Saturday, 29 June 2019

An Ill Wind

Trevor: I've been farting for most of the day.
Me: Why do you want to tell me that?
Trevor: (after a silence) I want to drive the Devil out of my body.
Me: Well, you won't be able to fart him out.
Trevor: What did you say?
Me: I said, you won't be able to fart the Devil out of your body.
Trevor: I can't hear you. I'll turn the relaxation sounds off. What did you say?
Me: I said, you can't fart the Devil out.

Trevor: No, I'm still deaf.
Me: Never mind. Look, what was it you said? You said you'd been doing something all day. What did you say you'd been doing? I thought you said 'farting', but that struck me as a bit weird.
Trevor: I didn't say I'd been breaking wind. I said I'd been sleeping about.
Me: But it was one word, and it sounded like 'farting', and then when I asked why you told me, you said you'd been trying to drive the Devil out of your body.
Trevor: I don't remember what I said.

Thursday, 27 June 2019

The Final Chair

The Infants School has recently replaced all its old wooden chairs with folding plastic ones. The old ones stood in the school hall in great precipitous stacks of varying sizes, hard to move and not all that easy to sit on. I prefer them to the new ones, which are plastic, folding, and largely blue, but that's just me. The school sold them to parents and gave some away, and retained just one - possibly just for me to sit on when I do assembly. 

On a whim yesterday I picked it up and looked to see if it had any kind of identifying mark on it, and found the stamp 'D&H 1965' underneath the seat. This rang a tiny bell way, way off in the back of the Wycombe Museum bit of my memory - Dancer and something, was that the name of the firm? In fact, Dancer & Hearne was one of Wycombe's older furniture makers, based mainly in Penn Street, a village a couple of miles from the town itself. After World War Two it specialised more and more in contract furniture precisely for schools and other large government orders. In the late 1960s it was taken over by Parker-Knoll who found themselves in despair at the 'industrial anarchy' prevalent in D&H's chronically old-fashioned factory. Finally, in 1970, the Ministry of Education gave up ordering wooden chairs, depriving D&H of the core of its order book in a stroke, and the firm closed. 

I will be sitting on a little bit of industrial history!

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Controlled Chaos

One of the effects of the local elections in May was that the Mayor-elect of Hornington ceased to be Mayor-elect as he was ejected along with a phalanx of his fellow Conservative councillors, and a new Mayor had hurriedly to be found. Paula stepped into the breach, a longstanding Lib Dem councillor for Swanvale Halt and a member of our congregation. She chose to have her Civic Service in our church, assembled a choir from local schools, and chose a set of readings including a letter from Charles M Schulz (not written to her). It was all fun and given the underlying slight chip-on-the-shoulder relationship between Swanvale Halt village and Hornington town proper, a relationship traditionally expressed in part through political differences, had a tiny, tiny sharp edge to it all. 

None of us knew what was going on, really, though we should have done, least of all me. Choreography was not the service's strong point and at no time has the key Anglican liturgical dictum 'walk in straight lines and turn at right angles and nobody will know the difference' been such wise advice. But the youngsters singing Rutter's The Lord Bless You and Keep You (a piece I loathe, but that's beside the point) won all hearts and everyone enjoyed themselves, even, I suspect, the remaining Conservative councillors who mumbled a little in discontent as one of the hymns was set to the tune of the Ode to Joy.

