Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Can You Hear the Donkey

The children's Palm Service on Monday couldn't have gone better. I was able to put out the bollards along a completely empty street on Sunday night to block off spaces for the donkeys' trailer, and came to church early on Monday to find that they hadn't been moved or interfered with in any way. Just before 9am as the children massed in the church hall the green trailer hoved into view at the end of the street. 'Did you have a good journey?' I asked Mr & Mrs Norelake who are the donkeys' minders, assuming they had as they were here bang on time. It turned out they thought they'd had an awful journey, delayed by an accident for half an hour and only arriving on time with the aid of prayer. But the sun was shining and faces were happy. It couldn't have gone better. 

I'd only remembered the night before that I had to preach a homily at the service. The week I was recuperating from my op I missed Church Club at the Infants School, when they'd done the story of Jesus's entry into Jerusalem. The craft activity was making a donkey collage, which one girl had asked whether she could turn into a unicorn. This transforms one's mental image of the Entry Into Jerusalem but curiously a bit of Googling reveals that she isn't the first to have had this idea (there are also some remarkably weird images involving Barack Obama riding a unicorn, Jesus cradling a baby Tyrannosaurus, a Tyrannosaurus riding Jesus, and any other combination of these figures). Anyway, I found myself on Monday saying how of course Jesus didn't ride a unicorn, but a donkey, just an ordinary donkey, grey and not grand or beautiful and probably a bit smelly, but he needed that donkey so the ancient prophecies could be fulfilled. And we may not be grand or special or beautiful, more like the donkey than the unicorn, but Jesus still needs us too, to do his work today. 

Monday, 26 March 2018


Talking of music, as we weren't, Palm Sunday at Swanvale Halt usually concludes in a performance by our augmented choir of some piece of sacred music. The members have, in the main, known each other for years and this event is wired into their calendar. If things go well, we have about fifty souls in church, half in the choir and half the audience, and there's a cold buffet afterwards. 

This year the music was John Stainer's cantata The Crucifixion. It's not as bad as one of the other standbys, JH Maunder's genuinely awful Olivet to Calvary, but to me it's still really quite dull Victorian fare, a stodgy pudding of a piece that includes about ten seconds of genuinely interesting music scattered through its twenty movements and thankfully concludes with what we now know as the hymn 'All for Jesus' for the whole congregation to sing. At least everyone knows that. At least I know it, is what I probably mean. Stainer intended The Crucifixion to be sung by average church choirs, which is probably why it doesn't contain anything that remarkable. 

On occasions like this, when questioned what I thought about the performance, I always say something along the lines that it went very well and avoid facing the unpalatable truth that most of the time I'm fighting to stay alert. This time, several choir members spontaneously mentioned how moving they find the whole experience and how affecting singing the piece is. I always introduce it as 'an act of devotion' despite the black-and-white choir livery, dickie-bows and concert format, but this brought it home to me that for the people who perform it, at least, it very much is that. That makes me feel a little kinder. 

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Rend your Hearts

Last year we bemused the breakfasters at the café outside the church as we processed along the street for Palm Sunday. It was too chilly for much outdoor coffee-drinking today, though the weather was quiet enough for us to take our banners out.

The reading of the Passion always catches me out. It's strange how I know these texts - it was Mark this year - almost off by heart, but hearing them read is always like falling into some intense place, enclosed and frightening. In Mark's Gospel, Jesus is brought before Caiaphas the high priest (though Mark does not name him) who, eventually, asks him outright whether he is the Messiah. 'I am', Jesus responds, ego eimi in Greek. 'I am' is of course YHWH, the Name of God, but this doesn't even look much like a play on words, and it isn't as though that would have made it any better. Caiaphas tears his robe at the blasphemy. Is he playing to the gallery, or does he mean it? There's no reason to think he doesn't. At this moment of absolute and inescapable decision he sets aside everything that Jesus has done and said - and how easy it is to do so, Caiaphas wasn't there - and rejects the horrific conclusion to which Jesus's ministry invites anyone he interacts with. Of course he does. He defends the historic faith of his people, which has bound them together through war and persecution for long centuries. Any of us would have done the same. 

And so into Holy Week.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Letting it Wash Over You

We were discussing the worship life of the church at the Mission & Outreach committee last night. Attendance at the Family Service, which peaked in 2015 when we were getting between 90 and 100 people consistently for several months, has juddered downwards and for quite a while there have been very few 'families', in the sense of groups with young children, present at all, thus rather invalidating the whole notion. We're not the only church locally to be experiencing this. 'We should have more hymns that the children sing at school', suggested Margaret.

