Wednesday, 18 September 2019

A Climate of Conversion

The South East England Faith Forum meeting at the University on Monday was about religious responses to the challenge of climate change. It was all polite enough as a Catholic Christian, a Buddhist, a Sikh, a humanist and a Muslim described their own faith positions’ approaches to the issue, and relatively chirpily outlined initiatives such as EcoSikhs and Green Islam. An elderly rabbi who is on the steering group of Extinction Rebellion changed the tone by asking us to examine our feelings about the prospect of the great changes pending for human society, and he was followed by Dr Justine Huxley, director of the St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace in London, who really led the hall down a dark path. The Centre was studying ‘how we operate within a landscape of approaching social and economic collapse’ and ‘mapping out the journey between “There are no courgettes in the shops” and mass starvation’. Thinking about the spiritual aspects of coming to terms with climate emergency, she drew a parallel with her father’s death from cancer and the way the clarity of his situation changed his whole life for his last couple of years: ‘humanity has had a global cancer diagnosis … Through this breakdown we will come to know our dependence on each other and God, but we don’t get there unless we go through the darkness.’ I was quite favourably impressed that another group of Christians was at least tackling the apocalyptic implications – using the word theologically – of what seems to be happening. At least it’s not just me.

At the XR meeting the other evening, and again on Monday, I was struck by the parallels between the emotional journey climate activists want people to go on (and to an extent which I have travelled too) and a very traditional Christian evangelistic technique – bringing an audience to a place of despair and then offering a way out. This is very explicit: I’ve now heard a whole variety of speakers describing precisely the same transition from grief and anguish to determination and engagement, activism as an antidote to hopelessness. I do question the notion of campaigning as therapy – if it only affects how you feel rather than what’s likely to happen, you may as well take up stamp collecting as a response to Armageddon, so I suspect the people who say that don’t really mean it.

Rabbi Newman and Justine Huxley both cited – independently of each other, because the speakers on Monday hadn’t vetted each others’ contributions first – Professor Jem Bendell’s 2018 paper Deep Adaptation, which predicts the collapse of Western civilisation in as little as ten years' time. Dr Huxley described how she’d taken a group of her staff on retreat into a wood to read it and talk about it together, and had gone through tears and terror before reaching a sense of resolution – exactly the process others are describing. Now she’s concentrating on helping groups take the same journey, she said.

Amazingly I'd never heard before of Dr Bendell's paper, 'the article that drives people into therapy' as it was reported. It’s a sort of confessional narrative, explaining how he took a sabbatical from his chair in Sustainability at the University of Cumbria to read up on the scientific literature around climate change and found himself horrified, and outlining the stages of his grief. I gather its tone, at least, is not universally supported among climate science specialists: Michael Mann, the geophysicist who developed the famous 'hockey-stick' graph illustrating the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide, succinctly summarises it as 'crap'. Dr Bendell’s response seems to be to characterise his critics as, for different reasons, 'social collapse deniers' in the same way those who support the climate change consensus term their now-tiny but sadly influential number of opponents. But thinking merely about the scientific element, Deep Adaptation is very open to criticism: it is citation-light in a way that, for instance, the Breakthrough centre's 2018 paper on the risks of extreme climate change, which I did read, isn't. It's really a work of rhetoric, not science. If XR and St Ethelburga's have imbibed their sense of terror and crisis from Deep Adaptation, and I and many others are picking it up from them, might the basis on which we are being plunged into existential anxiety be questionable?

I am no scientist, and therein lies the difficulty. The science of climate change isn't the kind of science which counts molecules and observes what happens when you burn a bit of magnesium in a Bunsen flame. It's about estimating how immensely complex processes will interact over time: an exercise in relative probabilities. I'm an historian by training; Dr Bendell is a sociologist; Dr Huxley, a psychologist. The truth is that we, like most people, have nothing like the necessary scientific grounding to be able to assess the validity of one research paper or another. I could sit Googling reports from Nature until I was blue in the face and it wouldn't turn me into a climate scientist: I did actually skim the 2018 IPCC report and could barely make anything of it apart from the summary. It's a different language and we don't have the apparatus to begin understanding it: so we rely on others to interpret it for us. Even within the scientific community the subdisciplinary knowledge required is daunting. Take one small example: the doomsday climate scenario relies to some extent on the generation of runaway heating as a result of natural processes achieving an escape velocity beyond which nothing human beings do will affect them. One of these might be the release of methane, currently trapped in deep permafrost, as that ice reserve melts, thus accelerating the heating. That was a theme reported several years ago, Jem Bendell talks about it, and the XR meeting I went to last week mentioned it. But I gather that the latest thinking (over the last couple of years) is that this 'feedback loop' is virtually impossible for various complex reasons. To grasp what they are, and to keep up with changing opinion, you have to be not just a scientist, not just a climatologist, but a specialist in that particular field. The rest of us just blink.

The same is true when we turn to what should be the more concrete matter of what human beings have actually managed to do to mitigate the crisis so far. For many climate activists, this amounts to 'nothing', and you can see why they say this. Despite decades of supportive words from governments and international conferences, global carbon emissions are still rising, forests are still being felled, pesticides are still killing off the very insects that keep the ecosystem going. European governments obscure the facts with statistical flannel, Mr Trump and Mr Bolsonaro rubbish the whole thing. On the other hand some point out that the Indian economy (covering a significant chunk of the earth’s population) is already compliant with a 2o rise in temperature and set to reduce that further, while China is likely to achieve its goal of peak emissions by 2030, and so on with more encouraging statistics. Neither side of the balance is untrue, and most of us don’t have the time or knowledge to be able to critique each position effectively. Which we might pick is, dare I say, a matter of faith, or of predilection. As a moderately conservative Christian I am predisposed to spot apocalypses, and if, like Jem Bendell, you're a leftish academic who's spent your entire career arguing that capitalism is about to implode, you are also liable to leap on a scientifically-underpinned narrative that seems to offer more justifying evidence than the elevated guesswork you usually deal in. On a human level, you might have to ‘go through the darkness’ on the way, but what you win is validation.

So as a slightly bitter entertainment en route, I can't help but see the religious instinct poking through the surface of the secular and the scientific. See what’s happening. For some, it’s not enough to accept that anthropogenic climate change will cause great social disruption and that it would be a good thing to mitigate it as best we can. It isn’t even enough to accept that there is a chance, maybe a substantial one, that such disruption would be civilisation-breaking and perhaps even threaten human survival. Believers now insist that this is not just a possibility but an inevitability, and outline a process of conversion by which people can accept the truth. Religious movements, too, tend to express their truth in a progressively more extreme fashion to raise the emotional stakes and generate commitment. ‘You’ve got the facts but you’re not feeling the truth, you’re not internalising it’, XR founder Roger Hallam told a BBC interviewer a few weeks ago. It’s a statement of the same sort as ‘you haven’t really repented’ or ‘you don’t really have a living relationship with the Lord Jesus as your personal saviour’. The way Dr Huxley and others have found their own engagement with climate science being shaped by what Jem Bendell underwent exactly parallels how conversion works in evangelical Christianity. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong or irrational, but it does make it something other than straightforward.

