Wednesday, 31 July 2019

New Broom

There weren't a lot of us at the SCP meeting at North Corley last night, and when we came to divide up the responsibilities I decided to second the appointment of the new Assistant Rector of the Chapter just so that the committee wouldn't be entirely nominating and seconding one another. I have successfully avoided being on it.

The new Rector is Fr Donald from Elmham, who wants to see to it that we make a proper contribution to the diocese, convincing those who might think otherwise that Catholic Anglicanism has something positive to say to the Church in general and isn't mere inward-looking poncing about, especially now that the leadership is predominately Evangelical. 'They need us,' he said. I wonder!

Monday, 29 July 2019

Out of Sight

There is some point not using the real names of places and people that appear in this blog, but there’s no disguising Farnham Road Hospital, the specialist psychiatric establishment in Guildford. A few years ago it had a spanking new wing added to its forbidding Victorian frontage, an area I hadn’t seen until I went to visit Mandy a few months ago. It’s even more labyrinthine than standard medical hospitals, notwithstanding the sloping white walkways and gaily-coloured art, and I’m not convinced the signage makes sense. I keep making mistakes whenever I go there, anyway (though that, in itself, is not proof!).

Some years ago when my sister-in-the-Spirit Cylene had a couple of difficult episodes, I visited her several times in a similar, though not as new, hospital in Kingston. We spent most of our time in the ‘garden’, a tall concrete-walled enclosure with some ragged plants just about surviving in raised beds, protected from pigeon incursions by a net high, high above, so that Cylene could smoke. The garden at Farnham Road serves the same purpose, though it has no net and is genuinely outside the ward as opposed to just pretending. When the new wing opened, it was probably bright and appealing, but I doubt the architects’ sketches took account of the piles of cigarette stubs that would gather over time.

Hospitals are not my favourite places to be anyway, but psychiatric ones have their own discomfort. Most of the time in Farnham Road, I experience an un-calm quiet. There is a TV on but nobody watching it much, not surprisingly, and not a lot of conversation; perhaps the inmates have said everything they want to say to each other. Occasionally I hear bits and pieces of a row between someone and the staff. I attract a bit of peculiar attention, being a priest: some of the patients have, let’s say, non-mainstream religious views.

Mandy has been here for months now, although she’s reached the point where she’s allowed pretty much to come and go as she pleases. She’s not been discharged, though. Remember how different this is from hospitals that deal with disorders of the body rather than the mind: in those, patients are nowadays hustled out as quickly as possible. Despite the terrible lack of bed-space in psychiatric wards, they have the opposite impetus, and patients must instead prove they are ready to leave, like prisoners. An acute episode can stretch into weeks, months. You are incarcerated with a bunch of mad people, from whom you cannot escape, in a space which is deliberately under-stimulating, under the authority of professionals who, by the very nature of mental illnesses, can’t inform you when you will be well enough to leave, or how exactly they’re going to be able to tell. I’m not suggesting there is anything clinically wrong with this; only that it can in and of itself hardly have a beneficial effect on a person’s mental state. As Mandy and I agreed, if you aren’t crazy when you arrive, you might well be by the time you leave.

When I call in on parishioners in the Royal Surrey, as often as not they have other visitors, and there are almost always people talking to friends or relatives in the beds around. At Farnham Road, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a visitor who doesn’t have a professional reason for being there. People with ongoing psychiatric illnesses have almost certainly worn out the patience of those who’ve cared for them, if anyone much ever did, and lack of care is often what helps to take them there. Their absence from the outside world can come as a relief to those who remain in it. Or perhaps the healthy are just afraid to come here.

I do not know how I would hold up under those circumstances. If you, gentle reader, ever know someone whose mind breaks and who finds themselves so detained, conquer whatever doubts you may have, and visit them. Brave those quiet white corridors. You won’t catch anything. You may have to listen to angry and incoherent speech, to irrational complaints which will make you wonder why you bothered. But it won’t hurt you. Hard though it is and discouraging it might seem to be, you’ll be letting the light in, just a crack.

