Tuesday, 2 February 2016

The next building worry

Investigation has discovered that there doesn't appear to be much securing the rafters of the south aisle at St Nicolas' to the nave arcade, so we are having to stop using that particular bit of the church (a builder is about to come in an put some props in against the theoretical eventuality that the ceiling might come in) and we need to get our act together to apply for a Government funding stream especially for church roofs; I think I remember that about a dozen out of about fifty Lincolnshire churches got grants from an earlier round of applications for the money 'left over' in an under spent fund intended to repay VAT on repairs to historic fabric.

Different pictures and problems with the aisle have featured here before.  The outward inclination of the south wall as the result of gradual pressure over the centuries isn't that strange (St Michael's south wall is also out of true) but it appears to have been dragging the roof timbers with it.  Interestingly the way they are secured to each other (drawn here by out surveyor) appears to have been adapted at different times - the 1860s Fowler restoration would be one and the later insertion of a ceiling would be another but there will be complicated earlier history as well - so a later bolt appears to be what is holding an earlier construction in place at the moment.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Barges full of mettal

Among the treasures on display in the Great Lincolnshire Exhibition (which was part of the Magna Carta celebrations last year) was a book of which I had often heard - the British Library’s copy of ‘Dugdale’s Monuments’ of 1641, which including drawings by William Sedgwick of a number of the brasses in Lincoln Cathedral.  It was published only three years before Parliamentary soldiers came to the Cathedral, as John Evelyn was later to record, and shut themselves in, till they had rent & torne of some barges full of mettal, not sparing the monuments of the dead, so hellish an avarice possess’d them.  Perhaps two hundred brasses were removed leaving indentations in the stone where they had been much like the single example outside the south door at St Nicolas’, Great Coates. 

It set me to wondering whether Sedgwick’s drawings and the shapes of the indentations means that the names of those originally buried beneath the stone slabs could be recovered.  It seems an obvious piece of work for someone to have done, and twice in recent weeks, when I have been in Lincoln for other things, I have had the opportunity to read some relevant material in the Cathedral’s Library.  I did know that quite a few of the slabs had been moved in the 1780s when the floor of the Cathedral was repaved so they no longer mark the position of the original burials.  It turns out that the illustrations in ‘Dugdale’s Monuments’ are not as comprehensive as all that and few matches can be made.

One of them is this Belgian marble slab at the entrance to the south choir aisle which is identified as being that of John de Haddyn, a Canon of the Cathedral who died in 1374.  I have walked across it many times without paying any attention to the pattern in the stone.  It clearly shows the crowned Virgin with her Child symbolically framed at the top of a tree-like structure, and there is the Canon on the left kneeling beneath it with the words of a lost prayer appearing above his head like the speech bubble in a modern cartoon (just as the prayers ‘Lord, have mercy’ and ‘Let it be so’ appear coming from the mouths of the Barnardistans in their surviving early sixteen century at St Nicolas’, Great Coates).

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Special pleading

The good news at the moment is that small numbers of fresh people are attending our churches, our diocesan safeguarding provision is more robust than it has ever been, and, perhaps best of all, the Anglican Primates gathering in Canterbury has come out with a robust statement against the prejudice faced by gay people.

So, in the last week, we have begun to approach the half dozen relatively new regular attenders at St Michael’s to see how many of them would like to prepare for Confirmation in the summer, I’ve happened to touch on two routine safeguarding activities (doing a standard identity check for one person who visits homes for the elderly and responding to a letter about the diocesan pastoral support provision for those effected by safeguarding concerns), and I have received this:

The Primates condemned homophobic prejudice and violence and resolved to work together to offer pastoral care and loving service irrespective of sexual orientation. This conviction arises out of our discipleship of Jesus Christ. The Primates reaffirmed their rejection of criminal sanctions against same-sex attracted people.  The Primates recognise that the Christian church and within it the Anglican Communion have often acted in a way towards people on the basis of their sexual orientation that has caused deep hurt. Where this has happened they express their profound sorrow and affirm again that God’s love for every human being is the same, regardless of their sexuality, and that the church should never by its actions give any other impression.