So this one specialist in nothing attempts to weigh up all the conflicting claims and concludes that the direction of travel is certain: what's debatable is how far we've gone, how far we have yet to go, how fast we’re moving, and how feasible it is to turn aside from that trajectory. This would in itself justify facing at least the possibility that our diagnosis might turn out to be terminal. I recognise the developing pattern – shaped by a religious impulse based around one emotional response to one interpretation of a set of data – too well to swallow it whole. But perhaps it’s the thing people need to open up their thinking; which is what conversion is.

Monday, 16 September 2019

Hesitation, Repetition & Deviation

I led the usual Taketime meditation time on Sunday evening. People listened, shared their thoughts and impressions, and appreciated the quiet. We remarked on the contrast between the descriptions of tumultuous gathering around Jesus and quiet withdrawal in the narrative, and how this linked to our own lives. I congratulated myself, very mildly, on a job well done, especially as I was coming down with my first cold in a year and didn't feel at all well.

Former Lay Reader Lillian was the last to leave. 'Has anyone told you? Obviously not. That was the same meditation as I used last time. It didn't seem to make any difference. Thank you anyway. Good night.'

Saturday, 14 September 2019

Just Don't Go There

About thirteen years ago I walked through a gap in a hedge beside a fairly busy B-road and along a track at the edge of a field that led to a wood, where, to my surprise, I found one of the most spectacular holy wells (using the term loosely) that I've ever seen. A great Gothic archway set into a bank led to a inner chamber where a gargoyle's head spouted water into a basin. It wasn't in very good condition and looked for all the world as though nobody had set eyes on it in years. I'd certainly never seen a picture of it, though I'd read its name a long time before: it appeared on the map simply marked as 'spring'. In fact, while the well had had a healing reputation recorded in the 18th century, the site as it now appears is a Victorian folly and quite possibly the grandest thing of its kind in the UK, rivalled only, perhaps, by St Bernard's Well beside the Water of Leith in Edinburgh

I was so astonished that no record of this site had ever appeared, anywhere, apart from those brief antiquarian mentions, that I popped it on my website. I was aware that technically I shouldn't have been there and felt a bit uncomfortable about this, so I was always very reticent about where the well actually was. I only returned once, a few months after my initial discovery, to show Dr Bones whose clergyman father also had a habit of ending up where he had no legal business being in pursuit of some interesting or unusual feature of the landscape. I didn't know who might own the site though I guessed it might be the farm a little distance off, and decided that if I ever went back it should be more legitimately. A couple of times I called at the farm gate; I phoned; I think I even wrote a letter. I was never able to contact anyone, and in the end let it go. Some years later I noticed that the gap in the hedge had been filled in, and coupled with some new business ventures beginning around the farm I concluded it might have new owners who were a bit more active than the old.

Nevertheless that slight sense of discomfort didn't quite go away, and was justified when I got an email this week from the farm - the farm business, not from an individual - pointing out that I had been trespassing, that my photographs had been taken illegally and requesting I remove any reference to the well as it had suffered unwelcome attention from vandals. They were clearly quite annoyed. I got the sense that I might not have been the only person they'd contacted, and sure enough other online references to the well have disappeared too, a local history website now pointing out that the site is private and inaccessible. I do take the line that the kind of property rights involved in the ownership of land for production (of whatever) is different from that implicated in property for personal use, and though I have sometimes found myself in places where I am not technically entitled to be I have always prepared my defence of a) doing no harm and b) delusion. But it was a fair cop really. I wrote to apologise and the email I received in acknowledgement was much friendlier.

I first became captivated by hidden and historical places of interest in the landscape when they really were that. You only found out about them by accident, from stray references on maps and things like books. I realise now that I still inwardly inhabit that period, not taking account enough of the fact that now, after decades of attention by similar souls, all this information is everywhere, all the time, part of the wonder and the woe of the internet. It was a different world back then.

Thursday, 12 September 2019

Levels of Concern

Although Extinction Rebellion gets stick from some commentators for its supposedly narrow rent-an-activist base, the crowd at the  meeting yesterday was moderately diverse for Surrey, at least in terms of age and race which are the most obvious characteristics. They seemed to be exactly what the group says its supporters are, an agglomeration of concerned citizens of various types most of whom have never been involved in politics of any sort before, let alone anything that contemplates illegality.

The talk was the standard one XR delivers, and delivers again and again, laying out the science of climate change in an accessible way (and pretty much exactly as I've done in a leaflet about the spirituality of climate change for this coming 'Creationtide', which I did because nobody else seems to have done), and introducing its politics and approach. We finished with a call to 'go out from here and get involved'. 'And stop eating meat!' a woman called out to the support of a flurry of voices and applause. One of the spiritual aspects of the climate emergency that occurred to me is the everlasting tendency of human beings to excuse their own vices and condemn those of others: I've regularly come across misanthropy dressed up as environmental concern, for instance, and it's always a misanthropy addressed towards other people, not oneself. How could it not be? It's not what motivates me: I have a great fondness for human beings and think it would be a shame if we ended here, just as we were beginning to get somewhere as a species.

XR's commitment to non-violence is absolutely right and morally impressive, but discussions around this always miss out the way the standard examples of change driven by non-violent direct action took place within a context of violence. Gandhi and Martin Luther King were both able to point out that if the authorities they confronted did not heed their demands, others would adopt more extreme measures, and in fact in both those cases some did. At the meeting the example of the Suffragettes was raised more than once, the speakers perhaps unaware of the campaign for women's suffrage's resort to bombs and arson, acts which, while certainly not intending to hurt anyone, couldn't be guaranteed not to. But you might argue that the violence threatened if XR is not listened to is the harm which the planet will inflict on us.

Another commonly repeated theme in XR's thinking is the vanguard model of social change, that it takes, roughly, 3 1/2% of a population to effect a shift in its attitudes. I hope that's true. Today I went walking to the north of Guildford and the sheer quantity of rubbish in the verges of a quiet country road struck me more forcibly than ever. What does someone who chucks a plastic bottle out of the window of a car think is going to happen to it? There is here, surely, both an insensitivity to aesthetic ugliness combined with an unconcern with anything which isn't immediately around you, a sort of lacuna in imagination. I wonder whether anyone has ever studied it.

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Children Small and Large

If this year's assemblies at the Infants School include nothing more humiliating than the first one I shall be delighted. Talking about learning new things, I described my attempts to torment the piano I look after, and then despite having practised it perfectly at home, at church, and in fact on the piano in the school hall scant moments before, I positively wrecked a simple setting of Brahms's 'Cradle Song', much to the amusement of the assembled six and seven-year-olds. That was just the prelude (ho-ho) to recounting the story of Jesus calling Matthew the tax-collector, someone who also found himself doing something new. Now, to tell that story with any depth you simply have no option but to outline the tax system of the Roman Empire, even with small children. 'Buildings and roads had to be repaired, and the Emperor needed a big palace to live in -at least, he thought he did'. People having money taken off them to pay for the Emperor's palace is a pretty easy concept for anyone to grasp. 'I like the stories you tell us,' said Carey on the way out of the hall, oblivious perhaps to the undertones of anarcho-syndicalism but another little glimpse into the spontaneous affection little souls have for their parish priest.

