Friday, 30 November 2018

Frustration in High Places

Our Archdeacon is still quite fresh in the job. I went to his house a couple of days ago to have a conversation about how things were going in Swanvale Halt. I am aware that having gone through a gentle decline for a couple of years (themselves succeeding several years of gentle growth) numbers at church have been dropping quite steeply for about 18 months as a whole cohort of faithful souls die or become too infirm to attend, and aren't replaced by new ones coming in at the bottom end. I know this isn't anything to do with me directly, though I need to keep alive to the possibility that someone else might do the church better. My firm grasp on the Parson's Freehold, last priest in the diocese to be appointed thus, means I can't be dislodged unless I agree to be, but I don't like to contemplate the possibility that the bishop's staff team might be sitting around the table on a Monday morning and saying 'Oh, if only he would go!'

The Archdeacon assured me that this was far from the case. 'This pattern is happening almost everywhere,' he said, explaining that there are only ten churches across the diocese that are growing in numbers at all. Ironically these tend not to be the big evangelical ones, either, as those are generally losing support to smaller independent churches. One of the most prominent culprits in this respect is Emmaus Road in the centre of Guildford, which I know has been causing consternation among some of my colleagues as they have watched significant proportions of their younger families disappear in their direction. The parish church of Swanvale Halt hasn't (although I know some families in the parish who are part of Emmaus Road - some come to our Messy Church and even, last year, to our children's Passion Service on Good Friday), but then families who want that kind of worship were very unlikely to have come to us in the first place. One incumbent, went on the Archdeacon, has asked these departing families why they've left: 'they don't make any demands on us,' was the answer, no pressure to join rotas for this and that. They come, they listen to the speakers and wave their hands in the air, and go home. I wondered whether this was really true, as people are certainly encouraged to join the church's home groups which in good Maoist manner they call Collectives; but we were due to host one of the Swanvale Halt collectives one Saturday morning a few weeks ago, and the convenors rather shamefacedly cancelled it as it became clear nobody else was coming. 

'It does raise the question of what they think "church" is about', said the Archdeacon. 'And I can't help thinking, Why have you set up a church in a town which already has more churches of more kinds and styles than almost anywhere else? Why not put one on the Wellesley Estate in Aldershot? That would actually be helpful.'

Monday, 26 November 2018

St Catherine's Day 2018 - at Abbotsbury

Thankfully the roads were mainly in my favour yesterday as I made an effort, for the first time, to get to St Catherine's Chapel at Abbotsbury for the feast day of my patron saint, there being no evening service at Swanvale Halt to detain me. The forecast was for dull and overcast weather but instead the autumn sunlight was bathing Chapel Hill as I joined the stream of people and the occasional dog making their way up to the top.

On the way through the village I noticed signs saying that 'candle bags' for the service were on sale from local businesses. These turned out to be paper bags containing a little electric tealight set into sand, which could be decorated however the purchaser wanted: the money was going to support the children's play area in Abbotsbury. The finished bags were handed in and arranged in a 'wheel' on the hillside.

The service in the chapel, which focused quite strongly on the blessed Saint herself, lasted about twenty minutes, led by Revd Margaret Preuss-Higham, priest in charge of Abbotsbury. There were about sixty people there (not counting the dogs). The chapel's famous acoustic was well dampened by the presence of so many people or we would have been deafened!

Afterwards I had a closer look at some of the bags. Like the prayers left in the niches in the chapel itself, most were memorials to the dead. I saw a couple of bags decorated in memory of soldiers who died in WWI, with rubbings from the bronze plaques, issued to the relatives of all fatalities and gruesomely nicknamed 'dead man's pennies'. At least one person, though, chose to illustrate the chapel itself:

The only drawback of the fine weather was that I couldn't see the hill lit up by both the candle bags and the lanterns that line the path to the summit. It was only 3.40, but I had to zoom off to see my mother in Bournemouth.

A final view from the yard of the Ilchester Arms showed plenty of souls still making their way around the chapel. I was so glad to have made it.

