Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Money, sex and power

Those most likely to convert to Islam in England are white working class women in their twenties.  This is what Grayson Perry suggests.   He has included one of them (Kayleigh Khosravi) among the portraits we saw last month at the National Portrait Gallery , also featured then on his television series ‘Who are you?’.

One has to keep this in perspective.  The most recent request I’ve had for a certificate recording her Baptism as an infant was for a young woman who needed it as she prepared to be received into the Catholic church.  And the numbers given for English people converting to Islam each year are a fraction of the numbers who are confirmed in just the Church of England each year.

Nevertheless, I was fascinated by what emerged when he asked ‘What does Islam offer to a young white woman in her twenties?’.

The answer, I found, appears to be a refuge from the nagging consumer pressures and constant, often sexual, scrutiny of women all pervasive in western society.  Conversion also offers a strong and supportive sisterhood within the congregation of the mosque.

What I found particularly striking about this was how it relates to a reflection which I first posted here over six years ago.

Deuteronomy 17 warned God’s people that if they had a King he should not be allowed to have too much gold, too many wives or too many horses.   I take this to be awareness that given total freedom this man might want to monopolise the available money, sex and power whatever the detriment to others of his doing so. 

One of the few African absolute monarchs today is known for spending more on his private jet than the country’s health service (too much gold), to hold annual half naked parades to select a new wife (literally too many wives) and to sack judges who make judgements against him (too much power, or, figuratively, too many horses). 

Is a purpose of monastic life a radical experiment to see what human life is really like when the distortions of our appetites and their consequences are removed?  So to take vows of poverty (no gold), chastity (no wives) and obedience (no horses) must in part be not so much simply to be disciplined about these dynamics but to be curious about what happens when they are removed?

Not ‘I’ll be responsible about the use of my wealth’ but ‘I’ll not allow the acquisition and use of money to motivate me at all’?  Not ‘I’ll be responsible about sexual morality’ but ‘I’ll not allow any sexual possibilities to influence my relating at all’?  Not ‘I’ll be responsible about the decisions I make’ but ‘I’ll not insist on making the fundamental decisions at all’?   

What Grayson Perry heard Kayleigh Khosravi say to him was that she found in her new faith an alternative to our society’s consumerism, sexualisation and loss of any meaningful sense of interdependence - allowing purchase power, sexual attraction and competition to shape us. 

The sad thing for me, of course, is that she didn’t suspect that the Christian church would be the place where she’d find this critiqued or resisted – where sacrificial generosity and the forgiveness of debts (a form of mutuality as much as a vow of poverty), marital fidelity and the honouring of each individual (a form of integrity as much as a vow of chastity), and love of neighbour and a bias towards the marginalised (a form of solidarity as much as a vow of obedience) would be normative.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Timothy Smithson's Will

I have now received a copy of the Will of Timothy Smithson, and it turns out to provide an interesting encounter with one aspect of Grimsby history.

So, first, the historical context.

In the eighteenth century, Grimsby, although it had Borough status and returned two Members of Parliament, was no bigger than a modern village and no bigger than the other tiny market towns of north-east Lindsey such as Barton and Caistor.  What soon became known as the 'Old Town' clustered around the church and the Riverhead.

At the very end of the century, two major developmental initiatives were taken to kick-start something bigger, but, in the end, neither managed to do so.

First, a dock was built along the mainly silted up Haven – today this is the portion of Alexandra Dock between the Riverhead and the A180.  The enabling Act was passed in 1796 and the first use was in 1801.  But those who financed the development, which included all the major landowners in the Wolds, did not have sufficient supplies of goods to export and proved to be naive about what the quantity of trade by others would be.

Secondly, from 1800, the common land immediately east of the new dock was parcelled up and initially leased and then sold for building development –  this ‘New Town’ occupied the land which today is between Alexandra Dock and the railway line.  The population of Grimsby doubled (to over 4000 people by 1831) but actually far fewer of the plots were developed than had been expected and many ended up being used as market gardens.

It would be more than a generation later, in the 1840s, that the development of Grimsby took off with the completion of agricultural enclosure and improvement and with the coming of the railway, but that is quite another story.

Back to Timothy Smithson’s Will, made in 1816, three years before his death.  Although he describes himself as a Farmer of Great Coates, almost all of the document deals with an extensive portfolio of property  - including ‘all my nine freehold messuages or tenements with gardens and appurtenances situate in Great Grimsby in a certain street or place called Flower Square’ (some of which were let to tenants). 

Flour Square (the contemporary spelling is twentieth century) is at what would then have been the northern end of the New Town, on the marshy coastal strip of Fitties rather than on the Common proper, and is today just north off the Lock Hill roundabout. 

Smithson allocates the nine properties in turn to his eight oldest surviving children; the daughter married to a joiner (Charles Hudson) gets a property with a joiner’s shop.  His youngest children, by his second wife Mary, were still under age, and he makes provision for Mary and these children to have income from property trusts.  His ‘dear wife’ also gets ‘my two best beds, half of my best chairs [and] also my mahogany dining and tea tables’.

