Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Joyce Pearson

Proverbs 31.29 puts the praise of an ideal woman in the mouth of her husband “many women have done excellently, but you have surpassed them all”, and the text appears on a 1987 gravestone in St Nicolas’ churchyard, the husband having been the priest at our Bishop Edward King Church (“BEK”) at the time of his wife’s death.

They would have known well Joyce Pearson, a member of that church from its foundation in the local Labour Club in 1968 continuing as the lynch-pin of activities at what is now the Bishop King Centre until this month.   Her death has left a very big gap – it was not for nothing that she was named as Grimsby’s ‘Inspirational Woman’ a couple of years ago.

BEK friends worked hard with her family to pick hymns for her funeral which gave it an appropriate and truly distinctive flavour: Bother, sister, let me serve you; Make me a channel of your peace; My eyes have seen the glory.  We almost danced her coffin out of church to the last of those.

And Anne McCormick. the last priest at BEK, suggested we use Proverbs 31.10-31 as a reading at the service.  It was extraordinary how easy it was to stitch together texts from it as I spoke about her. 

Her family’s memories included her Sunday, birthday and Christmas cooking and she cooked for the weekly Chatterbox drop-in and lunches – she rises while it is still night to prepare food not just for her family.
Her church friends remembered everything from sponsored crossings of the Humber Bridge for Christian Aid to her welcome for the most vulnerable - she reaches out her hands to the needy

There was never ending attention to the BEK building including cleaning away even when other things were going on - she does not eat the bread of idleness

Only a few weeks ago, I was talking with her about the compassionate yet firm way forward needed in relation to what many felt was a nuisance neighbour and she gave me good advice about the things it turned out she had already done - the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Individual priorities

The National Trust is short of volunteers to steward each room of its open houses.  Their spokesman last week says the newly retired are now more likely to be taking holidays or looking after grandchildren.  It plans to leave more rooms monitored by CCTV instead.  

I can think of the superficial things to observe about this, but I can’t be sure that they stand up to academic scrutiny.

The first is that there are three periods of time which are popularly thought to have reshaped society’s attitudes – the focus on personal freedom in the 1960s, the focus on individuals and market forces in the Thatcher era, and the sense of ground shifting and vulnerability following the recent banking crisis.  Someone who is 65 this year will have been a teenager in the 1960s, in his or her 30s through the years of the Thatcher government, and to have been 57 when the banking crisis occurred and thus to have spent their immediate pre-retirement years in a less financially and personally secure environment.

Does this help explain why those newly retired with money might be slightly more likely than their predecessors to be indulging in immediate opportunities to spend it?  Does this help explain why those newly retired with less money or with children under greater financial pressure might be slightly more likely than their predecessors to be providing child care for their working children?  Does this help explain why those newly retired are slightly less likely than their predecessors to volunteer?

Perhaps I am simply being effected by reading at the moment Tobias Jones’ latest book on living in community where I find (as expected, and alongside a number of others referenced in this Blog in the last few months) there is an abiding sense of what is lost by what in one passage he describes as ‘dislocated, isolated and atomised beings who have become... incredibly individualistic... obsessed with ourselves and what we have got’.

And how might all this be expected to affect levels of church attendance and activity?

The redcurrants are in the fruit cage in our garden this week.

Monday, 13 July 2015

The acid of planning

There’s an extraordinary rebus wherein the ends are only glimpsed when they’re entirely ignored, when purpose is dethroned by obedience, and when utility is, apparently, usurped by futility.  It’s then that the ends come and find you, rather than vice versa.  The promise of faith is that on the far side of meaninglessness there really does emerge meaning; but actively looking for that meaning dissolves in the acid of enquiry.

That is Tobias Jones (in his Utopian Dreams) on Newman.  I was reminded to look for the quotation by a review of a new book of his (A Place of Refuge).  I thought I’d find it in an early post on this Blog, but in fact I find had noted it a little while earlier. 