In the church porch later on I met three rather older children, part of one of the various groups who have been orbiting around causing problems. I was able to have something approaching a reasonable conversation with them (there being only three of them helped). 'I saw you on your bike!' said Evie gleefully, 'You were outside the café!' Despite being nine or ten years older, she sounded exactly like the children from the infants school do, just the same sort of surprise that I should exist out of one context. That's a successful bit of interaction, I thought. Good work.

Later I came by and found they, or someone they knew, had smashed a candle, scorched the door with a lighter, and had a spitting competition up the windows of the porch. 

Sunday, 8 September 2019

Disorder and the Public

The occasions on which more than 200 people fit into Swanvale Halt church are not usually liturgical ones. With the exception of the Crib Service and the Infants School Christmas Production (liturgical only in the very broadest sense of the word) they tend to be concerts; or, as it turned out on Friday night, a public meeting about antisocial behaviour in the area. The Mayor of Hornington, one of our congregation, having called the meeting, sat up front with a variety of councillors, officials, and police, laying out the context, receiving comments from the floor, and answering questions. 

A lot of people were very hurt, angry and upset, but thankfully the keyboard warriors who demand that various teenagers be strung up from lampposts around the village did not make their presence felt. Instead while there was clear and unmistakable frustration at the sense that an entire community is being held to ransom by what amounts to about ten naughty teenagers about whom nobody seems able to do anything, there was much sympathy for the anguished parents of some of those young people and a recognition that action has to be slow and multifaceted, rather than there being a single, clear course to take. Quite a lot of people volunteered to assist the local church-supported youth work charity and some of the outreach schemes the police are thinking about, and the Borough Commander appealed for residents to communicate the information they had rather than just keep it to themselves and fume. After all, not reporting on the grounds that 'the police won't do anything' is a self-fulfilling prophecy if ever there was one. 

This is not the first episode of disruption I've seen in ten years here, nor the first one I've told you about on this blog. I'm convinced much of it is cyclical and dies away come the dark nights and cold weather; not that we should be complacent, as although vandalism and abusive talk are low-level evil, evil is what they are and they can be the seeds of worse things. I do question my own resolution at dealing with it. I think I suffer from exactly the same sort of moral uncertainty and paralysis as everyone else, even when we tell ourselves we don't. 

I cycled down the hill the following evening at 11 to see whether there was anything going on. There was no one about at all, and the worst evidence of disruption I found in the churchyard was a crisp packet. Defending community values could be deferred to another night.

Friday, 6 September 2019

St Martin's Blackheath

Not far away from Swanvale Halt and up a steep hill from Wonersh lies the village of Blackheath with its small and highly unusual church of St Martin. Blackheath was originally part of Wonersh parish and became separate only after Sir William Robert-Austin, Deputy Master of the Royal Mint and Lay Reader at Wonersh, paid for it to be built in the 1890s. The church was designed by Charles H. Townsend, the architect of the Horniman Museum and the Whitechapel Art Gallery, and while it's not as striking in pure architectural terms as those remarkable buildings, it certainly cuts a dash in the Surrey hills, looking for all the world like an Italian wayside chapel. It was decorated with frescos showing episodes from the life of Christ and an image of St Martin, and later on lined with alabaster as a memorial to the man who founded it. The great gold chancel screen only increases the impression of foreign-ness, but not in the baroque style of Anglo-Papalist taste.

As you can see the Sacrament is still reserved at St Martin's and although it is now once again part of Wonersh Parish, which has a broadly evangelical stance, its style remains distinct. Long may it be so!

Thursday, 5 September 2019

Chertsey Museum

A couple of weeks ago I visited Chertsey Museum having first done so several years before when I was still working at Lamford. I'd forgotten how good it is. A rarity among local museum collections now, it is still administered by the Council, Runnymede District in this case, and is one of the class of museums which has a specialist as well as a local-historical brief. Chertsey houses the Olive Matthews Collection, a nationally-significant assembly of fashion and clothing items dating from the 17th century onwards; although Ms Matthews wasn't very interested in anything made after the Edwardian period subsequent custodians have added to the Collection a variety of representative pieces from subsequent decades. As for local history as such, Chertsey exists because of its medieval Abbey and so that looms large in the museum (particularly during my visit as there was a special exhibition about it), along with the usual paraphernalia of a small market town across the ages, but it's all presented in a very engaging way (and entry to the museum being free, you can't lose really). I even found the answer to a specific question that was nagging me - what was the big house not far from Chertsey which became an asylum and for several of whose former residents I took funeral services while I was at Lamford (it was Botley Park). That doesn't happen very often. Nor do you see particularly frequently a revolving-dome silver food warmer with sausage and egg in it (plastic), or a model of a stately house made by one of the staff out of fruit pith - an object which has a slightly melancholy sense to it, like Remains of the Day with added obsessive-compulsive disorder. 

Monday, 2 September 2019

Limits to Involvement

Molly is one of the people in Swanvale Halt I've been dealing with pastorally for some years, and she has never really caused me that much of a problem, apart from a couple of occasions when she's asked for lifts or subs at awkward times. She was taken to Farnham Road psychiatric hospital at the start of the year and I went to visit her several times. Following my usual policy I agreed to sit in on meetings with professionals to act as a support or advocate, although more than once I turned up to find that there wasn't a meeting after all, or that I wasn't welcome. But gradually the situation has worsened rather than got better. Molly's phone messages have become more regularly incoherent and incomprehensible, her temper more unpredictable, her grip on reality apparently looser. As her discharge approached, I agreed to help move her things from the hospital back to her flat, but three times she pulled out at the last minute. I had been left waiting at the hospital reception for 45 minutes with no explanation, on top of the half-hour taken up with Molly having lunch at the time we'd agreed to go out and do some small tasks. Once Molly did get back to the flat, she asked me to bring her groceries two days running, and on the second occasion called me later on with a request for something else, which I did refuse. She talked about needing a lift to her dad's, and then seamlessly began ranting about an incident from her childhood which seemed to relate to being refused permission to attend drama school, apparently talking to herself rather than me. The intention to see her father was forgotten in moments. She believes her flat has been broken into, that her neighbours are persecuting her, and that her bank account has been defrauded, which is the sort of thing that Trevor, and others, often say.

After a conversation with the hospital, I've decided not to deal with Molly on my own any more, in a process which parallels my interactions with other hard cases over the course of my time here. I'm out of my depth, angry, and exhausted. 

Priests are not supposed to do this, I know. You are supposed to be constantly available and always understanding. I do know that were I in Molly's situation, emerging from an institution after 8 months and faced with a chaotic home environment and an awful lot to do, I would probably feel just as bewildered and beset, but in fact 'understanding' doesn't necessarily make it any easier to support someone in this condition effectively. Instead, dreadfully, I find I have to defend myself against her need.

