I explained that I had in my mind an ideal that devising a Mission Plan will involve a series of expanding discussions among a church’s membership eventually leading to the whole church endorsing a document which is then worked through and reported back on, but was now wondering whether this was a flexible enough approach.

Andris said that he’d found exactly the same in his church and wondered whether part of the ‘problem’ (if we think of it as a problem) is that our congregations are, generally, happy and content. They’re not necessarily resistant to change (resistance tends to be generated by fear rather than contentment), but their contentment means they have little investment in the idea of change. A lot of our people, perhaps including ourselves, have been Christians for a long time and the inevitable tendency of decades of prayer and practice is to rub off the sharp edges of our religious experience and to induce an ever-greater sense of peace and acceptance. That isn’t a bad thing: in fact it’s the way our spiritual lives are supposed to develop. What it risks is eroding the awareness that the Kingdom is always beyond us, always something to achieve, always calling us to discontent with a world not as God wants it to be.

That doesn’t apply to everyone. Newer Christians are often more questioning of the way things are, and long-established believers may undergo disruptive experiences which result in a kind of reassessment of their faith which may feel like encountering it for the first time. Such people are very valuable to the Body of Christ as a whole.

We found ourselves considering whether the whole-church model of mission planning is realistic for our church communities, who are happy and perhaps even pleased to be presented with a programme and to have a feeling that someone else has the future of the church in hand, but who don’t necessarily want to shape the programme themselves. It may be that the shaping has to rely on a smaller group of individuals (which may well not be identical with the PCC) who can contribute discontent to the whole process. There are resonances, we realised, with leadership-development models pursued mainly by evangelical churches, or the discipleship-development group at one of the nearby moderate-middling churches one of our fellow incumbents described a few months ago. 'This is all great,' pondered Fr Andris, 'It's how we actually do it that's the problem.'

Thursday, 28 September 2017

The Sights of Basingstoke

Those readers who reside outside the UK (and I think there are a couple) may not appreciate at once the resonances of the name Basingstoke. Within these islands, the Hampshire town is one of a select group of places whose very mention summons up associations of soulless blandness, of modernist weariness of spirit, coupled with a resentful defiance of this image by the governing bodies of the locality. My experience of Basingstoke has been confined to the journey from the railway station to the old church on the high street where I went to a couple of meetings some while ago. I find the excursion through the covered malls and small squares that punctuate them strangely exciting, but it's true, there isn't much to it.

My day off, however, took me to this unglamorous town to find the ruins. Within sight of the railway are the remains of two medieval chapels now surrounded by the understated necropolis that is Basingstoke cemetery. They're good, the ruins. You can see why Basingstoke's heritage organisations puff them a bit, because there's not much old stuff around otherwise. There's not a lot to delay you, even in pleasant sunshine. But they're fun. Really.

The entrance lodge is a fine example of 'rogue Gothic': Victoriana doesn't get much more freakish.

Chapel Hill didn't delay me long, so I took that journey through the malls once more and went to the Willis Museum. There's a display on about Jane Austen at the moment, and an exhibition by an artist who makes tiny cut-out images from railway tickets, which is a brilliant idea. I enjoyed that, and the transgressive thrill of looking out of the upstairs window and observing the good citizens of Basingstoke about their business.

Monday, 25 September 2017


There is a school of thought among clergy, and those who train them, that you should never allude to personal circumstances in sermons for various reasons: maintaining the distance appropriate to authority, not giving the ill-disposed ammunition against you, or exercising a proper reticence over things that may pertain to other people. I don’t follow this line: you, as pastor, are a human being struggling with the business of trying to live the spiritual life just like the people listening to you, and it helps for them to know that.

On Sunday I was talking broadly about occasions when we’re compelled to reassess our relationships with others and our view of ourselves, and described, very broadly, my dealings with someone formerly very close to me, and now less so, and how my conflicted emotions had made me realise that what I thought was me responding to their need actually included a neediness of my own - the need to be useful and to imagine myself as self-sacrificing and generous.

Amanda, a member of the congregation who often gets into arguments with other worshippers about the way the church works and who can seem a bit prickly wanted to talk to me about it. ‘I think there are times when our needs meet the needs of others and something good comes out of it,’ she said. ‘I think of us being a bit like jigsaw pieces, fitting together in a way we don’t always see at the time.’ Not a surprising thing to say, but you often need someone else to tell you what you know.

