Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Edges of Liberty

The lady sat in church with me and told me about trying to cope with her son, an alcoholic and drug user with mental health issues. She felt terrible guilt at not being able to help him and, I suspect though she did not say as much, at reaching the point where she had to push him away. 'Nobody will do anything', she said, wiping tears. 'I've spoken to doctors and the police and they say that until he asks for help they can't get involved. And he won't. He's been this way for years.'

Her complaint was that 'I've prayed and prayed for something to happen but God doesn't listen.' I said he always does but lets us make our own choices and all she could do was move her son towards a place where he had to face a choice, which was what she'd done. And yes, all the statutory bodies are set up to assume we are free agents and can rationally decide for ourselves what our best interests are. 'But why? People can't always choose for themselves. They're not capable. My son can't.'

And of course the truth is that all of us are only rational up to a point. We don't see what our best interests are, and even when we do we often lack the ability to act in them. We often need help, perhaps a lot. We need choices that are inescapable, dramatic, black-and-white, before we know what it is that we face, and what we really want to do.

These days I get impatient with political standpoints that fetishise freedom of choice, having long recognised how constrained and limited our human ability to choose really is, and the great engines which compel us in certain directions, mostly unseen and unrecognised. Public policy makes significant leaps when a society admits that a basic need or good is universal and seeks to bring it about. I only recently heard about the very directive public health campaign in Finland which over decades (arguably in tow with other societal factors) reduced deaths from cardiovascular disease by more than 80%: avoiding early death is mostly good, most of the time, for enough people, to assume that adopting such a policy is a reasonable reduction in pure liberty.

How much easier it would be to take people's lives over for them, either as a pastor or a deity. Would such limitations, 'waving the magic wand', really produce passive and untransfigured souls and frustrate God's desires for what we should be becoming? Must we really wait for desperation to wear down those who suffer before we can act? And how many go under in that process? Is expecting people to grow towards liberty not a Western, and in some way bourgeois, prejudice? It's a hard road littered on this side and that with the fallen.

Sunday, 29 July 2018

St Catherine at St Albans

Of course when visiting a great church (or even a small one) I've never looked round before my eyes are peeled for images of St Catherine, and at St Albans Cathedral on Thursday I noticed not one, but three, in the south transept, the Lady Chapel, and the south aisle.

They all look very late-Victorian or early 20th-century to me. The earnest-faced one in the crowned turban is my favourite. Although the first has crown, book and sword, there's no hint of a wheel, which is unusual.

Friday, 27 July 2018

Snaps around the Southeast

Yesterday my travels took me to Hertfordshire, a part of the country I know very little indeed. Some years ago I went to a memorial service at St Albans Cathedral but that didn't leave me with much chance to look around; yesterday was much more leisurely. The Cathedral nave is immensely long but what impresses most is the massive Norman crossing which seems strangely un-English with its polychromatic stone. There were no fewer than three windows depicting St Catherine which I will post separately.

The city clambers up and down a steep hill and is wonderfully picturesque as a result. 

I think the City Museum & Art Gallery has recently opened, or re-opened. It's an amazing space with very little in it. Its main treasure derives from the fact that the Town Hall, where it's situated, also housed the City law-court and the lock-ups underneath it. The courtroom is now the Museum café, and you can emerge from the cells below straight into the dock via a short, and terrifying, flight of stairs.

I suppose it's good that St Alban's Well does exist in a 'restored' form, but it's pretty grim.

I spent a wonderful evening with friends, having tea with Ms DarkMorte in Stevenage and dinner with her and Lady Wildwood in Welwyn. I had no idea Stevenage had an Old Town: it's only one street, admittedly, but it's a nice street. I saw a Dalek holding a bucket outside an ironmonger's.

Today I was in London, looking around St James's and having tea in Crown Passage, meeting Ms Sepiatone for lunch, and walking across town in the heat of what the media was describing as 'Thermos Friday', via the legal quarter around Lincoln's Inn, to visit the Old Operating Theatre Museum in Lambeth.