Saturday, 27 July 2019

The Age of the Ass in the Lionskin

My political education was in the 1980s, the time of Thatcher and Reagan. I found myself on the opposite side to them, and still do. Yet my current sense of being a stranger in my own country is different. Perhaps it comes from being more aware than I was then, of knowing more and therefore knowing better how the narrative of the past and present can be wrenched away from what I think of as the truth towards something else. But there seems to be something different in the air now. Thatcher and Reagan saw the world differently from me, but they didn't seem to inhabit an entirely different world mentally. They were not, by and large, liars. Still less did they subvert the entire notion of truth: that is, they did not say things that they knew were false, and that they knew everyone else knew to be false, and that they did not intend anyone actually to believe. Most political lies, like our new Home Secretary's previous falsehoods about her trips to Israel, are attempts by people who know the truth to cover it up; or else they are rosy interpretations of reality, expressions of what their perpetrators want to be true. But now, we have something unprecedented, I think, in the political life of Western democracies. Thatcher's Britain never felt like a bizarre pantomime presided over by Delusion, as this country does now.

These thoughts clouded my mind during my prayer time this morning, not helping at all the general sense I daily have at the moment of having to remind myself that, with God, nothing good is finally lost and so my endeavours will still mean something even if human civilisation collapses in ruins after about 2050. I went down to the Steeple House for Mattins and found Rick our Verger and Russ who helps him out now and again waiting to say it with me. One of the Psalms set for today is no.120, and, not for the first time, the Lord had provided an echo of my own feelings:

When I was in trouble I called to the Lord : I called to the Lord and he answered me.
Deliver me, O Lord, from lying lips : and from a deceitful tongue ...
Woe is me, that I must lodge in Meshech : and dwell among the tents of Kedar.
My soul has dwelt too long : with enemies of peace.
I am for making peace : but when I speak of it, they make ready for war.

That helped. Some admin done, I went over to the café. Ethiopian coffee today, I said, I had the Brazilian last week. Emma, who can't be more than 20 or so, came to my table to administer the Ritual of the Filter and asked me how I was so I shared some of my ruminations. It was like lighting the touch paper: 'madness', 'out of control', and 'a pair of blond toddlers only one isn't quite as orange' were just some of the phrases she utilised. I think she poured rather quicker, too. She is one of the young people to whom the new leader of the Conservative Party will clearly appeal in vain.

Thursday, 25 July 2019

Mortification by Numbers

'Go to this website,' said my friend Professor Abacus, 'it's run by the UN, and you can calculate your carbon footprint and buy offsets'. So I did, dutifully entering all sorts of data about my energy consumption and lifestyle. To my horror, my individual output of greenhouse gases is nearly twice that of the Professor's household of three people, and four times the UK average. This is despite being able to walk to work, struggling to the supermarket and back on foot or bike up a number of steep hills and going out on the train to avoid using the car, not flying, switching my energy to a green supplier, and so on. I might as well have a fracking plant in the back garden. I am presuming that because I have a monstrously big house, the UN assumes I will be heating it to the sweltering UK average during the winter months, rather than sitting shivering in a cassock in my study, which is what actually happens. 

I'm not completely sold on the business of offsetting, either, though it's better than nothing. Some of the projects the UN's offsetting scheme supports actually concluded some years ago, which makes the whole process a bit abstract and strange. I can just about get my head round the idea that prayer might work retrospectively, God being outside time, but I'm not sure the same is true of bank transfers.

Anyway, even though the online calculators may be highly dubious in detail, it emphasises how limited the role of consumers is. I won't be saving human society any time soon. And they didn't even ask how nice I'm being to the bees.

Tuesday, 23 July 2019

A New Age

You remember Nick Leeson, the trader who bankrupted Britain’s oldest merchant bank in 1995? He would walk onto the Singapore futures exchange and trade with absolute confidence, despite the huge abyss in the company’s finances he was chucking money into, and which only he knew about. Every day, appearing on the trading floor, he was treated as the bellwether of the entire market, which is why he was able to keep going. People believed in his belief: it suited them to.

Then the Kobe earthquake struck: a great chunk of what was then the Far East’s leading economy, Japan, was knocked out overnight. Its second biggest city was a ruin. The following morning, knowing he had no choice, Leeson appeared on the trading floor at Singapore as though nothing had happened, selling futures in the Japanese stock market. Everyone blinked in astonishment. They decided he, the genius, must know something they didn’t, and bought his trades as before. That lasted a couple of days: Leeson’s self-confidence alone kept the Singapore futures market, and half the stock exchanges of eastern Asia, aloft in complete defiance of economic reality. But even the other traders finally realised that no, he didn’t know anything. He had no secret knowledge. Apart from the knowledge that he was a fraud, and suddenly everyone knew that.

Optimism is a very great thing, but it doesn’t change any facts.

