Saturday, 20 May 2017

New war grave commemoration




There is not only a new Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) sign at the entrance to St Michael’s churchyard this week but also a new gravestone within it.  We have been waiting for both to appear for quite some time.

The sign is part of a countrywide initiative to highlight where small groups of CWGC graves exist.  The new gravestone is the result of one individual’s research to identify gaps in CWGC coverage and and his campaigns to fill in the gaps.

We know that James Hornshaw, who was living in Elsenham Road at the time of his death, was buried in the churchyard but we do not know the exact location of his grave so we picked a location for his new gravestone close to another pair of CWGC stones; his is the left hand one of the three in the group photograph.

He was a steward on a trawler who was guarding bridges and pipelines in the Grimsby area at night with only reused railway platelayer huts for shelter and his final illness may well have been caused or exasperated by a severe wetting on one of those nights.

At one point the help of Grimsby’s then MP (the Ticklet of jam factory fame) was enlisted to gain some support for his wife when his death was judged not to been due to military service; a gratuity of £50 was paid to her.

He was born in Greenwich and she less than ten miles away at Sutton at Hone in Kent.  Their eldest  sons were twins born in Grimsby, a younger James who had been discharged from the army on the grounds of ill health in May 1915 and who died of tuberculosis a few months later (and who had already been buried in the churchyard) and a Charles who was to be killed in 1918 (and who is buried at Senlis in France where a major Casualty Clearing Station operated briefly).

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Expectations change


We encountered the decorator at work in what will be our new Rectory a few days ago.  He clearly does a lot of work on parsonages for the diocese of Leeds and is familiar with those who live in them.  He spoke first to Deborah who had introduced herself and expressed interest in what he was doing.  He then turned to me and said ‘And you must be the new Rector's husband?’

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Once an outlier


Not that long ago, I served on a public body which was seeking further independent members to serve on scrutiny panels.
 
One person who put himself forward already served on a police monitoring body.  He was clearly energised by his expectation that the expression of a particular public view should result in policy change by the Chief Constable. 

What, I asked, if the Chief Constable was to react by producing evidence for the panel as to why the grass-roots view was understandable but in fact likely to be misguided?  I’m there to express the view of the public, he insisted, and I’d expect police policy to respond to that.

At the time, I thought the position he took to be incomprehensible.  I didn’t understand how the others seeking to recruit new members of our scrutiny panels didn’t automatically rule him out of consideration on the spot.

A few years later now, I can see that this was my first encounter with a world then alien to me but into which we have since moved.  With hindsight it is clear that he was the future and I was the past.  What I thought was a strange outlier was in fact the first wetting of a turned tide.

His common sense was no longer to be patronised by my sophistry.  The opinions he found widely shared were no longer to be ignored, let alone be in danger of being lumped together with those judged as bigoted or prejudiced. 

Pretence at expertise was quickly to become derided as the misguided habits of a discredited liberal elite in a self deluded politically correct bubble – now a mainstream rather than extreme position.

A commentator on Radio 4's Start the Week on 15th May summed the shift up as one in which the test is now 'emotional resonance not verification' and spoke of 'arguments which reinforce what you feel rather than seeking clarity by claim and counter claim'.  [Paragraph added 16th May]

Party political strategists have, of course, been on to this long before the shape of the new world became clear to the likes of me.  For many years, much election and referendum campaigning has been targeted on relating to popular perception rather than seeking to engage in extended reasoning.
 
Being that as it is, I’ve set myself a small task to think about what the implications of this are for the church.  I’ve hardly got anywhere yet, but one parallel must be the way the holders of both fundamentalist and secular certainties are clear they will not be patronised any longer either.

Meanwhile, among the many things I’ve suddenly begun to get round to doing, I have this week reattached Jackie Davis' plaque to the memorial cross on his grave - eight years after I promised myself I’d do it.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Knowing how to die


As I prepare to move in 2017 to what I assume will be the last parishes in which I’ll serve, I’ve been thinking of the first one in which I did so; I completed my 'training curacy' there in 1988.

The Parish of Caversham and Mapledudham (as it was then configured) was mainly in Reading and partly in rural south Oxfordshire.  In each of the last two weeks the Church Times has carried an obituary of one of the parishioners of the time.

Ted Boulding was a frail retired Reader in the mid-1980s, and I only saw his daughter Rachel fleetingly as she passed through when at home from University from time to time.  A dozen years later we shared Caversham memories in the refectory at the University of York when I was a member of General Synod and she helping produce the new Common Worship publications.  A similar time later I submitted an article to the Church Times and it was she who edited and placed it.  Among things published herself have been recent level headed and faithful reflection for the Bible Reading Fellowship on her own approaching early death from cancer.

John Madeley was a vigorous active Reader at the same time, but his primary vocation was as a journalist and writer on things like fair trade and international agricultural development.  The obituary quotes him from the 1970s writing ‘a church which ties up its best people in its own internal affairs deserves all that is coming to it’.  He remained in Caversham and my encounters with him since leaving there have all been in newspapers and on the radio as he continued to publish and broadcast, living into his 80s.

