Wednesday, 31 January 2018

A New Style

An unsolicited phone call from the suffragan bishop is a bit like a police car drawing up outside the house - your first thought is what you might have done wrong to bring this about. In fact I was being summoned to a meeting about a local issue. It gave me my first opportunity to visit the new Diocesan House in the Guildford Research Park. A greater contrast with the old premises in Quarry Street could hardly be imagined: that picturesque, intestinal warren of inadequate offices and sloping floors has been exchanged for something that looks like a Shoreditch café (at least the café looks like a Shoreditch café). Everywhere you see the logos of the diocese's Twelve Transformation Goals, blown up so large that their already impressionistic symbolism becomes near-impossible to read. It's all very well and pretty and doubtless far easier to use, to work in and to visit. 

All the emails we get from Diocesan House now include a banner:

It appears in a variety of different shapes and colours, and quite predictably I think it's dreadful. I suppose you might imagine that the young fellow in the beanie hat has just got up from his tent, pitched perhaps at some Christian festival, and is having a good stretch as he prepares for a day's chorus-singing and workshops about leadership and not being gay. But that's not what it's about, is it? This image is a) male, b) triumphalist, and c) about us. The point of the Christian religion, here, is utility, is that it 'transforms' us into some better version of ourselves; it's a self-improvement mechanism. With Christ, we can overcome our limitations, pass our exams, buy that house, wake in the morning, run to the hilltop and punch the air with the rising sun behind us. It's a faith for the modern world, and it's entirely focused on us and our experience rather than God. I don't know. I look at the Church's efforts to rebrand itself and think, What's wrong with a cross? But that's why I'm not working for the diocese.

Monday, 29 January 2018

The Birds

My friend Citizen Puttinggreen the golf journalist recently expressed relief that he could 'just about notice the days getting longer. Spring will be here soon. Have faith.' I did say that there was a certain sense of inevitability about the arrival of Spring (notwithstanding unusual conditions in some years as Rasputina remind us), but it is indeed true, even though January is not yet out and Lent is more than a fortnight away (thankfully - years when you lurch straight from Candlemas to Lent are especially hard to get your head round).

As I went down the hill to church yesterday morning for early Mass I was surrounded by a cacophony of birdsong. It shot little sharp arrows of music around the chilly, silent houses. All the figures suggest that there are far fewer birds around than there used to be, which makes one wonder what they sounded like as the sun rose when they were at their former strength. Hearing them brings the comfort of knowing that you and your own concerns are not the centre of the world's attention, which is probably the most useful service nature provides us (apart from keeping us alive).

Of course before long that morning choir will advance earlier and earlier into the day, until the pesky little things are waking me up long before I need to be ...

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Yehe Shmeh Rabba Mevarakh

It was mortifying to find a few weeks ago that two Jewish friends of mine had cut me off for being an anti-Semite. They'd read something I'd written (not here) opposing nationalism and had saying I didn't believe that 'countries have a "right" to exist, nor that populations have a "right" to have their sense of identity expressed in particular political arrangements that might be defined as a nation-state'. They took this as opposition to the existence of Israel, and decided not to talk to me again. A Welsh nationalist friend thought I was referring to Wales; in fact the piece was inspired by the political crisis in Catalonia rather than anything else, notwithstanding the echoes that might be discerned in other clamours and conflicts. The reactions show the sensitivities around these issues.

In fact, I take the view that if there is one polity in the world which does have a 'right' to exist, it's the state of Israel. This is because it isn't a nation-state in a normal way, created from the sense of self-identity of a group of people who want that identity expressed by political arrangements, customs and laws. It's a country-sized refuge enabling a particular group of people to feel they aren't going to be rounded up and slaughtered at the whim of the people around them as they have been over and over again for three thousand years. You don't have to agree with everything that state does in this cause, but it lends its actions a different tone.