St James's in Piccadilly:

The fountain at St Paul's Covent Garden:

You enter the Old Operating Theatre Museum via a staircase of 53 steps which is an affecting experience in itself. The centrepiece is the 1822 operating theatre of old St Thomas's Hospital, accidentally preserved in the attic of St Thomas's Church (now a bar) when the hospital relocated, and you can only wonder at what may have gone on on those scrubbed tables with medical students clambering around the seats. The display space, though, is the most chaotically-organised I've seen in any kind of national museum context. It's like an antique shop crossed with a witch's storeroom, which I suppose tells you something about pre-modern medicine. The main impression I took away was thanks for living when I do.

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Dorset in July

Green and lovely Dorset is parched in the heatwave, but is still glorious. I spent Tuesday of my week off looking for holy wells, and had a trip out with my mum this morning.

At Stoke Abbott they'd just had the Street Fair which not all the inhabitants regard with unmixed delight as, one local told me, 'the main road is closed off and strangers come and traipse through your garden'. Someone decided it would be appropriate to 'bless' the spring-fed water-trough in the village centre as some souls believe it's a holy well, which it isn't. No official of any religious tradition, Christian, pagan or otherwise, took part, but I found bunches of flowers floating in the water which is apparently what 'blessing a well' means. 

Of course I took in a trip to St Catherine's Chapel at Abbotsbury, toiled up the hill - now yellow with lack of rain - and sang the office hymn to the blessed Martyr. Sweat ran off me. The doves - many fewer than last year - watched me quizzically and a group of tourists waited outside until I'd finished! The votive deposit remains, including, this time, a prayer headed 'Dearest St Catherine'. There was another for a daughter about to have a baby - also Catherine. 

The iconic Colmer's Hill, which dominates the landscape around Bridport, stood out beyond Symondsbury village.

The most beautiful manor house in the county, Waddon House, looks simply amazing against the impossible blue sky.

Mum decided she wanted to go to Sturminster Newton today, a place neither of us has visited for years. The Museum is closed at the moment, but the roof is being thatched:

The parish church boasts some very good stained glass including this somewhat odd effort by the great Harry Clarke. I was gratified that I recognised it as one of his! Apparently nobody knows why he (a Roman Catholic) was given the commission:

In the much more standard window showing the Crucifixion, the artist - a Mr Webb - has signed the design not with a signature but with a rebus:

At first Mum was disappointed by "Stur'" which she remembered as a bustling market town where her own dad, my Grandad, used to attend the cattle fair (that was probably in the 1950s), but although there is a closed bank and pub along the main street which look a bit forlorn, it still has a greengrocer, butcher, hardware store, library, Post Office, a big Co-Op, and a flourishing farmers' market on a Saturday, as well as the now-ubiquitous small clothing, trinket and what-have-you shops, so this is probably all a small town now needs. On Tuesday I'd driven through Beaminster, and remembered a LiberFaciorum conversation with my Goth friend Archangel Janet who, along with her partner, has moved to Glastonbury and who finds the conservative attitudes she's encountering there rather trying: I was surprised as I always thought Glastonbury would be a pretty liberal place considering the people who are attracted there (like her). Beaminster's economy now seems to rely on organic food shops, beauty salons, alternative therapists and, of course, cafés. I even saw a Black Person. How the world changes.

Sunday, 22 July 2018

Emotion and Eruption

On Friday Rick our verger lit the candles on the altar as the people gathered for one of the liturgical highlights of the year - the Infants' School Leavers' Service. How would the children celebrate their time in school as they looked forward to moving on to their new almae matrae in the Autumn? What role would the papier-mâché volcano play in proceedings? As the children trooped in to some rock song I didn't recognise (and there are a lot of those) they were led by Samantha who has spent several terms as part of Church Club and as the oldest girl in the school has internalised her reputation for responsibility - I wonder whether she will find it burdensome one day - so it was only appropriate that she appeared as a circus ringmaster complete with top hat, cane and a fantastic gold-frogged red jacket. Lauren, the little girl who strangely reminds me of PJ Harvey, came in holding hands with Chloe who looks like Louise Brooks and they sat on the front row. That's what things will be like in heaven, I thought, when we're all like children again.

The purpose of the volcano became clear when Samantha introduced the topic of science at school and the structure was hoisted up onto the staging. Forward came a cabal of child 'scientists' in goggles and white coats, including Church Clubbers Rebecca and Dylan who was easily the naughtiest child of the last two years, and into the volcano's waiting cone they poured, I think, vinegar and bicarbonate of soda. In moments the volcano erupted! Once it had calmed down it was replaced back on the floor in front of Lauren and Chloe, who started holding their noses and gagging.