Experience should have taught me that some people have needs that no individual can meet unless you are prepared to take over the needy person's life for them. They have no limits to their need and neither will you unless you set them. Now Christians are taught that we should be self-sacrificing, and we suspect that setting limits to our compassion is selfish and unChristian. But unless you do, you will go mad or die. Perhaps, in any given situation, that's what God wants of you, but remember that you can only do it once: you have one card to play, and must be sure that this really is the situation in which you should play it. Otherwise, you're just left with the mess of not being perfect, of failing, of letting someone down.

Saturday, 31 August 2019

The Silent Throne

The Supreme Governor's opinions about almost anything are a mystery, which is part of the point. I do wonder what she thinks of this week's constitutional shenanigans. Some of my Remainer friends have nurtured the incongruously Cavalier fantasy that she might tell the Prime Minister that he can't prorogue Parliament, that he is a liar and a fraud and that he, or his messengers despatched Balmoral-ward, should get out of her sight. But of course she can't. The Opposition protests that power in Britain resides in Parliament; the Tory Brexiteers, that it flows from that amorphous and manipulable if unpredictable spring, The People. Neither is right: the source of authority in this realm is the Crown, and the Crown means the executive, much less restrained by legal checks and balances here than Mr Trump is on the far side of the Atlantic. In theory the Queen acts on the advice of her Prime Minister; in fact it is he that acts, no matter what she may advise. 

The former minister, the estimable ex-spy Mr Stewart recently said on the wireless that had Mr Johnson prorogued Parliament over the fateful date of All Hallows Eve itself, he thought a majority of MPs would simply refuse to be prorogued, and sit somewhere else. Revolutions often happen when nobody intends them, when constitutions break under the pressure of events, and 'revolution' would not be too extreme a word to describe the legislature decamping and leaving the executive to its own devices. 

I suppose it all depends now on whether Mr Johnson can bring something back from Brussels which will amount to an agreement allowing the UK to depart the EU in something approaching good order. If so, the revolution might not happen even yet. But if he doesn't, I somehow don't think the electorate will reward him for the results. 

And the Supreme Governor? As I say, I wonder about her thoughts. As she draws to the close of a long life of (as she and many others would see it) dedicated public service, she must at least be contemplating the very possible ruin of everything she swore in 1953 to preserve: the rule of law, the Union, constitutional monarchy itself, all at the hands of a supposedly Conservative and Unionist administration, one in reality anything but, one which is prepared to sacrifice everything for a single goal. And she can do nothing about it. As someone commented, the Queen has a veto over the Government, but she only has one veto. Once she plays that card, the game is over. Once she takes sides, she is no longer impartial. She destroys the constitutional monarchy in the very act of trying to preserve it. 

Thursday, 29 August 2019

A Return from the Cloud

My day off took me to Salisbury where I was meeting with Lady Arlen and her daughters, down in the South for a festival. Despite some confusion we successfully met at a Wetherspoons where she took some pleasure in ordering a meal-deal so cheap it would actually have cost ardent Brexiteer Tim Wetherspoon money to serve it to her. I discovered that I had managed to put an un-charged battery in my camera, meaning to record anything from the day I had to struggle with my phone. This was the only usable image, of the cloisters at the cathedral.

For several days I'd been entering an exceptionally bad mood for a variety of unreasonable reasons, laid on top of the general discombobulation of the times. On the way home on the train this sharply deepened until the thoughts passing through my mind were quite shockingly destructive and dark. I couldn't read any more and listened to music instead, looking out of the window and thinking how pointless everything seemed. Then almost instantly, as Lana del Rey's 'Cruel World' changed to Rykarda Parasol's 'Withdrawal, Feathers and All', it was gone. It wasn't actually anything to do with the music, although Parasol's output is nothing if not humanistic in comparison to the lush vapidity of del Rey's imaginative world: it was as though a switch had been flicked. I thought of S.D.'s theory that we can stray accidentally into clouds of ill-temper and then just as abruptly leave them. 

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

A Challenge to Challenge

"And of course it's all the meat-eaters' fault now, I knew that was coming!" said my friend Carl the cemetery photographer (he does other things) at the picnic on Saturday. I suppose that's a hazard of mixing with vegan Goths a lot of the time. I don't remember a particularly logical sequence of thought which led to this offering, which must have been why it took me aback and I could only respond with something a bit lame like 'Well, obviously there's more to it than eating meat'. 

In a fallen world, there is always a flip side to any positive characteristic, and if I am usually inclined to be a diplomatic and emollient influence in any situation the flip side of that is a reluctance to face disagreement. But I also wonder whether a certain slow-wittedness, or a fear of slow-wittedness, is also at work. I never feel as though I am very good at mustering words when called on to do so. They jostle around in my mind in an unhelpfully ill-disciplined way as I think of the exceptions and caveats to anything I might say. 

It occurs to me that S.D. is very good at the whole business of challenging the way I think, which is part of the point of going to see him. He usually does this by asking something like 'Do you think that's true?' or 'Is that really what you feel?' in a slightly camp manner which expresses a sort of exaggerated puzzlement. Once I have conquered the faint feeling that he's taking the mickey I am compelled to take the thought further, and that is really what you want. At least asking a question back when confronted with something you don't quite agree with gives you time to rally thoughts and words. I wonder how long it took him to learn this technique, and whether I might learn it too. 

Sunday, 25 August 2019

True Stories

Nancy sent me a three-page letter describing how her marriage to Martin came to an end. He-did-this-I-did-that, etc. etc. It's the usual sort of sad tale of the destruction of a relationship through nobody acting wilfully or carelessly, but gradually drawing away and damaging each other until the trust is impossible to repair. 

I wondered what to say. The catalogue of mutual disappointments doesn't actually help me: there is a truth here I can't really access. To her credit Nancy doesn't say it was all Martin's fault, but she clearly feels she has done what she must do, what her heart compels her to do, even while she hates herself for doing it. Perhaps she hopes that by admitting to guilt I will tell her it's all OK.

I remember how Jesus could meet someone and see the thing they needed to hear, could sum up who they were in a single sentence, or even a story which bore only an oblique, but nevertheless as it turned out exact, relationship to what they were on about. Those three pages of events and reactions are not, really, the story of what happened to Nancy and Martin: they are not the single line that God would say, and I can't deduce from them his perfect, merciful summary of the sad fourteen months they describe. So I merely say that that is what he could do, and because he could, because he understands who Nancy and Martin are better than they do themselves - let alone each other - that is why he is able to forgive. That's where forgiveness comes from. 

Friday, 23 August 2019

A Worthwhile Distraction

It is quiet in Swanvale Halt rectory (if not in the village outside), and I am weary in mind at present, so I will merely present you today with a photograph I managed to take of one of the much-heralded and much-enjoyed Painted Lady butterflies which have been visiting this year - not one in my garden, but representative. None had stayed still long enough before Tuesday this week?