The trouble is that the children don't sing that many hymns at school. They learn songs for specific occasions, including, perhaps, less than half-a-dozen actual hymns throughout the year. These tend to be from the Out of the Ark stable written by Mark and Helen Johnson, some of which I think are very good indeed. They're often profound as well as simple, and have good strong tunes, and when possible I do transfer them into the church repertoire ('Hosanna to King Jesus' has made an appearance on Palm Sunday and this Easter Day the 10am mass will culminate with another song). But the other music they're exposed to isn't easily transferable. The head teacher attends an evangelical Anglican church in the south of the county and as the children gather for assembly she commonly plays a worship song from Youtube. Sometimes these are very trad indeed - during Pirate Maths week I found myself listening to 'Eternal Father strong to save' and getting a lump in my throat - but most of the time they are modern and not all that helpful. The other morning it was this, 'This is Amazing Grace' by Paul Wickham:

That's quite nice, I thought, as I sat there, and the lyrics are OK, so I looked it up when I got home. I still thought it was nice, undemanding pop, but I realised I couldn't do anything with it. Not only does it really need a band that includes drums and keyboards and some enthusiastic singers up the front, but I can't imagine anyone really singing it apart from them. The children don't - the worship songs are on in the background, and that's all. Occasionally you can see them swaying or bopping gently in time to the music, whether it's modern or trad, but that's all.

On the occasions I've been to full-scale band-led worship in evangelical churches, it's struck me that the congregation doesn't really sing in the way a traditional one does. What they do is vaguely join in with what the band is doing. They put their hands in the air and follow the words on the screen. They pick up the tune (which is often quite hard to pick up), lose it for a couple of bars, and then pick it up again. They waver around the notes, up and down. However, it doesn't really matter what the congregation does, because the band is leading the liturgy anyway. It's the way you behave at a pop concert, and it's a markedly different experience from singing traditional hymns. The music is really just the framework for your own devotional thoughts. It is - I suggest perhaps provocatively - not very different from the old Mass where the schola sang the plainchant settings and the congregation knelt and counted their beads and let them get on with it. In both cases, the music is a sort of pious miasma that flows around you and shapes your own prayers, rather than you engaging with it very directly. This model of worship works by releasing the attention so that the worshipper can lose themselves in their own thoughts.

In a standard Anglican service, however, everyone is really concentrated on the words. They follow the service in their booklets and the hymns in their hymnbooks. The concentration is part of the meditative process of practising the presence of God. It works, in so far as it does, by focusing attention; it's quite an intellectual business. 

I don't think people appreciate this enough, and I didn't until I took part in a bit of evangelical worship a few years ago. This is why thinking that you can simply transplant modern worship songs into trad worship patterns doesn't work, even though there are certainly modern hymns by evangelical musicians which are traditional in form and much easier to incorporate (Stuart Townsend writes a number of these). They're designed for a different sort of experience, an experience not just distinct in form, but in nature.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Breaking Faith

'I am now at a point where I no longer feel any guilt about my loss of faith’, wrote Victor the widower to me, ‘and indeed I feel a great deal happier than I have for five or six years, my depression having lifted at long last’. Victor had had much to put up with, nursing his wife through dementia for a couple of years before her death, and suffering a series of health setbacks himself as well as the sort of spiritual torpor he described to me. Non-Christians so often typify guilt as the mainspring of belief: guilt about losing that belief is a further level of contortion and you can see how relinquishing that could come as a relief – and perhaps, I might hope in Victor’s case, that might open the way to something more healthy and joyful.

Our relationship with God is a lot like our relationships with anyone else we might find ourselves loving. There are times when it’s sustained by will, by the conscious decision to keep going, even though we might not feel anything very much. Gradually that decision of will and its consequences affects the heart, the bundle of affections, habits, conceptions and perceptions which comprise our person, until it becomes impossible to imagine our own lives separate from that relationship, and out of that emerges a deep peace and serenity.

There have to be two things that make this act of sustained will reasonable, though. The first is that there is sentiment, and therefore the practised memory of sentiment, of our first encounter with God or the initial emotions that surrounded the person we love: that sustains our decision of will, waters its soil, as it were. Secondly, the object of our love has at least to be trying to love us in the same way, or the whole business becomes pathological, and not the act of a reasonable being. You have to get something back from them; they have to want to give something to you.

What, then, do we get back from God? The difference between the relationship of faith and other sorts is that faith requires that first we decide that God is there at all; and often that assertion seems to fly in the face of everything we experience. We only get something back from him once we’ve decided that he exists, and no such ambiguity is present in our other affections. The collapse of belief folds up the relationship because we can no longer see that we are receiving anything from him, and if we can’t see that we’ll be unable to sustain our belief. The two motions reinforce each other. In either case, the memory of the sentiment from which our faith grew, if there was any in first place, will wither and disappear.