Amanda looked at the people milling around and drinking tea in the church hall. ‘I know I can be argumentative, it’s the way my family was,’ she went on, ‘but I look around at the church and I see people helping each other and I think, They’re not a bad bunch.’ No, I agreed, they’re not. They can help me along in ways I don't expect.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

To Soothe the Savage Breast

The coat-of-arms of the Royal School of Church Music is fairly normal apart from the little bishop perched on top of the helm: he seems to be holding a small woolsack, for reasons best known to himself and the College of Heralds, presumably.

This occurred to me last week while I was looking at the medal I was about to hand over to one of our choristers marking his fifty years’ service with the Choir. During the notices after Mass I brought Nigel forward and he described how he’d arrived at the then thriving choir of Swanvale Halt church as a probationer, was then given his surplice a little while later, and the choirmasters-cum-organists he’d known in his earlier years and the influence they’d had on him (positive, as it turned out).

Church choirs can be a pain in the neck, frankly, as they have a habit – especially when they are in decline – of assuming they are rather better than they are. When they work well, though, they can be a force for definite spiritual good, not merely in what they may contribute to the worship, but providing an arena for spiritual development and companionship among their members.

There seems to be a proper affinity between churches and music of all kinds. At Lamford we had an enormous choir, nurtured over decades, which provided a musical training-ground for young people from across the town regardless of whether they remained within a Christian milieu or what kind of music they pursued. I remember once attending a concert in the church hall there which included a heavy-metal band of late teens all of whom had passed through the church choir at one time or another (the singer had learned how to do that growly voice metal vocalists often adopt and which can wreck your vocal chords if you don’t do it properly). We have a new organist on the rota at Swanvale Halt, a 17-year-old from the village who hardly had to do more than turn up and hit a note to make the congregation adore him but who is seriously good as well. We also host regular concerts staged by a local music promoter which tend to be in the folk-rock genre (‘old blokes with guitars’, I have occasionally teased, unfairly as sometimes a woman finds her way onto the schedule). The connection between church and music surely arises partly because churches are simply a space to be used, sometimes the biggest space in their vicinity, but it’s more than that. It reflects the lingering sense that a church is ‘owned’ by the whole of the community, even those who profess different religious beliefs or none at all; and because of that it stands dimly for the community’s own identity. We know that ‘communities’ comprise any number of different sorts of people with different and sometimes conflicting tastes, beliefs and experiences, but the church building speaks to the common humanity of all. Music does the same, and this is the link. You may not like organ recitals or folk rock or heavy metal, but there’s nothing stopping you doing so whoever you happen to be. Music of all kinds is made and sent out by its makers to the whole human race. They can’t control whose heart will reverberate to its particular sound. Music is, in that sense, neutral, in the same way a church is. It makes sense for one to shelter the other.

It was a friend of mine who pointed me towards the recent furore at St-Sepulchre-without-Newgate in London, where the leadership has decided to stop non-religious music from being performed in the building. For a church long nicknamed ‘the musicians’ church’ this is quite some decision, justified by pressures on the use of the building, ‘an increasingly busy programme of worship and church activities’, so the website states. As worship seems to take place on only three occasions in the week (Sunday morning, Tuesday lunchtime and Tuesday evening), as there are only a couple of other regular bookings, and as very few people actually live in this part of London, this seems on the face of it an unconvincing explanation. The politics here relates to the approach of the vicar who was parachuted in from the great evangelical hothouse down the road, Holy Trinity Brompton, in 2013, and who clearly finds marrying his own priorities with those he’s inherited at St Sepulchre less than easy. The church has been stung by the reaction to its proposal and is ‘praying and reflecting’ (although given the way these things usually work I’d be astonished if prayer resulted in anything changing, it very rarely does). Most church communities are anxious to find ways to connect with the world around them, and music provides one; but if you come from the rarefied context of a self-confident ecclesiastical corporation like HTB, you see things differently, and policing the boundaries between Christ and the world becomes more of a priority.