I found I’d noted it alongside a more utilitarian comment in Brendan Walsh’s review of the book:

It is precisely (the) eager concentration on the individual’s search for happiness that makes its achievement so elusive.  Somehow happiness is found only when our attention is completely focussed on something, or someone, else.

And I’d also noted a parallel with Recovering Confidence, the report of a Church of England recruitment strategy working party nearly twenty years ago (chaired by Bill Ind, the then Bishop of Grantham) which said that emergency strategies in areas like recruitment and stewardship have short term gains only; it is taking one’s eyes off those immediate targets and deepening the basic work of nurturing discipleship from which we would expect to see commitment and vocation to follow.

At its best, our current diocesan Year of Discipleship reflects this, but remembering these quotations helps me identify the source of my underlying unease at the way it can fall back into faith in intentional planning which comes dangerously close to pursuing things like meaning and happiness; I find that the template which the diocese now provides for what we had originally been invited to think of as ‘Discipleship Development’ is actually labelled a ‘Growth Plan’.

Some level of 'Mission Action Planning' is of course desirable, indeed we have been engaged in it.  But the most crass part of a diocesan Year of Discipleship training event I attended a while ago was the invitation to identify biblical examples of planning as if thinking of one simply legitimised it.  The person who thought of the journey of the Magi quickly recalled the unintended result was the slaughter of the innocents, and another identified David being punished for the lack of faith demonstrated in his apparently responsible careful counting his army.

But what do I know?  Those of us who have spent the last twenty years with this particular approach to  'recovering confidence' and coming slant at Christian meaning and happiness (the vocabulary is remarkably similar to the present diocesan strapline of 'confident, faithful and joyful') see things draining away around them.  Those who have systematically developed and deployed, say, Alpha Courses are seeing the immediate growth.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Thursday 12th May 1960

What could you work out about the person who wrote a date in this form?  What might a Sherlock Holmes deduce?  What might a literary archaeologist uncover?  It is something I have had fun exploring with groups in the past.

First, if said aloud, the person begins by naming a Norse God (Thor) and then appears to continue by speaking almost pure Old Frisian (saying ‘dei’ and ’twiliftha’).  So the speaker’s linguistic roots are clearly pagan, Germanic and, more specifically, related to the tribal area adjacent to that of the Angles (who gave their name to the language the speaker speaks) in the late Roman Empire period.

It is then quickly apparent that this Frisian is built on substantial Roman foundations.  The script is Roman lettering, the habit of naming the fifth day of the week after the God of thunder is also a Roman one, and the very next word is the name not of a second Norse God but of a Roman Goddess (Maia).  So it is plausible that the authority vacuum which allowed things Frisian (including at least its language) to dominate was the collapse of the Roman Empire; the Norse / Frisian layer is quite a thin overlying of the Roman one.

Frisian and Latin have in common being Indo-European languages, although there is nothing about this deeper kinship apparent in the date.  What is apparent is that, although the alphabet being used is Roman, the numbering system is the one developed in India in the same period as the late Roman Empire, a system exported through Persian and Arabic cultures.  Hints of the earliest population expansion from around the Red Sea into Europe and of the later cultural renewal from the Middle East and north Africa are tantalisingly present.

And, finally, the numbers set out an almost accurate Christian calculation of the birth of its founder.  Partial commentators might say either that this is intrinsic (every year is one ‘of Our Lord’) or that the Christian layer is in fact only a thin one laid on top of what is a hybrid and substantially pagan foundation.

Perhaps a bastard form of pagan superstition is actually preserved in noting that those born that day (I am one of them) just avoided being born on the “Friday the Thirteenth” (something I actually regret a little – just missing out on a distinction shared by about 0.47% of the population); a heritage of low grade superstition.

What else?  1960 was the 50th anniversary of the death of Florence Nightingale, whose birthday this was; a heritage of care and professionalism.  On this particular day in 1960, there were explicit Soviet threats of nuclear war if America persisted in sending what it had thought were undetected spy planes, one of which had just been shot down; a heritage of divided Europe and ‘Cold War’. 