There is certainly no point feeling guilt about it: like losing your love for a person, it’s just a fact. For it to change, for the stump of faith to sprout again, all those elements will have to be present afresh – the sentiment, the awareness of receiving, the possibility that God might be there. It’s such a fragile and uncertain business.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Toe in the Water

A day of snow wasn't the time I would choose to venture back to church again after my enforced absence, but when I got up this morning that was what I found - not quite what was expected, but not a very severe fall, and already going slushy on the roads. I didn't have to head out early, as a visiting priest was managing the 8am.

In fact I was in church yesterday, but acting in a supervisory capacity as the preparations were made for the beginning of Passiontide - veiling the images, and putting up the Stations of the Cross. I also had a couple of baptism bookings to make.

We were going to have a baptism this morning, too, but the godparents couldn't make it from far-flung parts along the snowy roads. The young baptizand's family still turned up - they're fairly regular attenders and only live around the corner - bearing his cake which they shared around after the service was over. It was an odd morning. I expected to preach and in fact Lillian the lay reader was down to do it, and then when she started the Gospel reading it turned out to be the wrong one. The best bit was Junior Church making 'prayer pretzels'. I didn't get one. 

I get the impression that the older members of the congregation (that is, the majority) have rather enjoyed me being poorly, in the nicest possible way. They get a chance to comiserate with me rather than me with them, and they now know that I have a better idea what they're talking about, given that so many pastoral or parochial conversations revolve, one way or another, around operations. 

Friday, 16 March 2018


My friend Cylene let it be known on another social media platform with some force and eloquence that Mothering Sunday is not her favourite time of the year. ‘If you have a bad mother, please don’t feel bad if today you didn’t celebrate it, you didn’t choose whom to come out of and anyone would understand if you didn’t feel like putting one of the people who inflicted suffering on you on a pedestal. So ignore the propaganda because it doesn’t apply to us. Birthing accomplishment doesn’t grant you automatic goddess status if you’re actually a monster.’

At Swanvale Halt, Mothering Sunday, the middle Sunday of Lent, is always marked with a Family Service rather than a eucharist, a title I find awful but which we use because none of the alternatives are any clearly better. The children from the infants school come and sing, usually a song about Spring and one about mums, and posies of flowers are blessed, and distributed by the children present not just to mums but – in theory – whoever they think may want them. They go wider than the congregation, and find their way into homes, and care homes, around the parish. The service always attracts a big gate, though of course this year I was absent, laid up on my bed of pain (or my desk chair of moderate discomfort).

I know that despite the cute contribution of small children singing, there are regular members of the congregation who absent themselves for Mothering Sunday. Not everyone has had positive relationships with their families, and the unquestioned imagery of family togetherness which tends to characterise most modern forms of Christianity can really stick in the throat if that wasn’t your experience, and yet have a faith. It wasn’t really there before the 19th century, and sits strangely with a Saviour who once said, albeit rhetorically, that unless someone hated their parents and siblings they couldn’t be his disciple. Every year at the liturgical planning group we debate how we can signal inclusion on this day to people who aren’t part of families, or who’ve lost their mothers or their children, or have reasons not to think fondly of them.

If you check the Wikipedia article on Mothering Sunday the sources it quotes for the festival’s history range from something someone read on the BBC to Cross & Livingstone’s 1974 Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church – but no further. We know about Mid-Lent Sunday, of course, the day when the severity of the Lenten fast is lifted, the liturgical colour changes from violet to pink, and the Introit at the start of the old Mass began 'Laetare Ierusalem', ‘Rejoice, O Jerusalem, and gather round, all you who love her’. It is supposed that this was traditionally the day when people who had moved away from the place of their baptism returned to that church, and took the opportunity to visit such of their relatives (often parents) who might remain there; servants might be given the day off for this purpose. So far from Cross & Livingstone, who quote no sources either.