Saturday, 24 November 2018

Digital Simulation

'I and God have been making a paradox', Trevor told me on the phone, a sign that we were into science-fiction mode this morning. One of his abiding delusions is that screens of all kinds, whether TVs, computers or phones, can create portals to other dimensions or in fact generate other realities wholesale. This wouldn't matter, as Trevor sitting in his flat playing multiple copies of old movies like The Robe in the belief that he's multiplying God in order to sort his problems out doesn't harm anyone; were it not for the fact that it stops him doing anything that actually would improve his life. Rituals like this are also part of his anxiety structure, his belief that God needs him to carry out certain acts in order to combat evil, especially evil as it relates to himself: 'I have to repair God's throne, God's cross has been condemned.' It doesn't do him any good.

I try to reassure him that God's power is eternal and can't be added to or reduced, and that playing videos doesn't affect it one way or the other. 'We live in a digital simulation, Dr Chuck Missler says so,' Trevor insists, 'it's in the Bible.' I say that I can't think of anywhere the Bible talks along those lines. 'It is, there's a hidden code. You don't know, you haven't studied it. You only know the replacement theology of the Church of England.' There have been occasions when Trevor has declared that 'When I am on my throne in heaven I will condemn the replacement theology,' but we don't get that far this time.

The late Chuck Missler is one of Trevor's favourite evangelists. I suspect he wasn't quite the nutcase he may appear to have been, despite having written a book arguing that alien encounters are in fact meetings with demons. In fact a lot of what Dr Missler wrote was intended to be quite speculative rather than a presentation of hard fact. I suspect his articles and statements about the illusory nature of reality fall into that category: he's taking a set of deductions about the indeterminacy of subatomic physics and using it to argue the utter dependence of the world on God, and incidentally to undermine human beings' confidence about what they think they know: attacking science with a few bits of science. It's a bit a of cheap trick, I think, but even Chuck Missler can't have imagined that a schizophrenic man in a flat in Hornington would have used his ideas to justify playing videos to create alternate universes. I suppose it would be churlish to blame him.

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Love and Anger

We were celebrating communion at Widelake House yesterday. We'd arrived later than usual due to interesting times on the roads of the parish, and I'd forgotten to bring a pall, the stiff linen square that sits over the chalice to stop flies dropping in it. Bella, who was a regular member of the congregation but is now resident in Widelake, was extremely upset at someone coming into her room overnight and was so anxious to see the manager when she came back that we only persuaded her to come to the service with some difficulty. As usual, a couple of the souls present pretty much know what's going on, a couple drift in and out of sleep, and it washes over the others in what I have to hope is a holy miasma. 

One of the important things in parish ministry, which is only a more acute version of the same dilemma that faces a lot of people in their daily lives, is to come to terms with the apparent pointlessness of a lot of what you do. I think priests who are anxious to be demonstrably useful are a hazard to themselves and others. My predecessor was very determined to be useful, and I suspect this was probably why she had her breakdown: reality never lived up to her expectations. 

In the afternoon Cara came for tea and as we sat in the cafĂ© she described her first few weeks looking after three churches of different character in the wilds of inner Surrey. She's spent quite a bit of that time fighting an inner rage. She met the bishop who conducted her installation at an event this week and who made the mistake of asking how she was 'and I could feel my eyes filling with tears and I could see the panic in her face'. I recalled what it was first like in the much easier circumstances of Swanvale Halt, and my own sense of anger and unsettlement, a completely unreasonable feeling given the lovely people God had provided for me here. Marion our curate once told me how she thought her character had deteriorated since her ordination and 'how much more bad-tempered' she'd become. So many clergy report the same sort of thing, quite separately from the actual conditions in which they find themselves, that it's worth thinking why it happens. It is something to do with the uncertain expectations of the priestly role, which once upon a time was exercised within the clear context of social authority but which is now one onto which everyone around you projects a set of their own, often conflicting, expectations. These are often communicated to you very subtly, and sometimes not so subtly. It's not surprising if a person suddenly projected into this situation resents it, and feels guilty at resenting it, because they've chosen it and because of the privileges that accompany it, and that certain character types will find the mixture of emotions harder to process than others. It's also why new incumbents have to pay special attention to the first few weeks of their ministry: everyone will always remember the impression you give right at the start, and yet that's the time when you are most unsettled, uncertain, and vulnerable, when you don't really know what's going on and are trying to work out what you feel as much as what everyone else does.

