Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Not found in data source

Nine months ago, I posted about the diocese’s greatly increased expectation (significant step by significant step increases over three years) about how much each parish should contribute to the central funding which we hold in common.  The post including sadness that the diocese had not followed through on its earlier stated intention to explore things individually with the 10% of parishes for which the new assessment system throws up excessive or rouge results (as any new assessment system would do).

Since then we have been a passive participant in what the diocese regards as an appeal system – ‘an appeal’ only in so much as the diocese sent us a letter which said our response about how much we would expect to be able to pay in 2016 would be treated as an appeal and then a later letter which said that our appeal had been considered and a lower figure had been agreed (still a 45% increase on what we managed to pay in 2015, slightly more money than the larger, better attended and better resourced parish next door to us has been able to pay off in the opening months of the year) – not an appeal in the sense that we know the nature or membership of the tribunal, when it met, or the reasons behind its judgement.

This week we’ve had a further letter, an early sentence of which ( ‘... and in particular thank you for the £Error! MergeField was not found in header record of data source. which you have paid to the end of June 2016...’) doesn’t inspire undue confidence.  The letter reminding us that, although a reduced amount was agreed for 2016, ‘no reduction was agreed for any further years’ and that the figure on the escalator for 2017 is twice what we managed to pay in 2015 (which would be about £9.25 per ‘usual Sunday attender’ per week – not, quite rightly, that this is a method of calculation which the diocese uses).

The attitude in the parish among those aware of the situation is, I’m afraid, that the vastness of the gap is more of a problem for the diocese than it is for us.  We do, however, have well advanced plans for a ‘stewardship renewal’ exercise in the autumn.  This will include, among other things, writing to the hundred or so households which form the backbone of our funding by giving half of the £1000 or so we spend in an average week (a third of which we send on tot he diocese).

We have picked up an obvious and helpful tip from another parish - which is that a single standard bit of publicity doesn’t do the job.  One of the things which we will do over the summer holiday is instead to craft quite a variety of letters pitched at different sorts of people.  There is no need to clutter up publicity with information about Gift Aid for those who already give in this way or for those for whom it is irrelevant.  It would be unhelpful to write to those who faithfully put £2 in a ‘giving envelope’ each week to point out that the average giving in the wider Church of England is now about £8 a week rather than really thank them and gently suggest that £3 might be a target.

But as we begin to prepare this material it appears that the results for us may not be as spectacular as the other parish expects.  It had pointed out the advantage of things like bringing new attenders into the ‘planned giving scheme’ for the first time with one sort of letter and beginning to be able to make tax recovery claims for others who have not signed a Gift Aid form in the past as a result of a different sort of letter - whereas our initial analysis shows that we’ve been quietly diligent about such things over a long period and there is very little slack like this in our parish.

Anyway, there is an offer in the latest letter from the diocese ‘to come and meet you’ ‘if your parish would like to discuss your parish share payment for 2017’ which might be the opportunity to begin the conversation we thought the diocese was going to have with us over a year ago (unless the offer is in fact a coded request to allow someone to come and present the diocesan need to us) and the Parochial Church Council may indeed want to pick this up when it next meets in the autumn.

The diocese is actually planning to run a huge deficit for a few years in the expectation that this will reduce as systematic increases take place in parish giving.  I only hope that this does not depend on too many unrealistic figures being written into the diocesan budget until it even gets the point which the diocese of Rochester has now reached when there are no balances left and rapid cuts in expenditure have had to be announced.

Meanwhile, the gargoyle is not local (the picture was taken on a recent visit to Byfield in Northants where my parents worshipped for twenty years and where their cremated remains are buried) and I was only able to get close up to it like this because it is now in the porch there.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Bats and other priorities

The main purpose of a church building is to provide a roost or toilet for bats.

This isn’t a polemic point but an objective piece of analysis. 

I once came across an apparently loaded claim that a hospital was being run chiefly for the convenience of administrators.  It turned out that the claim was based on a careful evaluation of a number of very specific binary decisions (such as ‘make this small change to increase patient care but make administration quite difficult’ and ‘make this small change to make administration run smoothly but make carers’ lives more complicated’) and was simply a straight deduction.