The passionate anti-Israel stance of some people I've encountered in church circles is indeed suspicious, a sort of geographically-displaced instance of the 'Jerusalem Syndrome' to which Western visitors to the holy city are prone. They feel a kind of connection with the Holy Land which seems to lend a right to comment, and an interest in commenting, on what happens there, rather than on any of the other similar conflicts going on around the world. In fact, it's weirder than the unthinking pro-Israelism of some extreme evangelical Christians, which does at least have some Biblical warrant if you take a particular view of the Scriptures. For myself I've concluded that being part of a religion which has disadvantaged, persecuted, tortured and murdered Jews for centuries, and particularly being British given the atrocious record of British involvement in the Levant, affords me no right to pontificate on tensions there at all. 

In 2007 Holocaust Memorial Day fell on a Saturday, too, and it coincided with the Requiem Mass I used to celebrate at Lamford. It so happens that by heritage Il Rettore is Jewish - he only discovered after her death that his mother was in fact born a Jew, which makes him one as well. He knows Hebrew and Aramaic fairly well. As part of the service he solemnly sang the Kaddish, and it's still one of the memories of my time there which moves me most. 

Thursday, 25 January 2018

A Time To Sow

Reading the Centre for Theology & Community's report about growing Anglo-Catholic churches in London, A Time to Sow, is a strange experience for me because one of the churches the CTC picked to study is St Benet's Kentish Town where my friend Fr Peter is vicar. It would be cheeky to suggest that the main thrust of Peter's missionary approach is to add more lace to everything, but it seems to be having some positive effect.

The study has caused a lot of interest in Anglican circles precisely because it examines, quantitatively and qualitatively, a phenomenon which everyone in the Church hierarchy claims does actually happen but which we know happens in far too few cases, which is that Anglican churches in the Catholic tradition are capable of growth. The book identifies some common features between the six churches it studies, all of which are in deprived areas and don't have the resources to do things like employ children's and families workers, but have to work with the talents of the people they have. There are, in a sense, no surprises: all these churches have grown by doing the ordinary, sensible things that growing evangelical churches do as well - making the best use of their resources, releasing the talents of laypeople, being welcoming to newcomers and so on. They haven't grown spectacularly, but definitely. Their priests tend to be relatively young and inexperienced, presumably not knowing that 'you can't do that' and therefore willing to try things their predecessors didn't. I wonder whether the chief effect of A Time to Sow will simply be to encourage parish priests in Catholic Anglican churches to think that they aren't simply wasting their time, as the actual experience of parish communities varies so hugely according to context that you can't simply transplant this or that trick and expect it to grow your own congregation.

One of the points the study makes is that much church growth among London's evangelical churches is in fact driven or at least facilitated by three big churches, Holy Trinity Brompton, All Souls Langham Place, and St Helen's Bishopsgate, each of which has its own outlook and personality. I also got hold of one of the CTC's other books, Love, Sweat and Tears, which tries to get behind the myths about evangelical church-planting in east London. It tells the story of St Paul's Shadwell (someone I knew from London Gothic used to go there) which was saved from oblivion by a hundred worshippers being 'planted' there from HTB, and a group of other churches which were 'planted' in turn by St Paul's after that congregation had established itself. The book reveals that, far from sucking the people, life and energy out of the churches around them as jealous clergy have long maintained, the main function of these church plants has actually been to stop middle-class east Londoners commuting into central London to worship at the big churches, and helping them to stay with their own local churches, engaging with the community and providing a focus for those areas. The plants' effect on other local congregations seems to have been very limited. 