As you will find very readily, the modern observance of Mothering Sunday derives solely from the work of Constance Adelaide Smith, an Anglican priest’s daughter from Coddington in Nottinghamshire, who in 1913 read about the parallel campaign of Anna Jarvis in the USA to have a day dedicated to the remembrance and celebration of the nation’s mothers, and decided to begin her own efforts in the same direction. But, as she was a High Church Anglican (so described), she wanted the British version to be a religious rather than a secular occasion, and the pamphlet she wrote about the subject – The Revival of Mothering Sunday – promoted this. Miss Smith took the very clearly attested folklore surrounding Mid-Lent Sunday, its Simnel Cakes and customs, and the Church liturgy, and argued that this made it the ideal moment to celebrate motherhood. Even the Epistle set for the Communion that day, which Archbishop Cranmer had taken across from the old Mass when compiling the Prayer Book liturgy, was from Galatians 4, and included the line ‘Jerusalem which is above is free: which is the mother of us all’ (though in that text Blessed St Paul also goes on to say, ambiguously, ‘the desolate hath many more children than she which hath an husband’). It all seemed to make perfect sense. Queen Mary and the Mothers’ Union took up the cudgels and by 1938 it was stated that ‘Mothering Sunday was celebrated in every parish in Britain and every country in the Empire’.

I haven’t read Miss Smith’s original pamphlet, but I smell a High Church rat. You’d’ve thought that, as a daughter of the manse, she’d’ve been in a position to know what domestic servants got up to, and that picture she paints of girls in service going back to see their old mums on Mothering Sunday and picking posies of flowers along the country lanes to give them is terribly romantic and compelling. That doesn’t mean it’s true, as my encounters with High Church romancers writing about the world of folklore around exactly the same time have taught me. Why does no actual folklorist ever quote any example of this happening? Why does it never crop up in diaries or oral history? I quickly scanned relevant bits of Parson Woodforde’s Diary the other day, as that late 18th-century cleric regularly mentions the doings of the servants as well as folk customs such as the village children turning up on his doorstep every St Valentine’s Day to beg for coppers. James Woodforde never hints that there’s anything unusual about the middle Sunday of Lent, still less that the servants got the day off. Who would have cooked his dinner? The story goes back, apparently, no further than Constance Smith herself. Clearly she was no liar; but she may well have blown up some stray remark from a parlourmaid about what she planned to do on Mid-Lent Sunday into an entire social custom which never in fact existed.

In some moods I would like to jettison the whole thing, and the more I find out about the true Imperialist background to it the more I am inclined to argue we do so. But among the people with whom it’s popular, it’s terribly popular, and there’s no doubt that it brings into the church and exposes to the Gospel souls who would otherwise avoid it. Would abandoning Mothering Sunday stand more starkly for truth and love than maintaining it?

Wednesday, 14 March 2018


By far the post on this blog which has aroused the most public interest is nothing to do with the blessed PJH or anything about Swanvale Halt parish (unsurprisingly), but my delving into the murky world of oddball Christian movements entitled 'Beyond the Fringe'. I managed to blunder into this world, or something close to it, again a few months ago via what might appear the most orthodox of routes. Someone sent me a little booklet by the well-known evangelist John Ioannou, who goes by the name of J John, and idly I decided to find out more about him, being well-acquainted with his name but little more. Among the many honours and recognitions granted Mr John, says Wikipedia, is that he was ‘ordained presbyter and Canon Missioner by Bishop David Carr OSL’. By who, what? I thought, and off I went, round the corner if not quite the bend.

Once upon a time there was an evangelical church leader in Solihull called David Carr. He started the Renewal Church in 1972 with four people and lo, the Lord blessed the work and eventually the congregation numbered some 2000 divided among a group of church centres. Mr Carr moved from the Elim Pentecostal network, in which he was ordained in 1979, into the Free Methodist connexion. He received a good deal of support from the local authorities for the church’s good work in the community, culminating in an OBE in 2016. But he'd received something else a few years before, too.

Renewal had already been working for several years with Wroxall Abbey, the site of the medieval Priory of Wroxall and since 2001 a hotel, spa, wedding venue and conference centre: it had taken on running the ancient church of St Leonard which stood in the grounds of the Victorian mansion. Mr Carr began to see ‘many parallels between the life of St Leonard and the modern day work that Renewal was engaged in’. What he received in 2009 was a word from the Lord relating to the bit from Genesis chapter 26 where Isaac reopens the wells his father Abraham had and which had been stopped up by the wicked Philistines, and calls them by their former names. Mr Carr began to perceive his mission as relating not just to the evangelisation of the local area and reopening an old church the Anglicans had relinquished, but something bigger, a mission to do with Christian unity and ecumenism.

In July 2009, Mr Carr emerged as ‘Bishop Abbot of the Order of St Leonard and Bishop of Wroxall Abbey’. I’m not sure who consecrated him a bishop, but it may have been Archbishop Charles Travis, Chancellor of Logos Christian College in Jacksonville, Florida, which in 2004 awarded Mr Carr a doctorate (as it did to his brother Anthony, who is now also a bishop based at Wroxall Abbey). I don’t know whence Abp Travis derives his orders – you can waste too much time trying to chase down these scrawny and unsatisfying hares – but he’s part of a broader network of bishops who seem to have graduated from running their own charismatic and evangelical churches to popping mitres on their heads and wearing copes, some in the US, some in Europe, some in Africa. They call themselves the Communion of Evangelical Episcopal Churches, and claim to be broadly Anglican while not part of the Anglican Communion itself.