Rachel’s obituary says that a padded envelope arrived at the Church Times a few days before she died containing an individually written card for every member of staff.  John’s says that his cardboard coffin was taken out of St Peter’s, Caversham at the end of his funeral as the congregation sang the Taize chorus ‘Bless the Lord, my soul, and bless God’s holy name – bless the Lord, my soul, who leads me into life’.  So it turns out the parishioners from the parish in which I completed my training are still teaching me both how to live and how to die thirty years after being there.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Two Thomases



It is hardly original or ground-breaking to notice that Thomas didn’t touch the wounds of the risen Lord, or at least that we are not told that he did so.
 
It is frequently noted that John tell us Thomas says he will only believe if he is able to do so, that John tells us the risen Lord invites him to do so, but that John never tells us that Thomas actually does so.  Thomas encounters the risen Lord and says ‘My Lord and my God’ – that is it.

So I’ve been reminding myself, our Annual Parochial Church Meeting and others that any encounter with the risen Lord, any genuine encounter with God, is likely to result in a complete revision of what we previously judged, or simply assumed, are our criteria for faith.

Which may, of course, be one reason that intellectual arguments (between atheist and Christian, inter-faith and intra-faith) prove unproductive most of the time.  

And, while it is important to notice that, it may be more important to notice that the task of the church is to be places of effective encounter with God rather than instruments of persuasion.

I see that I haven’t quoted R S Thomas’ The Answer since 2009 (‘the one I value above almost all’) and 2011 (‘a poem I revisit more often than almost any other’) which says almost this with its

... the old questions lie
folded and in a place
by themselves, like the folded
graveclothes of love’s risen body.

The pictures are just one feature from my recent but only visit to Hull as this year's City of Culture.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

A Bronte grave




We attended a wedding in Scarborough yesterday.  An older couple, both previously widowed, were married at St Mary’s, up by the Castle.  One of her children spoke at the reception afterwards about the way he knew the couple were serious when he saw them giggling together like teenagers.  He said he’d always imagined eventually ‘giving away’ his own teenage daughters and giving a speech at their weddings, but he’d never imagined he would do so for his mother.  All very special.

We are preparing to move to the parish where Patrick Bronte was once the incumbent, and where he is buried alongside his daughters Charlotte and Emily and most of their family.  It was, therefore, also a lovely coincidence to be able to visit the grave of Anne Bronte, the one sister not buried at St Michael’s, Haworth but instead buried at St Mary’, Scarborough.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Losing away


Cheltenham Town doesn't keep its pitch in very good condition (this mud bath is a goal mouth) but did play unexpectedly well on Bank Holiday Monday (so we saw them put two balls in this net before Grimsby Town finally but impressively got one in it in return).

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Philippians 2.5-11


Much taken this Holy Week with the link which Paul places at the beginning of the (existing?) hymn ‘Christ Jesus was in the form of God’, the epistle for Palm Sunday, the canticle for Evensong in Passiontide.

The link with this hymn about the total self-emptying of God-in-Christ is ‘let the same mind be in you as was in Christ Jesus’. 

So, if we are made in the image of God, then we are most so when not clinging onto anything, least of all status, power or prestige; all the self fulfilment aspirations, goals and norms promoted around us are fundamentally misconceived.

It turns out the aim is not to be filled or full at all, however much this pagan hope is integrated into my own instincts as well as anyone else's.

Paul is, of course, writing from prison and from within the possibility of condemnation to death.  This is what he talks about all the way through the first chapter of his letter to the Philippians leading up to this.  And he says it doesn’t matter, it is where we are meant to be.

It is from there (I’m equally taken with the ‘therefore’ in ‘therefore God has highly exalted him’) that we see that ‘crimson cresseted east’, a hint of which was even seen through our back window last week.

Friday, 7 April 2017

More than East Sheen





To London yesterday to see the next of the series of training Curates here being put into his or her first incumbency.  To take a coach to this one would have meant supporters not returning until 3.00 a.m., nevertheless half a dozen members of St Michael's made it to All Saints', East Sheen under their own steam to pray alongside Alex Barrow at his licensing and stay in different places locally overnight.

Among many significant things about the church (top), is being just seven miles east of Heathrow (second picture), and being the church in which Suzy Lamplugh was baptised and sung in the choir (the next picture, snatched as the clergy procession entered the church, is of a lovely resurrection window which is in her memory).

We went to the National Gallery this morning (the bottom picture is taken from our lunch table and gives both the banner promoting the exhibition we saw - the picture is of newly pregnant Mary being greeted by her cousin Elizabeth - and the new sculpture on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square) and were home in time to see Deborah's nephew play a significant part in his team winning the final of Only Connect to complete a memorable forty-eight hours.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Easter earthquake zone



In 1185, the year before St Hugh became Bishop of Lincoln, the cathedral, founded by the Conqueror a century earlier, collapsed.  The collapse was said to have been caused by an earthquake, although I’d always thought, in what appears to be a part of the world free from major earthquakes, that this might be a story to cover faulty construction. 