Wednesday, 21 August 2019


What an amazing occasion the 2019 Swanvale Halt Village Show was last weekend. Expanding the categories of entry to include art and handicrafts resulted in a rise of over 100 exhibits, though it made the judging a bit more complicated. Alan was astonished to win a prize for his Hedgehog Hotel made from salvaged materials as it was just something he'd bodged together in his garage, but it attracted much favourable attention (and even a commission for another one). It was a relief to bring forward the prize-giving by half an hour, too, as the afternoon has always tended to drag a bit. The chaps from the tandoori turned up with their traditional 'curry sauce challenge' (one I foolhardily accepted), and I even got rid of some pots of Rectory apple chutney ('nice and spicy'). 

Monday, 19 August 2019

A Mystery Solved and a Saga Discovered

Unbeknownst to him, my friend Fr P from Kentish Town recently answered a question that has haunted me for years by posting on LiberFaciorum about a book he’d recently read – the story of an unfortunate priest in a remote corner of mid-nineteenth century Spain. Alarums rang in my mind as I recognised what was almost certainly the origin of a TV series I’d caught hallucinatory bits of years and years ago, and all of which I retained in my memory was a priest making his way with a donkey through dark woods dripping with rain, a menacing theme tune, and the suggestion of ‘goings on’ which in the fragmentary narrative I encountered were never clear. The book is Los Pazos de Ulloa by the late-19th century Spanish novelist Emilia Pardo Bazan and I can barely express my astonishment and joy that this ghost was laid to rest in so unexpected a fashion after nearly 20 years! I found that I could watch the TV series via the archive of a Spanish broadcaster, if I was prepared to put up with a moderate quality picture, occasional stumbles and jams as the internet caught up with itself, and a painfully literal translation which was almost as much a hindrance as a help.

There are four episodes, comprising not only Los Pazos de Ulloa itself but also its sequel, Madre Naturaleza, crammed into a single chapter. The story concerns Fr Julián, newly arrived in Ulloa, buried in the Galician mountains and a long way from anywhere, as domestic chaplain to the Marquis, who isn’t really the Marquis but the nephew of the real one who lives a much more civilised life in Santiago. Julián’s introduction to his new employer is when he, the Marquis, knocks him off his donkey next to a wayside cross and puts a gun to his head. The priest soon discovers that the Manor House of Ulloa is not a haven of the spiritual life. The Marquis gets a filthy little boy who hangs around the kitchen, and who, it turns out (though nobody will talk about it) is his illegitimate son, drunk to shut him up; he is having a long affair with his maid who later tries to shock Julián by stripping and throwing herself on his bed; the Marquis’s majordomo (the maid’s father) is a malign fraudster; the chapel is a rat-infested ruin; and the local clergy have long since given up trying to affect their parishioners’ lives for the good. The whole estate is dreadfully run down and the people are superstitious and brutish. Julián decides optimistically that God has sent him to sort it all out, and he starts with trying to civilise the Marquis by finding him a wife from among his four cousins in Santiago. They both pick the virtuous Nucha and bring her back from shiny city life to moss-encrusted Ulloa. Predictably this all goes horribly wrong, and in the last episode the disgraced and sacked Julián appears as a sad figure in a battered hat and besmirched cassock, living in a hut in the woods and praying at Nucha’s tomb. ‘You have brought nothing but misfortune here’, Sabel the maid told him as he packed to leave the manor, and indeed it doesn’t even stop when he has left: the Marquis’s son by Sabel and his daughter by Nucha, unaware of their shared patrimony, fall in incestuous love which ends with him running off and her going into a convent.

This tale has elements of the Gothic novel: based around a run-down, isolated house, peopled by extreme individuals, and pervaded by an atmosphere of inevitable doom. ‘What will happen will happen,’ the residents of Ulloa tell Nucha’s brother Gabriel who has come to rescue and ideally marry his niece, when he confronts everyone with the truth about her and her half-brother. It’s that kind of place. The theme tune starts with a melodramatic shriek and Julián and Nucha are both prone to having terrifying dreams as the lightning flashes around the Manor and its shutters batter its walls in the wind. Julián, especially, has a vision of witchcraft and devilry on his first night there, and how much is real and how much is dream is hard to discern. The cackling old village woman La Sabia certainly looks the part of a rustic witch. But Ulloa’s real tone is more social satire than anything else, like a less relentlessly miserable and more mocking take on Thomas Hardy.

Because Julián is really the central character, it’s his flaws and those of the Church he represents which are most to the fore. He seems to have lofty intentions but neither the resolve nor the realism to carry them through, and for all his moping about the woods in the last episode never even manages to face his own responsibility for the disaster, getting no further than a limp ‘perhaps it would have been better had I never come to this House’. Deluded by his own idealism throughout, he never stops being shocked and baffled.

There were two odd elements I couldn’t get past, though, apart from various plot elements I missed because of the risible translation. Right at the end, Gabriel insists that, as she makes her confession, Julián makes clear to his niece Manuela that he will still marry her despite what’s happened. What we see on-screen, to ominous music, is Julián, from behind, describing to the girl that God will be her only earthly consolation and that she should concentrate on Him, implying that he has sent her unknowing to the cloister. When Gabriel confronts her, though, she states that she knows full well what he’s prepared to do, but that she still feels she must take the veil. Finally, the voice-over narrator – God? – states that ‘Julián fulfilled his revenge’. One can’t imagine the daft priest having any such thoughts, really, although seeing Manuela wrested from the poisonous atmosphere of Ulloa might have come to him as a sort of victory. Did he or didn’t he? And secondly, given that Manuela’s relationship with her half-brother is incestuous, were late 19th-century Spanish mores such that nobody batted an eyelid at her uncle planning to marry her? As she and Nucha are both played by beautiful Victoria Abril, I so wanted her to say, ‘So, quite apart from you being about 30 years older than me, you’re saying you mainly fancy me because I remind you of your dead sister? That’s not creepy at all, is it?’

I will have to read the books now ...

Saturday, 17 August 2019

Crossing a Line

It was raining heavily again yesterday afternoon as I called in at the church to warn Rick the verger that I'd probably be late for Evening Prayer. He was there with Andy who was preparing for the Village Show today, setting out tables and labels, and young Jerzy who was practising on the organ. The church porch was occupied with a collection of youngsters, and a variety of litter which, with wearisome inevitability, they maintained was nothing to do with them. 

When I came back, Rick was wiping down the glass doors inside the porch. As well as the litter, the teenagers had abused Andy when he told them to be quiet and a visitor to the church, and managed to muster a surprising quantity of spit to mark the doors. They all disappeared when the police arrived, and went somewhere else (they seem to know the time of day the police are going to show up). I put up with litter, and I largely never manage to identify anyone responsible for particular incidents. But this little outburst shows such contempt for actual, definite people that I think I will bar everyone from the porch, no matter what the weather, until the school holidays are over. 

The current wave of misbehaviour around the village is the third I can remember since I arrived in Swanvale Halt. There was a troublesome group of young people in about 2012-13, some of whom came from the other side of Hornington; then another episode in 2016, I think, which was particularly knotty to deal with as the three (three!) teenage boys at the centre of it had not only been expelled from school but also from their Pupil Referral Units and for a few months the County Council seemed to have no idea what to do next, as though teachers at the PRUs had never had kids swear at them before. I don't know the present crowd of miscreants; there seems to be quite a disparate group, or number of groups. This cycle will probably develop in the same way as the previous ones, as the youngsters concerned go back to school, or get bored, or work out that their lives will actually be better and more worthwhile if they toe the social line rather than defy it. But it's a pain while it lasts. 