'My spiritual director would said that these feelings are potentially creative and properly handled are all part of the process of priestly ministry,' I offered.

'Yeah, thanks,' said Cara.

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Noises Off

Finally we got around to trialling Taketime, the Ignatian meditation technique we learned about back in July. Thirteen of us (a coven's worth, yes) gathered on Sunday evening in a circle of chairs and thought ourselves into the story of Jesus calling the first disciples. I got some of the order wrong through misinterpreting the handouts from our training session, but it was fine and various attenders found themselves getting something valuable out of it.

It surprised me that our old church walls are so ineffective at keeping out what you might call non-diegetic noise. A group was setting up for a meal in the church hall and we could just about hear the odd clatter and instruction, but a little more disruptive were the sounds from the street. 'It wouldn't have been completely quiet at the Sea of Galilee', offered Marion, but we agreed that whatever noise they might have experienced, repeated car horns wouldn't have been part of it.

Mind you, it could have been worse. I had to burn a CD of relaxing classical music and only having done so realised that for some reason my program had done another copy of the previous one I made, a compilation of driving music including contributions from the Dresden Dolls, the Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing, Chelsea Wolfe and the Accordion Death Squad. Few people, even me, would probably find that combination particularly relaxing.

Sunday, 18 November 2018


It caused Dr Bones great amusement to discover that I had dug over an area of the garden with the aim of planting a wildflower patch: wasn't cultivating wildflowers a contradiction in terms? In fact it isn't as simple as just leaving an area of ground to its own devices and seeing what happens. If it's in a damp, dark area where grass finds the going tough, you will indeed get wildflowers, but they will be all Green Alkanet and Herb Robert, and they grow anywhere. If it's in an open, light area, all you will get are rough grasses, and if bramble and ivy are anywhere close at hand they will start making an appearance after a while, too. You do actually need to work at it. 

I'd already left this particular bit of the garden to run wild in the expectation that it would magically turn into a meadow hung in the summer with bees and butterflies, and it very much did not. Instead it got the grasses, the ivy and the brambles, and the merry pollinating insects had nothing to do there. My other efforts came to nothing, too: in one bed I planted a 'Bee Mat' impregnated with all sorts of lovely seeds and not a single one emerged. 

But this new wildflower experiment I did properly, digging over the ground, removing the remains of the old turf packed with coarse grasses, and leaving it for several weeks to see what weeds came up before planting out the seeds. The packet said the 'nurse grasses' would start emerging in 7-to-10 days, and when nothing much happened I was rather despairing. But, after a gap of five weeks or so, here are the first bold little shoots poking above the soil. At least I hope they are the grasses I want, rather than the ones that were there already, which I don't!

Friday, 16 November 2018

A Would-be Wasted Youth

Watching a variety of underground surrealist short films in a former horse hospital hosted by the one-time PA to Siouxsie & the Banshees is the sort of thing I should have been doing when I was 20, not knocking 50, but back then I wouldn't have been able to have been invited to such an event by my friend Ms DarkMorte who has known all these people for ages. I thought that perhaps the Horse Hospital's name was just macabre whimsy, but no, that's exactly what the late-18th century building was, as revealed by the sluice-channels cut into the gallery floor (not that different from my garage, which used to be a stable). 