But I’m not sure that this is the impression which the people of England or Grimsby have been given.  The news they have received in the last week is that the number of attenders at Church of England services on a normal Sunday has dropped for the first time below the psychologically important one million, individual cases of sexual abuse in the Church of England continue to surface one by one, and the majority of the Anglican Primates simply can’t abide those churches which support provision for stable same-sex marriage.

Our 'mission listening' has long been picking up (alongside their concern about the injustice of suffering in the world) their sense that churchgoing wouldn’t touch their spiritual needs, that our apparent claims to holiness are hyprocritical, and that our fundamentalism blinds us to the insights of science and humanity today - and I imagine that news of smaller and more elderly congregations, scandals and resistance to equality legislation seems to confirm all this for them.

We know that the age profile of our regular attenders means that in any given period the number of new ones is very unlikely to outnumber the number who die.  We know that it is in part the rigour of our present safeguarding work which is bringing some old scandals to light and to judgement.  We know that it is precisely the church’s attempt to be aware and creative at the intersection of its tradition and encounters which produces the tensions we find in seeing a shared way forward.  Some of these points have all been made on this Blog quite recently – but they wouldn’t appear to be any more than special pleading to most people.

Monday, 11 January 2016

Church defining

GAFCON (the Global Anglican Futures Conference) headlines the issue before the Anglican Primates meeting this week by saying:

At stake is a basic church defining principle: will Christ rule our life and witness through his Word, or will our life and witness be conformed to the global ambitions of a secular culture?

There is the possibility of following biblical teaching on the one side.  There is the possibility of following the norms of the society around us on the other side.  We just have to choose which.

Or (GAFCON’s allusion is presumably to Romans 12.2) “do not be conformed  to this age but be transformed by the renewing of your minds”; the word translated ‘con-formed’ has the route ‘sy-scheme’ so has the sense to re-model; the word translated ‘trans-form’ is ‘meta-morphosis’.  Do we want to 'fit in' or 'be changed'?

But I wonder whether there are really many Christians out there who set aside every social and scientific consensus in the world around them where they detect any conflict with a specific New Testament text?

Perhaps some Amish, Brethern and creationist groups are close to this?  In part, they are recognised for things like their attitude to the dress and role of women and their keeping themselves apart from those who do not believe as they do.  Most chiefly, they ought to be (and some are) recognised by their forgiving, non-judgemental and pacifist manner.

Equally I wonder whether there are really many Christians out there who set aside any New Testament teaching as soon as is seems to be odds with what their early twentieth-century neighbours assume to be true?

Perhaps corrupt and worldly church leaders have always been close to this?  Nevertheless, I can’t really think of any genuine Christian groups who reflect the sort of competitive, consumerist, individualistic and licentious strands which run through much of society as we find it around us.

So I do wonder about the polarity and simplicity of the GAFCON headline.  Perhaps the truth is that almost every Christian is actually caught in a careful act of discernment to which the headline doesn’t do justice? 

There are well repeated arguments.  What does the biblical imperative to love our neighbour say to us about the process of wealth creation around us?  What does equality and human right legislation say to us about the New Testament’s apparent acceptance of slavery? 

There are less well recognised challenges.  Where does something like epi-eikies (first a Greek philosophical term, then used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament read by the New Testament writers, and then a New Testament term) take our practical judgements?

What calls do we make when there are presenting issues of dispute – about non-kosher meat or meat used in pagan sacrifice, about charging interest on loans and releasing from debt, about remarriage after divorce, about committed gay relationships?

Yes, some of the time it will seem clear to us that on the particular issue the people with whom we disagree do appear to have failed to take the New Testament perspective seriously enough.

But equally, some of the time it will be clear to us that they it is scientific or social discovery which haven't been taken seriously enough.

Either way, it probably isn’t much help hurling the term ‘fundamentalist’ at those who call these things one way or ‘revisionist’ when weighing the arguments of those who call these things the other way.