Thursday, 15 August 2019

Counting the Cost

As the rain pounded Swanvale Halt yesterday morning and an unfortunate glass restorer removed the damaged panels from the east window to repair them, someone else had come to visit our humble place of worship. In all my nearly ten years here, Ecclesiastical Insurance have never done a proper site visit. Now here was Jerry, with folder, calculator and bag of surveying equipment, come to measure the building, and draw up a report on what we are not doing, and should. I copied the electrical survey and the report on the lightning conductor, and discovered he didn't actually need the paperwork itself. I showed him the vestries ('Does the church have any specially elaborate or valuable vestments? I mean apart from any that may belong to you'), the kitchen, and the cupboard which houses the fuse box. Here he winced. 'You're not really supposed to have cleaning materials in this area,' he said, meaning clearly that there was no question of them remaining, 'the cupboard is supposed to isolate the fusebox ...' He also suggested that our bins should ideally be kept in a locked enclosure in case anyone decides to set them alight. 'That might not be very easy to do, but think about moving them away from where a fire might cause damage.' 

Sally our office manager arrived and made me and Jerry a cup of tea. We went back into the office to check whether the photocopier was covered by the insurance of the company we lease it from, or whether we should include it in our own policy. Jerry described how Ecclesiastical was changing the way it calculates the value of a church building.

'Up till now we've used the standard estimates produced by professional architectural bodies for replacing fire-damaged buildings,' he explained, 'but that doesn't take into account the fact that when churches catch fire, you tend to lose the roof and interior, but not the walls, and of course when rebuilding a church you want to retain those. Reconstructing a church from scratch hardly ever happens, and the old methods of calculating replacement value were too dependent on the ups and downs of the building market. Our new estimates will take into account the real circumstances involved in rebuilding a church.'

'Well, just so long as our premiums don't go up,' said Sally brightly.

Jerry regarded her almost with pity.

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

St Andrew's, Grafham

My church crawling has taken me to a variety of places since I last wrote about it, but the latest and one of the most interesting has been the little church at Grafham. It's not usually open outside service times, so one of the wardens had to unlock it for me. I didn't know what to expect, and what a surprise it was.

St Andrew's was consecrated in 1860, the personal church, really, of Henry Woodyer; it was in some ways a memorial to his deceased wife Elizabeth, and its architect took advantage of the law that stated that anyone could build a new Anglican church if they could get the agreement of the bishop and surrounding incumbents, and fund it. Woodyer was a gentleman architect and I am becoming aware of how important he was to the Anglican Catholic revival in Victorian Surrey. His masterpiece was St Martin's, Dorking, which we've already explored, but he had a hand in the building or restoration of dozens of churches across the county. Woodyer had become a convinced Tractarian while at Oxford University and put his principles into practice whenever he could, in a remarkably advanced form when he got the chance. Externally, St Andrew's looks like a quintessential little English church, with a tiny lych gate and a rambling churchyard: the only clue to anything unusual is the figure of the patron saint over the west door (which you can't normally go through):

But if the interior reminds the visitor a little of St Peter's, Hascombe, this is because Woodyer was also the architect of that amazing church. Grafham is a bit less lavish than Hascombe, but resembles it very strongly, and used to more so before someone whitewashed over the wall-paintings some time after World War Two. The story goes that Bishop Sumner, the Bishop of Winchester at the time and a firm Low Churchman, made it very clear that he disapproved of the use of chancel screens in churches, deeming them 'Popish'. Woodyer got around this by making his screen out of the beam that supports the roof of the church, and mounting the cross above it in the wall. Bishop Sumner turned up to consecrate the church and had no choice but to grit his teeth and get on with it. The amazing reredos, again fitted into the east wall, is just straining to burst out into a canopy over the altar, and one of the unusual features of the church is a series of Victorian banners on theological themes (now heavily restored and mounted in glass cases on the walls) which were supposedly made by 'the females of the Woodyer household' in Grafham Grange next door.

As you can see there is now a little statue of the BVM very discreetly in a niche, and a variety of statuary and stained glass about the place, but surprisingly the Blessed Sacrament isn't reserved at Grafham. It is linked now with Bramley which has also had a Catholic tradition so there is another story to be told there.

Sunday, 11 August 2019

The Fire of the Spirit and its Diversions

It was a circuitous route that got me round to buying Janet Duin’s history of the church of Redeemer, Houston, Days of Fire and Glory. I know someone who had links with the Jesus Fellowship – what most people knew colloquially as the Jesus Army – and who is involved with the mopping-up after the collapse of that group, and in reading up about the JF I was struck by its links with Redeemer. That church was an unremarkable US Episcopal parish, struck from the mid-1960s by a charismatic revival and which until its precipitous fall sat at the centre of the global charismatic movement. The book is sometimes bewildering as its writer insists on mostly using people’s forenames, and in late ‘60s and early-‘70s Texas there seem to have been an awful lot of Bills, Jeffs, and Georges around; there are non sequiturs, and whatever are the opposite of non sequiturs, when a future event is signalled but not followed up, as in ‘there was nothing Jeff felt he had done wrong, or he felt forgiven for it. Not for another 12 years would Jeff realize the depths of his sin’, yet we never hear anything more about this particular Jeff’s sins, which makes you wonder why they were worth mentioning. Possibly Ms Duin felt she had to do justice to the nearly-200 interviews she conducted researching the book, and so included everything she could fit in. But Days is compelling, certainly, if this is a topic that you have any investment in.

At the heart of the story of Redeemer is Revd Graham Pulkingham, who arrived as its parish priest in 1963, ‘a blond-haired 37-year-old clergyman with … fashionable liberal views and a confident air of authority that people either hated or found irresistible’, determined to make a difference to the poor East End of Houston. He made no difference at all, and after about a year he was in despair. He took time out of a holiday to drive to New York to visit an independent pastor called David Wilkerson, whose biography, The Cross and the Switchblade, had described his work among the city’s young drug addicts and the power of ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’ to transform the lives of even the most degraded souls. Baptism in the Holy Spirit was – is – an ecstatic breakdown accompanied by ‘charismatic’ phenomena such as speaking in tongues, and which Wilkerson had lifted from the experience of the Pentecostal Churches: a sort of second conversion in an established Christian, and a first if you weren’t.

Pulkingham talked to Wilkerson about his sense of desolation and failure, and then admitted something else: his persistent homosexual feelings, despite being thirteen years married and the father of four children. When he had first discussed his vocation to the priesthood, he had talked about just this with Bishop of Texas Clinton Quin, who’d sent him for counselling. They both considered it dealt with, but it wasn’t. Now, after a couple of days shadowing Wilkerson in his work, Pulkingham knelt in front of him and the director of a local mission, and as they laid their hands on him he felt he could hear angelic voices, and ‘the most majestic presence and power he had ever known … the degradation was gone.’ ‘We can go now, the Baptizer is here’, announced Wilkerson, and they left the priest on his own to recover. Once again, his inner problem was dealt with. But, predictably, once again it really wasn’t: it had just been pushed below the surface.