Sunday, 23 June 2019

God Brought a Plus One

"Dear Revd Plumpinghorn,

"I had the privilege of being at a wedding at St Uncumber's Church, Slappington, on June 22nd, and I know that the way you conducted that service was appreciated by many of the congregation. However, I was dismayed by the form of the final blessing, delivered in the name of ‘the Father, the Mother, the Son and the Holy Spirit’. I must say, this is not the Holy and Undivided Trinity with which I am familiar. One of my friends attempted to interpret ‘Mother’ generously as a reference to the Blessed Virgin Mary, but as far as I can see this doesn’t make it any better, or any less at odds with ‘the Catholic faith as the Church of England has received it’. I understand the service was technically a blessing rather than a legal wedding, so at least you were spared the dilemma of which Church’s ‘rites and ceremonies’ to record in the register … Had Bishop Martin been there, I imagine his Paddingtonian ‘hard stare’ would have been enough to scorch the very stonework. I remember the occasion he came to fill in one Sunday at the church where I used to worship while he was still at Walsingham, and I don’t think any liturgical experience I’ve ever had has matched the grim terror of serving at Mass that morning. You may not be concerned by the effect this reckless usage might have had on a moderately traditionally-minded clergyperson like me, but, for the sake of the souls who pass through your churches, especially on occasions when so many non-churchgoers are present, do please reconsider it."

I'm not yet sure whether I'll send the letter ...

Friday, 21 June 2019

One Man Went to Mow

'Lawnmowers sometimes struggle with long grass' warns the RHS website. As well as my faltering wildflower patch I have deliberately neglected what I jokingly call a lawn in recent months. It received a mow early in the Spring, and I did cut a few areas a little while ago, but whenever I went out to survey it I saw such a pleasing variety of flowers - first the primroses, then the speedwell and the dandelions - I couldn't bear to use the mower on most of it. Admittedly, the flower that most commonly emerged was ribwort plantain, which is one of my very least favourite plants, but I let that alone as well. This is not a 'meadow': it needs a bit more variety and a reduction in the grasses, and the soil is probably still a bit too fertile for meadow flowers to enjoy it much. But it could be on the way with a bit of care. 

And, so I gather from those who know about meadows, they can't just be left, but need a mow every now and again. After a couple of dry days in Surrey, then, I ventured out to cut it all back. Or nearly all of it - I avoided the bits of ragwort that had cinnabar moth caterpillars on, the patches of buttercups, the first little clump of clover I've ever seen in the garden, spots of self-heal, and the wild poppies. It wasn't as tough as I anticipated, mainly because I had the mower on its highest setting, but also because the grass is already less lush than it would normally be. The toughest area was the slope at the side of the garden where the grasses were so tall I actually had to use my billhook, and I have neither the physique nor the stamina to stand in for an Edwardian farm labourer, thank you.

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Commanders of Tens

For those not entirely familiar with the way the Church of England (and to a degree the Roman Catholic Church) works, in between the local parishes and the dioceses headed by a bishop are the deaneries. A very ancient structure originally corresponding to the administrative 'Hundred' of Anglo-Saxon England - a hundred being an area theoretically comprising one hundred hides - the Deanery is a group of parishes headed by an Area Dean (a more common title now than the formerly current Rural Dean). Area Dean is a thankless task which nobody wants to do, unless they are foolishly ambitious enough to see it as a stepping-stone to further advancement, as it involves more work for no more pay. An additional problem is that Deaneries don't have a clear role to play in the structure. They were revived in the 19th century and seem to have been intended then as a support network for clergy; they later acquired a lay element in the form of Deanery Synod to which every church sends representatives according to the numbers on its electoral roll. I've been a Deanery Synod rep: it tends to be a job you give to someone you want on your Church Council but who doesn't have any other position, or alternatively someone who wants a position but who doesn't seem very suited to anyhting else. The Synodical Government Measure of 1969 says that Deanery Synods must meet twice a year, must receive accounts and a report from Diocesan Synod, and must elect representatives to Diocesan Synod. Beyond that, there is no guidance at all as to what it should be doing. Deaneries are a structure in search of a purpose.

The Hornington Deanery has a new Area Dean, the vicar of Brisbourne, a large-ish evangelical church not far away from Swanvale Halt, and having been begged by the Bishop and Archdeacon to do it clearly wants to make it worth his while. Not only has he extracted some administrative support out of the diocese, but he appears to want the Deanery to act pre-emptively over the issue of what to do with a group of parishes which are soon to be without incumbents. 