One of my spiritual director’s favourite stories concerns the first occasion he opened up his cathedral to the evangelical church in town with whose vicar he had struck up an unlikely friendship. They were preparing for a special celebration service in the cathedral, and S.D. was picking his way through the speakers and cables when he met a stern elderly lady who was part of the cathedral congregation. ‘Mr Dean, what’s going on?’ she asked, tapping her stick on the paving, ‘is there going to be a rock concert in the cathedral?’ S.D. shuddered inwardly and thought he was about to have his ear bent. ‘Oh no, Mrs Simms, it’s just those dreadful evangelicals from Christ Church, they’re having a service here this evening.’ ‘Oh,’ said Mrs Simms, pursing her lips, ‘What a shame. I would quite have enjoyed a rock concert.’

Friday, 22 September 2017

Vanity, Vanity, Saith the Preacher

Someone lent me a book of old postcard views of Hornington, the small town to which Swanvale Halt is appended and with which it has a somewhat conflicted relationship. Its first words are 'Hornington, like Rome, is surrounded by hills.'

And the Romans, at least educated ones who spoke Greek, would have called that setting a new bar for hubris

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Slow Work

There are two points in the year when I find myself reviewing what’s happened in our church life. The first is the Annual Report I concoct for the Parochial Church Meeting in April, and the second comes around this time of year, close to the anniversary of my induction as Rector back in 2009. After the sermon during Mass, the churchwardens come forward with their ceremonial staves and with them, and before them, I rehearse my ordination vows. We’ve done this every year since I arrived (I think) and the churchwardens have changed and my hair is thinner and greyer. This occasion I added the prayer I devised for my induction service, an over-the-top but nevertheless valid and sincere petition for my preservation from hardness of heart and coldness of soul, sloth and rage ‘and all the malice of the Enemy’, as well as asking the prayers of the saints, including blessed Catherine my great patron, for Swanvale Halt church and its people.

The progress we make all seems so painfully slow. In practical terms, we refurbished the church rather dramatically (as you will remember) and we are now just about paying our way each year thanks mainly to more creative use of our facilities. But numerically the congregation has risen a bit and then declined a bit and we are now not far from where we were when I started. And spiritually? There are a handful of people who I think ‘get’ what I’ve been talking about for eight years, the focus on the transformative power of the Sacraments, the slow and deep motion of the Spirit in the life of prayer, the intercession of the saints (probably the element of Catholic spirituality which Anglicans find it hardest to come to terms with). They ‘get’ it either because it was what they always felt and my clear stance has given them permission to run with it, or because there’s been something, some spark, that’s caught their imaginations: but it’s very rare and very small and very slow. There is nothing of the drama of those old-time Anglo-Catholic priests who swept into their parishes and changed everything. Perhaps I should have done that at once: perhaps I’ve succumbed too far to the negative side of the genius of ‘gentle Anglicanism’, that it remains comfortable and complacent and never moves.

My challenge is how I approach the future. I still feel as though there is work for me to do here, but I can’t shield myself from the consideration that someone else might be able to do better. Swanvale Halt is terribly congenial, and there is a lot to be said for trust, continuity and digging in for the long haul: unless it turns out that it’s me that’s the blockage to progress.

. . . . . . . . 

It’s only natural – I may have said before – that in these posts I tend to concentrate on the difficult and rough edges of parish life. I want to say, in case it isn’t clear, that most of the time what has come my way over the last eight years (and a little while before, in Lamford and Goremead) has been profoundly if undramatically good, and occasionally wonderful, and the longer I go on the higher the proportion of wonderfulness seems to be. By the time I retire I might be quite cheerful …

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Under Wraps

The cooking-apple tree in the garden has produced lots of big apples this year. I took to shaking the tree on several occasions to knock some of the apples down, which I gather is a good way to ensure a smaller but better-quality crop. Despite the fairly substandard weather this Summer the fruit is a lot redder and more inviting-looking than in previous years, too (my vine is bedecked with a dramatic quantity of grapes, though whether any of these will survive to ripeness I don't know - we really need a bit more sun). I took some apples down to my mother who stewed and baked them and pronounced them very good indeed.