At the same time, the church of St Leonard was consecrated a cathedral, colloquially known as ‘Wren’s Cathedral’ (pace St Paul’s, London), as the family of Wren the architect owned the estate at one time and his wife is buried there. The Order of St Leonard is dedicated to ‘to bring together all Christians, regardless of differing denominations and streams, without leaving their distinctive groupings, in to a unified fellowship for prayer, mission and to help the disadvantaged’, which cannot be a bad thing, can it? Dr Carr, and the other members of the Order, promote connections between Christian denominations and the crossover of ideas (he’s met the Pope).


And what of J John, with whom we started? He’s there on the OSL website right enough, so he must be happy enough to be identified with them, orthodox fellow as he is.

There are many echoes here of other fringe churches, though curiously not the ones I’ve dealt with before. Abps Sean Manchester, Jonathan Blake et al have ended up where they are via a variety of eccentric routes and function more-or-less on their own, heading churches for the most part without laypeople or structures. No, the echoes I hear in the OSL come from longer ago. There are the Irvingites, that very peculiar outburst of Victorian piety in which the evangelical church leader Henry Irving found himself at Mass in Rouen Cathedral and heard an angel telling him ‘these are the vestments in which the Lord desires his priests to serve him’ – a visionary experience out of which came one of the weirdest Christian denominations in history, which I know is quite a claim to make (there’s an Irvingite church not far away from me, though no Irvingites to worship in it). Then there’s Hugh George de Wilmott Newman, who came from an Irvingite background but by the 1940s had decided God wanted him to reunite all the quarrelling factions of episcopi vagantes in his own person, had himself reconsecrated by whatever Archbishops he could find and eventually restyled himself ‘Mar Georgius’, thus paving the way for the British Orthodox Church under his cousin, Mar Seraphim, Archbishop of Glastonbury, which flourishes (sort of) today. It was Mar Georgius’s lifelong regret that Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher of Canterbury so disdained his sincere offer to reconsecrate him and thus bring ‘legitimate’ orders into the Church of England.

There are similarities here, but Bp Carr and the OSL don’t seem really to be bothered by such technicalities as who consecrates who. I do not want to mock them, either, because what it seems we have here is a sudden – you might even say miraculous – irruption of a Catholic sensibility within evangelical church forms. The fact of taking over that old church in the middle of Warwickshire and doing things that have been done there for centuries appears to have had a very genuine and profound effect on Renewal and on Dr David Carr, and I can’t gainsay that. The past reaches forward to the present, and the present back to the past: I view this as a true movement of the Spirit. But then I think Catholicism is the inner dynamic of Christianity, its shape continually re-emerging over time, so I would view it like that.

The cover of Dr Carr's autobiography arguably shows at least some degree of self-aware humour.

Monday, 12 March 2018

Post Op

As I was wheeled through the corridors of the hospital on Saturday wondering whether the lights in the ceiling would be among the last earthly things I ever saw, I realised that the experience I could most closely relate it to was setting off on various terrifying rides at Thorpe Park with Cylene: there was the same sense of abandonment to something I didn't really want to happen. I'd known, in theory, that this was coming since I was diagnosed with a hernia in October, but in the event it all happened rather more quickly than I thought it would. 

Of course it's a pretty minor sort of procedure and the surgeon seemed almost bored when he did the rounds of the bays in the short-stay ward. 'I've done thousands of these,' he assured me, prompting a feeling of sympathy as much as confidence. However, I'd never had a general anaesthetic before, and didn't know how it was going to play out: you can never quite be sure you don't have a hidden heart or brain complaint which is suddenly going to become apparent, and it had seemed as though bits and pieces of my life had been gathering to see me off over the last few days, a very strange sensation. I told myself that in fact drifting into unconsciousness and not emerging is a fairly gentle and unobjectionable way of passing out of this mortal life, although in the end I was nothing more than a bit sick.

And so here I am at home, having passed a Sunday with no church activity for the first time since I was a new Christian in Chatham twenty-five years ago. I've managed to clear my diary for this week, the church has flowed around the gaps I have left and filled them, and Ms Formerly Aldgate is doing most of the cooking. My biggest and most distracting problem is horrible indigestion which I trust will dissipate before long - it's early yet. It's taking more time to pass through than the beneficent sense of gratitude for being alive at all which I felt on first emerging, which swiftly, and sadly, becomes swamped by other things. I'll have to work at maintaining it!

