Thursday, 29 September 2011

Saturday, 24 September 2011

A higher gift than grace

‘A higher gift than grace’ is how Blessed John Henry Newman wrote about the incarnation (he puts the words into the mouths of angels in his poem The Dream of Gerontinus). This is how we sing of it when we use the relevant section of the poem as our hymn Praise to the holiest in the height. At least, most of us do.

At the licensing of our new Area Dean last week we sang instead ‘the highest gift of grace’. I heard the two Methodist Ministers who attended the service marvelling afterwards at the confidence of those willing to ‘correct’ Newman in this way. We suspected that the Fathers of the early Councils would have gone along with Newman's indication of the primacy of the physical incarnation over subsequent human experiences of grace, and anathematised a formulation which characterised the humanity of the Lord as if it had been conferred by grace however superlative its degree.

My books shelves and the internet haven’t proved sufficient tools to trace this one backwards. I find one evangelically edited hymn book already had 'the highest gift of grace' in 1982, so the amendment is not new and may well go back much further. I’m reminded that when Elgar set the long poem in 1900 many Anglican Cathedrals wouldn’t allow it to be sung or would only allow adapted versions of the text to be sung to avoid the Roman doctrines in it including that of purgatory, but I’d be surprised if this particular amendment goes back to those adaptions.

Several internet sources suggests a fear that Newman was really on about the Eucharist, which the context shows he patently was not. Certainly I see the official hymns books of the major Free Churches (Methodist and United Reformed) are happy to print what Newman wrote. Perhaps hymns for diocesan services are sourced from on-line hymnals the theological agenda of the editors of which the diocese hasn’t quite spotted.

The picture of the Lord with Mary and Martha is from Blankney Church and is one I took on a walk while on retreat at Metheringham recently.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Strange blessings

... famished field and blackened tree
Bear flowers in Eden never known.
Blossoms of grief and charity
Bloom in these darkened fields alone.
What had Eden ever to say
Of hope and faith and pity and love...?

The other Orcadian poet was Edwin Muir (who had tutored George Mackay Brown), and I spent some of my time on Retreat with him. In the process, I rediscovered this restatement of one important feature of the endless debate about the ‘problem of suffering’; it is close to something I’ve thought it important to try to express but have always struggled to do so satisfactorily

The thought cannot be thrown around too cheaply near those most grief-striken, yet in the Queen’s message about the 9/11 attack the line was, I think, ‘grief is the price we pay for love’, and here Muir invites us in to something similar.

The poem is One foot in Eden; the other foot, of course, being in this world as it is, and the two are (as the Gospel parable suggests) totally entwined:

... strange the fields that we have planted
So long with crops of love and hate.
Time’s handiwork by time are haunted,
And nothing now can separate
The corn and tares compactly grown...
Evil and good stand thick around
In the fields of charity and sin...

The poetic invitation is to see not simply that the two cannot now be separated but that eliminating the source of one would eliminate the source of the other.  So he ends

Strange blessings never in Paradise
Fall from those beclouded skies.

The picture was taken from Broch at Midhow on Rousay.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Scattering rose petals

The Church Times is less acerbic than I am.

A questioner recently wrote:

Why are brides suddenly demanding that the bridesmaids precede rather than follow then down the aisle? Should it be allowed? Should the priest lead the bridesmaids, or follow the bridesmaids and lead the bride? I think the latter, but brides have (crossly) told me to go in front of the bridesmaids so as not to impede the congregation’s view of the dress!

Among the replies printed this week was mine:

If the questioner made so much of a fuss about his own status and place, no wonder the bride was cross. Why do we get requests for bridesmaids go first? For the same reason school balls are now called ‘proms’: this is how the Americans do it. Where should the priest be? What about waiting at the chancel step smiling and ready to tell the bride how wonderful that dress looks (even if it doesn't)?

But this is an edited version of what I actually wrote:

If the questioner made so much of a fuss about his own status and place, no wonder the bride was cross. Why do we get requests for bridesmaids go first? For the same reason school balls are now called ‘proms’ and schedule is often pronounced 'skedule': this is how the Americans do it. Where should the priest be? What about waiting at the chancel step smiling, and ready to tell the bride how wonderful that dress looks (even if it doesn't)? What about (just this once, as a penance for putting an exclamation mark after 'so as not to impede the congregation's view of the dress') walking backwards before her scattering rose petals at her feet?