We're also aware that some of our colleagues have not been best-served pastorally. Over the last year or so a curate and two incumbents have or are about to resign their positions with no alternative work to go to, because they're so fed up. A curate from the Deanery has had a heart attack within six months of taking on her first parish, and I know several other clergy are having a tough time. So I have been asked to have a brief to keep a pastoral eye on the incumbents in the north of the Deanery. Given how badly I remember how my own congregation members are doing, I wonder how wise this is ...

Monday, 17 June 2019

It's All A Question of Choice

'You haven't been made to feel guilty by some of your friends, have you?' asked Ms Brightshades the other day as we discussed the likely demise of Western civilisation as a result of climate change and what if anything anyone might do about it. I'm not sure guilt is the right word as it seems, strangely for a priest, to be an emotion I am virtually free from. I do feel responsibility, though, and have begun reviewing some of my consumer habits, shifting to a green(er) energy supplier, cutting back on some of my most wasteful regular purchases, and trying to use the car less. Every time I climb behind the wheel now, I imagine Greta Thunberg scowling at me. Walking to the supermarket and back for my weekly shop is quite physically demanding but I will attempt to keep it up. I have also tried cutting back the amount of dairy produce in my diet.

I remain committed to the slightly romantic belief that a properly organised farming system is a holistic one, involving animals, crops and not very much in the way of chemical intervention. As an organic farmer pointed out on Farming Today the other morning, you can't have organically-grown crops without animal poo. I suppose you don't actually have to eat the animals, and it is indeed wasteful, for instance, to feed the pigs that go to make the sausages in the village butcher with grain instead of the scraps they are perfectly happy with, but still, my minimal amount of Sunday meat is almost a matter of principle. I have far more dairy produce, though, and I could easily reduce that. Or can I?

I've tried soy milk in my tea, and now oat milk, and both are pretty unpleasant to my palate. I tried particularly hard with the latter, hurrying to use up the carton I'd bought, but when I'd had a particularly tiring time, awarded myself a cup of recuperative tea, and went back to the cow juice, oh, it was so lovely. And, looking at the oat milk carton, I see that it was packaged in Germany and made by a Swedish company. There's no information where the oats and other ingredients come from: for all I know they may have been grown on some intensive monoculture farm, and the soya beans that made the milk I tried before almost certainly had, as well as being transported thousands of miles from Indonesia or somewhere. I am not convinced that its carbon footprint is any less than that of a pint of cow juice from an organic farm in Somerset. Plant-based products may as a rule be better for the Earth than animal-based ones, but that doesn't mean any particular one is. 

As with other sorts of altruistic decisions, as consumers, anything we can do is good, and nothing we can do is enough, so we should not berate each other, but avoid the temptation to castigate anyone for not doing what we are doing while ignoring the things we are not. And of course our consumer choices are a relatively small part of the picture: the bigger share belongs to the world of politics, and that may be easier or harder to tackle. It remains to be seen. 

UPDATE: Professor Abacus (whom God preserve, of Surbiton) has pointed out that in fact sea transport is such an exceedingly efficient method of moving goods, disgusting though shipping fuels are, that driving a mile and half to a farmers' market to buy a litre of organic milk produces more carbon dioxide than bringing a litre of soy milk 10,000 miles from Brazil to the UK. But, as he stresses, that doesn't take into account the conditions under which products are made, and it's nowhere near the most important thing consumers can do to reduce their carbon footprint: 'Unless you bathe in milk, it really doesn't make much difference'.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Those Who Have Ears to Hear

My initial thought about the recent Vatican document about the role of 'gender theory' in education was to be very critical of it. You will know, if you've been paying attention over the years, that I am not entirely on board with a notion of human identity that sweeps away the male-female polarity in favour of radical, down-to-the-atom individualism, and I note the confusion in modern culture between a voluntarism that declares 'you can choose whatever you want to be' and a determinism that insists 'be what you really are'. Nevertheless, while this lengthy document clearly feels the same way, talking a lot about 'confusion', it offers no understanding of where this confusion arises from, and consequently moves forward in no respect. And publishing it as Pride marches go on across the world was simply a deliberate insult.