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Spring Sign

The camellias are late blooming this year. The curate's garden at Lamford also had a camellia bush, and one year I was there it began flowering before January was over; this year, the first blooms are out by the end of the first week in March. I'm not a big flower fan, so these are almost the only ones in my garden - I can't even seem to cultivate wild flowers where I might want them for the sake of the bees! The camellias' brilliant pink heralds a new season making its way into being.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Circular Arguments

A couple of months ago I was caught up by a statement S.D.’s chum Professor Brian Cox made on the radio when being challenged to give pithy answers to scientific questions. Is there life after death? someone asked. ‘No’, Prof Cox answered definitely, ‘the rules of physics mean there can’t be.’ Now I am no scientist, but that struck me as such a sweeping statement that I wondered which rules of physics he could be referring to. The others in the studio clearly boggled a bit as well, because he stretched the parameters of the game to refer to some recently-published research or something.

Googling ‘afterlife scientifically impossible’ or somesuch phrase revealed that there was indeed a flurry of publicity in the autumn of last year about the comments of Sean Carroll of the California Institute of Technology about this subject, although I can’t find any reason to think what he said was very recent. The press reports all state that his comments appeared in Scientific American, but I can’t find any articles on the blog or in the magazine that would fit this subject published within the last few years. This dates from 2011, but I think it must be the one referred to. Why it should suddenly acquire such publicity I don’t know; perhaps the reports actually refer to his book from 2016, garbled into a Scientific American article. The Metro alleged that Dr Carroll had arrived at his conclusions ‘after extensive studies’ and one would hope he had, though it’s hard to know what those studies, as applied to this particular field, might consist of.

Dr Carroll’s argument goes back much further than 2011, however. It is that there is no form of consciousness we know of which is not linked to physical processes, whether you think of biology or more fundamentally the interactions of atoms and forces. Without those, there is nothing to bear consciousness; therefore once a living being dies and disintegrates, consciousness becomes impossible. This is called materialism, and it is not exactly a new idea. Arguably it goes back to ancient Greece. You may or may not think it very convincing to argue that a ‘soul’ by its very nature would be immaterial and that’s the point of it, but it’s a debate that has been had before.

Conversely a couple of days ago I was copied in on an extract from The Atheist Delusion, a 2016 movie compiled by US evangelist Ray Comfort to have a go at that rationalist easy target, Professor Richard Dawkins. The first bit interviews a variety of self-described atheists – mainly students – and then bamboozles them by trying to prove they are being irrational in believing that ‘something can come out of nothing’. The coup de grace in the segment is a scene of a debate in which Prof Dawkins is made to look ever so silly by claiming just that. In fact, Mr Comfort runs together the Argument from Design (how can all the complexity of existence come into being without an intelligence directing it?) and the Argument from First Cause (how can something come out of nothing?) in a series of rhetorical tricks which ignore a) that natural selection over geological time is quite sufficient to account for the biological complexity we observe and b) that although it is true that physics cannot explain the existence of the universe, there is no reason to assume that such a putative ‘First Cause’ is God. Among the things Mr Comfort’s film does prove are that Professor Dawkins can be amusingly manoeuvred into saying things that sound daft, and that most atheists aren’t actually that good at picking the holes in other people’s arguments; and neither of these things is a surprise. At least he shouldn’t be quite so pleased with himself at coming up with some ‘new’ knock-down argument against atheism: his case goes back a long way, too, just like Dr Carroll's.

And I suppose the more basic conclusion to draw is that very few people really know what they’re talking about.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Ecclesiastical Tourism

On Monday S.D. heard my confession and approved of a conclusion I’d come to about some of my repeating forms of behaviour, asked what my stay in Malling Abbey had been like, and then moved on to tea and gossip. He’d just been to Venice for a few days with a friend and marvelled at the state of the Catholic Church there.

‘We went to St Eufemia mid-week and the congregation was four old ladies, two old men, and us. The priest hadn’t prepared the service and spent ages flicking through the altar book to find the right eucharistic prayer, huffing and puffing. At another church – similar congregation – there was a Nigerian priest who sat with his hands in his lap and kept yawning all the way through Mass. At least with the Tridentine service you had a sense of reverence and care; what we saw was just sloppiness and boredom. There’s a church of the neo-Catechumenate round the corner with a gigantic full-immersion font and a communion table the size of this room, and that’s where all the young people are supposed to go, but people told us none of them do. We went in during Stations of the Cross – the priest stood around clearly irritated waiting for his elderly ladies to clamber their way around these huge fittings. They were singing the Stabat Mater but it took us quite a while to identify what it was. At one point a nice young Venetian man came in and stood watching for a bit, and he clearly would probably have joined in if anyone had spoken to him but nobody did. I think a sort of hopelessness and depression has set in.’ (Although we agreed that people have never really gone to church much in Venice).