She advised me to wrap them in newspaper to store them over the Winter, which I've begun to do. It helps stop damp and rot spreading from apple to apple. Previously I simply popped them into tubs and hoped for the best, ending up losing quite a lot to rot or waterlogging when the rain got in. This has never really been that much of a problem as the tree fruits so heavily there have always been plenty left to be turned into purée and chutney, but picking through the bad fruit is a generally revolting process which is best avoided. We'll see what happens with these! Fifteen minutes' work this afternoon filled a tub, but there is more to come ...

Friday, 15 September 2017

A Coincidence of Days Off

It happens very rarely that I and Ms Formerly Aldgate have any time off together, but the planets were in alignment last Thursday and despite her deep reluctance to venture back into the capital that was where we went. We made use of the famed Westminster Abbey Parish Pass. Until about 18 months ago I had no idea Anglican parish churches can apply for a Pass allowing members of the congregation free entry into the great ceremonial church - which is more like a mausoleum for lots of rich people some of whom you've heard of. It was just as well we got in gratis, as the entrance fee is now £22 a head, and what you get for that isn't so wonderful an experience. Visitors are funnelled along a rope-lined route and although a wet Thursday morning outside term time wasn't especially busy that still meant we were sharing a confined space with hundreds of other people all plugged into their complimentary audio-guides, trying understandably to get as much from their visit as they could. There are a few spaces where you can pause and look around, and the chapels were relatively calm as most visitors shuffled past them. Mass for the Conception of the Blessed Virgin was just beginning as we left, a couple of visitors among the throng in the nave dutifully crossing themselves  as the absolution was pronounced. We were glad to escape, really. The Abbey allows no photography within the building, as otherwise the whole circulation system would grind to a halt. This was the last snap I could take before we plunged into the interior. Pardon the reflection.

We thought of going to Leighton House until we discovered the entrance fee there, and decided to return when Ms FA has her National Trust card with her and can reduce the charge by half. However just around the corner in Melbury Road was Tower House, the self-built home of Gothic Revival madman William Burges and now of Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, which we went past without realising what it was, and, on the High Street, the old Odeon Cinema, a gorgeous Art Deco building now in the middle of a redevelopment scheme which is not uncontroversial in the area. 

Instead we made our way south to West Brompton Cemetery where several of the mausolea were haunted by disgruntled looking pigeons, trying, and failing, to look as sinister as the crows.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Venus and Mars (and possibly other places of origin)

It says almost at the start of the Bible, in the story of the Creation, ‘God created adam [whatever adam really means]: in his own image he created him; male and female he created them’, and in Deuteronomy it lays down ‘a woman must not wear man’s clothing, nor a man wear woman’s clothing: for the Lord detests anyone who does this’. That’s pretty clear, isn’t it?

Or at least so the Rowes think: if you keep up with the news you will know that they are the parents of two young children and have now, on different occasions, withdrawn each of them from their local Church of England primary school because of disagreements with the school’s approach to gender. The current quarrel concerns a six-year-old pupil who has sometimes come into school wearing male clothing, and sometimes in female. Their son, the couple say, was ‘distressed’ and ‘confused’, and ‘as Christians’ they objected to what they perceive to be the influence of ‘an agenda’ to abolish sexual difference. On the Today programme they suggested the cross-dressing child’s issues should have been dealt with ‘privately, in the home’ before being made public, and refused to accept that children who perceived themselves as transgender (that is, not conforming to standard gender norms – no one is talking about six-year-olds undergoing surgical sexual reassignment) were being bullied.

Children are, indeed, very concerned with sexual difference. They become aware early on that there is such a thing as male and such a thing as female, and that it’s one of the great organising principles of the world, affecting not just human beings but animals too. They want to find their place in this binary structure, and having devised a model of how it works, can get confused when the world turns out not to fit it. I have a friend whose small children were not just confused but morally outraged when they discovered that she was a whole six months older than their father. ‘The man should be older!’ they both protested, having developed a whole nexus of concepts which connected maleness, age, and authority, a bit like the medieval system of correspondences. Like that system, too, children have to grow out of their grand, all-encompassing notions of sexual differentiation if they are to make sense of the world as it is.

I also think the Rowes are not wrong in that the proposition that sexual difference doesn’t really exist is one of the governing ideas, ideals perhaps, of our time. The parallel insistences that people can, and should, ‘choose what they want to be’ and yet also ‘express who they really are’ strike me as an incoherent attempt to hold together determinism and voluntarism. For my part, too, I think ‘male’ and ‘female’ do exist, objectively, as something more than just differential physical bits and pieces, although I’m not quite sure what constitutes either of them. It’s one of the considerations which affect my views of whether two people of the same sex can celebrate the sacrament of matrimony. And yet I think back to my own experience, which is this.