As the service proceeded there were tears. Oh, there were tears, and they didn't even sing 'Friendship Forever' as in previous years. Rebecca cries at the drop of a hat but this time there was weeping all over the place. I saw teachers dabbing their eyes although Ms Sarensson the head was gently steely. As she and I handed out the Leavers' Bibles each child got a woop from their supporting adults, of whom there were more this year. Although one shouldn't approve of such individualism, I felt I wanted to cheer them, too.

Friday, 20 July 2018


We found out about Taketime through our curate Marion who knows the chap who runs it, a Methodist minister based in Reigate. It's a way of using Ignatian meditation to facilitate an encounter with Jesus in the context of prayer. Ignatian meditation involves imagining yourself into Bible stories, either as one of the characters or an observer, and noting your reactions. Taketime's scripted versions of Gospel narratives shape that imaginary work and at the end you usually 'see Jesus coming towards you. He sits beside you and asks you to tell him whatever's on your mind.' Then you spend some time listening to the answer, whatever form it may come in. Sometimes there isn't very much distinct at all, and sometimes there is. Meditative prayer is like that. A full-works session is supposed to take about 90 minutes but as a prison chaplain Revd Clive has done it very effectively with prisoners in as many seconds.

We wondered whether we might introduce something of this sort at Swanvale Halt to take the place of an existing contemplative event which seems to be dribbling to a halt, and preserving the quiet, contemplative element people appear to value; so on Monday I, Marion and Lillian the Lay Reader went to Reigate to take part in a Taketime training day. It would begin with a sample session. 

And the sample session begins with a relaxation exercise. At this sort of point I usually have running through my mind a dreadful story Il Rettore used to delight in telling, of his wife attending a day for clergy spouses in the Exeter diocese: I will merely write the words 'and let those lemons go!' and leave it there. But I dutifully pictured relaxing warmth flowing up through my toes and so on and tried my best not to be resistant.

And then we got into the story: Jesus's encounter with the first disciples and the miraculous catch of fish. I am not that imaginative a soul and struggled to stay focused. 'Listen as Jesus calls you, by name ... And just tell Jesus whatever may be on your mind and in your heart ... and now just listen to his answer to you, however it may come ...' the calming, measured voice of Revd Clive moved through the room. And so I did. It was something personal I was battling with, something I'm not going to share here let alone with anyone else in that room.

I was caught out by getting an answer. Not a picture or a word as such, but an insight which led me to see the issue I was grappling with in a different and more helpful way. Of course if you're not a believer you're free to see it as the subconscious working away at problems unbeknownst to the waking mind. But that's exactly what makes Taketime a fruitful method for working with people with a variety of religious opinions and none. 

I went and had my lunch in the Castle grounds in Reigate, sitting on a baking hot bench and wondering how so many mussel shells got into the grass a couple of yards away. I felt an unfamiliar sense of lightness and liberty. I had gone along to a training day, and would be taking home a new understanding of myself rather than just a folder with some handouts in it, though I would have that too. 

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

God from Both Sides

Christians think a lot about what leads people to faith: less so about what leads them away from it. There’s a silly programme on Radio 4 on which celebrities read extracts from the diaries they kept in their teenage years. While we were away at the Clergy Conference I heard bits of the episode with Pippa Evans as guest. Ms Evans is a comedian and co-founder of the secular Sunday Assembly gathering, and the diary she was reading from covered the years 1997 to 2001 (mostly just the first year or so) when she was 15 to 19, living in Ealing, and very religious indeed.

Pippa Evans’s family don’t seem to have been particularly religious but in her mid-teens she started attending an excitable Baptist church (‘there was a lot of hand-work’); her mother’s theory was that it provided a safe space for the teenager to make the transition from girlhood to womanhood. Ms Evans found an echo in the experience of the show’s presenter Rufus Hound who along with his brother also went through a Christian phase in his teens after their parents divorced: they were looking for a sort of security, he speculated.

