Sunday, 31 December 2017


At my elder niece's school, a girl called Lydia seems to be the lynchpin around which 'popularity' orbits. But popularity is a fickle principle, and some may find themselves no longer as popular as they once were, with Lydia and, therefore, with everyone else.

'There's a group of girls at school who used to be popular, but aren't any more,' my niece explained, 'I call them the rejects of Lydia'.

I thought 'The Rejects of Lydia' was probably the best name for a Goth band I've ever heard. I look forward to their first EP.

Happy New Year!

Friday, 29 December 2017

Gatton Park

Thursday was a beautiful day, mainly, in contrast to the rest of the week so far, and I took advantage of my day off to take a walk around Gatton Park near Reigate; I was drawn there by a particular historical feature which I’ll talk about in a minute. I didn’t know until setting out that there’s a National Trust car park with a little cafĂ© where you can enter the Park, and on arriving found it jammed with vehicles after the whole population of eastern Surrey had apparently had the same idea as me: I was lucky to find a space. Dogs, bikers, walkers, children, in profusion: then I plunged down the footpath into the Park and they all but disappeared, leaving me mostly alone in the chilly, sunny woods with glimpses through the bare trees of the fields beyond.

The woods part and reveal the parkland, a swooping Capability Brown landscape centred on the lakes at the foot of the slope. Those are private, but you can reach the Millennium Stones, seven sharp slab monoliths carved with verses that muse on the nature of eternity, from the Bible to TS Eliot, and from that strange artwork pass round the stupendously ugly buildings of the school which now occupies the estate to the church (cobbled together from bits and pieces) and, finally, to the focus of my visit, Gatton Town Hall.

Gatton, you see, I remember from history lessons at school as one of the very rottenest of the Rotten Boroughs of the pre-Reform House of Commons. The village was designated a ‘borough’ in 1450 as a bribe by King Henry VI to his steward for his support over the king marrying Margaret of Anjou, giving it representation in Parliament. By the middle of the 1700s the electors of the Borough of Gatton numbered about half a dozen, all of whom were tenants of the Lord of the Manor and not likely to want to vote for anyone other than his preferred nominees. The Town Hall was erected in 1765, a little gazebo like a Classical temple, framing an urn: it was here that the voters gathered solemnly, or perhaps not so solemnly, to elect Gatton’s two Members of Parliament. The urn is inscribed, in Latin, ‘Let the welfare of the people be the supreme law’. It’s a political joke of breathtaking cynicism; it could only have made sense in the 18th century, not just because the constitutional arrangements only existed then, but because an open mockery of political principle would become impossible later.

The photograph of the Town Hall in Pevsner’s Buildings of England shows it surrounded by trees which lend the shocking humour a kind of Romantick melancholy; today it sits hemmed in by school bungalows, next to a children’s playground, facing the old mansion house which is almost as ugly, in its neo-Classical way. It makes the joke seem all the more outrageous.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Christmas Passed

In 2016 the late-Advent and Christmas period seemed entirely manageable, but this year the timing has brought a certain sense of strain, at least to me. Christmas Eve falling on a Sunday has meant that I was preaching five times over a twenty-four-hour period and, I’m afraid, all my sermons did cluster rather around the doctrine of the Incarnation, with a variety of different emphases. This came after the usual repertoire of nativity plays, carol concerts and other events which extends the Christmas season to the whole of the month of December, and backwards.

One of the tasks which occupies the last days of Advent is taking communion to people who aren’t going to be able to be in church over Christmas itself. This is no problem provided you know about them, and can build visits into the schedule. This year we only located one of Marion’s regulars on the Saturday before Christmas: she’d been trying to phone the lady in question but only that day did we discover she’d moved to a care home outside the parish a couple of weeks previously. I ended up arranging to see another indisposed couple on Christmas Eve after they failed to show for the morning service – had Christmas Eve been any other day than a Sunday, it would have made things easier. The liturgical concertina-ing was very strange as the day started out the Fourth Sunday of Advent and then magically transmuted into Christmas Eve partway through; all the usual preparations of moving furniture, changing altar linens, bringing in flowers and reordering had to be done after the morning Mass was over.