However, although there are some biggish Catholic churches in the Diocese of London (none in the same league as those three huge evangelical ones, certainly, but still perhaps with a membership of a few hundred), the CTC points out that none of them plays the same pump-priming role, resourcing other churches of the same tradition. This suggests a defensiveness and insularity in the Catholic stable which is exactly the opposite to what we say we believe in. A time not just to sow, but to change, it seems.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

All Creatures

The conversation I was having with Lillian the lay reader in the Lady Chapel was periodically interrupted by a scratching noise coming from the Vestry, as though there was someone there. When we investigated the centre of the noises seemed to be the old chimneyplace. Ah, I thought, a bird has got in, as they have done before. But on removing the tin cover over the hearth it was not an avian presence that was revealed, but a squirrel that zoomed back up the chimney again. I hoped it would manage to climb out and replaced the tin sheet, I thought firmly.

Not, as it turned out, firmly enough. I came back to check something later on and found the beast had escaped and wreaked minor havoc around the room, knocking over candlesticks and covering the tablecloths with horrible sooty pawprints, though I couldn't detect any worse damage. How it managed to make the acrobatic marks you can see in the photograph I can't imagine. I opened the door and chased it out.

Later I recounted the incident to a colleague from another parish who remembered having trouble with a badger at their church. Now, I thought, a badger rampaging round a vestry would be a different matter from a squirrel, but it turned out it had been trapped in the churchyard.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

First Messy Church of the Year

Our Messy Church began just before I arrived in Swanvale Halt, relatively early as our then curate had worked for the Diocesan Education Department and heard about it that way: now virtually every church does Messy. Ours has waxed and waned over the course of the last nearly-nine years and now seems to be waxing again – in fact, we had more souls attending last week than ever before, nearly 90. The theme this time was Creation, and thankfully I attracted less flak for my take on the subject than I did on the previous occasion I tackled it, at Harvest Festival in October.

I’ve always taken the line that the Creation story in Genesis is pretty good guess for a Bronze Age civilization, and in fact far closer to what we know the development of the Earth was actually like than any other ancient mythological account. While thinking about what I might say for the talk, it suddenly occurred to me that the ‘creation of light and darkness’ – God’s work on the First Day – could be read as the creation of order, which is why it predates the appearance of the Sun and Moon (or, more precisely, the ‘greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night’) on the Fourth Day. The ‘separation of the waters from the waters’ on the Second Day can be interpreted as the generation of the elements, the building materials for life; and the anomalous appearance of vegetation on the Third Day makes sense if the first life-forms didn’t appear on Earth, but, as many scientists believe, were transported here by meteorites, perhaps from a vast distance, thus predating the arrival of the Sun and Moon. We might one day discover that Genesis is more truthful than it appears, albeit containing a truth garbled, bent and buckled.

Apparently several families experienced tummy upsets in the days following Messy Church. I had my usual doggy-bag of sandwiches and cake to take home and suffered no such ill effects, so I hope our kitchen will retain its star-rating from the Council. 

Friday, 19 January 2018

Distant Prospects

My dream is that once I retire I will write, at least among other things. There are in particular a couple of clerical figures who intrigue me and I would like to know more about them.

Possibly the Anglo-Catholic History Society, if it’s still going twenty-plus years hence, might be interested in one of them, the first Vicar of my home town, Bournemouth, Revd Alexander Morden Bennett. Fr Wagner of Brighton is a well-known figure in the annals of the 19th-century Catholic Revival in the Church of England, but Morden Bennett, his counterpart along the coast, is almost entirely unremarked-on. Like Wagner, Bennett was a man of independent means – he had to be, as the living of Bournemouth was so poorly endowed no clergyman would take it on for the first few years of its existence (Bennett arrived in 1845). Like Wagner, he refurbished the parish church and founded a swathe of daughter establishments which took Catholic practices further than their parent. He didn’t establish his own order of sisters, but invited some to Bournemouth. Like Wagner, his efforts were not universally popular: a schismatic evangelical church was established to combat Bennett’s principles and on one occasion he was burned in effigy as a ‘Papist’ (in Bournemouth!). He defied the boundaries of his parish to evangelise the potters of Canford Heath in open-air prayer and preaching meetings. The wheel of opinion turned, and by the time Bennett died in 1880 he was treated as a hero of Bournemouth’s early history, the church of St Stephen being built as a memorial to him. I’ve seen a portrait photo of him – a dramatically bald, stern fellow seen side-on – but can’t find it at the moment. He must have been a newly-ordained young clergyman when John Keble’s Assize Sermon of 1833 sparked off the Oxford Movement, so he was among the first generation of priests who took the Tractarian message to the parishes, changing the Anglican Church for ever.