Pulkingham returned to Houston filled with excitement and energy. All at once, where everything had been bare, stale and unprofitable, his ministry caught fire. He began to experience the gift of tongues and healings took place. He attracted a small core group of middle-aged men of a variety of backgrounds who would become the five ‘elders’ of Redeemer, and out of their experience came the church’s key contribution to the world of charismatic Christianity: the intentional community. One by one, the elders began to invite troubled souls, of various sorts, to come and live with their families, and as often as not the charismatic experience led to them escaping their difficulties. It was like the Book of Acts come to life: this was how Christianity was supposed to work. The idea of communal living fitted in neatly with Pulkingham’s liberal-left biases, and gradually the ‘households’ became the major institution of the church. People attracted by Redeemer’s ideals and work sold homes in nicer parts of the city to move nearby and establish their own ‘households’, living an intense communal existence, pooling their resources, ministering to each other, getting by on very little sleep between the prayer, ministry and meetings. By 1971, the church numbered 1400 members of whom a third lived in community, and total weekly attendance was more than half as much again. Christians from all across the Western world, including Cardinal Suenens, came to Houston to see how it was done, and tried to transplant the ideas elsewhere. Strikingly, remember, this was still an Episcopal church, and its worship was liturgical, structured by the calendar, and Eucharistic (though the music was very distinctive).

We don’t need to trace the following years in any detail. Suffice it to say that things went off the boil at Redeemer. Pulkingham left in 1972 to pursue different sorts of Christian community living, first in Coventry, then Scotland, and lastly in Pittsburgh, but Redeemer never managed to let go of him, nor he, it, and he kept popping back to lead, preach, or teach. Gradually the ideal of community was emphasised and charismatic gifts downplayed until they seemed relatively unimportant. However rather than look at itself honestly, the church continually attempted to reheat the same formula from the late 1960s, until it had too few people to make that work. Its leadership took refuge in authoritarianism and the beautiful worship papered over the cracks. It endlessly talked about what had gone wrong but seemed to have no idea what to do: it should have renewed itself as an ordinary Episcopal parish but couldn’t mentally let go of its glorious past. There is chapter after weary chapter of church members delivering prophetic 'words from the Lord' about the future of Redeemer, but nothing happens. Pulkingham’s other experiments in Christian community were never anything more than dysfunctional and unsatisfactory, either. Finally, Duin relates how in 1992 the now retired Pulkingham was suspended from the ministry after admitting seducing a church member on the pretext of ‘healing’ his homosexual inclinations, and then palming him off in a hopeless marriage with a woman in the congregation, among other transgressions. The dénouement was bizarre, sad, and very American: Graham Pulkingham died from a heart attack (not his first) after witnessing a shooting at a grocery store in Burlington, North Carolina, in 1993. Redeemer continued to judder downwards, and eventually closed.

I hadn’t realised how crucial a role Redeemer played in the growth of Christian attempts at communal living framed around the charismatic experience. It was Redeemer which shaped the development of the Jesus Fellowship; the JF’s founder, Noel Stanton, had his Baptism in the Spirit in 1969 after 12 years as lay pastor of little and unremarkable Bugbrooke Baptist Church in Northamptonshire, and four years later founded New Creation, an intentional community in an old Anglican rectory, along the lines Redeemer had suggested (Graham Pulkingham was living in Coventry at this time, so perhaps Stanton met him). We know how all that ended. I also remembered the Church of England’s own scandal from the 1990s, the Nine O’Clock Service fiasco centring on the dramatic figure of disgraced priest and ‘techno-shaman’ Chris Brain; Brain’s network had begun with a Christian rock band, Candescence (strange echoes there of Evanescence, whose religious-themed Goth rock enjoyed success in the mid-2000s), whose members and supporters moved into a house in Nairn Street in Sheffield in 1978: they were linked to the charismatic-evangelical church St Thomas Crookes in the city. Now, these experiments were all different, but the progression towards authoritarianism and abuse was the same, rooted in sexual dysfunction. Pulkingham was a deeply repressed homosexual; Brain seems to have escalated very quickly from sincerity into abusive sexual relationships with women members of the community; Stanton was supposedly celibate, definitely misogynistic, and what he did isn’t yet quite clear. Even in Brain’s case, the communities seem to have started with the best of Christian intentions, but however they began (and we can see that in Redeemer, Houston’s case they started up by accident), the way they developed was shaped by their founders’ hangups. In all three cases marriage and family relationships were denigrated in favour of the life of the community as a whole – which meant, effectively, the demands and sometimes desires of the leadership. Expectations that all community members pool their incomes removed individual independence in financial matters and, as so often, money led the way for other things: psychological, emotional and spiritual independence went with it (Janet Duin refers to one Redeemer household member who had her dog put down because Pulkingham told her it was getting in the way of her spiritual development).

This is all obvious enough, perhaps, but from a Christian viewpoint, what does it say about such experiments in community? Janet Duin’s book is littered with references to others, not just Redeemer’s, which followed the same pattern of institutionalisation, authoritarian abuse, and collapse, even when they weren’t marked by sexual misconduct. Duin herself had spent two years in a setup in Portland, Oregon, called Bethlehem, divided into a number of households. By the end of the book, she still believes that ‘community had provided the natural cradle to nurture the riskier gifts’ and even though her diaries from that time were ‘full of longings for escape’, she ‘stayed, hoping for a change in the core of my being, so I could be a more powerful, Spirit-filled Christian’. Don’t we all. But for her, the change didn’t come. She interprets the collapse of so many attempts at Christian community living as an aspect of spiritual warfare, of the attack by malign spiritual forces on anything Christians try to do to advance the Kingdom. But in fact, shorn of the extra stress that comes from validating personal worth by charismatic experience, some communities get by very happily, from traditional religious orders to, remarkably enough, the Community of Celebration: that emerged from Graham Pulkingham’s efforts in the 1970s, and it still survives in Aliquippa, Pittsburgh and Post Green, Dorset. They are much quieter and less ambitious now, and try to work with the grain of natural human relationships and not against it. They are marked – so far as I can tell – by kindness and not judgement, and they don’t elevate personal experience over the Bible or the tradition of the Church, and so allow much less scope for individual hangups to shape their development. They are perhaps less exciting, but more sane.

And what is the nature of the charismatic experience? Janet Duin is a convinced believer, but she reports honestly and even cynically her encounter with the man behind the 1994 ‘Toronto Blessing’, South African evangelist Rodney Howard-Browne. At a meeting in Orlando, she went up for prayer: ‘I had been around long enough to know that lifting one’s hands can put you off balance enough for someone to smack you on the forehead to make sure you got ‘slain’ [in the Spirit] … I folded my hands near my waist … I felt nothing … the three men asked me to pray [in tongues] louder. What, I thought, am I praying to them? … This was becoming a farce. “Sorry”, I said, and walked away.’