The picture was taken as the Bishop and clergy emerged from Grimsby Minister after the licensing of the new Priest-in-Charge and Area Dean yesterday.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Retreat sonnet

The Drawing Room, The Old Rectory, Metheringham
now the Community of St Francis’ Chapel

From throws of prayer, it seems ripples are born
which flow through bay window, retaining wall,
and wide expanse of leaf and twig strewn lawn,
to a strong circling boundary of tall trees
rippling in the light behind them, then borne
on to hints of a field, a path peopled
by those walking dogs or else come to mourn
at graves glimpsed beyond, and the setting sun.

The play of light dis-orientates, shorn
of the long grown coat of meaning found in
facing east, weaving something to be worn
facing west: the stone has moved behind us;
we are no longer looking for the dawn
but look across the waves the moving makes.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Kali's song

We’d wasted five weeks waiting,
our feet festering in filth.

mired in mud in the middle
of Grimsby, grimly grounded.

Now, let loose, we laugh aloud
on the gulls’ moor’s mounds, mounted
on elk-back, bounding breakers,
our bow’s beak set on Bergen.

I’ve come up with this version of the earliest poem to mention Grimsby. It comes from the twelfth century Icelandic Orkneyinga Saga, the history of the Jarls of Orkney. We have been reading everything from this to the contemporary poetry of George Mackay Brown - we take our holidays that seriously! It was fun stumbling on a reference (albeit not a totally complimentary one) to our home town.

The original has what I learn are called ‘kennings’, almost crossword clues. So, instead of ‘sea’ we get something like‘the moor of the gulls’, and, instead of ‘boat’, something like ‘beaked elk’ or ‘prowed elk’. I’ve very kindly been offered part of the £163 critical edition of such poetry to check, and the author of the section has even invited me to a lecture on how to translate them in her department at Nottingham University next year.

The challenge is to have an appropriate level of alliteration without artificial diction, and the kennings without total obscurity. I’m quite pleased with it so far, but we’ll have to see what perspective the critical text and then the lecture have.

The first English version (from the nineteenth century) gave:

Unpleasantly we have been wading
in mud a weary five weeks
dirt we had plenty while we lay
in Grimsby harbour
but now on the moor of the seagulls
ride we oe’er the crest of the billows
gaily as the elk of the bowspirits
eastward plough its way to Bergen.

The Penguin Classics version is:

Five weeks we’d waded through wetness and filth,
mud wasn’t missing in the middle of Grimsby:
now our spirits are soaring as our fine ship skims,
its bow bounds, an elk of the billows, to Bergen.

The picture is pointed roughly at Bergen, but from the Brough of Deerness in Orkney.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Stuck back in

The first get together of local clergy of the new term was more reflective and mutually supportive than these ‘Chapter’ gatherings sometimes are.

A well known alcoholic man has been imprisoned for breaking the terms of an ASBO which excluded him from the town centre. He was going to the Minster which knows how to deal with him without fuss and where he has traditionally found support. I presume the trouble he has caused for town centre businesses and visitors must have been substantial enough for people to have bothered putting an ASBO in place to begin with, but nevertheless it seems strange that nobody outside the church says publically that there is something wrong with this result.

It has been St Aidan’s turn to have a shock from the five-yearly architect’s inspection we are each required to have: half of the quarter of a million expenditure recommended is regarded as urgent. I’ve highlighted the parish here before: huge century-old building opposite the football ground two thirds of which was substantially developed across several new floors for community use in the 1970s or 80s at the centre of the often neglected but needy Sidney Sussex Ward. We kicked around the contacts, community funding and lottery possibilities which might exist even today for what is the only real facility in an area which has not had as much investment of this sort as others.

St John & Stephen’s, whose substantial youth work in the most deprived East Marsh Ward I’ve also highlighted here before, gained a diary item mention in the Guardian (which I haven’t been able to trace) about whether or not it is surprising that a place which does this work like none other should attract the level of police monitoring which it appears to do. We chatted about the way there had not been local looting; the church trusts that early attention to disaffected young people is an element in the non-development of gangs, and is not surprised that those arrested elsewhere usually have prior police records given how many of the responsible older young people who help here have something like this too.

The inscription is above a door in Stromness, and we enjoyed the confidence with which the carving began and the success in finally fitting it in.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Friday, 2 September 2011