The one liturgical event I didn’t have to worry about was the Crib Service, as Marion the curate looked after it. Some of our usual actors and narrators for the tableau-style nativity we’ve done for the last few years weren’t available, so she thought it would be good to change to the more widespread model of having groups of children bringing up figures to assemble the crib scene at appropriate points in the story. I had visions of our china figures smashing to smithereens on the floor as the fingers of nervous infants turned to butter, so the congregation members responsible for the wooden figures of Mary and Joseph that already tour the parish during Advent in the homes of Messy Church families constructed all the other characters too. We used to do this at Lamford – a plastic crib set was used at the Crib Service and the ‘proper’ china ones were put in place afterwards. What we also did at Lamford was to have two younger choristers robed up and leading the groups of children with a pair of acolyte’s candles, so we imported that custom as well, and two of our more reliable youngsters did those honours. It all worked very well, even if some local people still wistfully remark what a shame it is we don’t have real donkeys taking part. If they could find them for me, I’d happily have the wretched creatures there.

Numbers at the Cribbage were significantly up; perhaps because it was a Sunday evening. The Midnight and 10am on Christmas Day were about level, and the 8am Prayer Book Mass down, but numbers for that are so low anyway it means very little, I suspect. The Midnight passed off without incident for virtually the first time, and certainly no repetition of the thurible mishap of last year.

We normally have a midweek Mass on Tuesday, but it being Boxing Day the worship committee had decided against it. It’s my usual day off tomorrow, and whereas once upon a time I would have said, well, I’ve already had a day off this week so I will work, I now take all the time off I can, not out of any particular sense of deserving it but simply from considerations of self-preservation. Boxing Day was my first full day without any church business since November. I will probably go to Marks and Spencer and look for trousers.

The thing I learned about myself was that I don’t think I could ever be a monk. Rick our faithful verger now attends Morning Prayer virtually every day, but in recent weeks he’s started turning up at Evening Prayer as well from time to time. We’ve also been joined in the morning lately by Ken, who is one of the churchwardens of a nearby evangelical parish church. Then he began to arrive in the evening too. As the last week before Christmas drew on they were both there, all the time. I came into church on Saturday 23rd intending to do some photocopying before saying the holy Office and found them both seated in the Lady Chapel ready to pray. ‘Have you been waiting long?’ I asked, fearful that they’d been hanging round for ages, but they assured me they’d only just got there. ‘Only I don’t usually say Evening Prayer at any set time on Saturdays, just when I can get here,’ I went on. ‘It’s very faithful of you to come to the Office in the evening, Ken’, I offered. ‘It’s an oasis of calm amid all the madness’, he smiled. The trouble is that it turns the Evening Office, from my point of view, into yet another liturgical performance in which I lead other people in their prayer, albeit a very low-key one. When you come in to church and your heart sinks at the prospect of joining your fellow-Christians in worship, even if ever so slightly before you catch it up, to the extent that you have to combat the inner thought ‘oh not these buggers again', then your faith has worn quite threadbare underfoot, I fear. That's not what monks are supposed to think about their brethren.

On Christmas Eve when I came into the church after taking communion to Mr & Mrs Stirling, nobody else was there. I said Evening Prayer, in the dark, on my own for the first time in ages. As the liturgical season always changes in the evening, it was the first Office of Christmastide and it was lovely.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

A Moving Scene

In the midst of a late Advent season which has made my head spin a little it is a tonic to witness a vision of the Holy Family portrayed with such serenity as the snow swirls around them, just as it would have done on that first Christmas night, hem-hem. Cal and family came to the Carol Service on Sunday and, being familiar with my mantelpiece full of dreadful religious tat, decided to pass on this find from the back of a drawer, in the expectation that I could give it a more appreciative home. Oy, can I.

Friday, 15 December 2017

Moulettes Again

The West End Centre in Aldershot seems to be a converted school or something of the kind, and is now a performance venue and art space. We went there last Saturday evening for our second rendezvous with Moulettes, the excitingly unusual band we first saw at the wet and chilly Haslemere Festival back in 2014. We weren't aware there was a support act: a young woman singer-songwriter whose guitar work Ms Formerly Aldgate assured me was quite good, but whose vocals only exacerbated the headache she'd brought into the building and forced us back to the quiet of the bar in search of water. A break allowed her to recover and tackle the main event.