Who might be interested in my second intriguing personality is another matter. He was another Anglo-Catholic, though a far less orthodox one: Fr Lionel Smithett Lewis, Vicar of Glastonbury between 1921 and 1953, who seems to have been absolutely central to the development of Glastonbury as a centre of weirdness, an amalgam of Christian and neo-pagan traditions. Lewis firmly believed the stories about Jesus and Joseph of Arimathea visiting the area in the 1st century, King Arthur, and the Holy Grail: he even tried to get what he thought might be the Grail moved to Glastonbury from Wales so it could be enshrined in the parish church. He was instrumental in starting the Glastonbury Pilgrimage, which is still a great jamboree for what’s left of the Anglo-Catholic movement, and was a great friend of the architect and mystical writer Bligh Bond who designed fittings for the church during Lewis’s incumbency; Bond had been dismissed by the Bishop of Bath & Wells as Director of Excavations at the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey in the year Lewis arrived, after talking to ghosts to aid his investigations. Lewis carried out the funeral of the occultist Dion Fortune, apparently accepting her own estimation of herself as a Christian of some sort. What an odd man.

And talking about the clerical figures of the past gives me an excuse to mention PJ Harvey. In 2010, while recording Let England Shake at St Peter’s Eype, she drew a series of pencil sketches inspired by the radio mast which sits dramatically amid the green fields along a footpath from the church: they appeared in Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope magazine the following year, expressing, so Polly said, the way history repeated itself and wove around particular locations. One showed Edvard Munch; one, TE Lawrence. Munch made sense (one Gothy artist paying tribute to another), as did Lawrence because of the Dorset, and First World War, connection. But the third subject, framed against the radio mast? The Reverend Robert Lowman Lang. He’s an even more uncertain figure than Morden Bennett or Lionel Lewis. He seems to have served his entire clerical career in Somerset, and never reached any greater position of responsibility than Rural Dean of Taunton. What was his link to the Dorset singer? As the portraits of Lawrence and Munch are both taken from well-known photographs, the drawing of Fr Lang must be based on one as well; so where did PJH find it? And why is he wearing a pectoral cross as though he was a bishop? There’s not much material for a biography, I suspect, but there’s a mystery, albeit a little one. 

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

What Are You Looking At?

As an antidote to the miserable news last time, here's a photo from the rectory garden. I've shared images of my visiting deer before, but there's no harm in another. They must come from the woods just beyond the garden further up the hill, but I'm still not sure of their points of ingress and egress. There can't be much to eat in the garden at the moment as the piles of discarded apples from the trees are not in a very appetising state now and most of the lawn is moss!

As it is still the depths of winter I am in the throes of The Great Prune which is why the deer is framed by lopped branches from the apple tree. It never ceases to amaze me how much the plants need cutting back each year: a couple of the bushes put out shoots which can get to ten or twelve feet over the course of the growing season. It keeps me off the streets, anyway. This year my pruning activities have been expedited by the purchase of a hedge trimmer, though they seem to be taking just as long as usual even if they're more exciting.

Monday, 15 January 2018


What was I saying about paying attention to beauty? ‘We’ve had visitors’, were the words that greeted me when I arrived for our hymn practice on Sunday evening. The visitors had made their presence felt, disturbing altar cloths and smashing the coloured candle holders at the statue of the BVM and the icon of St John. Altar cloths can be rearranged and smashed glass can be replaced, thanks to the offices of Hayes & Finch the church suppliers; but then I noticed a burn mark across the icon of St John itself. I unscrewed it from the wall and took it home. Below is what it should look like:

When I bought the icon from eBay a few years ago I thought it was just painted directly onto the wood, but the damage reveals that it was made in a far more traditional manner, with a layer of gauze laid on the wood and then covered with gesso. That makes it harder to repair the picture, and increases the sense of loss.