Of course the young Pippa Evans had exactly the same maelstrom of emotional concerns as any other young person and in her spiritual setting expected that God would help her work out what to do in a very definite way. At one point, praying about her crush on a friend, she reported ‘God gave me a picture of a hot air balloon and said to me that if I want Ollie I mustn’t pull on the fraying ropes or he’ll slip away’. ‘You believed God was sending you actual visions, and this felt entirely normal?’ asked Hound. ‘If the company you keep says that’s how prayers are answered …’ said Ms Evans, ‘I do remember sometimes seeing things; this would still happen now, but … now I’d say that my brain had figured something out and made a connection – maybe “be less clingy”!’ Both presenter and guest agreed that a large factor in their teenage church attendance was feeling part of a gang, not one bounded by age but by sentiment and belief. Ms Evans’s diary petered out and her near-last entry described how ‘I don’t go to church any more due to a lack of trust and hope in God. Is he there? I think so. Does he care? I’m not so sure.’ The present-day Pippa Evans expanded, ‘he didn’t give me everything I requested, what an arse! … I was trusting a very kind of two-dimensional children’s picture of what God is.’

There are whole essays to be written opening out of this encounter. But, for now, let’s just note that it’s impossible to draw a hard-and-fast line between God and the subconscious. Only very, very occasionally will a Christian ‘receive’ a mental impression so strikingly disconnected from what they may have been thinking about that it can easily be conceived as coming out of a different place from those buried mental processes that go on constantly. A Christian would expect that God works through the unconscious anyway, and the unremarkable nature of such revelations doesn’t rule out a divine nudge behind them. Pippa Evans’s narrative shows how easy it is to shift from one paradigm to the other without any objective, observable difference in mental activity taking place. The picture stays the same, only the frame alters.

My second observation is that I find it really encouraging that, for these two people, Christianity provided a helpful clearing house for the troubles of adolescence. All right, they moved through it, but unlike, say, souls brought up within the Church who all too often, after becoming aware of the tensions, ambiguities, stresses and pains of Church life, fail to make the transition to a mature sort of faith, they have come through without any rancour or regret, at least that I could hear. They don’t seem scarred. Pippa Evans’s involvement with the Sunday Assembly certainly acknowledges something positive about the Church experience, however much those of us who believe might raise an eyebrow at the feasibility of it.

Monday, 16 July 2018

Gin Friendly

When Lady Wildwood, late of London Gothic, decided to throw a party to celebrate her birthday at the weekend she settled on calling it Gin Frenzy, and asked friends to bring along examples of gins to taste. I was all set to purchase a bottle from our local Surrey distiller, Silent Pool, until to my utter dismay she posted a picture of her drinks cabinet and there was a bottle of Silent Pool already. Disaster - but I was able to discover and source a bottle of Dorset distiller Lilliput's output instead. I found that there are two Dorset gin-makers; the other is Conker, but Lilliput has the nicer bottles.

I like the odd gin. I don't think I ever partook of it at the Vicarage in Sands years ago, where Fr Bombaysapphire plied all his guests with a variety of drinks and where the gin flowed freely; instead it was in Lamford that a friend who served the most lethal gins as an aperitif got myself and Dr Bones into such disastrous habits. Now it sometimes fortifies me against an evening of meetings when that has to happen. It's astonishing to see how gin has become so hugely fashionable in the last decade, to the point that supermarkets now have a whole display of the stuff where they would once have had only a shelf. Every part of the land has its artisan distillers, so I was fairly confident I would find one based in Dorset.

Lady Wildwood's party was lovely, a chance to meet up with friends old and new. We ended up discussing 18th-century garden hermits, royal titles, and the links between architecture and spirituality. Driving, I never had the chance to taste more than one gin and it seemed impolite to broach the bottle I'd bought, so I may have to buy some for myself, just for patriotic reasons. 

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Messy Communion v2.0

You may not realise it at first glance at this photograph, but the children at Messy Church yesterday were chalice-making. This was because we decided to have a go at doing Messy Communion, a form of liturgical abuse we first trialled nearly four years ago. At that time I was painfully aware how many rules we were breaking but having mentioned it in passing to our current bishop a few months ago and receiving barely a blink in response, let alone the coughing and choking and going red in the face I might have expected, I was emboldened to go for it this time and wear my proper kit, and do it all in the proper way, albeit a truncated one. There was only one child there who was present at the 2014 celebration, but once again the youngsters astonished the grown-ups with their attention, their reverence and their sense of focus. They may not really have known what was going on, but which of us truly does? I spoke afterwards to Jackie, who lives just round the corner but sings in the choir at All Saints' Margaret Street which is a proper Anglo-Catholic church. 'It was interesting to see all the motions the priest does, most of the time you don't really pay attention to that', she said, 'and George [her son] said the wafer was "yummy" '. I thought that was not the point, nor, probably, true, but at least he was happy.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Too Much of a Good Thing