My dad was a car mechanic, a roughty-toughty masculine line of work if ever there was one (I know girls who are dab hands at stripping an engine, but mechanicking has never been coded as a female occupation). His attempts to get me interested in football, too, were pretty much a dead loss, although I did develop some boyish concerns like space exploration and model aeroplanes.  I knew from when I was tiny that there was a great gulf fixed between my world and my dad’s, and dimly that what I was separated from was a specifically male world of experience, epitomised by Harvey’s Garage in Hamworthy where he worked, redolent with the scent of motor oil and the sound of metal and whistling men. I never thought of myself as a little boy, as such. But I never really identified with girls, either: I was just me, a somewhat sui generis small person not easily fitting into any particular category beyond my own.

That continued into adolescence. Of course I had sexual feelings, but still not a very clear sense of my own identity as a male, and being in the relatively repressed atmosphere of an all-boys secondary school made it easier to let that question slide. I never cross-dressed or explored any sort of unusual sexuality (or any kind at all), but still sort-of conceived of myself as separate from the whole business of binary sexual identity. I think this sense of not being anything very much even continued into university. There, my first girlfriend told me ‘You’re very feminine, but very male’, and though I’m still not entirely sure I know what she meant, it did make me reflect.

As time has gone on I’ve recognised more and more stereotypically male traits in the way I think and act, from not being able to talk on the phone very readily, to having a bent for categorisation and ordering things. And middle-age has brought inescapably home to me my physical maleness, as hair sprouts enthusiastically everywhere except where I want it and gravity gets more and more of a grip on my pitiful frame. Eventually, I will reach the point where my sex, again, makes as little difference to me as it did when I was a child: the chief factors governing my life will be trying to put one foot in front of the other without falling over, medicine, and how I deal with more-or-less acute sensations of pain. But, for the moment, I’m reconciled with being male. I do have the strange sense, however, that I am wearing my maleness – my body, and even my masculine mind, being a sort of garment that I have a slightly distant relationship with. It leads me to reflect that my truce with my gender identity is probably partly to do with dress, as well: as over the years I’ve become more and more comfortable with what is really very conservative clothing traditionally coded as male (which doesn’t mean women can’t wear it – my accountant Ms Death-and-Taxes carries off a three-piece and a wing-collar rather well), I’ve found that the role sort of suits me (no pun intended). That’s when I’m not flouncing about in vestments, naturally.

This all inclines me to think that sex, gender identification and sexuality are not as simple as either conservative Christians or radical individualists might imagine. I think that ‘male’ and ‘female’ have some sort of objective existence, and that it’s a bit silly to claim they don’t, but that they each have performative elements, and it’s just as silly to deny that too. I think the old phrase you hear bruited around (less frequently these days), that a person with a non-standard experience of sexual identification ‘has the mind of one sex in the body of another’ doesn’t have any rational basis, and that people are, generally, happier if they learn to accept what nature has made them; but that they have to work that out for themselves. They should be allowed to do it, as I rather did, without pressure or contempt. And part of the working-out, part of the negotiation of the varied elements of masculine and feminine that make up any individual person, and between that person and the socially-coded nature of gender, might be for a six-year-old to dress as the other sex now and again and experiment with having a different name. If any children around them are confused, calm parents might tell them that in the end, most people are happy being boys or girls, but that some people take a while to work it out. I think children, who are generally more sensible than grown-ups, are likely to take that on board.

Which leaves us with the question of why the Biblical texts are so hung up on sexual difference. Because there’s no getting away from the fact that they are. Various gender-liquid happenings in first-century Corinth drive St Paul positively frantic with concern, provoking his remark, ‘doesn’t the very nature of things show you that if a man has long hair, it’s a matter of shame to him?’ Well, no, it doesn’t, but Christians don’t really have the option, though some try to take it, of saying that this is all just antiquated rubbish we can safely ignore, as there’s a rather important baby going out with that particular bathwater if they do. It must mean something. Paul’s argument is so silly (as our New Testament tutor at college remarked, ‘He can’t have spent much time in first-century Palestine’ – and bearing in mind that he came from Tarsus rather than Judaea, he probably hadn’t) that I suspect its silliness is the whole point of it being there. Sexual differentiation is important, but the content of that differentiation is less so.