Sunday, 21 July 2019

Abney Park Anniversary

The last time I went to Abney Park Cemetery, the chapel was closed pending renovation, and a good thing too considering how ruinous it had become. A couple of weeks ago, of a Saturday evening, I returned, this time in the company of Lady Wildwood, Ms DarkMorte and a couple of dozen other souls. The occasion was a concert by Katherine Blake, founder of sort-of early-music group The Mediaeval Baebes, and a pair of colleagues; Ms Blake told us how the band's very first gig, if you could so call it, had been an illicit night-time incursion into Abney Park exactly 23 years before. This gathering was far more official, and we were ushered through the darkness by Cemetery volunteers in reflective tabards to take our places in the chapel, fortified by drinks of our choosing. 

The concert didn't take long, barely 45 minutes of pieces from the group's output: I describe them as 'sort-of early-music' because a lot of their stuff is made up, the kind of thing we might fantasise that people in the Middle Ages liked to sing rather than what we know they did. The latest album, for instance, consists of nursery rhymes put through what we might reasonably describe as the Carmina Burana filter. It was all very engaging. As I sat listening to such Godly fare as 'Adam Lay y-Bounden' (a version of which our church choir sings in Advent), 'Salva Nos Stella Maris', and 'Ecce Mundi Gaudium', a question occurred to me which I've often wondered about before - what Ms Blake and her compatriots feel about singing so much Christian content. I didn't get a chance to ask.

The unsung star was the Chapel itself. Not a work of any great architectural distinction (as opposed to distinctiveness - it's certainly that), the refurbishment has stripped it of its rotting, graffiti-ed plaster and made it look some centuries older than in fact it is, a towering bare relic of the Middle Ages it strove to recall in the first place. You couldn't have anywhere more appropriate.

Friday, 19 July 2019

Nights of Broken Glass

The damage to the Rood Window of the church a couple of weeks ago was, unfortunately, not the last event of its kind to disturb the nocturnal peace of Swanvale Halt. South of the church there is an area where the streets communicate by a series of pathways lined with hedges, and not long after the church suffered its damage that vicinity was thronged with firefighters after the hedges were set alight. This Wednesday one of the local cafés and a takeaway had their doors smashed, and apparently last night the churchyard was the venue for fire extinguishers (not ours) being let off and more glass bottles being thrown around. The police are paying more attention to the centre of the village again, but of course the chance of them being present when anything is actually happening is vanishingly remote. 

It doesn't take much to make a community miserable: it takes a single person, perhaps, with a suitable implement and a disarranged will, going from door to door smashing all the glass in sight. The whole incident might take no more than a couple of minutes, but the effects of disruption and disturbance last far longer than it takes to cause the damage.

To make a community happy and orderly, however, doesn't take policing. It takes everyone refraining from destructive behaviour, every night. It takes nothing happening, consistently and regularly. It takes everyone acting sensibly. It's a bigger ask than we might think. 

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Surprise Catherines

The time will come when I have the energy to post something significant, but for now here are a couple of images of St Catherine which have come my way lately, as well as the one in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey I saw a little while ago. The first is from a museum in Verona, seen by my friend Lady Wildwood and a chum of hers on holiday: 13th-century, I reckon. What a dinky wheel.

Then last week when I called in at Seale Church for a shufti round I found that the reredos is formed of a painting, and on the right hand side is who the guide leaflet describes as St Catherine of Siena. The leaflet is wrong.

Finally, though there's no need for a photograph, the other day a framed copy of the National Gallery's St Catherine by Raphael appeared outside one of the Swanvale Halt charity shops. Most unexpected.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

From One End to the Other

Church Club met at the Infants School for the last time this year on Wednesday. Several of the children weren't there, and the remainder were more than a little hyper, although I had hoped that Sports Day might have dampened them down a bit. Trying to talk to small children about the Book of Revelation (John having a strange dream about wars and earthquakes and a man on a white horse who turns out to be Jesus, and finally a beautiful city coming down from heaven) would be hard enough at the best of times, but you can't keep telling the story of the Good Samaritan over and over again, can you? I asked them to think about something that was really beautiful, and got some peculiar answers. It was probably that thought that prompted Lauren to tell me 'You're like a sunrise!' as she gave me a goodbye hug (not that it's as though I won't see her or the others again). I'm not sure I quite understand the simile. 

At the other end of the scale I spoke in the evening to the concerned cousin of an older member of the congregation whose normal hesitant diffidence seems to be turning into a kind of breakdown, and then to the daughter of another longstanding member of the congregation who is dying. She shouldn't be dying: what the huge operation she underwent a few weeks ago was for is a question that will be asked at a future point. She's at a care home about fifteen miles away close to the daughter's home, so I retrieved the necessary equipment from the church and took her the last sacraments. It all went as it is supposed to, the recipient more-or-less conscious and aware and their family around them; how rarely this happens, and how affecting it is when it does.