S.D. has had great fun helping out at various High gaffs in the Diocese of London recently. These included preaching at St Magnus the Martyr London Bridge, an absolute citadel of trad Anglo-Catholicism whose drawbridge has been lowered to allow him, a longstanding and vocal proponent of women being ordained, in to defile its pulpit. 'We had the Silent Canon, and the subdeacon held the paten under a humeral veil. It was lovely. Mad, but lovely.'

Meanwhile at St Mary Bourne Street 'there has been great controversy as the vicar thinks it might be a good idea to thin the vestment collection out a bit. This is because they can't close some of the drawers in the vestry any more. There's one drawer labelled "Vestments not to be used".'

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

You Prays Your Prayers and You Takes Your Choice

Marion our curate is on holiday at the moment so I said I'd chair our ecumenical prayer group that brings together we reticent Anglicans and our more vocal brethren from local charismatic congregations. She warned me that the chatter has taken over somewhat lately but as there were in fact only five of us present on Monday evening there were actually some blocks of silence when the Spirit did not prompt anyone to say anything (presuming what is said is indeed at his prompting).

I did gib a bit when Alan and Vi, our charismatic representatives for the evening, began on Brexit. 'Lord, we pray for our government in this mess of Brexit ... Why can't the opposition accept the sovereign decision of the people? Because they are sovereign, Lord, that's your sovereign will ... Lord, we just pray the naysayers and scaremongers will be silent and let the government govern ...' and so on. Swanvale Halt's Anglicans, while not universally Remainers, were significantly so, at least to judge by the people who spoke to me, and probably more than the 56% voting to Remain in the South West Surrey constituency at large. I, of course, couldn't possibly comment. We got to the end of our prayer time and I summed up by saying 'Lord, we humbly offer our prayers to you this evening, aware that we are all fallen beings. Where our prayers are in accordance with your will, hear them, and where they aren't, enlighten our hearts by your grace.' Everyone murmured assent. ('Especially those of us WHO ARE WRONG' commented S.D. when I told him). 

What might be the link between the outlook of evangelical Christians and opposition to the EU, I wondered? There are some ideas flying around the Internet, including the pagan nature of the statue of Europa outside the European Parliament in Strasbourg (it's a very disagreeable statue, I think, but that's about aesthetics). I remember that back at school in the 1980s one of our teachers who belonged to a little Protestant church believed the EU was part of a conspiracy by the Pope to take over Britain and that Otto von Hapsburg was one of the antiChristian prophetic figures of Revelation. This character Mr Hathaway talks about Brexit being 'an answer to prayer and a divine opportunity for this nation to turn back to God', which I suppose expresses a sense that the EU is a secular institution promoting gayness, and that kind of thing.

I don't think our friends at the prayer meeting had such strong feelings, or at least they didn't emerge. In fact the burden of their prayers was that the lawful government was being frustrated in its purpose by - what shall we call them? 'Enemies of the People?' - on what sounded like the Pauline grounds of chapter 13 of Romans, 'everyone who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted.' Fair enough, though I don't recall the same people arguing out of Romans 13 when Mr Cameron's government was taking same-sex marriage through the legislature; Romans 1 was the text then. 

Sunday, 8 July 2018

No One Expects

So far, the Diocese hasn't posted anything on its webpage about the Clergy Conference. From its Twitter feed you would certainly discover that one of the speakers was Dr Ellen F. Davis of Duke Divinity School in North Carolina, who took us through a passage of 1Kings and the book of Ruth, and you can find a picture of Fr Malcolm Guite, the poet, who spoke about the interrelationship of poetry and faith. There is a reference to the third speaker, Bishop Philip North of Burnley, but it comes from a retweeted tweet from a priest attending, not from the diocese itself. We'll see how eventually it gets reported.

Bishop Philip turned up on Wednesday morning and began unremarkably enough, talking about finding grace in unexpected places. He led us through Gerard Manley Hopkins's poem 'Felix Randal' and pointed out how the people to whom priests minister also minister grace to them, and we all smiled and nodded. We recognise that. It made us feel good.