Moulettes have sadly lost Ms Skipper who played autoharp and bassoon, and the only instrumentally unusual element is currently provided by lead Hannah Miller's electric cello. This means their sound has become heavier and more rock-orientated, and makes the arty avant-garde ensemble echo the Diablo Swing Orchestra a bit. The music is still exciting, but in a different direction (signature tune 'Lady Vengeance' doesn't work anything like as well with this new mix of sounds). The latest album is inspired by strange sea creatures, which the band members seem to be wearing in the sleeve art, lit uncannily like a series of stills from a BBC nature documentary.

Afterwards we jostled our way to the merchandise table and found Ms Miller herself flogging CDs: I'm surprised she had the energy. 

PS. It turns out that the reason Ms Skipper - or, as I should say really, Dr Skipper - has vanished is nothing sinister, but a decision that she couldn't hold playing in a band together with her day job as a doctor, which is fair enough.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Brightest and Best

The liturgical high point of the nursery nativity service (ah! but there are so many) comes when I lead the children around the church singing Away In A Manger while I carry a helium-filled balloon star. But this year I was caught out having forgotten to buy one. On Sunday evening I popped a note through the letterbox of the florist's in the village (they also sell balloons) to ask whether they could put one aside for me. It was only on Monday morning that I remembered that there was a backup option - the silver foil star-on-a-stick the Infants School had used for their Christmas production last week.  On my way to church in the wind and sleet I went to borrow that, and then battled round to the florist's where a balloon was indeed waiting for me - blue rather than silver or gold, but it was considerably better than nothing. But when I got into the church and popped the balloon on the altar, instead of soaring upwards majestically it flopped straight to the floor! I would have to rely on the school star after all. 

9.30 came and so did the nursery children, making their way along the footpath with the staff, nearly sixty souls all told. I said hello and we lit some candles and I turned to my props - and the balloon was now floating! As Rick our verger pointed out to me later on, it must have been the chilly weather outside the church contracting the helium so that the balloon failed to inflate properly; brought into the warmer surroundings of the church its aeronautic qualities were restored. 

That's the scientific explanation. I and the children agreed it was a Christmas miracle, or an Advent one.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Comfort O Comfort My People

‘We and the evangelicals do believe in the same God, after all,’ I once feebly told my spiritual director. ‘But do we?’ he countered. ‘I’m not at all sure we do. When I hear some people on the extreme end of the evangelical wing of Christianity talking about it, the God they describe is really quite different from the one I imagine.’

You can ignore this for most of the time. But occasionally you encounter it stated in so brutal a manner that S.D.’s reasoning seems no more than the plain truth. Here is the core of the Christian message, according to a commentator on a blog post I read the other day.

… both essential elements of the Apostolic Gospel: the terrible truth and warning that we all face from birth onwards the wrath and condemnation of God and we are all born with a nature inclined to evil; and the wonderful, sincere, genuine command, invitation, and exhortation to all of us to respond to the love, mercy and grace of God by repenting and submitting to Christ in his atoning propitiatory death and life giving resurrection, and thus to be delivered from that wrath and condemnation and to be ultimately conformed by the Holy Spirit to the image of God’s Son.

Put these strictures another way and I don’t dissent much from them. It is, indeed, a core element of the Christian faith’s account of human nature and the human situation that we are fallen, unable by our own efforts to be holy or to choose the good, to be anything more than moderately acceptable pagans; that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ repairs this damage, and that to be repaired we have to turn to him and allow him to do his work. It’s the same idea, re-expressed. But the phraseology and arrangement of this statement, this creed, is the whole point of it: to ‘put it another way’ would be to rob it of its power, for those for whom it resonates. Wrath and condemnation is its emotional crown, and satisfaction at it the lavish pleasure at its centre. It is, genuinely, a different imagining of God from mine, and I have no doubt from the great majority of all the Christians I know who I call, or might call themselves, evangelicals.

