Sunday, 23 July 2017

Weaving grief and hope

Among the thousands of requests left on the Prayer Tree in St Michael’s, Haworth, I was told early on that the most frequent refer to cancer and to early death.

Given that Patrick Brontë lost his wife to early death by cancer, one of my first thoughts was whether a Haworth-branded leaflet about his bereavement would be a helpful thing to have available by the Prayer Tree.

Here is an initial version which I have just drafted.

The Revd Patrick Brontë had only been the parish priest of Haworth for seventeen months when his wife Maria died of cancer of the uterus on 15th September 1821 aged 38.

It had been a long and harrowing illness.  There was no pain management such as a modern hospital or hospice can now provide.  Maria was also extremely distressed at leaving her six children.  Among them, Charlotte was five, Emily was three and Anne was one.

Soon afterwards Patrick wrote these words to a friend:

Tender sorrow was my daily portion; oppressive grief sometimes lay heavy on me and there were seasons when an agonising something sickened my whole frame, which is I think of such a nature as cannot be described and must be felt in order to be understood.  And when my dear wife was dead and buried and gone, and when I missed her at every corner, and when her memory was hourly revived by the innocent yet distressing prattle of my children, I do assure you, my dear Sir, from what I felt, I was happy at the recollection that to sorrow, not as those without hope, was no sin; that our Lord himself had wept over his departed friend, and that he had promised us grace and strength sufficient for such a day.

Several things stand out from those words.

First, his grief was so extreme that he could not even explain what it was like.  It is rarely helpful to tell someone that we ‘understand what you are going through’. 
Secondly, he did not feel that there was anything wrong in expressing that grief (‘to sorrow was no sin’); he remembers that Jesus wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus.  There are cultures in the world where bereaved people are expected to wail, and the modern English habit of trying to hold everything together probably doesn’t help anybody.  

Third, it is striking that he doesn’t say: ‘my faith has saved me from feeling extreme grief’.  Nor does he say the opposite: ‘this tragedy has destroyed my faith’.  Those would be far too simplistic reactions.  The much deeper genuine reality for him was that his human ‘agonising’ and his Christian ‘hope’ were woven together in his grief.

His friend would have recognised two quotations from the Bible in what Patrick wrote; these were the threads of hope which he was able to weave around what he said ‘sickened his whole frame’.

The first comes from the earliest Christian writing in St Paul’s first letter to Christians at Thessalonica: 

I do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope, for we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.

The second came when St Paul wrote later to Christians at Corinth, telling them that several times he had pleaded with God to take acute pain away from him

But God said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

Lord Jesus,
you wept
at your friend’s graveside;
weep alongside us,
alongside those whose
grief is indescribable;
mix resurrection hope
with our tears;
grant enough grace to us,
enough strength to them.

Last week's picture was the view from the vestry window at Stanbury, so here is a view inside the church, including the pulpit from which Patrick Brontë preached when it was actually in Haworth Parish Church.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Real presence

A first piece of scriptural exploration with a congregation has been around Jesus’ promise that those who give ‘a cold drinking cup’ to ‘these little ones’ (I enjoy the fact that this is literally ‘microns’) will not be unrewarded. 

In the process I’ve revisited my sense of how sacramental this appears to be.  The Church of England has taught from the start that the two sacraments of Baptism and Communion are such because they are commanded by Christ, have a clear outward sign, have an equally clear inner grace, and are a means of conveying this grace, so I can’t see why the giving of a cold drinking cup to those others would miss doesn’t count.

It would certainly turn the stale debate about whether there are two or seven sacraments on its head if one was to propose that there in fact thousands of them.

The picture is the view from the vestry at our smallest church on the edge of the moor at Stanbury.

A first piece of potential faith exploration with the community sadly revolves around the prevalence of young adult suicide: one of the local Baptist Ministers identified this as a local issue to me independently of the request to take a funeral for a young mother who had taken her own life, and I find it identified as a national issue too.

Being involved in the funeral has actually been a privilege for all sorts of reasons, including what a remarkable young women she was and the quality of her family and friends who I have encountered in the process.

I need to take care rather than jump in, but I have the feeling that what we display in the heavily visited church at Haworth and how we talk about meaning with those who prepare for their children’s Baptism and for their own Weddings may be just some of the things affected by this. 

The picture is a close-up in our greenhouse; having sadly left behind in Grimsby a substantial fruit cage and it growing crop, we have been fortunate to inherit a carefully developed garden with much fruit of its own, and we have certainly not had a vine before.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Twelve days in

I’ve been meeting all ages at St James’, Cross Roads whose ‘usual Sunday attendance’ is about two dozen but who will also pray with at least as many toddlers, Primary School children and mothers at Toddler Praise and Friday Church each week.
I’ve been including at Matins prayer requests picking off from those left by hundreds of visitors on the prayer tree in to St Michael’s, Haworth, and the tree was cleared after the service yesterday morning as these requests were all distributed round praying members of the congregation.