That was what I was going to say, in brief. But then I discovered that the document is going too far for some Roman Catholics in evening mentioning the word: for them, homosexuals and transgender people should very much not be treated with 'respect' (although the Catechism of the Catholic Church para.2358 says explicitly that at least homosexual people must be respected - transgender identity doesn't get a mention there), and 'no one can dialogue with the Devil and come away the better for it'. So perhaps this text is more liberal than I realised.

But I come back to the general approach of the document. Rather like Pope Benedict considering the causes of clerical sexual abuse, and as all intellectuals have a habit of doing, it sees human beings as first and foremost representatives of ideologies. The great forces of thought and philosophy, right and wrong, flow through human societies and produce these people behaving in this way. So although it has a section headed 'Listening' ('it is necessary, above all, to listen carefully to and understand cultural events of recent decades'), what it means by 'listening' is in fact reading the past and therefore the present in a particularly ideologically-charged way (and telling the present that it is wrong). It very much doesn't mean listening to anyone in particular. Listen to people's actual experiences and you run the risk of sympathising with them; far easier to think, These people are simply deluded and we must explain to them why. Yet even were we to accept that an element of confusion and misconception affects people's experience of their own sexual identity; even we were to admit that some of that confusion, to put it picturesquely, might be sown in the world by the demons; that would not explain why human souls experience their sexual identity in a particular way, what deep springs of hurt contribute to the process, and would not even help us understand why God has 'made them male and female'. It is simply to take refuge in the certainties of war: it is to conceive, heretically, of God's world as not His at all, but as a battlefield in which the struggle might yet be lost. Society is right to turn aside from this stuff, and Anglicans are right not to ape it.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

A Church Crawl from West Byfleet Station

Determined not to use the car on my last day off, I caught the train to West Byfleet and made it to the churches there, and at Woodham, a longer walk than I anticipated along the canal! I am often finding churches which didn't get very far along the Catholic spectrum beyond an initial High-Victorian heave, or which have retreated from a high-water point. No issue of that sort at All Saints', Woodham, which was an Anglo-Catholic foundation and has never deviated. It is, its incumbent tells me, 'the perfect parish church'. It's not quite frozen in its Victorian splendour, but despite embellishments here and there has never undergone any very radical changes. The high altar has been brought forward from the east end, but not very far, and for special occasions the chairs can be moved around the nave and a portable altar brought in. 

Across the rood beam are carved the words SIC DEUS DILEXIT MUNDUM - 'So God loved the world' - so only the priest can see it, as they turn west to face the people. It's a triumphant insistence on the Incarnation which is at the heart of the Catholic experience of the Gospel. 

One of the cutest touches at Woodham is the confessional. Except it isn't: it's a 'library' with a 'reading seat' installed at the west end of the south aisle in about 1930. At least, that's what the faculty was for, but, as the incumbent points out, there is a decorative grille carved at ear level in the seat, 'so if somebody happened to be kneeling beside you as you were there and told you about their sins, you'd be able to hear them'!

Woodham has a peculiar history: its founder, Robert Norton Stevens, owner of Woodham Hall, was a regular at All Saints' Margaret Street in London, but felt that it was unfair to expect his servants to travel that far, and set up his own church on the same liturgical and theological lines. 

St John the Baptist's West Byfleet is not a church of the Woodham stamp (few are). It is a monumental early-1900s building by Caroe which Pevsner found worth insulting in no uncertain terms. It's impressive, but a bit cold and empty. The chancel's wood fittings (including a very English-Use triptych reredos, which has never been painted) reminded me of some public school chapel rather than a parish church. They do still reserve the sacrament, though, behind a massive oak door in the sanctuary which even the most determined witch would find it hard to break open. The church had a nave altar in the 1990s, put in a dais for it to stand on in 2001, and had some very nice oak furniture installed in 2012, some of the best modern fittings I can remember seeing. When I visited, they were setting the church up ready for a parish fair, so I could witness the altar being moved. Two long poles are inserted into the holes you can see in the picture, so the churchwardens can pick it up and carry it like the Ark of the Covenant.