So when Graham Pulkingham, or Noel Stanton got baptised in the Spirit (it doesn’t seem to have happened to Brain in the same way), what happened? What was that sudden outpouring of joy and the sense of presence and power? Did they genuinely receive some special kind of supernatural grace, which they then abused? If it really was the Spirit, how could they abuse it? How could they fall away to such an extent? Duin speaks to David Wilkerson in New York, and asks him how he had managed to steer clear of sexual sin. ‘The only way to stay righteous,’ he says, one imagines with a touch of weariness, ‘is to expose your heart to God every day.’ But this is what all Christians have to do anyway. This is the normal, ongoing battle to be holy, to walk in sanctification, to discover what holiness means, which we all undergo, not just charismatics. The mistake the fallen charismatics seem to have made is that they assumed that peak experience would permanently change them, would remove the need for self-examination, would short-circuit the ordinary business of repentance and effort. Baptism in the Spirit is certainly there in the New Testament; it’s a real experience which the apostolic writers seem to think is important, but if it doesn’t actually change that, what’s the point of it? What does it do?

I think that in the same way that deliverance can be a sort of ‘catastrophic confession’, so Baptism in the Spirit can be a sudden experience of emotional realisation, a correlate of the acceptance of Christian faith but different from it. In some Christian traditions a deep and joyful relationship with God takes ages and ages to grow, and is the result of long training in prayer and living. In charismatic Christianity, it still requires all those, but has a sort of sacramental expression in a sudden event, in exactly the same way that water-baptism needs the individual to lay hold of it for themselves in the years afterwards. It’s the same relationship between the short- and the long-term, and, therefore, in fact nothing very special.

However, in terms of Christian community, it has another effect, ironically considering how far these various charismatic bodies went off the rails. It creates trust. Christians can see one another going through the same experience of vulnerability and emotion, and there is something about that which, I suspect, genuinely does release the energy of the Holy Spirit, especially when people are, perhaps, all too reticent about their inner lives.

I can’t say I haven’t learned anything from thinking about this basically sad story – another, if very minor, fruit of the Spirit, maybe.

Friday, 9 August 2019

For What We Are About To Receive

One of the legacies Ms Formerly Aldgate left with me has been at mealtimes. She had a fascination for Japanese culture and we ended up watching a variety of variously silly but in their different ways delightful TV shows on Netflix, hailing from the Land of the Rising Sun, which one way or another revolved around food. I noticed characters saying something before and after eating, usually with a little bow, and asked her what it was. ‘It’s itadaki masu,’ she explained, ‘it's a sort of grace. It roughly just means “thank you for the food”.’ So that has become my grace. It has no explicit religious content, but if you’re a Christian it inevitably makes you reflect who it is you are thanking.

When I and Ms Brightshades went to Brighton a little while ago, we ate in a vegan pizzeria (apart from the little greasy-spoon I ate in on my previous visit, I shouldn’t think there’s much else in Brighton). My pizza came with some vegan cheddar, a gloopy substance which was tasty enough in its own right but which clearly wasn’t cheese. Several of my friends are great foodies but also want to eschew meat and dairy, and so they swap reports of the latest available vegan cheeses (for instance) and how close they may be to milk-based Stilton, or Cheddar, or Brie, or Halloumi.

I am not sure that I see the point of trying to imitate animal-based produce. I have used meat substitutes in the past, mainly because I was too mentally lazy to rethink my repertoire and work out more vegetable-based meals, but to me they never seem to get that close to the experience of meat. The various plant-based milks I tried some time ago were nothing like cow juice, though I would very much have liked them to be.

Not that how food feels should be the final deciding matter. I have had some very agreeable meat meals, and occasionally when I get a steak from the butcher even I manage to cook it properly so eating it becomes delightful; but it’s a sensual pleasure I could easily live without. I continue to consume meat now and again, not particularly because I like it, but firstly as part of what I tell myself is ‘a balanced diet’, and perhaps even more importantly as a sort of ritualised symbol of my belief in sustainable farming. Far from what I think some non-meat-eaters imagine, I know exactly what that lamb chop, for instance, is. It’s a section from across the back of a lamb, chopped with a cleaver: it comprises skin, fat, muscle, nerve, and bone. My minute or two of consumption is also a time of meditation on where it’s come from and the processes that brought it to my plate. But perhaps I am wrong.

As far as dairy is concerned, it’s more a matter of what animal fat does in culinary terms: I could manage with my fridge empty of Stilton, or Cheddar, or Brie, or Halloumi, or my pint of milk or pat of butter, but cooking without them would require quite some reorganisation, and I’m not sure vegetable fat behaves in the same way. Again, perhaps I should work at it a bit more.

Thinking about this, I realised that the pleasure I derive from food is in fact a variety of different pleasures. I like cake and ice cream, but they are both a long way removed from their constituent materials, and the delight I draw from them is mainly sensual. They are nice to eat, and something that’s plant-based but trying to behave like cheese as a result of a lot of technical ingenuity might fall into the same sort of category. If I make a cake, or someone I know makes one for me, the pleasure that comes from eating it is mixed with satisfaction at what I’ve done or gratitude for someone else’s kindness. But when I sit and dip a piece of bread in a bowl of olive oil, and cut apart an apple, the simplicity and relative proximity to the natural products generates a sort of spiritual pleasure, a thankfulness and receptivity. It takes me away from myself, and into a world I have not made. There is a glory in a plate of roasted vegetables, for the same reason: they have not had that much done to them that removes them from their natural state, so they remind me of my own nature, my own limitation. And I think that’s there, albeit with some ambiguity, even in the bloodiness of a lamb chop and the miraculous quality of an egg. Itadaki masu.

(The UN IPCC's report on food and land use is here). 

Wednesday, 7 August 2019


As some of my friends lament the demise of nature, my garden seems to be a bit of a haven. I wasn't expecting the 'wild flower patch' to provide much in the way of colour yet, though there have been some dramatic ragwort plants to feed a crop of fat cinnabar moth caterpillars, and some lovely wild poppies, which I've never had before. 

My decision not to clip back the masses of oregano on the banks - there is no need, as I wouldn't use that much of it so it can happily flower and run to seed! - has delighted the bees of every variety, honey, bumble, and other, and the butterflies too. Back around Easter I spotted a little Blue and a Cabbage White and then they disappeared, to the extent that I wondered whether they'd ever re-emerge. But since the start of July, the Cabbage Whites and Small Whites have been in evidence again, joined abundantly by Peacocks, Red Admirals, Small Heaths, and the unutterably beautiful Painted Ladies, which I gather fly all the way from Africa and which are on the crest of a ten-year wave this year. The Painted Ladies are jealous of their lovely colouring and won't pose for photographs - as soon as I so much as motion towards my camera they set off again - but these do, which I originally thought were Small Heaths but which in fact I think are Gatekeepers. Such wonder in little space.

PS. We can add to the roll of butterflies a Comma and a Speckled Wood, both of which I saw this afternoon!