So all one has to do is look at the balance of specific decisions.
‘This bat population is damaging the historic fabric’ or ‘that bat population is making it an unpleasant experience preparing for or participating in regular worship in a particular place’?   The bats win and solutions need to be found which don’t disturb the bats - or the size of the fine might be astronomic.

I’ve been reminded of all this because it has just been announced that St Nicolas’ has got the full cost of the repairs needed to its south aisle roof from Government heritage funds (over £50 000, plus the refund of any VAT) - which is a great relief and we are really thankful. 

Almost the last thing we have to do before we can go ahead with the work is provide proof that there are no bats there.  I’m glad to say we are sure there aren’t and that we are trying to resist any resentment that we actually have to prove this to be the case.

But rather than appear to have a go at bats, this approach to analysis is really a sobering act of self scrutiny.

Objectively, the provision of a roost or toilet for bats is the main purpose of the provision of a church building.  The preservation of built heritage is the second.  Bat arguments win over heritage arguments, but otherwise heritage arguments usually win over any other arguments. 

They certainly win over most mission arguments (‘this particular change to the fabric of the church would enable us to undertake mission in a better way’, ‘this money would be best used to address a pressing social need rather than repair the fabric to quite the standard heritage bodies would like’).

Third comes demonstrating compliance - or, to put the point positively, being clear how we are keeping people safe. 

This doesn’t beat bats and heritage - if there are bats or valued heritage and a church can’t deliver things safely then the building may become disused and surrounding by hoardings to protect the bats or the fabric.  

But it, quite rightly, beats almost everything else.  From child protection policies to fire risk assessments reminders come in regularly about the levels of compliance required of us.

And, most shockingly, since this is a piece of self scrutiny rather than an anti-bat tirade, in fourth place is the provision of good manageable working conditions for stipendiary clergy. 

Bats, heritage and being clear one is keeping people safe are more important and cannot be overlooked whatever pressure they put stipendiary clergy under, but otherwise the life of a church is actually arranged chiefly for the benefit of people like me.

Why do we have to raise quite so much money?  Because the diocesan budget requires income to deploy hundreds of people like me.  

Why are these churches asked to show loyalty to this particular wider grouping of churches?  Because they share one stipendiary clergy appointment. 

Why does this particular pattern of worship obtain in this group of churches?  Because that is the one he or she can sustain. 

In the end, arguments about other things which might benefit from the sacrificial giving of church members, about the natural grouping of churches or about a different rhythm or variety of worship in a particular place, are valid but are usually trumped by how things work best for the deployment of stipendiary clergy.

So, the main purpose of church buildings is to provide a roost or toilet for bats.

The preservation of built heritage is the second, and only the presence of bats is really allowed to trump this.

The next thing in importance is demonstrating that every precaution is being taken to keep people safe - unless this conflicts with bat protection or heritage preservation, in which case things should remain unsafe and unused.

Then (provided this doesn’t conflict with bat protection, heritage preservation or human safety requirements) things will be arranged so as best to enable a pattern of stipendiary ministry to operate smoothly.

If there are no bat protection, heritage preservation, human safety or clergy flourishing issues, then aspects of care, mission and prayer may set the agenda.  Or there may be something I haven’t yet spotted so clearly which will push these things further down the queue.

Meanwhile, the tree cut down at the east end of St Nicolas’ a short while ago is having a good go at sprouting.

Friday, 15 July 2016


Neither the piece I have been working on to post here nor my sermon for Suday have yet come out anywhere near right.  Instead the best post is the tweet of the widower of Jo Cox MP (whose funeral has taken place this morning).

Jo wld ask us not 2 fight hate with hate but draw together 2 drain the swamp that extremism breeds in.Thinking of all victims of hatred 2day

The photograph is the second of a pair taken at Deddington recently.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

God on the gallows

The death of Elie Wiesel at the weekend sent me to take his Night down from my shelf.

His searing account of surviving the Nazi Death Camps was published just before I was born.  Growing up in faith, I came to know it to be one of the classic texts of the twentieth century, definitive of my (of anyone’s) understanding.  It has taken me among so many others to Buchenwald, from which he, unlike so many others, was finally liberated.