Meanwhile, I had to go up St George’s tower for a second time this year, so my 19th February picture of the new building going on next door (first posted here on 23rd February) is now matched by a 24th June one.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

I'm a problem

Not just in the usual ways which I recognise – I take those for granted.  Nor, I suspect, in the ways hidden from me by my blind spots – if there are any attentive readers of this Blog they will take some at least of those for granted.  But in a way which I actually remember writing up twenty years ago when I was responsible for clergy in-service training in the diocese.

There has long been a recognised phenomenon of clergy ordained quite young who reach their middle fifties with thirty years experience of ordained ministry behind them but with possibly as much as a further fifteen years in front of them.  Given the ‘career structure’ (more on this sort of terminology at the end) is very flat - that is, the vast majority of clergy end up and remain as incumbents rather than ‘move on’ to one of a handful of ‘senior’ of ‘dignitary’ appointments - a question often recurs of how the church might encourage and get the best out of them as they continue to do much the same thing for a number of years yet. 

They may well already have had all the appointments which evidence ‘career progression’ (for all I know when I wrote this up I may have actually included a list like the one which now turns out to be my own - in chronological order, responsibility for clergy in-service training, membership of the General Synod, Team Rector, training incumbent, Canon of the Cathedral, Rural Dean, Hon. Fellow of the local College of HE and FE, membership of the Bishop’s Council) so a diocese is quite out of fresh gestures of affirmation or ‘promotion’. 

They may well be doing the job in a way which was imaginative and cutting edge when they were ordained thirty years earlier or when they took on a substantial parish fifteen years after that but which doesn't quite make the impact needed now in a rapidly changing church - so a next (perhaps final) appointment is, for the first time in their ‘career’, likely to be one with less apparent ‘seniority’ since it is not only key parishes which seek an incumbent with energy and with a track record of leading previous parishes into growth.

And suddenly, there are hints that this is me.  Not hints, actually; more like warning claxons going off all over the place.

First and most explicitly the invitation came to go to a retreat house this autumn on a course called Celebrating Wisdom.  I recognise the provision (obviously - I used to suggest it for others) even if I don’t recognise the branding (which reminds me of the trainer of Bishops who told me all those years ago that he had increased episcopal take up of courses by ceasing to call them Refresher Courses and starting calling then Master Classes).

Secondly and much more implicitly, I sat down last week with one of the diocese’s Discipleship Development Advisers to look together at this parish’s Mission Development Plan, the next iteration of all the initiatives taken over the years here which haven’t actually moved things forward in the way I might have hoped.  She was encouraging, wants it re-expressed with one year objectives on a diocesan Growth Plan template, and is generously arranging for a Bishop to come to a parish event in the autumn to focus it all again for us.

And, finally, this week (I really couldn't have forged a more finely pronged illustration if I had tried when writing this up twenty years ago), I learnt that my new Archdeacon is to be someone who was first ordained in the year I was made a Canon of the Cathedral.   Sometime such appointments are the result of a Bishop genuinely celebrating having available the wisdom of a well respected senior priest already serving in a diocese (put out of your mind the picture of me with my eager hand jiggling high up at the back of the class with a face scrunched up and eloquent with ‘ask me, me, me’), but in truth it doesn't happen that often and we do need able and well qualified Archdeacons like him.

So I’ll see where ‘Celebrating Wisdom’ takes those of us who go.  It will be good to have a few days at Launde Abbey again anyway.  I suspect at least part of it will be a reminder that all those words tediously enclosed in inverted commas above are fatal borrowing from the culture around us and have nothing at all to do with priesthood or vocation - I know this because I have taught it to others really quite often.

The snails were on a gravestone in St Nicolas’ churchyard when we launched the new guide there in the week.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Oxford again - 2

The other speaker at the Sabeel Conference was from Palestine, which is as it should be. 

There are places in the West Bank where the Wall does not follow the 1948-67 Israeli border but cuts deeper into occupied territory, most often where there are already Israeli settlements or where these are soon planted.  Sometimes Palestinian farmers are cut off from their fields by the Wall.