Icons aren’t just pictures: they are sacramental, bound up within the structure of promise and covenant which keeps the Church of Jesus Christ together. God promises to hear our prayers and we promise to make them, and in the midst is the icon, an image of faithfulness made in faithfulness. To attack an icon is to attack more than the icon. Icons have personalities, and even if only I have really invested that much prayer in this one, for me, at least, our St John is linked to the nature and identity of our little group of Christians. I look at the vile blister obliterating the saint’s face and I can feel the burn. Of course the children who did this won’t have thought about it like that: they won’t have thought about it at all. This act isn’t a product of thought.

To attack an image of a human being isn’t that far from attacking a human being themselves. And this morning as I thought about what had happened and the burning seared into my imagination again a thought came into my heart, This is what your sins do. The aggression and desire and fear you direct towards souls made in God’s image leave scorches and burns on you and on the world. You are implicated in this. So God have mercy on me, too.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Details and Distractions

In a world of seeming madness paying attention to the beauty around you is therapeutic. Some beautiful forms are natural, others artificial; some are produced by collaboration between the hand of nature and of humankind. This door ambushed me halfway down the hill towards church this morning, embraced by its wisteria (I think) which awaits the Spring. The door is caught between stripping and repainting, and just for the moment it shows its loveliest face: it won't be anything like as charismatic when finished.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Stress Points

Between Christmas and New Year, Mad Trevor went to A&E at the Royal Surrey Hospital. He had a very low-level, if painful, medical problem which anyone else would have lived with, but because he has essentially a child's impulsiveness and lack of perspective which magnifies any misfortune into a cosmic calamity (I am not exaggerating) and any pain into the worst suffering anyone has ever had, he had to have something done about it. It would have taken a while to see his GP, so he took himself to the hospital. Once there, and seen by a nurse, he was told it would then take a few hours before he could consult a doctor who might attend to him; he was besieged by his usual obsessional and paranoid thoughts which made sitting in a waiting room absolutely impossible, so he came home without any treatment, and had to live with his problem the way an average person might have done anyway.

I don't know whether poor Trevor's visit to A&E would have made it into the figures, figures which show the NHS straining to meet its targets and obligations. He does reveal some interesting themes, though. I remember a few months ago talking about the state of the health service to a local GP who was barely able to conceal his resentment at the resources being poured into general hospitals rather than the lower tiers of healthcare where they might prevent patients having to get as far as hospital. Trevor needed to see a GP, or someone at a GP practice, rather than go to hospital. He needs to have his mental illnesses treated more imaginatively than by a kaleidoscope of drugs which are all more or less ineffective. He needs, perhaps most of all, to have people around him, perhaps even in some sort of residential setting, who can respond to his obsessional thinking and remind him of what's reasonable and sensible, to introduce the degree of perspective which he isn't capable of providing for himself. Along the lines of the support workers the local council used to provide for a couple of years, who took him out for coffee and shopping and helped him tidy his flat; until the council decided they couldn't fund that anymore, and he had to pay for them himself with money he hasn't got, partly because the mental disabilities the support workers were intended to alleviate mean he can't manage his money in the first place.

Put more resources into those aspects of health and social care and it would go some way to alleviating the pressure on acute health care. I'm hearing some voices on the radio today suggesting this, but I doubt it will happen. Instead more money, if more money there is to be, will be directed towards hospitals, towards the aspects of health care that TV dramas are made about, and more and more patient time will inevitably be sucked towards them. The stress points will simply become more and more sore if that happens. 