Of additional interest for me are the names of the two much younger farmers (aged in 1816 39 and 44, as against Smithson’s 66) to be the trustees.  They are ‘my two good friends’  Richard Taylor of Great Coates (whose memorial and grave have featured in this Blog before) and Charles Nevill of Little Coates (about more of whom in a moment).  

There is obviously something of a community among these more substantial tenant farmers, each managing the largest businesses in the two villages; they formed part of the sort of class prosperous enough to take advantage of new investment opportunities in neighbouring Grimsby.

The earliest surviving gravestone in Little Coates churchyard is that of Charles’ grandparents(from 1781) .  His parents’ gravestone also survives nearby, and a picture from it has appeared in this Blog before.  

Charles’ sister Ann married a Joshua Chapman, and they were to be the great-grandparents of the Joseph Chapman whose fortune was made when  Grimsby’s growth and trade eventually really did take took off and whose legacy paid for the building of most of the present St Michael’s, Little Coates almost exactly a century after Smithson drew up his Will.

Saturday, 29 November 2014


We all rather dreaded the potential traducing of Grimsby by Channel 4’s Skint – and we still await Sacha Baron Cohen’s film Grimsby next year for similar reasons – but the consensus after the first episode seems to be that the town itself wasn’t set up for disparagement in quite the way we feared, indeed the opening sentences did say that areas like the one on which it focussed could be found in most apparently pleasant large towns.

But the programme wasn’t about those who try to live on the minimum levels of income.  It was simply about three individuals – it is difficult to tell, but at least one had a significant alcohol problem, at least one a drug problem and at least one a mental health problem – which made it seem more akin to the outing to see those imprisoned in Bedlam rather than a genuine attempt to understand areas of particular deprivation.

Best of all, of course, was that the positive work of the Shalom Youth Prohect was highlighted several times.  It wasn’t clear that it was the work of one of the two local Parish Churches which was being praised – although those alert might have guessed from the name and from the way that the non-clerical collar wearing spokesman (who was in fact the long-term Vicar) was introduced as ‘Canon John Ellis’.

John got his sound bite: he spoke about the need to model mature adulthood in a community in which many male role models were often immature.  For those with ears to hear, he was heard to be spot on: one of the things which both the men focussed upon had in common was the moments when they exhibited a childish wish for praise for minor acts of consideration.

We’ll have to see what next week brings.  Meanwhile, a new wood is being planted across the road from St Michael’s today.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Thy Smiles I court not

Things are going well for the Littlecoates Community Centre since we let the St Michael's-owned building to a specially created arms-length community group.  There are enough volunteers to keep on top of things like the grass.  There is increased use so rents are covering the normal bills.  And grants have just paid for this new kitchen and for new windows like this.  It all depends on a group several of whom are church members but several of whom are not.

Meanwhile, my attention has bee  drawn to this gravestone at St Nicolas' - one of the earliest surviving there.  I wonder who bothered putting the broken pieces back together when so many other such stones were lost?  And when?

I've discovered it is the grave of Timothy Smithson, whose mother may have been a Garness, and Martha Coldwell, who were married in 1778 aged 27 and 17, and that the youngest of their children was baptised the day after Martha died.  I've also discovered that Timothy's Will is in the Lincolnsire County Archive, so I've ordered a copy.  The poem was what particularly struck the person who drew my attention to it.

[To the] Memory of
[Who Depart]ed this Life
1st day of April 1819
Also of
Wife of the above: who died August the
24th 1801 – Aged 41 years.

Fare wel vain world.  I’ve had enough of thee,
And now am careless what thou say'st of me:
Thy Smiles I court not; nor thy Frowns I fear.
My Cares are past; my head lies quiet here.
What Faults thou saw’st in me take care to shun,
There’s quite (?)  enough within thee to be done. 

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Book announcement

A book of my poems (many of which have appeared here) is being published on 24th November.  The formal launch is at the new Arts Centre at the Grimsby Institute at 7.30.  Skint begins on TV at 9.00 but I hope that the quality of life in Grimsby will be better represented at my event.  The book is beautifully illustrated by Emily Connor, a student from the Institute, and proceeds from its sale will be for St Andrew's Hospice.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Parochial Welcome Home

A family has just returned to St George’s, Bradley a pair of Bibles from among those given, as the bookplate of this one indicates, to those returning to the village at the end of the Second World War. 

From among the illustrations in this particular volume I’ve picked out ‘Idolatry’ from the Old Testament and ‘The Conversion of St Paul’ from the New Testament simply because I enjoyed them. 

Of additional note is the signatures of the Churchwardens - a Tickler (the Jam Factory family, from the Manor House next door to the church) and a Dixon (the Paper Mill family, from the more modern country house called The Gairs, complete with its Gertrude Jekyll garden).

Monday, 3 November 2014

Measuring discipleship

Old ground?