At his own local church of St Saviour Pimlico, S.D. said, ‘We get about 60-70 on a Sunday, and it’s not a huge number, but I look around and there are a few young families with children and some solicitors and professionals and so on, and a group of old ladies from the housing estate, and that seems wholesome. It doesn’t feel like a weird pastime for an isolated group of people: new people still arrive. And there’s hope and life in that.’

Sunday, 4 March 2018

O Lord Open Thou Our Lips

It being the first Sunday in the month, we would normally have a non-eucharistic Family Service in the morning at Swanvale Halt church, and a communion service in the evening, but as next week is Mothering Sunday and there's always a Family Service for that we swapped the weeks around, and in the gap this evening popped a quiet Evensong. My thinking was that I have to say the evening office anyway, so might as well make something of it. I thought originally that it would be only myself and Lillian the Lay Reader attending, but in the event there were a whole six of us, and everyone gamely joined in with singing the Psalms, canticles, responses and Office Hymn, in a lowly-lit chancel. 

Of all the Prayer Book liturgy, Cranmer's combination of the monastic offices of Vespers and Compline into Evening Prayer has perhaps the most remaining power to move. My companions this evening drew the responses from the back of their drawer of liturgical memory, and universally admitted to a warm nostalgia, but Evensong seems capable, peculiarly, of arousing that sensation even in those who haven't actually been brought up with the service in the first place. It washes over one with a calming order. It achieves one of the great initial tasks of the spiritual life, the binding of the mind. Certainly it does if not performed by a choir which is not quite as good as it thinks it is, attempting complex anthems and singing the psalms according to that appalling musical enormity known as Anglican Chant. But we can talk about that another time.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Religion and Radicalism in 'River Anacostia'

According to the stats, this is the thousandth post since I started writing in 2009. Thank you everyone who bothers to read them!

Religion is one of the many things PJ Harvey has never really talked about. The closest she got was in an interview for The Guardian in October 2000, in which Lindsay Baker spent most of her time trying to prove PJH was no longer the ‘cauldron-stirring lady of darkness’ of previous years. In fact the article contained such gems of non-committal Harveyism as, in answer to the question whether she might have a family one day, ‘I tend to think that I’ll take whatever comes my way, that whatever comes my way will happen or won’t happen, and that’s the way it’ll be’. You wonder it was worth the ink to print.

The segment touching on matters of belief was similar. Ms Baker noticed that Harvey was wearing a crucifix and, in the course of discussing her recent role as Mary Magdalen/Magdalena in Hal Hartley’s film The Book of Life, asked whether she had a faith. ‘I don’t know if I could answer that really yet’, mused our heroine helpfully, ‘I have my own beliefs, which I probably won’t talk about. It’s a very important part of my interest, and I’m aware of religion and its impact on everyone and everything.’ Well, hold the front page. Ms Baker speculated that this interest had developed from Harvey’s involvement with the movie and its apocalyptic themes, which was clearly untrue and a deliberate evasion on Harvey’s part if she was the one that suggested it. There have been repeated hints over the years that the singer knows more about Christian culture than she lets on. Though they have mostly been corrected of late, if you looked up the lyrics of one song from 1993, ‘Primed and Ticking’ (there isn’t an official set available), you used to find all sorts of incomprehensible interpretations of a particular line, which makes perfect sense once you realise the words are ‘widely as his mercy flows’, lifted from the hymn ‘Praise my soul the King of Heaven’. Another early, unrecorded, song in PJH’s registered lists is titled ‘Time and Times and Half a Time’ – which you can not only pinpoint as a quotation of Daniel 12.7, but also as coming from the New International Version of the Bible, as no other translation puts it that way. This degree of Scriptural familiarity is impressive for a layperson whose only experience of church life, she says, was being taken to St Mary’s Corscombe once a year to sing Christmas carols. After the interview, she stopped wearing the crucifix.