I hadn’t realised until reading his obituaries, however, how little focus there had been on the Nazi genocide of the Jews in the dozen or so years between the end of the Second World War and his writing, nor how it was his own use of the term Holocaust – the Greek term for the whole burnt offerings of the Hebrew scriptures – which had been particularly influential in bringing that term into wide use.

There is a passage in the book which is the most quoted and which I’ve often come across used in Christian writing.  While being forced to witness one particular horrific prolonged hanging of a boy there is an overheard conversation in which the question ‘Where is God now?’ receives a response ‘He is hanging here on this gallows’.

I came to be deeply uncomfortable with the Christian appropriation of this passage.  The book touches often on the death of faith, the death of any credibility in the idea of God, the death of God.  It seems abidingly important that this is what he is laying out at this point and not to swerve around it. 

For me, the sense that God is indeed found hanging on gallows is also, of course, of abiding importance.  I can understand why there is a temptation to use this short passage as a Christian text speaking into that reality.  Indeed, I notice Wiesel very unexpected touch on one word of Christian language himself a little later in the book when writing a particular Rabbi’s loss of faith in the face of ‘this Calvary’. 

But that does not seem to be a sufficient excuse for a Christian colonisation of a text which takes us to the heart of a Jewish reality, a reality which challenges everything which trips off the tongue too easily about ‘western Christian civilization’, a reality which seems almost obscene to me to use as a hanging peg for Christian apologetic.

The word Holocaust has also, of course, come to be recognised as deeply problematic, indeed it has slowly become not to be the preferred term lest it smuggle in any sense that this was an offering made to God or a sacrifice made by God.

The picture is of one tiny face now over five hundred years old on the edge of one of the brasses in St Nicolas’, Great Coates.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Owners of Little Coates

The Essex County Record Office holds a set of papers indexed as ‘The Little Coates Estate 1759-1938’.  I finally got down to Chelmsford last week to read them.

I already knew that the estate was held at the beginning of the period by a Robert Newton from Sixhills, Lincolnshire.  North East Lincolnshire’s archive holds a large and beautiful mid-eighteenth century map of the whole parish which shows each field colour coded to indicate the surname of each of his tenants (Codd & Marshall, Jackson, Marshall, Neville and Sheardown – the earliest surviving gravestones in the churchyard from fifty or so years later are for Nevilles and Sheardowns). 

The field names are evocative.  In the north, Far Marsh, Little Marsh and Great Marsh lie just west of what is still today called the West Marsh of the neighbouring parish of Grimsby.  In the south, West Platt, Middle Platt and East Platt lie just east of what is still today called Cottagers Plot (but was still Cottagers Plat in early twentieth century OS maps)  in the neighbouring parish of Laceby.  I once tried to copy them across onto a contemporary street map.

I also already knew that the estate was held at the end of the period by two successive Sir Walter Gilbeys of Elsenham Hall, Essex - which is obviously why the papers have ended up in the Essex Record Office rather than at the Lincolnshire one.  Again, it is in North East Lincolnshire’s own archive that I have seen one of many surviving copies of the map of the Estate divided up into lots and offered for auction in 1927.

My wildest hope was that the Essex set of papers would provide a trail of ownership and sale showing clearly how the Manor and Estate passed from the Hildyards (who held it in Tudor times) directly or through others to the Newtons, and then on from them through others (I knew of some Tennyson and Yarborough involvement and then of Angerstein ownership through most of the nineteenth century) to the Gilbeys.

It doesn’t.  It contains just two small clusters of papers from 1758-60 and then some further sale papers beginning 1898, with nothing in between.

First, there appears to have been some financial obligation on the owner of Little Coates to make a payments to the owner of neighbouring Laceby (on both 1st May and Michaelmas Day each year).  .  I think the spelling 'Warnal Rent' is clear at the head of this post in the picture of a scrap of paper (it may need clicking on to enlarge it).  I’d dearly like to know what that is; I assumed putting the term into a search engine would reveal all, but it doesn’t.

The signature is that of twenty-five year old Sir Cecil Wray of Fillingham who seems to have been enforcing this in 1758 to cover a period which goes back to a short while before his father’s death, so he might have been putting neglected pieces of business in order; he spells Michaelmas as Micklemas, which is as it is pronounced. 