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Provoking Wrath

It's been a while since I had young men calling at my door selling domestic bits and pieces from a bag, claiming to be ex-prisoners on a work-creation programme. I've long since decided that I won't buy anything from door-to-door hawkers, having done so frequently in the past. It's surprising that you can find little unequivocal advice on the matter, and that what is out there - at least online - seems to cut-and-paste one particular statement made by some body, at some time. But whenever the police have made any kind of pronouncement about it, the consensus has been that, whatever the truth about the young men with the bags of dusters themselves, the 'scheme' they are part of isn't being organised by any official body but by criminals who are, at the very least, exploiting them, and buying their wares helps no one. Since I started turning the hawkers away, they've stopped turning up, which does suggest there is some sharing of information between groups about who will hand over money and who won't.

One hawker came around yesterday, and I refused quietly and definitely to buy anything from him. Imagining, for a moment, that his story may have had some truth to it, it might have been good to have something positive to offer than just refusal to take part in the structure he's part of, but I hadn't worked that out. He went off cursing me, quite literally, and calling me the Devil. I doubt he would have been quite so vehement about someone who wasn't visibly a clergyperson. People are always taken aback and sometimes angrily resentful whenever I refuse to do something they want, I suppose because at some level they see a priest as an index of reasonable goodness and, if the priest won't go along with their desires, it implies that those desires might not be either reasonable or good. 

Sunday, 7 January 2018

The Doorposts and the Lintels

I can't remember how I came across the practice customary in some places in Christendom of blessing chalk at Epiphany so that the faithful can mark the doorframes of their homes and invoke the blessing of the Saviour on the house for the coming year. However it came about, I imported it into Swanvale Halt within a couple of years of arriving and everyone looks forward to it now, as you do to something which is a bit crackers but has some actual spiritual weight to it. 

I should really have had a mass on the day of the Epiphany itself, which would have been Saturday this year, even if it was for just a handful of souls in the morning. But I decided to transfer it to the Sunday, forgetting that that was also the Baptism of Christ - cue a collision of theological elements. Oh well. The Epiphany theme was more to the fore at the Family Service today than the others, meaning I could rope in some younger members of the congregation to help me bless the chalk. Ben held the basket of chalk while Abi and Ewan stood either side with little wooden candlesticks. Ben had chosen to face the congregation so I had to kneel in front of him, but that was all right. Afterwards we took the chalk to the table at the back of church from where people could pick bits to take home. The children won't have known what on earth to make of it, but that doesn't matter. Liturgy is a game, really, just a serious rather than a frivolous one. 

The cypher for marking this year is 20+C+M+B+18. There are differing opinions over what the letters stand for; either the traditional names of the Three Magi, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, or 'Christus Mansionem Benedicat', Christ bless this house. Not that many Swanvale Halt souls inhabit anything that could really be described as a mansio.

A couple of years ago an elderly pair of congregation members marked their house in the approved manner as did Marion our curate who lives opposite. Not far away lived someone from the Roman Catholic congregation who'd done the same. My parishioners soon had a visit from the police, who were worried that there was a criminal gang in the area casing their properties as potential targets and leaving coded messages in chalk. 

Friday, 5 January 2018

Royal Peculiar

Coincidentally, after recounting Oenone's visit to the Royal Chapel of Hampton Court, I was there yesterday, visiting a friend and former colleague from Museum days who has long worked for the Royal Palaces. The mid-week service was a 1662 Prayer Book Low Mass, cracked through at a pace worthy of any Continental cathedral: we arrived about 8 minutes late, and the Chaplain had already got to the Preparation of the Table. The congregation of about 15 included a couple of Palace staff, identifiable by their ID badges, but most were apparently visitors, and you don't want to divert them too long, it's true. The service was virtually all eastward-facing (even I don't do that) and for a moment during the consecration I wondered what the Chaplain was doing that caused the right side of his outline to wobble rhythmically until I worked out he was making the sign of the cross over the Elements, three times, very, very fast. 