Thursday, 11 July 2019

St Mary's, Pixham & St Martin's, Dorking

Dorking is fairly easy to reach on the train so there was no reason not to utilise that method of transport last week to visit a couple of churches there. St Mary the Virgin, Pixham, is an oddity: a little suburban-stroke-village church designed by Edwin Lutyens, no less, but intended to double up as a village hall. This is why there are curtains in front of the sanctuary, so it can be screened off when the rest of the building is being used for meetings or performances. Most of the space is therefore quite utilitarian, but the sanctuary itself is sort of Byzantine filtered through Art Nouveau. 

The mother church of Dorking, St Martin's, is a complete contrast. It is arguably the masterpiece of the Surrey-based Gothic Revivalist architect, Henry Woodyer. The interior space is very grand indeed:

The marble and gold reredos, the piscina and sedilia, the stonework, tiles, brassware, stained glass and above all the mosaic work, all amounts to a riotous exemplar of what Victorian High-Churchery meant between 1870 and 1900. There are plenty of Anglo-Catholic signals to be spotted, if you know what to look for.

The windows include some Biblical characters, such as St Paul's friends Tryphena and Tryphosa on the left here, who I'm sure I've never seen depicted anywhere else!

The tradition continued a while at St Martin's - for instance the decoration of the Edwardian Lady Chapel was handled by GF Bodley, representing another generation of Gothic Revival Anglo-Catholicism. But while the church should, by rights, have become a powerhouse of High Anglicanism, it never really did. The Blessed Sacrament is reserved in the Lady Chapel, but there's no lamp to mark its presence, and the aumbry looks relatively modern. The Lady Chapel's dedication is comparatively early, but the only image of Our Lady there, apart from the altarpiece, is a laminated copy of an icon slapped on a wall. There was once a chancel screen, the marks of which you can see on the chancel step, along with the execrable beige carpet that every church seems to have introduced at some stage.

I think if you squint, the decoration on the organ pipes looks curiously like the eyes of Tibetan demons. That can't have been the intention, can it?

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Quo Vadis

There are times in parish life when everything seems to move smoothly and even swiftly, and there are times when they don't. I have more of the latter, or at least that's how it feels - the projects which don't come to anything, the discussions that prove fruitless, the undertakings made that are never followed up, the people who seem about to be useful to the life of the church who then disappear for various reasons. 

There are two major initiatives in my mind at the moment. I would like to install a new audio-visual system in the church to allow more flexibility in the presentation of worship, so people don't have to go outside the parish to find that if it's what they want, as increasingly they seem to. And there's the matter of a musical director, which we've talked about for years, someone to take a haphazard group of singers and turn them into a choir, and to recruit young singers and musicians and increase the presence of music in the life of the community at large. There is someone I would dearly like to take on that role, but I have to present them with a credible package to stand any chance of detaching them from the prominent London church they sing with at the moment. 

Both quotes for installing and screen and associated projection system in the church are now in, and they hover around £20K, which is about twice what I hoped. We could find that, especially with a grant, perhaps, from the diocese's growth fund, but it's something that we need to decide consciously that we really want to do. As for music, I had a tip-off about what might be a helpful trust run by a business figure from within the Anglo-Catholic world, but can't seem to contact them, and this may be (as the bishop who is on the trust's board told me) because they've disbursed all on their grant money on a big youth project at present. So I don't know where to get the cash from for that.

I suppose we should think about getting the windows repaired first!

Sunday, 7 July 2019

Cardinal Point

The origin of the adoption by the incumbent of the Anglican church of St Magnus the Martyr, London Bridge, of the title Cardinal Rector is a matter I have still not been able to clear up, some time after I and S.D. discussed it. Perhaps I can get myself referred to as Cardinal Rector of Swanvale Halt. But in the course of trying to chase down the truth I discovered the mortifying fact that the Church of England's other two Cardinals are no more. 

These were two of the Minor Canons of St Paul's Cathedral in London, long referred to as Senior Cardinal and Junior Cardinal, and whose privilege of being so designated was confirmed by Pope Urban VI in 1378: the titles were described as ab antiquo then, so how they originally arose is anyone's guess. The Cardinals were the most important members of the College of Minor Canons at St Paul's, which originally numbered twelve but by the early 2010s had shrunk to just three. They had various liturgical and pastoral responsibilities but on their own these weren't too onerous: one 19th-century Cardinal, Richard Barham, found the time to write that wonderful collection of alternately humorous and creepy ghost stories, The Ingoldsby Legends. But in 2016 St Paul's streamlined its management and did away with the College of Minor Canons (Hereford is the only other English cathedral with one of these), and the ancient titles of the Cardinals with them. 