I was most taken by the first of the films, Eliott Edge's Hello Sexy Curse which despite its name is very un-sexy indeed. It's an attempt to create a horror movie without narrative or explicit events, using the mere force of sound and vision. For twenty minutes, strange shapes resolve themselves into images you just begin to recognise when they disappear, there are moments when the screen goes dark, and sound or silence move across the visual display in an apparently unconnected progress but one which is in fact carefully composed to unsettle. It works very well. It's also quite exhausting, partly because of the tense worry of what might be coming next (at one point a woman's eye comes into view together with a long, flat object which might be a sword, and you think it's going to go all Un Chien Andalou but are relieved when it doesn't), and partly because the human brain being what it is you are continually straining to make logical sense of what you are seeing even while telling yourself that there is no narrative to be grasped, and your grey cells shouldn't really be bothering themselves unnecessarily. And that was probably a metaphor for my younger days, too.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

On The Square

Newly-installed as Rector of Emwood, Cara has been somewhat discombobulated by the discovery that her 'most effective churchwarden' is also a Freemason. I know that one of our Swanvale Halt congregation is the spouse of a Mason, but not of any others and I'd be surprised if there were any - it's not the sort of church that has those sort of networks or that kind of status in local society. 

We discussed Freemasonry at a diocesan training day on deliverance and all associated issues a few months ago, when the co-ordinator of the deliverance advisory team related his own run-in with parish Masons years ago. He had refused to read one of their prayers going on about 'The Great Architect' at a funeral service in the church for a Lodge member, and good heavens, didn't he get some nasty letters as a result. But nasty letters were all he got. A couple of years ago I had reason to speak to the then deliverance advisor who handed me a leaflet detailing various spiritually doubtful things in which a person might have been involved, including Freemasonry: 'covertly Satanic in its lower degrees and overtly Satanic in its higher degrees', apparently. I thought this was a bit much. 1950s Archbishop of Canterbury Geoffrey Fisher had been a Mason: the mere thought of him cavorting naked around a benighted field invoking the Great Beast was something I was not pleased to have in my mind. 

It is the case that some of the more arcane rituals of some bits of Freemasonry once mentioned Jahbulon, a sort of composite word for God cobbled from Yahweh, Baal and On, all Old Testament words for deities of different sorts. It made the point that, in the syncretistic, freethinking system that underlies Masonry, all gods are one God and all roads lead to him. There was even some would-be spiritual language about the unity of God and the Devil, of light and dark. Probably all secret societies that grew up in rationalist opposition to established church life in the 18th century developed language of this kind: it should be seen in that light, rather than Satanic. I don't see every black-and-white chequered floor as evidence of devil-worship. That said, I can't see how any definite Christian could easily use such language, or want to be involved in this kind of spiritual system. 

My friend Comrade Tankengine believed that he was actively persecuted by a group of Freemasons at his workplace many years ago. Around that time I found a bottle in the collection of the museum where I worked labelled 'Masons Extract', which we both found most amusing. I suspect, realistically, that that's as diabolic as the influence of the Lodge gets.

Monday, 12 November 2018


Two new war memorials, a session with the ATC and one Remembrance service later, and the 100th anniversary of the Armistice at Swanvale Halt is over. The memorials were the one at Smallham against the road outside the little chapel there, and the garden at Hornington Cemetery where I did a double-headed service with the Vicar of Hornington. Our service went as well as it could possibly have done: more by luck than judgement we began the Silence at precisely 11am, which doesn't always happen.

I and the Air Cadets talked about what we might be thinking in our various Remembrance events. Much of the public comment, whether from those who support or oppose the whole circus, assumes it's 'about' one thing, which is not my experience nor that of the young people at the Squadron. In my teens I saw it as a horrendous, irredeemably imperialist display, but now I find my feelings are an amalgam of the effects of personal, national, and universal human history. I think of my Dad and his National Service with the Devon & Dorsets, and my great-uncle who was a prisoner of the Japanese in WWII. I think of the young men of Swanvale Halt whose names are on our memorial, and of those who fought against them in exactly the same conditions and with exactly the same feelings: of the victims of war, civilian and military, on all and every side, in conflicts wasteful and arguably justified, past and present. I think of what we might do to avoid such pain in the future. All these remembrances flow together and the mute poppy somehow expresses them. We write our own meanings onto it, rather than passively accepting anyone else's.

Saturday, 10 November 2018

Omission Pt 2

My post about the saga of the missed banns now needs an update. I administered the oath to the couple, gathered up all the paperwork, and happily sent it off to the Registry in London. All was well.