There are also places where the Palestinian farmers who cannot demonstrate documentary proof of ownership of land which their family may have farmed over generations are declared to be in illegal occupation of what is then declared ‘state land’, again land which is often settled.  Sometimes olive groves are uprooted or fired in this process. 

There is no possible bias in recording this: both Palestinians and Israelis sources would set out these facts in a similar way.

Bil’in is such a place, more widely known than most through the documentary 5 Broken Cameras.  Here Iyad Burnat (whose brother Emad filmed the footage) and a committee participate in weekly non-violent demonstrations.  He spoke quietly and determinedly about the situation and activities which the film had already shown us. 

For me, almost the most heart breaking thing was the sense of victory that the Wall had had to be moved back a short distance and the neighbouring settlement had not be allowed to grow bigger, which in the end seemed to make no realistic difference at all. 

His perspective is that the Geneva Conventions forbid the settling of civilian population in occupied territory, that farmers are deprived of their livelihood and that some external people have even been concealed in the demonstrations to throw stones and thus make them look like violent protest.  The Israeli military perspective is that no filming should even be going on in an area which has been declared a closed military area.

Meanwhile, here is the inscription on the grave of the Sisters of the Holy Childhood; I’ve read the 1911 census return for the Sister’s house and the majority of the names overlap. 

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Oxford again - 1

For a second year, we have followed up a significant feature of our experience of our sabbatical in 2013 by going to the annual conference day of the Friends of Sabeel UK.  Sabeel is the Palestinian Liberation Theology organisation founded by a Palestinian Anglican priest and Israeli citizen growing out of the experience of Bible Study at St George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem where reading the New Testament aware that it was written in the context of (Roman) occupation was what unlocked living possibilities for the participants.

This year one of the two speakers introduced us to the work of the Oxford Centre for Moslem-Christian Studies, a tenant of part of St Stephen’s House (the former Cowley Fathers property in east Oxford) but not actually part of the University itself at all.  It says ‘we equip leaders, resource scholars, disseminate and develop Biblically-based thinking at the Muslim-Christian interface through teaching, research and public education’ and, although this indicates that it comes from a particular place on the theological spectrum, involves Moslem scholars in doing so.

Of all the things said, the most simple was a reminder consciously to eschew a natural tendency to compare their worst with our best.  Objective reflection shows how absurd it is to say ‘that terrorist activity by one of your extreme co-religionists is typical of you and this loving activity by one of my most admired co-religionists is typical of me’ but what is said and thought instinctively or in propaganda actually amounts to this sort of thing much more frequently than we would like to admit. 
There is, of course, a significant strain of the teaching of Jesus which points in this direction (seeking to take the speck out of someone’s eye comes to mind – we will be measured by the measure we use), and there are forms of ridiculing atheism, anti-Christian polemic and of anti-Semitism which fall into the same trap quiet as much as forms of Christian, Jewish or secular Islamophobia.  At my best (which is, of course, the only place from which I really want to be judged) I have tried to think this through in some earlier posts (including this and this and “how different it is to say ‘we can see exactly why you are wrong because it is something we are prone to ourselves’ rather than ‘your evil is unique’” more than once).

On the way we visited both Towcester and Headington Quarry churches, but I failed to have a camera with me so do not have pictures of the fifteenth century cadaver  tomb and the etched C S Lewis memorial window which are such special features of those churches.  But I did have it with me when we visited Cowley churchyard where we went specifically to find this grave of several members of a female religious order for teachers founded by the Cowley Fathers in the 1890s which continued until the 1960s.  It was the Sisterhood of the Holy Childhood.  My paternal grandparents were cousins and Mother Charlotte (Superior of the Sisterhood for the first half of the community’s life) was an aunt of both of them.  The grave of her parents (Thomas and Martha Mallam) is pictured in the second half of this post which mentions that three of their daughters married clergymen from the neighbouring St Philip & James' church but doesn't mention this daughter who became a nun.