I am most opposed to this. Not only was it fun to reflect that the Church of England had Cardinals of its own whose antecedents were impeccable (confirmed by a Pope, you can't argue with that) and fantasise about what might happen were they to turn up at the Sistine Chapel to vote in Conclave along with all the others; not only was it instructive to remember that the Anglican Church contains all sorts of reminders of its Catholic past; but such picturesque anachronisms, provided they offer no impediment to the running of an organisation, are part of the rooting and continuity we all need, the things that place us and the institutions that we inhabit into a wider, longer-lasting context. Even when they mean next to nothing in any practical terms, perhaps particularly because they don't, they retain a psychic importance. Shame the St Paul's Cardinals are no more; but the Church being what it is, that may not be forever!

Friday, 5 July 2019

The Dark Side of the Abbey

Around the back of Westminster Abbey is a maze of passages and courtyards formed from the buildings of the former monastery of St Peter. I found my way through this environment on Monday to see my spiritual director, who was house-sitting in Little Cloister for one of the Canons having agreed to take on his duty as Canon in Residence for that day. We sat in the garden which used to be the abbey's infirmary chapel, dedicated, coincidentally enough, to St Catherine, and listened to the sounds of pro- and anti-Brexit protests wafting over the wall from Parliament Square. How the residents of Little Cloister manage to concentrate on anything with that going on all day I can't imagine. 'Ah, perhaps that's why Dr Haskins has gone away,' mused S.D., 'so he can actually get some work done.' 

Although parish life can be a bit of a slog, I do have a greater sense of purpose these days even if I can't always discern an easy way ahead in detail. The general sense of slow collapse, strain and impending chaos makes the role of the Church all the more vital, it seems to me, and S.D. agreed. 'The trouble with liberal Christianity is that we tend to assume everything is basically all right, and times like ours reveal that everything is not all right, and that you have to work to make sure they are. A sense of slight perturbation is instructive.'

Then we started to discuss why the Archbishop of Canterbury seems so grumpy a lot of time, how closely the Bishop of Chichester resembles Pope Pius XII, and on what grounds the incumbent of St Magnus the Martyr in the City styles himself 'Cardinal Rector'. All very deep.

Little Cloister has a somewhat overwrought statue of St Catherine by Epstein. I'm not sure I find that very spiritual, either:

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Time In The Sun

My friend Ms Brightshades needed her sunglasses for our afternoon in Brighton last week. Thankfully we didn't have the oven-like heat that would dominate the next couple of days, but it was warm and breezy. I would never have gone to the 'Sea Life Centre' on my own accord, but it was worth a visit: the building is the country's oldest aquarium and its centrepiece is a brick Gothic central hall lined with tanks of serene or sometimes lugubrious sea creatures, a strange thing to find underground. The beasts' alien-ness from our human concerns is a great comfort. We never made it as far as St Bartholomew Ann Street but wandered around The Lanes marvelling at the variety of information graffiti-ists and bill stickers wanted us to know.

Monday, 1 July 2019


Heaven knows how Ecclesiastical Insurance manages to keep going, given how vulnerable churches, the bulk of its customers, are. The woman on the claims desk sounded weary as she took our particulars, and gave me a reference number.

Over the night of Saturday 30th, panes of glass in the vestry at Swanvale Halt church had been smashed with a brick, but more sadly the great Rood Window was attacked - not, thankfully, with a brick, but with bits of wood which have, even so, done enough damage. There are a number of holes and quite extensive cracking and buckling in the lower parts of the three lancets that make the east window up. Heaven knows how much it will cost to repair.

It could have been much worse: at Woodham in 2002 the war memorial outside the church was pulled down, the figure of Jesus ripped off it and smashed up - the pieces strewed through the woods behind the church - and every window within reach smashed in. That was especially nasty as it was a deliberate attack on the church as a church; as the vicar said to me, 'if I were a more excitable sort of Christian I would have described it as Enemy Action'. I don't think ours is of that order, being just another manifestation of thoughtlessness and contempt, but really it's just part of the same spectrum. I suppose we could take it as an object lesson in detachment from The Things of This World, but it's hard when worldly things stand so clearly for the things of the world to come, which we should care about.