There are two further annual receipts (4th July 1759 and 9th May 1760) and then a major legal document dated 10th May 1760 (the day after the final payment) in which Wray releases Newton from the obligation in return for a payment of £25 5/10.

Secondly, at about the same time (30th April 1759), there is what is largely an exchange of land between Newton and John Sutton of Carleton, Nottinghamshire, who I take to be a member of the Sutton family which has consistently owned (much of) Great Coates since the seventeenth century.

Sutton takes some equally evocatively named Great Coates fields (Millholme, Mr Grantham’s field, Edward Gilliat’s Field, Bibon Field, Old Mill Causeway and North East Carr), which presumably consolidated his holding west of the Freshney.  These are farmed by Edward Phillipson (again, the surname occurs on an early surviving 1816 gravestone at St Nicolas’) or his under tenants.

Newton gets fields called The Ings and The Carr in Little Coates (West Ings and a number of Carrs are both names on the map), which presumably consolidated his holding east of the Freshney.  He also gets (or perhaps Sutton is simply surrendering) two ‘colt gates’ in the Great Marsh, which is defined as the right to pasture two colts there between 12th May and 12th August.

Most tantalising to me is that this is said to ‘release’ (that is, I take it, end any rights or obligations) not only Newton but also Christopher Hildyard, late of Kelstern, Lincolnshire, deceased.  This can only mean that Newton’s title to the land has come to him from the Hildyards - whether by purchase or inheritance I still do not know.

Anyway, sixty-six years later, in 1825, I already knew that the Executors of the fabulously rich Russian born London banker and art collector John Julius Angerstein invested by buying the estate.  I haven’t yet pinned down from whom they did so (as I have said, there are both Tennyson and Yarborough references; the Tennysons might  just have inherited rather than purchased from the Newtons, and Yarborough owned the neighbouring Grimsby land).

The Angersteins held it for seventy-two years until John Julius’s grandson William died in 1897, and this is where the papers resume.   The Gilbey purchase the following year was from the Norwich Union, the documentation saying that William Angerstein’s life interest had fallen in on his death.  What this means is that John Julius’s family had mortgaged away the Little Coates estate (as well as most of the rest of his vast inheritance - I’ve found references to Norwich Union also taking possession of the family home at Weeting Hall in Norfolk) which must have been quite a spending achievement.

The few papers here are in the most part sales of land, in particular the sites of what will be Little Coates Primary School and of Dixon’s Paper Mill.  At this time Gilbey was developing all the housing next to these sites, as the Gilbey Road, Elsenham Road and other Essex related road names in the immediate area give away.  

All this property stands today on the old Marsh fields of Little Coates and are now assumed by most people (including those who moved the Little Coates First World War Memorial from next to the school to the grounds of the West Marsh Community Centre) simply to be part of the West Marsh of Grimsby.

One of the transfers of land was to extend the churchyard, and the second of the pictures at the top of this post comes from the relevant document.  My next task might be to try to map this against the present churchyard.  My estimate is that at least the north-eastern corner of the church built 1913-15 stands on a bit of the Gilbey-given land outside the original churchyard.  

The churchyard has, of course, twice been extended further, first on the south (what was the Mountain family Private Burial Ground) and then on the north (in the 1940s).  And the line of the road is that of the present lay-by orphaned by the straightening of Great Coates Road in the 1950s.

To complete the picture, at first the land south of the Haven remained rural.  In the 1920s, Little Coates as a Civil Parish was incorporated into the Borough of Grimsby and some land was sold (principally to Grimsby Golf Club) until the second younger Sir Walter Gilbey, as I have already mentioned, divided the rest of the Estate into lots and auctioned these off.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

A second mo(u)rning

I can’t orientate myself around what has happened. 

Of course, at one level, I do get it.  A sliver more than half those who voted (38% of the electorate, which is indeed impressively more than the 24% which I’ve noted before voted for the present Government) have chosen the option to leave the EU, and, as a result, the first domino has been pushed and all the predicted economic, political and social consequences (including much the Vote Leave campaign successfully dubbed ‘Project Fear’) are beginning to fall over in turn, beginning with the fall in value of markets on the first night and the promise of a shift to a more right-wing Prime Minister on the first morning.