A classic sixteenth century Anglican position has been that of Richard Hooker who explored his first loyalty to scripture alongside his sense that the ‘natural law’ is becoming clearer the longer human beings are attentive to the world around them and who then looked to the guidance of the church when these first two sources didn’t give a clear lead (sometimes over simplified as having ‘scripture, reason and tradition’ on which to call).

A classic twenty-first century Anglican position is that none of us have minds which are fully re-schemed, meta-morphosed, trans-formed and re-newed.  There are layers of self deception, unreflective biblical literalism and secular assumption in there all the time alongside openness to God, Gospel-prompted priorities and society-inspired truths. 

It may actually be that it is our willingness to live together with those who fail like us which has been the most church defining thing about us all along.

Meanwhile, the sun was on the back of the gravestones in St Nicolas’ churchyard late in the afternoon yesterday.

Monday, 4 January 2016

Fair Trade profits

We’ve been able to give away just over £1000 from our Fair Trade activities in 2015.  For the avoidance of doubt, I ought rapidly to define ‘we’ as being my wife, who usually only appears in this Blog by stepping into a picture often simply accidently thus and thus and then even, if you look carefully, thus.

One part of the activity is running a monthly Traidcraft stall at the morning service at each of the two churches which have such a service.  £1914 has been spent at these stalls in the year. 

This is obviously good for the producers who have an additional small outlet for their goods.  But it has also been important for the awareness which it has raised.  So we have achieved the status of being a Fair Trade parish by running these stalls, promoting the annual Fair Trade Fortnight and making sure the refreshments we serve in church are all fairly traded.  And the knock on effect is that more people look out for the Fair Trade logo when they shop elsewhere. 

But we have also made know Traidcraft’s appeal this year for people to shop through it and thus enable it to fund projects in its producers’ villages and towns.  It appears that Traidcraft has been too successful in getting people buying fairly traded goods in supermarkets so its own income had actually fallen.

Anyway, the set small sellers' margin, those who said ‘keep the change’, and those who bought home-made jam (with fruit from our garden and other ingredients fairly traded) together produced a small profit of £325 which is just being paid across as a donation to the two churches.

The other part of the activity has been to import olive wood products direct from Bethlehem Fair Trade Artisans. The skill of ordering and paying direct and then navigating goods through customs was developed with one small consignment and then put into practice with a second much larger one. 

There was a lot of work pricing and boxing up enough for a church stall so that members of the North East Lincolnshire Churches Together Justice and Peace Group could take these out to a number of churches.  An astonishing £2350 was been spent at these stalls in a few weeks.

Again, providing the producers with an additional small outlet for their goods has been an obvious good.  But in this case the sellers' mark up has been determined ourselves and has averaged 30% on these sales.  So we have had a total £720 to divide between two Bethlehem charities – Caritas Baby Hospital (where, among others, some of the victims of the bombing of Gaza have been treated) and the Holy Land Trust.  In effect, we have done what Traidcraft does: sending the premium back into the community from which the goods emerged rather than keeping it in the pockets of those who control the supply chain.

Next we will work on involving the parish's Youth Group and others in one of the Big Breakfasts for this year's Fair Trade Fortnight 29th February to 13th March.

The picture is of our own Christmas tree.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

New Year fears and hopes

2016 begins with more voluntary groups which add value to local life coming under pressure, a pattern reflected here in 2012 and again in 2014.

Abbey Walk Gallery, the one independent arts venue in North East Lincolnshire, is to close, with the loss of exhibition space, artists’ studios and small retail outlet (one of the few carrying my own book of poems).   It was never making money (it only appears to have survived because the two dynamic people running it never took any money out of it for themselves) and exhibition space continues to be used at the National Fishing Heritage Centre – but Grimsby will be much poorer without it.  North Lincolnshire seems to manage this all slightly better with both the large 20-21 Visual Arts Centre at the top of the main shopping street in Scunthorpe and the Rope Walk on the waterfront at Barton, although we were told a short while ago that the latter is mainly financed by its very successful restaurant.