Owing nothing to any Anglican tradition, but worth noting, the choir stalls have a Green Man. We have one at Swanvale Halt, of exactly the same sort of vintage.

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

The Dangers of an Open Mind

... include time-wasting, I suspect among others. Every now and again I get seduced into worrying, in the sense that a terrier worries a toy, over something I have long since concluded an opinion about - shaking it about, chewing it and throwing it up and down and finishing with something more ragged but no more productive than it was before I started. This happens every time there is a ludicrous news report about the discovery of some ancient manuscript that proves Jesus was a mushroom, or something of the sort, and yesterday I used up far too much time chasing down pointless climate-change hares. Is what I think really the case? Does what this sceptic say have any validity to it? And unsurprisingly, hours later, I conclude it doesn't and that, in this as in other areas of human thought which are amenable to evidence, there is a reason why there is a consensus. 

Not for the first time, I wonder about the nature of contrarian thought - as someone who is something of a contrarian myself. I am a natural sceptic, but not what I would term an irrational sceptic - that is, I'm not inclined to dismiss the good faith of the source of the evidence unless there's a good reason to do so. The climate-change sceptics I've read certainly seem convinced, and often angrily convinced, that those who they disagree with have an investment in the 'hoax', although they're often unable to define what that interest is. Of course as contentious issues progress it becomes more likely that such interests will have an impact: companies providing renewable energy, or manufacturing wind turbines, for instance, have a stake in the debate. That's what capitalism is like; it shouldn't be a surprise, and doesn't affect the validity of data, only the balance of power and publicity within actual circumstances of a controversy. It is also likely that scientists or commentators who have a particular viewpoint will find themselves targeted by those who do have a pecuniary interest in their arguments; but it is not usually the money that makes the case in the first place. Still, if you adopt a contrarian standpoint, you have to account for the fact that most reputable commentators disagree with you, and alleging contamination by self-interest means you don't have to grapple with evidence which may be rather better than yours. 

Instead I become more and more convinced that psychology plays the major role in this, though it would take more knowledgeable souls than me to lay the process out. If I am a sceptic it's probably due to a sense of difference and separation from the mainstream that goes back to my childhood; but if my scepticism operates within certain boundaries it's probably because my life has generally treated me rather well and given me little reason to take the view that other people are generally motivated by venal considerations to the extent that it affects arguments about matters of fact (as opposed, for instance, to personal relationships). It makes you wonder what kind of lives contrarians have led.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

Storm in a Teacup

The Bishop has said more than once that he would like to see every church in the diocese abandoning the practice of putting out a plate for donations at refreshment time after services. He's adamant that it gives the wrong impression. 'You don't charge your family for coffee at home, do you?' he asks. I see the point, but I have never come across any church that charges. I've never heard a newcomer or non-churchgoer say anything about the custom and, though I have no strong feelings in its favour (some do - I have known people actively seek out a way to pay for their tea when no plate has been offered), I do think there are bigger fish to fry, like the quality of the refreshments themselves. I still find it a battle to get people to make filter coffee rather than instant (and some eccentric souls prefer instant, though I can't imagine why). 

After the celebration of the great and holy feast of Pentecost today I found this on the counter in the hall, made by Jim who has turned out a variety of pleasing wooden goods over the years. I think that's rather fun. I suppose, though, that the bishop could have more damaging bees buzzing around his mitre: this one is fairly harmless.

Friday, 7 June 2019

Mutual Recognition

Having visited the office of the local undertakers who I have less to do with, I was convinced the young woman funeral arranger there had some alternative vibe about her, even if she was wearing grey rather than black. I called back and told her the story of the Goth lady at the burial of ashes last year and discovered that, as I suspected, she's a Goth too, toning it down so as not to discomfit the clientele too much. 