Why should this be? My only ideas so far are two. First, that sexual differentiation is the clearest sign of our non-interchangeability as beings. You can’t simply swap one human being for another, as we are different, defiantly, irreducibly different: some of us are male, some are female. From that distinction descends all our absolute and unique worth as individuals. The Sign of Difference is the mark of our freedom. Secondly, the business of negotiating our own place in this spectrum of difference is one which develops our maturity, our sensitivity, and our tolerance for those who find themselves taking another route through it. Without there being a sense that there is a journey to take, two poles to define one’s location against, there is no movement, no negotiation, and therefore no growth. And I suspect (only suspect, mind you) that this is what the Lord, in all his beautiful simplicity and subtlety, has in mind.

P.S. I remembered that a couple of years ago our church Toddler Group was blessed by the presence of two small brothers who more often than not turned up dressed as Snow White. I don't recall anyone, child or grown-up, being either confused or distressed.

Monday, 11 September 2017

No One Shall Snatch Them Out of my Hand

If I were superstitious, I might start to think there was something going on. A youngish person coming to worship at Swanvale Halt Parish Church and 'sticking' is a sufficiently infrequent occurrence to occasion remark. In this instance, it's a woman in her mid-to-late 20s who has even brought her husband along on occasion. This Sunday I discovered they both have short-term contracts of employment at the University, and will be moving to Norfolk in the New Year.

It puts me in mind of the young family who having looked around at a variety of churches when they first came to the area, stuck with us because they liked the nice smooth wooden floor that their small daughter could roll around on without doing either her or anyone else any damage. Mum and Dad were both teachers, he taught Classics (!) at one of the public schools a few miles away and unlike most of the congregation who are very local they drove down the lanes to be with us every Sunday morning. 'We liked the floor, then found we liked the worship and then liked the people', they said. Dad had been converted to Christianity at a big potboiler evangelical church but then discovered he wanted something 'a bit deeper' and had swung round to Anglo-Catholicism. Then he was made redundant after two years here, and they moved to the Midlands. Then there was the couple I married and who showed some enthusiasm about the church, coming to some of our events; their landlord sold the house and they had to move away. There was a couple who came to our Toddler Group one morning with their little daughter, said they were moving into the area and looking for a Catholic-end-of-the-spectrum church, like the one they used to go to in Wimbledon. Mum brought daughter to church once, and discovered, rather to her surprise, that congregational singing distressed her so much she howled her little head off (I sometimes sympathise). Meanwhile Dad's new job demanded his availability at all hours of the day and so he could never commit to anything else despite having been a server at their old church.

It seems that every time someone turns up who might be of some use, circumstances conspire to remove them, and I end up smiling and trying to be enthusiastic about their latest adventure away from the fair parish of Swanvale Halt.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Dictatorship for Inadequates

In his autobiography (which I've already mentioned I'm reading), Fr Bernard Walke talks about the role of gardening in the lives of clergy, and the way generations of vicars of St Hilary, where he served, had altered and affected the vicarage garden. He vigorously rejected the suggestion then being bruited about that Parochial Church Councils should take over the management of clergy-house gardens; but then, he refused to have a PCC in St Hilary at all, not being much of a democrat as far as the Church was concerned. 

Some clergy are enthusiastic gardeners, and some aren't. In the neighbouring parish of Hornington, the last incumbent arrived to find a folder left by his predecessor listing all the flowers in the garden and hints on how they should be managed. The garden of the old Rectory at Clinford just over the way was so huge that it could only be dealt with using a sit-on lawnmower and it had in the past housed an entire Boy Scout Jamboree. I've also seen clerical gardens that are wastelands of brambles and what might optimistically be called meadow grass, and whose tenants' only interaction with them during the whole time of their incumbency is just to look despairingly out of the window at them now and again. 

You may have gleaned that I fall somewhere in between these poles. I am surprised by flowers that pop up and my attempts to plant new ones almost always come to grief. I have, it seems, brown fingers, so I content myself with building the odd folly and otherwise making sure the grounds don't fall into complete decrepitude. 