Green Futures, the community business in this parish which operates the former Council nursery and supplies our weekly veg box, is appealing for the £15 000 it needs to keep going through the last weeks of this financial year.  Among its great strengths is the way it involves some of those who find (re)entering employment difficult, so forebodings about what it would then be able to continue to do in the financial year 2016-7 are serious.  It is a fragile and rare symbol of fresh possibilities (both ‘green’ and human) which it would be impoverishing to lose.

Shoreline, the not-for-profit organisation which owns the former Council Houses in North East Lincolnshire, is having to make cuts and redundancies which include ending grants to the local Citizens’ Advice Bureau and a major Credit Union.  The loss of these grants repeats a pattern which has worried me for some time – the major austerity moves removing lifelines from precisely the small voluntary groups which people imagined would take up some of the strain.  Shoreline’s decision here is probably inevitable (its money needs to be invested in its core purpose) but one can’t help feeling that the loss of robust advice and credit management support for its less able tenants could in fact result in higher levels of arrears, evictions and homelessness, all of which would cause misery and cost Government more in the long run.

My 'new year resolution' is to seek ways in which our over stretched churches can do more in these sorts of areas of human flourishing in 2016, but I've failed to follow through so many existing 'priorities' in 2015 that I think success is doubtful.

Meanwhile, the three Bishops in this diocese sent out a Christmas card which is a photograph of themselves, and my picture above is the play of light in Lincoln Cathedral noticed when I was there to preach at Evensong on the Sunday before Christmas.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Anglicanism divides (continued)

People are joining our churches all the time – but the congregations never seem to get bigger because others either die or fall away.  And all this starting and stopping seems to happen quite independently of any conscious mission strategies which we adopt and try to implement, which I take to be one of God’s jokes. 

I found something sad in speaking to two of those who had simply stopped coming to one of our churches over the last year to find that one objected to a liberal approach to homosexuality in one sermon while another couldn’t stand the Anglican Communion’s failure to be totally inclusive - it seems almost unfair on a relatively small church in which I hadn’t ever heard the issue mentioned to find itself two good members down in this contradictory way.

I did name this situation in sermons at each church recently, reminding people that I had once (but actually a very long time ago) undertaken an exercise intended to help all of us understand where those we disagree with on either side of this issue are coming from, and offering to do so again.

I’ve been following two quite different expressions of the two points of view this week.

First, Michael Gove interviewed the Archbishop of Canterbury for The Spectator and wrote this:

If one of his own children were to be gay and fell in love with another person of the same sex, and asked his blessing, how would he react?  ‘Would I pray for them together? You bet I would, absolutely.  Would I pray with them together?  If they wanted me to.  If they had a civil service of marriage, would I attend?  Of course I would.’  But, I challenged him, conscious of what many evangelicals believe, wouldn’t you say to them that while you love them, their relationship was sinful or inappropriate?  ‘I would say, “I will always love you, full stop. End of sentence, end of paragraph.” Whatever they say, I will say I always love them.’

Which led one liberal Christian commentator (Bosco Peters in New Zealand) to respond with this:

If God as a loving father, loving parent, is a primary (some will say God-given) image, is that not what we would expect from God?  From Jesus?  If we ask God, if we ask Jesus, questions like “If one of your own children were to be gay and fell in love with another person of the same sex, and asked your blessing, how would he react? Would you pray for them together?  Would you pray with them together?  If they had a service of marriage, would you be present?”, do you think the Archbishop of Canterbury is more loving than God, than Jesus?

Meanwhile, Chris Sugden (probably the most articulate, influential and prominent spokesman for what he sees as the ‘mainstream’ conservative point of view) appeared again on Radio 4’s Sunday programme and managed to claim both that homosexuality is a ‘lifestyle choice’ and that his own extensive research in Africa revealed that those who support the criminalisation of homosexual activity do so mainly to protect young people from grooming.

If you start from the point of view that homosexuality is not an inherent disposition for some, and then you appear to conflate it with paedophilia and skip over the mammoth issue of heterosexual grooming of girls and exploitation of young women, then I can see that you wouldn’t end up taking a liberal position, but I can’t think he has done the conservative position any favours. 

Meanwhile, spring shoots are coming up in St Nicolas’ churchyard.