It is over twenty years since I joined a newly re-shaped diocesan mission and training team, with the radical approach of it being led by a member of the Bishop’s Staff.  Bill Ind as Director found creative ways for parishes to express their knowledge and outward looking service of their communities.  John Cole, who had been a diocesan missioner, promoted Robert Warren’s developing Missionary Congregation approach (which was then published in 1996) with its emphasis on being distinctive and engaged – rooted in both faith and locality.  Joan Butterfield, who had been adult education officer, championed lay development which was not just about eventual ministerial recruitment.  I, as the new Clergy Training Adviser, sought to help clergy see new ways of working.  Together we and others shared commonplaces such as ‘pilgrim’ being a better model than ‘family’ and about building ministry around the gifts available rather than simply around the needs perceived.

Last month a newly re-shaped diocesan discipleship development team was commissioned, with a member of the Bishop’s Staff leading it, and a new Continued Ministerial Development Officer also came into post.   I attended a training day which one of them put on last week – and the paragraph above is actually a result of my playing a version of Bingo when I got home (once I’d updated the Robert Warren reference to Healthy Churches Handbook published in 2012).  I was much less disturbed by the absence of corporate memory than by reflecting on the ways what I had once taught and now attempt to practice hasn’t really made the difference in our parish which I would have innocently predicted twenty years ago.

Anyway, the new team is now ready to lead the diocese’s Year of Discipleship 2015, with a Lent Course and a new parish Discipleship Development Programme as the flagship provision, and details are being known in places such as this training event.  I would so much love it if the Lent Course bore less similarity to the sorts of material with which we have actually been seeking to energise people’s faith and commitment in most recent Lents.  I would also so much love it if the Discipleship Development Programme didn’t appear to require us to go back to the beginning of the process in which we’ve been fully involved for a while (awareness of context, Mission Statement, Parish Day, immediate goal statement, and specific limited action plan).  I would really love it if instead someone could come alongside what we are doing and help us see its strengths and weaknesses and suggest genuine creative next steps rather than take us over what may actually be the same ground again.  But I’m repeatedly told to guard against being so negative.

New ground?

There was mention of a fresh element (at least to me) in the Lent Course – something about which I’ve been thinking a lot since.  Each participant is to be asked to score (literally, on a scale 1-10) six features of his or her own discipleship.  This is to be done both at the beginning and at the end of the course - and (the new feature to me) the cumulative picture produced is to be fed back to the Church Council to give the parish a strong indication of where scores are low thus indicating which areas of preaching and resourcing need tackling next. 

The rub could, of course, be exactly how one defines the constituent features of discipleship, mature faith and thus healthy churches.  In the same way the recent list in the Church Times of the one hundred most important Christian books is both an enormous help but also provokes cries of ‘how could you have [failed to] include that one?’, I’d find it very hard to draw up my own definitive list but very easy to suggest ‘improvements’ to someone else’s (which I hope is an indication of engagement rather than simply further evidence of my terminal negativity, but who knows).

The Course’s selection, we were told, will be: the level of factual knowledge and intellectual assent to faith; the level of public and private religious practice; and the level of impact this has on one’s religious experience and on one’s lifestyle.  So that this won’t look too abstract or obscure, specific examples are given helpfully in these six areas (each followed by an ‘etc’ presumably to indicate strongly that they are simply illustrative and not definitive): knowing facts about the Bible and Christian belief; believing that Jesus walked on water; going to church services and groups; praying and reading the Bible privately; having felt the presence of God and heard him speaking to you; and having faith affect your lifestyle, spending and voting.

I’d buy engaging with the Bible, praying and having faith affect lifestyle every time.  Nevertheless, I wonder whether not being sure about biblical miracle stories, not being member of a specific church group and not feeling one hears God speak directly are such sure indications of Christian immaturity or ill health?  Might a Church Council given a steer about low scores here be tempted to take remedial action to create certainty rather than confidence, more fellowship rather than deeper faith and emotion rather than joy?  Or perhaps I simply reveal why engendering church growth is so elusive for me and it is in fact precisely the provision of robust teaching, close shepherding and exuberant worship which my tradition lacks but which is actually required.

For what it is worth, I’d have put in bids explicitly to include feeling fundamentally secure even when faced with difficulty, doubt and failure, the practice of giving and receiving forgiveness, and the whole range from loving service of neighbour to working for justice and peace – confidence which is trusting rather than certain, faith honed as much in external as in internal encounter, and joy which is discovered to have been the surprising quiet surreptitious infection of God and God’s ways.


The self-seeded ash which, especially in full leaf, obscured the view of the east end of St Nicolas’, and a branch of which may have recently been responsible for knocking the cross skew there, was felled last week.  At Matins this morning, I noticed from inside how crisp and clear the colours of the east window appear now it is not shaded from the outside (although I actually regret that I have been party to destroying an accidental phenomenon which used to entrance and feed me).  And outside the roofers had arrived to re-fix the cross - which they said to me looks like an easy task as it is held in place by a copper pipe which they may even have straightened by now.