This is just a preamble to discussing one particular song from Hope Six. ‘River Anacostia’ derives from the slightest of the poems published in The Hollow of the Hand – more a fragment than a poem, really:

A tiny red sun
Like a tail light
Down the overpass

That’s it – the whole thing. Out of that, it seems, Harvey spins the most subtle, suggestive track on the album. However, one of Seamus Murphy’s photographs shows her, sat by the river Anacostia which runs through Washington DC, surveying it with an appraising eye and writing, and presumably there were things that went into that notebook then which later emerged in the song. She notes, perhaps, not just her immediate surroundings, but the naval works which lie upstream and which would also feature, negatively, in the lyric. Further, at the same time as Harvey was making her visit to Washington, in April 2013, a teacher and an artist, Alysia Scofield and Marla McLean, were staging an art presentation at the State University of New York at Potsdam called ‘Wade In the Water: The River Anacostia Project, a creative transdisciplinary journey’. How this came to Harvey’s attention we do not know, as we do not know so much else, but its title is too much of a coincidence.

So, to the initial observation of water, reeds, and pollution, Harvey adds the old slave spiritual ‘Wade in the Water’. ‘Wade in the water, God’s gonna trouble the water’ runs the lyric: an allusion to chapter 5 of the Gospel of St John, describing the Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem whose waters were periodically disturbed by angels, and ‘the first one into the waters after such a disturbance would be cured’. In the story, Jesus intervenes to heal an invalid who can’t make it to the water by himself. ‘Wade in the water’ is a religious song, to be sure, and conveys God’s intention to heal: but God acts to heal more than individuals. Societies can be sick, too, and that makes the lyric, incorporating references to the enslaved Israelites being liberated from Egypt, political as well.  In fact, the very promise that God will trouble the waters has a radical edge to it: for the world to be healed by divine action, there will have to be disturbance. Some who now sit in comfort will have to be upset. Harvey imports all those resonances from the old song into her own, and adds to them, though typically the music critics, being generally religiously illiterate, saw its presence as adding nothing more than local colour (one of the more reductive analyses summarised 'River Anacostia' as an 'anti-pollution song').

As Harvey looked across the river, she seems to have thought of other Biblical echoes of waters and divine presence. She remembers Jesus on the Lake of Galilee, and so this is what she writes into her song:

O my Anacostia
Do not sigh, do not weep.
Beneath the overpass,
Your Saviour’s waiting patiently.
Walking on the water,
Flowing with the poisons
From the naval yard –
He’s talking to the broken reeds –
Saying, ‘What will become of us?
What will become of us?’

Small red sun makes way for night
Trails away like a tail-light –
Is that Jesus on the water,
Talking to the fallen trees?
Saying, ‘What will become of us?
What will become of us?’

‘Broken reeds’ is itself another scriptural allusion, to the prophetic utterance about the Messiah to come in Isaiah 42: ‘a bruised reed he will not break’. If these reeds are broken, it’s not Jesus who broke them. That’s been done by someone else.

This, then, becomes an incarnational lyric. Not only does Jesus appear walking on the filthy sluice of the modern river, as he appears in Cookham High Street in Stanley Spencer’s paintings, but he identifies himself entirely with the people of Anacostia, the broken reeds and fallen trees: what will become of us, says the Saviour. He’s as broken as they are. He is the crucified one. But his frailty, his crucifixion, is not the last word. In the recording, up from the depths of the mix comes the slave song, insisting that God will trouble the waters, that there will be healing, there will be a reckoning, an insistence taken up by the chorus of the band members, who finish the track a capella as the instruments fall silent.

This is complex enough – typically Harveyan, it says plenty without saying it explicitly, and with wondrous economy. But there’s a further layer. You might have thought that Harvey’s jaw-droppingly bold address of the river – ‘O my Anacostia’ – identifies her fully with what follows. Not quite: not even I can quite assert that the Saviour of Anacostia is hers as well. Not only is there ambiguity in the lyric – remember it asks 'is that Jesus on the water’, rather than asserting that it definitely is – but perhaps even this, too, is her customary ventriloquy, speaking in the imagined voice of someone else? Anacostia, like much of the States, is a religious place, after all. All you can assert with surety is that her imagination works in the way a particularly deep-thinking Christian’s might.

As the male voices of Harvey’s band recount the promise of ‘Wade in the Water’, she’s there too, singing the same tone, but not echoing them. Instead, beneath them, she wails, high and narrow, over and over again the words she puts into the mouth of Jesus: ‘what will become, what will become of us?’ Hope, perhaps a specifically religious hope, is tenderly treated here, certainly, unlike the bitter cry at the end of ‘The Community of Hope’, ‘they’re gonna built a Walmart here’ (is that all you’ve got to hope for?), but it’s as though she can’t allow it to have an unequivocal last word: there has to be some hesitancy, some doubt. As always, PJ Harvey steps away from definitive statements, leaving us to work out ourselves what we think.