Hopkins discovered grace among God's poor, went on Bishop Philip. That's the way God always works. Renewal and revival starts with the poor, the marginalised. It doesn't come from the centre. Neither does cultural change more generally. The poor are where creativity begins.

So isn't it a shame, a scandal, that the Church of England seems to exercise an option for the rich? It's churches in poor areas, on the margins of cities and towns, that are allowed to run down and get shut. It's those areas that can't fund clergy. Some dioceses sit on hundreds of millions of pounds of inherited assets while the newer ones - which are mainly the ones in poorer parts of the country - have pitiful resources in comparison. The diocese of London is pointed to as a model of church growth, but so it should be, not just because of immigration but because of resource: 'if you've got a church hall in London, you've got a children's & families worker because your rents will pay for one. If you've got a church hall on an estate in Stoke-on-Trent all you've got is a headache paying for its maintenance.' Our practices suck initiative and leadership out of poor communities, making them dependent recipients of charity directed at them from outside. The Church's recruitment procedures make it especially hard for working-class candidates to find their way through unless they get converted into middle-class book-learners in the process; 'we're producing a monochrome institution of white evangelical graduates'. 'God will renew the Church. Renewal is inevitable. But if we want to be part of it rather than looking in from the sidelines, we have to alter the balance fundamentally in favour of allowing the experience of the poor to penetrate to the centre.'

Well. You must bear in mind that most of the audience listening to the bishop were, er, white evangelical graduates. What he was saying was also diametrically opposed to what the Diocese of Guildford is doing: its new Parish Share system will penalise small churches in favour of large ones which are all, funnily enough, evangelical, and which will in future have a far greater role in 'helping' small churches develop - which is what else but enforcing the sort of hegemonic church culture he was complaining about. But he still got a lot of applause. Morally, it couldn't be argued with, and for the rest of the conference people wanted to talk about little else. In a Q&A session Il Rettore, attending his last conference before he retires, stood up and told Bishop Philip how his speech had redeemed his previous 34 years of conference-attendance to that point, unreconstructed Corbynite as he is. And the little knot of Catholics felt a bit less isolated. At the final plenary session our diocesan bishop set his face into a grin and chose to refer not to Bishop Philip's case in as many words but to his insistence that renewal was inevitable and people shouldn't talk about the Church 'declining'. That's a message everyone likes to hear.

I like Bishop Philip's vision of what the Church should be; my issue is that it never has been that, it's never been a place where the experience of the poor has been the organising principle. That evening I lay in my bed reading about how some of the Cistercian monasteries of medieval England and Wales, rather than setting up in wilderness and waste and colonising them as the cliché is, actually achieved the spiritual 'solitude' they craved by simply clearing away the existing inhabitants of an area. I thought about the sudden upsurge in Christian adherence in the Roman Empire after Constantine converted, or the Slavs being mass-baptised at swordpoint by Prince Vladimir of the Rus. God may well always bring spiritual renewal through the poor, but where the Church has most spectacularly 'succeeded' it has often been precisely where it sits lightest to what it says it believes. It has always, always absorbed and institutionalised the organising principles and assumptions of the world around it at the same time as preaching the exact opposite.

The miracle - and it truly is that - has been that the Church also always holds within itself the radical contaminant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, forever subverting, calling to account, and undermining its own practices. Perhaps we heard an instance of that at The Hayes this year. I don't hold out much hope that the experience of the margins can become the framing principle of the centre, and it may be that the Church of England has actually served God's purpose for it: 'renewal' may well pass us by in the end. But it certainly will if that marginal experience is stifled. It can only be kept alive by acting counterintuitively, by exercising an option not just for the poor, but for the unexpected, the irrational, what does not make immediate best sense.

Friday, 6 July 2018

Grace and un-Grace

I was telling folk at the triennial Clergy Conference this week that it was my fourth - but I see from the last time I blogged about it that it is my fifth. The weather at The Hayes in Swanwick, as you can see, was splendid although that actually dissuaded me from going out for a walk as I would normally have done: the sun was far too exuberant. 