Then on Thursday the Registry called me. I had not spotted, had I, that Andrew and Valerie were getting married in the Diocese of York; that is, in the Northern Province of the Church of England and, therefore, in an entirely different jurisdiction. The oath they'd sworn with me was invalid and they would have to find a surrogate for oaths in Yorkshire.

My immediate and overemotional reaction, composed of parts of shame, mortification, fear, and worry for the couple, needs analysing somewhere else than here as I don't quite understand it myself; the sleepless night that followed did nobody any good. What might be of interest to you is the process of trying to sort the mess out. Off the phone to the Registry, I then called, in quick succession: the curate due to marry Andrew and Valerie; his vicar; the Area Dean; not just one but two numbers at the offices of the Diocese of York; and finally the York Diocesan Registry. None of these people answered. It was several hours before I did finally manage to speak to one, the vicar of the benefice where the wedding was due to happen. She told me she used to be the Surrogate for the Deanery (how convenient had she still been!) but resigned about 18 months ago and didn't know who the new one was. She couldn't find out for me because the Diocese of York has replaced its paper Yearbook with an online 'information portal' and she wasn't yet registered. She gave me the name of someone she thought was a Surrogate, but he turned out to be away.

That was as far as I could get before my sleepless Thursday night. On Friday morning I successfully spoke to a clerk at the Diocesan Registry in York who gave me the name of a vicar not far away from where the couple were due to get married. Bona. But a few hours later she called me to say that, although her name might be down as Surrogate, she hadn't yet had any training and so couldn't help (I just about refrained from sharing the information that my 'training' for the role had come in the form of a booklet in a brown envelope). The Registry had given me two other names, one of the priest who was away until next week, and another, vicar of a parish on the east side of York. He, thank God, kindly responded to a message despite it being his day off and enabled me actually to go and tell the couple what had happened. Getting married is stressful enough: I wanted to be able to provide them with a plan of action, not just a problem waiting to be resolved. 

I set out in pouring rain on Friday night and found Andrew and Valerie just packing to go to Yorkshire that evening. I told them I had screwed the process up, again, told them that Fr So and So would give them a call and gave them his details, handed over a bottle of wine in apology, and wished them well. They were so relaxed about it, and even grateful, yet what they were thanking me for was clearing up after my own mess. After my dreadful stress and worry it was a beautiful experience of graciousness. 

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Changing Scene

My friend Cylene has recently moved far away from London, so she won't be at leading Goth club Slimelight any time soon. But lately on LiberFaciorum she highlighted the complaint of another clubgoer at her treatment by the security guards one night in October:

As the saying goes, 'opinion is divided on this matter'. Cylene was outraged, while others suggested this was only what the club has to do to keep its licence.

I wasn't sure exactly what was being complained of, and the complainant's account doesn't make it completely clear. What does she mean by a 'full body search'? (I'm not going to Google 'under the bra' to work out what that phrase might entail). Even as far as the police are concerned, any search which might expose 'intimate areas of the body' can only take place in a police station, so if that was what happened that night at Slimelight it was plainly illegal; but the victim only specifically mentions that she was asked to take her shoes off.

Assuming that nothing positively illegal took place, it seems as though the security personnel were within their rights. According to the guidelines I found, they're permitted to ask to search a patron at an event or premises; the patron can refuse, but then the security personnel have an equal right to expel them from said event or premises, so the ultimatum they gave the complainant in this case was proper. The victim here complains that no explanation was given her, but of course it wasn't: the security personnel don't know the background to any report of illegal behaviour, and it's not their business to investigate it, and so they have to protect the reporting person against possible repercussions. Security do have to call the police if they want someone arrested, but not just to see them off the premises. There doesn't seem to have been any improper behaviour here, although as it turned out to be a case of mistaken identity you could argue the security personnel could have been more alert to that possibility, and the possibility, too, of someone reporting illegal behaviour maliciously. 