You could say much about this. The phraseology of divine wrath is there throughout the Scriptures; we can see the understanding of what it means widening from a belief in God’s jealous and personal hunger for the loyalty of the people of Israel through a sense that he will punish not just unfaithfulness and ritual transgression, but all injustice. Finally, in the writings of St Paul, it becomes a way of describing an existential state and an eschatological hope, the knowledge that you are radically estranged from God on the one hand, and the promise that evil will one day be destroyed and purged from creation on the other. Wrath refers to both these things. It is not, however, anywhere abstracted into a neat phrase that imputes to God the human emotion of rage; still less that he looks on humans with that kind of rage until they follow a certain specific set of actions. Evangelistically, you wouldn’t use this kind of language: most human beings, left to themselves, aspire to be nothing more than ‘moderately acceptable pagans’, and it is waking to the grand love of God which throws into relief our own unloveliness. Without that, we don’t see the Fall for what it is: and God’s wholesale ‘condemnation’ of humanity looks arbitrary, pathological, and unjust. It’s exactly this process that Paul grapples with in the convoluted, paradoxical 7th chapter of Romans: ‘Once I was alive apart from law; when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died’. It takes a revelation of holiness to show us what’s really going on, and God’s definition of holiness is Jesus. The Church’s proclamation of the Good News should start with him, not with us. The primary fact of the Christian revelation is God’s nature, not our need.

Hearing that ‘we all face from birth onwards the wrath and condemnation of God’, many people will think first of children. Nobody should doubt, or could doubt if they spent long with them, that small children are as marked by the Fall as grown-ups are; if they are ‘innocent’ it’s because they’re inexperienced, as yet unschooled in the dangers and horrors of the world and how they might affect them, not in the sense that original sin, our common inherited tendency to go astray, doesn’t touch their acts. But virtually every human being will revolt against the idea that God looks at children, at their children in their arms, with rage and disgust. And that isn’t what we see him doing. God incarnate in Jesus Christ gathers children in his own arms, children as deeply wounded by the effects of original sin as any grown-up is, and blesses them.  He makes them the measure of the faith of adults, even though they haven’t made any conscious expression of belief in him (I can imagine extreme Protestants suggesting they might have done, but such would be a fond invention and an unwarrantable addition to the holy text). He does this in Mark 10, and a moment later in that account he can be found looking with love on someone else who hasn’t expressed any faith in him, either – except to come and ask him a question, a childlike act too.

The closest Scripture comes to that ‘evangelical’ creed is a passage in Ephesians 2. ‘Like the rest’, says Paul in that text, ‘we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions.’ That phrase, ‘objects of wrath’ is there, surely, yet you see easily how mercy and wrath can, according to the holy Apostle, co-exist in the mind of God, even if not in ours. There is no clear, sequential process. To illustrate this with a picture – in fact, to supersede it by one – which shows God’s expression flicking from contorted frown to beneficent smile as we pray the Prayer of Faith is to traduce the Scriptures, and Him.

I would like to offer that the Gospel is more this: the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ shows us the truth about ourselves and the world; and the truth is, that the unconquerable love of God is the great fact of all creation, that the sign of love is the Cross, and that though our first ancestors fell away from that love, and we are permanently wounded by their fall, he has not abandoned us, but in Christ reaches to lift us out of death into his coming Kingdom. Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Friday, 8 December 2017

Shifting Perspective

My first brush with political life at University late in 1988 found me plunged into the midst of the merger between the Liberal Party and the SDP. I attended a meeting of the student group attempting at that time to call themselves the Democrats (later to become the Social & Liberal Democrats, and finally just the Liberal Democrats, which is the title which has sort-of stuck): I was instantly given an insight into what was happening as the Secretary of the society, Comrade Tankengine, sat virtually biting his ring-binder, emblazoned with a sticker labelled ‘I’m Staying Liberal’, while the President stood beside him saying exactly the opposite. I got to know Comrade Tankengine fairly well and contributed ill-natured screeds now and again to the satirical-political newsletter he used to produce. In those days I found myself definitely opposed to the European Union, that sprawling behemoth which managed to combine grinding bureaucracy with destructive capitalism. Comrade Tankengine didn’t see completely eye-to-eye with me on that, though he appreciated where I was coming from and allowed me to say it in print.