I say '1662 Prayer Book': but technically I'm not sure what rite this was, as it did include the 'blessed are you, Lord God of all creation ...' Offertory dialogue which comes from the reformed Roman Rite of the 1970s. Hardly anyone celebrates the Lord's Supper in the absolute Prayer Book form, after all.

The Chaplain wore Gothic vestments and a maniple, which would have filled most of those who have presided at the Chapel Royal over the centuries with horror, and which is Very Sound.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Differing Experiences

There is much made in Church circles of the fact that, while local churches struggle to maintain congregations, those of cathedrals and greater churches are growing apparently without doing anything very special to make this happen, other than what they’ve been doing for a couple of centuries already. My Goth friends Archangel Janet and her partner Mart have recently moved to Glastonbury partly because it’s the centre of neo-pagan Britain; they were visited over Christmas by Ms Valery and Msr Peugeot who are also of that general bent. And they all went to Midnight Mass at Wells Cathedral. It struck me that this was an unusual decision to take and so I asked why, and they were kind enough to tell me.

Archangel Janet herself said she’d ‘Always wanted to go to Midnight mass. The Pagans went to church in the early days and followed both I think. Personally l love the music and singing and the building … I also wanted to see the embroidery up close on the altar cloth’ (which makes sense, from a former employee of the Royal School of Needlework). Valery and Msr Peugeot also said they enjoyed the choral music. Valery ‘did feel slightly anxious that I would be criticised for being a “tourist” ‘ although to an extent Msr Peugeot recognised that that’s what the group of friends were: ‘I considered myself a tourist while there and in a way I went like I'd go to a show (and I don't mean it in any derogatory way). It was pretty spectacular.’

Valery speculated more about why Goths might be drawn to Christian worship: ‘I think every goth has some 'old Catholic' sensibilities, being drawn to mediaeval churches, crosses and (altar cloth) velvet. Or perhaps it's the fascination with mediaeval history and culture, drawing you to the high gothic architecture of churches and cathedrals. And of course the mediaeval music, most of which is religious.’ But although my friends liked the worship, the setting and the music ‘traditional’, they also wanted enough modernity and flexibility to make them feel welcome. ‘I was very surprised when the bishop turned up and it was a woman!’ said Janet, ‘I even got a blessing from her’ (it would have been Ruth Worsley, the Bishop of Taunton). Another friend who wasn’t at Wells on Christmas Eve but joined in the Facebook conversation, Oenone, commented ‘I was brought up Orthodox but I find the Anglican Church much more friendly and welcoming. For example, the mass is in English and I can understand it, people join in the singing of hymns, etc. (Though I have been to a mass at Hampton Court, and hated it … ). My neighbourhood church is LGBT friendly, flies the rainbow flag’.

My friends are aware of the distance between joining in worship and subscribing to dogma. Valery says ‘I do experience a sense of the sacred in churches, although more in a universal way’, and Msr Peugeot added ‘I enjoy the spirituality of places of worship as well as the cultural influences they had on our history but I keep a distance from the teaching and have no part in their rituals’. Oenone finds her experience slightly different: ‘I’d feel more ‘at home’ in a simple country church than a magnificent cathedral where I’d feel more like a tourist. For me, the grandeur gets in the way of spirituality. I’ve been in Buddhist temples and Shinto temples where I’ve felt the same. But many people feel more or less like tourists in church, I think it’s normal, and some churches welcome them more than others.’

At the Midnight at Swanvale Halt a bare minority of the congregation were people I knew, and I can but speculate about what drew the rest of the souls there. It may have been many things, far more than a normal Sunday gathering. The task of those who organise that worship, whether the deliberate grandeur of Christmas Eve or the humbler liturgical offerings week-by-week, is to honour the threads of God-ward-ness woven through those mixed and perhaps inarticulate motivations, and to salute with welcome those who are guests of Christ, not of us.