I mowed the lawn again the other day for the first time since the growing season ended, swathing through the long stalks of lamb's-tongue plantain. Moths which had become accustomed to sleeping the day away in the grass fluttered upward in panic as the lawnmower raged and clattered its way across the pits and bumps of my dreadful greensward. It struck me, not for the first time, what a violent business maintaining a garden is. There's a relatively recent episode of Doctor Who in which the Doctor states 'I hate gardening. It's dictatorship for inadequates,' and then, on reflection, 'Well, it's - dictatorship.' The illusion of peace and order created by the maintenance of flowerbeds and a lawn, the gentle incursion of birds and birdsong, is created at the price of sharp steel tools, the bisection of unsuspecting worms, the endless warfare against ivy and bramble. And if you were in a suitable mood, you might draw a comparison with the rest of a parish, too. 

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Stepping Back a Bit

Well, that was an ill-tempered rant the other day. I don’t mean to be self-indulgent, but sometimes giving a picture of what goes on in a not-very-extraordinary parish has to include some of my frustrations. I don’t think that particular piece was very reflective or helpful, admittedly, and since then have been able to spot some aspects of the context.

Firstly, it strikes me that the especially problematic people I work with are the ones I made contact with before I became rather more guarded and self-protected about such dealings, and once that’s begun it’s not possible to reorder the boundaries of the relationships involved. As happens quite a lot, I don’t recall any specific discussion of how to manage this kind of thing throughout my training, either at college, in the circumstances of my title parish, or the additional coaching the diocese provides. It would, perhaps, assist.

Secondly, I suspect I suffer from problematic models of pastoral ministry. When I was on my way from my sending parish to college, the vicar bought me a copy of George Herbert’s The Countrey Parson which of course contains some lovely and idealistic words about being a priest in 17th-century Wiltshire: some of Saint George’s insights are timeless, but some aren’t, and I’m not the only clergyperson to complain about their view of the world being skewed by ‘George Herbert Syndrome’. If you come from the Evangelical end of the spectrum all your clerical heroes will be missionaries, but if you’re an Anglo-Catholic they are pastors. We have the feast day of one coming up on the 9th, Fr Charles Lowder, who worked himself into an early grave amidst the grinding poverty of Victorian Wapping, and I’m currently reading the autobiography of another, Fr Bernard Walke of St Hilary. Saints these men were, but the world they inhabited was profoundly different from ours. Lowder, and priests like him, were often literally the only professionals in the areas they lived, the only contact the poor had with official society, the only representatives of the services they desperately needed: the parish priest was all there was. Even in the very different context of rural Cornwall, Fr Walke had destitute ex-servicemen turning up on his doorstep to see whether he could find them work, and the truth was that in that place, at that time, he was indeed the best-placed person to do so, because he would have known anyone who might have been in a position to help. Now, the statutory bodies have quite rightly absorbed all that sort of work and the cases that end up with clergy are usually ones who fall outside the standard boxes of officialdom, the mad and sad and those who can’t be helped with any ease. I complained the other day about how hard it is to get those statutory bodies to open up to us, but why should they? The pastoral battlefield is their territory, now, and we clergy are the interlopers, even though the cases we deal with are largely the intractable ones they can’t help, the casualties lying in no-man’s-land.

Finally, were I part of a big church in which work and relationships are regulated in a much more professional manner, in which clergy largely work from an office and in which there are teams of pastoral and other workers with clear lines of responsibility, these frustrations again wouldn’t arise in the same way. Care of people would be the task of the church, not just of the priest, and that’s a more healthy situation anyway. Furthermore, professionalisation (or pseudo-professionalisation) of care provides a psychological means of shoring up self-protective boundaries. A doctor or community psychiatric nurse, for instance, can legitimately say 'doing X isn't part of my job, you need to talk to Y', and within bigger church systems the same dynamic operates, defending the workers within the system as well as, theoretically, ensuring greater competence and efficiency. (The difficulty is that a priest can rarely say 'X isn't part of my job', as the boundaries of their 'job' aren't clear: they are nothing more, nor less, than a publicly identified Christian, and what lies outside that?)