As I sat with the radio this morning and heard Mrs May and Mr Tusk announcing the agreement which enables the negotiations between the UK and the EU to proceed to the next phase – whatever the ambiguities of that agreement – I thought of how far I’d come, and why. I ceased to think of myself as any kind of liberal, philosophically, long ago, concluding that liberalism was insufficient to answer the difficulties human beings face. The EU referendum campaign last year, in which I havered and hesitated and changed my mind repeatedly until, surveying the massed ranks of madness on the Leave side, I concluded I had to vote to Remain, forced me to face another change in the way I view political priorities.

Frankly, money has become my ultimate concern. Not my own personal finances, which are likely to remain reasonably healthy unless there’s a complete social and economic collapse, an eventuality the UK’s membership of the EU will probably have no effect on either way. Rather I look around me at how hard things are for many people I know, how public services are pinched and restricted, how mean-spirited and sclerotic the benefits system has become, and I really, really don’t want these aspects of British life to become any worse. Spiritually, a downward spiral of resources and services is hardly the kind of national environment which encourages optimism, kindness, and openness to the world: it was disproportionately the poor who voted to Leave. Monetary security, like physical security, reduces the grip of the fear and rage which ever threatens to engulf us. Money’s important, or rather, security is: it produces the things we really value.

So now I care very little about abstract matters of government and control, definitely if the choice is between two structures which both allow people to participate in governmental and economic processes – say, the UK within, or the UK outside, the EU. The question is what gives people the greatest scope for self-expression, mutual support and organisation, and problem-solving. If they’ve got that, they can cope, and gradually improve their condition, which is as much as anyone can ever expect. Everything else is detail.

It’s a surprise to discover what really bothers me, and how prosaic my concerns ultimately are; chastening, in fact.

"Who cares where national borders lie
Who cares whose laws you’re governed by
Who cares what name you call a town
Who'll care when you're six feet beneath the ground"

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

The Holy Well of Eastbourne (perhaps)

Back in the days of the old Source magazine paranormal researcher Alan Cleaver wrote a piece for it on holy wells as 'Wormholes in Reality', places where people might slip from one dimension to another. One of the individuals he mentioned was Donald Dent of Exning in Cambridgeshire, the man who allegedly vanished in 1975 after having visited the holy well nearby, and the other was Jessie Earl, the young woman who disappeared from her bedsit in Eastbourne in 1980 near the area called Holywell west of the town centre. There's only one other mention of Donald Dent online which makes me wonder whether he ever existed at all; while poor Ms Earl's body was found nine years later, meaning that her disappearance was entirely explicable, if, as yet, a crime that remains unsolved. Holy wells had nothing to do with either event, or non-event, yet the Holy Well of Eastbourne has remained in my imagination, and in other people's.

My friend Ms Kittywitch has recently moved to Eastbourne where she grew up, and last week I went to visit her new residence, a nice town-centre flat presided over by her ageing Siamese cat. She had to wait in for a parcel, so as the light faded from the day I went alone to find the Holy Well. 

Although eighteenth-century works mention the Well, and the name dates back as far as the 1300s, its actual location was unclear. Then in 2009 a group of local people identified it as a spring dribbling out of the chalk cliff face not far from the Holywell beach huts. It was cleared up, decorated with a wooden name board and a cup for the water, and even blessed by a Catholic priest (there's a video of this event available). It isn't entirely clear that this is the historic site of the original Holy Well, but, as is the manner of these things, that probably matters less than the fact that people treat it as though it was. 

When I found it, a couple of hundred yards beyond the beach huts, the tides had washed a layer of pebbles and shingle up to the foot of the cliff, inundating the big stones placed there to mark the well-basin. The water was no more than a dribble, and the cup and framed account of the well's history had gone, replaced by a rusting supermarket basket on a ledge: I'm not sure what that's supposed to signify. But the white crags make this an unusual well, strangely untamed, even if I certainly don't fancy sampling the water.