And at St Gabriel’s, Stanbury yesterday a third of the congregation at the Book of Common Prayer Communion resolved themselves into a Gospel Choir and followed the service with enthusiastic performance.

Meanwhile Cross Roads Village Gala (at whose procession the pictures were taken), Haworth’s ‘Poetry at the Parsonage’ event, Stanbury church’s annual Fun Dog Show and Bradford’s Literary Festival means I’ve been at everything from a workshop led by the poet Kei Miller who I admire to listening to Keertan Rehal sing Sikh prayers.

Sunday, 2 July 2017


Two happy pictures from June.

First, at St James' Palace early in the month, the Princess Royal with the Master of the Haberdashers' Livery Company presenting Deborah with her prize from the Company for outstanding performance in stitched textiles.

Second, at St James', Cross Roads last Wednesday, the Dean of Bradford (as a Patron), me and the Bishop of Bradford after my Institution and Induction as Rector of Haworth and Cross Roads.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Typically Christian 2

It is Pliny the Younger, early in the second century, who gives the first external impression of Christians at worship, information he says he gathered from lapsed Christians:

... on an appointed day they had been accustomed to meet before daybreak, and to sing responsively to Christ, as to a God, and to bind themselves by a solemn vow, not to commit a specific crime but rather to avoid theft, robbery, adultery, breach of faith, and not to deny a loan claimed back.  After this ceremony ended it was their custom to go and meet again for food...

We’ve worshipped in turn on the last three Sundays at Haworth Catholic Church, Lees Methodist Church and Haworth West Lane Baptist Church, and I can report that these services had the following things in common (strictly excluding things which two of them had in common but a third did not).

There is quite a level of overlap with what Pliny had been told.  But, like his account, it is interesting to speculate how true or complete a picture is given.

Worship happens at 10.30 a.m. on a Sunday morning.

The main participation of the adults is to sing together, many of the songs coming from sources held in common.

The youngest people present contribute something specific to the service themselves very briefly.

A passage from a Gospel is read.

A significant attempt is made by the ordained person leading the worship to apply the message of the reading to the way Christians live.

The individual Christian's failure to live as he or she is called to do, his or her recognition of this, and God’s willingness to go on loving and working with him or her none the less, is the one message in common.

Prayers are said for the church’s engagement with the community and for others.

The Lord’s Prayer is said by all.

Refreshments are served after the worship.

There is a large cardboard collecting box for the same local food bank.

Meanwhile, a scooter procession past the steps leading up to St Michael's, Haworth was just one of the things going on at the 60s Weekend a few days ago.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Community Chapel, Mirfield

A few nights here for the first time as a pre-induction retreat only three-quarters of an hour away, and there is a pleasing  link back to Grimsby as well because Walter Tapper was also the architect of St Michael's, Little Coates.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Typically Christian

What do people think Christian people think?

I presume that the adviser who warned a Prime Minster years ago that he shouldn’t ‘do God’ in public had some sort of idea.

He seemed to think that people think that Christians think that praying for guidance leads us to do the first uninformed things that then come into our heads and to be unreasonably certain that we must be right.

Or that paying attention to the Bible has long led us to reject evolution in favour of a literal seven day creation and now leads us to reject equal marriage in favour of a condemnation of all faithful same-sex relationships, to name only two of the issues which appear to come most frequently to people's minds.

And, suddenly, it almost seems that they are right. 

A Christian leader of a liberal political party has a bruising experience of a General Election campaign and concludes that holding his (particular understanding of his Christian) faith is (perceived by others to be) incompatible with that leadership.

But how has it arisen that this is the popular perception (of many) in the first place?

Why isn’t the perception that a (contemporary) Christian politician will be most remarkable for his or her prayerful awareness of his or her own need for forgiveness and for agonising over the common good?

Or for paying such close attention to the Bible that he or she prioritises social justice for the most marginalised and seeking reconciliation for all?

Or that  leads him or her sharply to question the assumptions behind everything from profit before people and slogan before sympathy?

Which is more typically Christian, to be scientifically blinkered and judgmentally obsessed with others sexuality or to champion the excluded and forensically engaged with self-critical honesty and the needs of neighbours? 

Anyway, the ironic truth appears to be that, among what is actually of course the huge range of positions held by Christian people, for some of the more extreme supporters of the minority political party on whose parliamentary support a Church of England attending Prime Minister will now depend to remain in office, it is the popular view of publicly Christian politicians which seems closer to the truth than to the alternative reality I fantasise about, and it is in fact no bar to political success at all.

Meanwhile, we enjoyed encountering this car when passing through Leeds on ‘Clean Air Day’ earlier in the week.