The most suggestive aspect of this is the complainant's insistence on her longstanding membership of Slimelight and that it was wrong to behave in this way 'especially towards a regular': in the end she was rescued by a security guard who recognised her. 'The atmosphere in there has completely changed ... We've lost our basic freedom which is what most of us went there for in the first place.' The trouble with this is that it's hardly reasonable to expect security personnel at an event to be familiar with who is and who isn't trustworthy, or indeed 'a regular'. Slimelight is a big venture to which people gravitate from a hundred miles away and more on a Saturday night, and is a commercial event - by which I don't mean it exists to make money, as it clearly doesn't, but that it's subject to the same rules and pressures as are events that do. It's anonymous. Whatever may have been the case once upon a time, it isn't a night out in the pub with your mates.

But that's what Goths often want it to feel like. The belief in subcultural community creates an expectation that a communal ethos will characterise the events where Goths gather. It reminds me of the things that were said at the time Reptile was expelled from its former home at the Minories off Tower Hill which expressed a sense that a Goth club night ought to have different rules applied to it from any other gathering, rules that recognised its significance as a sort of community event rather than a commercial one. But I don't think an event as big as Slimelight can work like that. 

Sunday, 4 November 2018

Sins of Omission

Being Bishop's Surrogate for Oaths often puts me in the position of sorting the situation out when churches fail to read banns for people who are getting married or, as quite often happens, people don't realise they need to have them read. That made it doubly embarrassing when, a couple of weeks ago, I realised I had failed to arrange the reading of a couple's banns in Swanvale Halt when I was away. Usually I copy the banns to be read into the register for the first Sunday each month, the month before the wedding concerned. In October my last Sunday before going away was so busy I forgot all about it, and by the time the mistake was discovered it was too late and the couple had to be married by licence instead. 

So the embarrassment was cubed this morning as I realised, on going to check whether there were banns to be read, that the mistake affected a second couple. A second mortifying phone call to explain what had happened and what we were going to do about it. 'If that's the worst thing that goes wrong I'll be pleased!' said the bride-to-be, all understanding. Still, apart from the fact that I will have to fork out to pay for their licence, and apart from the bureaucratic faff, it's the last thing you want as your wedding approaches. I recall one couple coming to see me last year to swear an oath in application for a marriage licence the day before their wedding as the mistake had only been discovered the previous day. They were shaking.

It is a sin because I have not paid attention and caused people upset as a result. But as it was the morning after the accident at the Woking Fireworks not far away from here, the sin was put into perspective. Nobody has died and it can be dealt with. I thought how it might be, not just to suffer from an accident for which someone else is responsible, but also to be that person: what might it take to face your culpability?

Friday, 2 November 2018

Dereliction of Sundry Kinds

After my episode of  'overwalking' on holiday, I finally did what I've been saying for years I should be doing and bought a pair of proper walking boots, which had their first outing yesterday. My friend Cylene often posts images of derelict or abandoned buildings on LiberFaciorum and one of these, not that far away from me, was the focus of my trip. In Nearer Sussex lies the hamlet of Bedham, and Bedham contains a surprise.

Bedham's surprise is a ruined church, sequestered in a steep-sided dell in the woods, surrounded by houses but invisible from them all. It was built in 1880 as a joint church and schoolroom. For several generations, the children of the charcoal-burners of this undeveloped woodland district came here to learn their ABC, and then on Sundays the Rector of Fittleworth held a service in the building. Education ceased in 1925 but the church, dedicated to St Michael & All Angels, kept going until being declared redundant in 1959. 

Keep Out! warn the signs, but provided you don't go clambering round the walls you will come to no harm. It's a haunting ruin, strangely beached in its hollow like a ship, but it doesn't take much to imagine pinafored Victorian children running down the slope on their way to lessons.

The line of the Wey & Arun Canal runs through this area. I hadn't realised until I set out that my route would take me across its course at a couple of places. This piece of industrial archaeology, as haunting in its way as Bedham Church, is Pallingham Quay Bridge, right at the southern end of the Canal. Not far beyond it, the navigable part of the River Arun began:

I wanted to see the Toat Monument, and so I did, although I discovered you can't approach that closely. Built in the 1820s as a memorial to a man who died falling off his horse, it seems almost a bit insensitive that the reason you can't approach the monument today is that the space is occupied by horse paddocks.

By the time I got back to the car it was so dark I could barely spot the sign indicating the little car-parking area among the trees.