Of course part of the problem, too, lies with me personally, my own irritability and lack of serenity and faith, and that aspect, at least, falls to me to sort out.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Crying Out Loud

Yesterday I had no evening meetings and was looking forward to a quiet night. It wasn’t to be: I had a message from someone I’ve been dealing with for some years and who has said she wants to escape a controlling partner. ‘He’s put a knife to my throat.’ I said unless I heard back from her I’d call the police. I set out into the village and, funnily enough, found the road already crawling with police vehicles – three cars, two vans, paramedics and an ambulance – attending some incident or other, but as I was debating what to do next and had actually dialled 999 she called, begging me tearfully not to bring the police into it. What should I do then? We’d already agreed to meet the following day so she could call refuges and services. Did she want to leave tonight? She changed her mind a couple of times via texts and calls. Eventually I ended up at the flat, waiting for her to emerge. She and her partner threw counter-accusations at each other. A couple of weeks ago I bought her a hair dryer to make her feel a bit better about herself: she says he smashed it up, he says she did it. He alleges she hit him, she says he threatened her with a knife and then cut himself to make it look as though she did it. I got her out with a bag (‘if I leave he’ll smash up all my stuff’, hence her reluctance to go, she said) and into a hotel which, along with a sub to her to replace the cash she says he stole from her, cost me £90. I’ve already tried to put her in touch with a parishioner who escaped from a controlling relationship, but really I can’t pick through the truth and falsehood in this situation.

As well as, usually, three conversations every day with Trevor which notwithstanding their wearyingly repetitive nature may at any moment degenerate into shouting and rage, a tiny group of vulnerable people absorb a considerable part of my time and I don’t even seem to be achieving anything for them. Added to this is the frustration that I’m flying blind most of the time, both in terms of my own inexperience and incapacity and the complete lack of response from the statutory bodies who deal with vulnerable people on a legal basis. I write letters to mental health teams and doctors laying out the problems as I encounter them and have never had so much as an acknowledgement back. I never know what’s really going on. I thought that one of my regular ‘hard cases’ had been quiet lately, and then on Sunday our curate Marion, who is on the chaplaincy team of a nearby prison, told me that she’s been incarcerated for a couple of months, which would rather explain it, but I had no idea that was the case. We now have no local beat PCs who might have kept me informed about the situation: the police parachute in to deal with specific problems and then disappear. The professionals have a more relentless time of it than I do, but they clock off and leave their work behind: I never know what time of day or night I might get a phone call entreating my help with some intractable situation. It’s taken years to stop Trevor calling me before 8.30am or after 8.30pm and he often pushes that envelope even now. I get no guidance, no assistance, no co-operation. I think, on reflection, that washing my hands of this kind of thing in future is probably the most productive response. 

Saturday, 2 September 2017

C'est Fini

A couple of months ago I mentioned my rashly self-imposed task of copying names into our new Memorial Book and how scary it was. It's now done, possibly the only job I have managed really to complete over the course of the allegedly quiet Summer season. My writing would make a proper calligrapher weep, but I was comforted to discover that the earlier book's lettering was far from consistent itself, and contained a couple of blotches and examples of rubbing-out. And that was all paid for. 

My most horrifying moment came early in the process as I was marking out the dates. I had a copy of the book's specification from the binder, which stated it contained '365 pages'. Halfway through marking out January, I began to question what this meant, and discovered that there were actually 365 leaves, giving each date two sides of paper. At times like that you discover what the phrase about your blood running cold means. Attempting to erase all those dates could be disastrous. In the end I decided to cut out small bits of paper from the old book and cover the erroneous dates: it looks bearable. At least the mistake only concerns the first bit of January.

As well as copying in the old names, I've at last been able to add a couple whose relatives have been waiting for two years for them to be written in, plus Sister Mary, our former Sacristan, and the parents of Rick our Verger, as some recompense for his faithful (and equally importantly, unpaid) service. Tomorrow I can take the book down to church.

The Julian Henderson whose name you can see in the photograph is entirely unknown to me. Coincidentally Julian Henderson was also the name of our former Archdeacon, who is now Bishop of Blackburn and arguably the episcopal bench's leading proponent of depressingly jejune conservativism (and also here). If he's actually been dead since March 2006 it would put a different interpretation on some of the encounters we had.