The Conference turned out unexpectedly in a way I'll talk about in a different post. More generally I arrived after a hot journey expecting to be greeted as usual with a smart-aleck remark by the Director of Ordinands, which thankfully never came. I never like this event. The talks and workshops are all very well but separated from my parish by hours of disagreeable driving (you can go by train, but unless you time it just right the nearest station you can get to is Derby, requiring a long taxi ride to take you to The Hayes); and then there's the small talk. At lunch on the first day I found my way to a table with a couple of priests I didn't know (I don't know the great majority of them):

Me: Is it all right if I join you?
Revd Anon: Of course. [Pause as I sit] And which part of Wales do you come from?
Me: Er, none actually.
Revd Anon: Ah, I thought I heard a bit of an accent ...

The theme of the conference was Traces of Grace. The opening worship included 'Amazing Grace' - but not the one you may be familiar with; it was Chris Tomlin's 2006 version, which alters the rhythm and pointlessly adds to the original lyric (or rather the original with the extra late-Victorian verse bolted on the end). What was wrong with the old version? The bishop then gave his keynote address talking about the unexpectedness of God's grace and the need to be open to it. That meant 'coming to the conference in the right frame of mind' and not staying in our chosen 'echo chambers', especially accepting that the liturgy may not be what we would choose to join with ourselves and we should be receptive.

I felt horribly angry and then angry at myself for feeling angry. 'We have this treasure in earthen vessels', went on the bishop, quoting from 2 Corinthians, and I wondered whether anyone's vessel was made of rougher clay than mine. Does anyone else here struggle with such bitterness, rage and resentment, such unwillingness to do what they should be doing? Does anyone in this room think they're anything other than basically all right, which I know I'm not? It was a long, black tunnel.

And then, slowly, it was all right again. The speakers gave me other things to think about and one of the canons of the Cathedral thanked me for something I'd done that she'd been at. A fellow member of SCP who's not having that easy a time at the moment sought me out at dinner the first evening and before long we were among a knot of Anglo-Catholics or Catholic sympathisers, an 'echo-chamber' perhaps but a soul-preserving one which made us all feel less isolated. And the following day the programme went very unexpectedly, which, as I say, I'll talk about on another occasion!

Thursday, 5 July 2018

The Stone Bandwagon

A month ago I reported on the decorated stones I'd found at the porch of the church and which turned out to be part of quite a widespread game which is being played across the county and beyond. I thought it was a rather lovely, simple way of brightening the world up a tiny bit. When we met to put together the Family Service order last time one of our number, whose Rainbow troop had joined in by decorating its own stones and hiding them around the area, suggested the church do the same. So I bought a big bag of pebbles from the garden centre and a selection of indelible markers from WHSmith and we gave a stone to everyone as they came into the church on Sunday. When the time came for intercessions everyone marked their stone with a cross or some other symbol (or an appropriate pious sentiment, though it had to be a short one) and they were held up to be blessed before being taken away to be hidden. I was delighted as it ticked all the bishop's boxes - outreach and use of social media in terms of reporting it on the relevant LiberFaciorum page - and mine as it is, in the broadest sense of using physical things to signify spiritual realities, sacramental. Although I forgot to do the final step and take a copy of the photo below to the Clergy Conference this week to add to the collage that was being assembled of all the wacky evangelistic things the parishes are doing. However I never heard anything about said collage so I wonder whether it happened at all. 

There were many more stones than this!

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Once a Curator

Unbelievably it's fifteen years since I left Wycombe Museum, and a couple of years since my last visit. But I still have the habit of casting an eye over the interesting chairs I see about (the Museum's collection majored on the long-standing furniture industry in and around High Wycombe, which grew out of traditional Windsor chair-making in the area), and the positively reprehensible habit of occasionally picking them up and examining them more closely.

We have a very agreeable café in Swanvale Halt (actually we have two, with interestingly divergent personalities and identities) and I often find myself in there on a Saturday morning as I may have let slip in the past. Yesterday I noticed this little Windsor side chair:

This is a very common kind of chair, and I have one in the Rectory, although slathered in white paint rather than in its natural state. You may even have one hanging about. It has an elm seat and beech turned parts. Did it have a maker's stamp in the traditional place at the back of the seat? Indeed it did. 

Who was O.G? He would have been a small-scale craftsman assembling parts, possibly with his own workshop or renting bench space in a factory: the Museum might be able to tell me, if I asked. At any rate, his hands put this chair together. Perhaps if you've got a similar one around, you could look for a stamp too that links it directly to the soul that made it.