My disorientation is probably simply that I live in a world in which greater consensus is demanded before radical change takes place.  The Church of England doesn’t move unless more than two thirds of the Bishops, clergy and laity in the General Synod voting separately say it should.  The Government itself has been legislating to insist that industrial action is not taken if it isn’t explicitly supported by more than half the workers entitled to vote.  I see a protest that a threshold of a majority of more than 60% on a turnout of more than 75% had been set for this sort of political change, although that level of turnout is probably unachievable across any national poll. 

Or it may be my disbelief is how few are saying that the UK has bought a false prospectus.  The Vote Leave leaflet which arrived here the day before voting was still leading with the claim that an imaginary large number of billions will become available to spend on the NHS and other UK priorities, when we all know that that money simply doesn’t exist and the initial market ‘instability’ and any longer term even slight international marginalisation of London as a financial centre will actually make the grip of ‘austerity’ much tighter.     

Perhaps my discomfort is particularly that I live and minister in an area which has voted most eurosceptically – 47% of the electorate in North East Lincolnshire turned out and voted Leave (and down the coast 58% did so in Boston, where turnout impressively did exceed 75%) at least in part in the belief which I cannot share that things like the historic decline of the fishing industry and the current dependence of labour intensive harvesting on migrant labour would somehow all have been avoidable had the EU not existed.

And all the things I’d love to have explored instead being regarded as marginal, eccentric, irrelevant and over intellectual: the fact that the ‘British values’ the Government now requires promoting in schools (democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance) are ones we share with all our EU partners and many others, and that the tap roots of our culture are in the shared soil of Europe and of the Jewish and Arabian cultures within and  neighbouring it.

Perhaps this will all seem normal  in a few months time, as the majority of those under 45 across the UK who voting Remain watch their elders slowly negotiate the way out for them.

The picture comes from the church at Deddington in Oxfordshire where we passed by recently.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Judges 9

Far away in the East, things were growing in great profusion and confusion.  The trees were worried.  They thought this should be better organised.  They weren’t sure what that would mean, but they thought it nonetheless.  They decided they needed someone to be in charge.  Everything would be better that way.

So they went to the olive tree and said ‘Please be King over us’.  ‘No,’ said the olive tree, ‘I’ve got quite enough to do producing the oil people need to burn in their lamps and lubricate their cooking pots.  Anyway, why do you need a tree taller than other trees?  Where there is light, what need is there for another King?’

So they went to the fig tree and said ‘Please be King over us’.  ‘No,’ said the fig tree, ‘I’ve got quite enough to do producing the fruit people need to have flavour in their months and sustenance in their stomachs.  Anyway, why do you need a tree taller than other trees?  Where there is sweetness, what need is there for another King?’  

So they went to the vine and said ‘Please be King over us’.  ‘No,’ said the vine, ‘I’ve got quite enough to do producing the wine which people need to brings laughter to their tables and conviviality to their meetings.  Anyway, why do you need a tree taller than other trees?  Where there is joy, what need is there for another King?’

So they went to the bramble and said ‘Please be King over us’.  ‘Yes,’ said the bramble ‘that was my plan all along.  Come, dear ones, I will grow more than any of you; rest in my protection and in my shadow’. 

He began to entangle their branches, until their orchards grew dark.  He began to thread around their hedges, until anyone who tried to come in went away bitterly pierced.  He began to smother their paths until nobody could skip along and they grew sorrowful.  In the end, it was all bramble.  And bramble it would remain until the next wildfire comes. 

But the smothered olive tree did not forget the light.  It dreamt of a day its fresh shoots would reach out of the ash for the sun.  The entwined fig tree did not forget sweetness.  It dreamt of the day its new roots would reach down beneath the ash into ground refreshed by the rain.  The overgrown vine did not forget joy.  It dreamt of the day its fragile stalks would grow above the ash and dance in the wind.  And each the same height as each other.

The piece appears in today's Cleethorpes Chronicle.  The pictures of a local tree were taken recently.