We have already mentioned the disparate associations people make with my headgear. For this acquaintance they were different: 'Your hat always reminds me of the priest in The Exorcist. I find it quite comforting, to think there's somebody going out to tackle the demons.'

(I will not discuss this with Trevor.)

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

In Financial News

My annual leaflet from the Church Commissioners shows that they haven't done hugely well over the last year. The 30-year growth trend is down half a per cent and the yearly return dropped from 7% to under 2.

How that relates to the Commissioners' attempts at ethical investment I'm not sure. All the stuff about disinvesting from companies that don't take their carbon-reduction responsibilities seriously is all well and good, but the Commissioners still have plenty invested in fossil-fuel extraction firms. They quote examples where 'active engagement' has helped encourage ExxonMobil and Shell to put concrete carbon reduction targets in place. They argue this provides 'greater leverage and influence than by acting alone or by forced divestment', in line with a decision in General Synod two years ago that they should be threatening complete disinvestment by 2023 unless the fuel companies complied. 

I'm sure it does, but that doesn't change the fundamental truth that we need these industries to cease. Basically, they can't be 'fixed'. The Commissioners probably said the same sorts of things about cigarettes and arms manufacturing, but they eventually got out of them, albeit kicking and screaming.

Monday, 3 June 2019

Cleanse and Purify

I should have taken a photograph of the church when the nave was cleared of its furniture over the Bank Holiday weekend, rather than just the aisle, as you can see above. The occasion was our office manager and bookkeeper offering to clean and polish the floor, which they did in three stages. They hired the machines and bought the varnish: of course the church paid them - nobody expected them to be that self-sacrificing - but it saved some of the eyewatering sum it would have cost to employ a company to do the job. It's the cost that's put us off having it done year after year since the floor was put down in 2012, and despite earnest efforts with brooms and me (it's usually me) scrubbing up particularly offensive spillages or blots of mud traipsed in from the world outside, it has got awfully grubby over those seven years. Now it presents the picture of a shining oaken sea, all the more dramatic when the furniture is removed.

Except in the entrance area, where assistant verger Ross managed to walk across the floor before the varnish had set, oblivious to the damage, and to the wrath of Carrie the bookkeeper who'd done the polishing. I thought I could just buff out the footprints with a cloth, but no, they're there until it's done again!

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Down in the Mud

It doesn't look as there is much going on in the dim recesses of the pond, and indeed in this photograph there isn't, especially as the reflection of the palm makes it harder to see very much at all in said recesses. But, elsewhere in its depths, there is. It was after our return from Dublin in 2017 that I discovered the power supply to the pond had tripped off the fuses and ruined all the food in the freezer (which thankfully wasn't very much); I fiddled with the socket on a couple of occasions but eventually disconnected it completely as it wouldn't refrain from similar interruptions to the supply. I finally had it fixed this week; and determined to restore the pond, emptied it and cleared it out.

I found that the reeds had rooted so wildly that the roots filled roughly a third of the pond; not only that, but they had engulfed the pump, which had to be sawn out with my trusty billhook. Not only did the pump, once liberated, still work, but I found the remaining goldfish in the muddy depths of the water! When I moved to Swanvale Halt, there were supposed to be 'four decent-sized fish' in the pond, though I only ever found three. They gradually departed due to one thing and another, and so I eventually restocked it; again, the numbers were whittled away by various misfortunes until one alone remained, and not one of the four I bought, but one which had actually been spawned in the pond, and has known no other home. It is this which, nearly two years without aeration, water changes or deliberate feeding notwithstanding, has survived. How has it managed it? Perhaps in view of the oncoming climatic cataclysm we ought to investigate.

On Thursday I visited the garden centre and bought a new fish, to see how that went. I thought if they failed to get on - one fish which hasn't seen a single other one for nearly two years, and one which has grown up surrounded by dozens - the pond was at least large enough for them to avoid each other a lot of the time. But they don't seem to want to, which is gratifying. Perhaps a couple more might be suitable. Of course they disdained appearing in my photograph.