It appears to have been a bit of both.  The Market Rasen earthquake in 2008 (through which I slept, but which woke many and caused some minor damage) was at 5.2 on the Richter Scale, which is about the estimated size of the Lincoln earthquake and which is certainly strong enough to have brought down a vast but vulnerable building.

The Market Rasen earthquake alerted me to the fact that I do live in an earthquake zone – just like everyone else on earth.  It is simply the fact that it is only specialist equipment which detects most of them.  There were earthquakes at 1.5 and 1.7 on the Richter Scale beneath Caistor on 17th February and beneath Horncastle on 4th March, each at about nine miles depth (for which compare the less than one mile depth of most oil and gas well drilling).

I feel an Easter sermon coming on.  Matthew records an earthquake at the time of the resurrection.  Biblical literalists will trust that this Gospel preserves memory of an actual historical earthquake somehow omitted by the other three Gospels.  Biblical liberals will suspect that the record is symbolic – all the apparent solid ground of our previous assumptions about the finality of death and about much else suddenly shifts.

But it is the discovery that we all live in a zone of frequent but rarely detected earthquakes which intrigues me as this Easter approaches.  Beneath everything assumed and dull, solid and stable, God is moving in ways rarely observed by those of us on the surface.  

I'll approach this "Easter" not just a noun which describe the one fundamental moment.  I'll approach it as a consequential verb to describe the risen Lord’s continued movement deep within us: “let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east”.

The pictures of materials and of work under way in St Nicolas’were taken there on Tuesday.  We were there to negotiate the final timetable for having the church cleaned and ready to hand back to us ahead of a wedding rehearsal in a month’s time and our beginning services there again in May.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Where I am going


Here is an early morning view across Haworth which we took on a walk ahead of my interview there at the beginning of the month; my appointment as Rector of the benefice which covers three villages along the Worth valley (Cross Roads, Haworth and Stanbury) was announced this morning.

The tower of Haworth Parish Church is just visible against the wood on the horizon on the extreme left of the picture.  It thinks it might be the most visited village church in the country, and its members seem to rise to the challenge of creative ministry to the tens of thousands who come through its door each year, a ministry based only on the resources of a village church.

If you carried on along the ridge out of the picture to the left you would come after just over a mile to the small village of Stanbury on the edge of the moor.  Here there is a growing congregation whose small building is increasingly used for village activities; its view from its vestry window must be one of the best vestry views in the country.

The chimney towards the right of the picture reminds everyone that these were once mill villages (and there are actually many more back-to-back houses surviving here than in Grimsby).  If you followed the road it stands on out of the picture to the right it would quickly meet the road on which I stood to take this picture and the village of Crossroads where St James' Church is fully stuck into all sorts of community outreach activities.

Steam trains run along the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway in the valley in front of the picture and the River Worth flows through the valley in the middle distance.  Central to the picture and unduly prominent from this angle is the white house and garage of the present Rectory.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

A distraction


I’ve simply been enjoying playing with at least a dozen uses of the word ‘tract’ this week.

It turns out to be one of those very physical words which dominate most of our figures of speech (in much the same way that the words ‘dominate’ and ‘figures’ function there) but we don’t notice this because the word is Latin.

It is part of the Latin word ‘trahere’, which is ‘to draw’ in the sense of ‘to pull’.

So to at-tract is to draw something towards you.

While, to dis-tract is draw something away.

To re-tract is to take something back – and this is one of those wonderful cases where modern English has two almost identical words, one with Latin roots (re-tract) and one with Anglo-Saxon roots (with-draw).

A con-tract draws people together.

To ex-tract and an ex-tract are about pulling something out.

As is sub-tract in the sense of taking something away - and 'taking away' is the exact Anglo-Saxon equivalent.

While abs-tract can be used like ex-tract and like sub-tract in the sense of pulled out or taken away, but can also be used marvellously as a physical image for all that is non-physical in the sense of what is non-pullable.

I particularly like in-tract-able, which is also something you can’t move.

Best of all, it seems to me, is something pro-tract-ed, which is to be long drawn out - and 'long drawn out' is not only the Anglo-Saxon equivalent here but also gives rise to the identical Latin / Anglo-Saxon hybrid word pro-long-ed.

Your digestive tract is also long drawn out.

And (although this is the least obvious) so is a tract of land.

A written tract appears to be something which draws out the implications of a proposition.

And a machine which pulls things along is either a tract-ion engine or, more simply, a tract-or.

Meanwhile, the picture is a wasp nest found in the roof space at St Nicolas’ during building work; we knew from periodic invasions of the church that there must be something there and are glad it has now been removed.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Resting on a mess


There is at the back of my mind a half-remembered sense that the story of the call of Abram goes something like this:

Abram lived with his father in the long-term family home at Ur, near the Persian Gulf, where they worshipped God in their own lights.  God called him to leave all this behind, travel to Canaan to establish a new family, a family with the unique characteristics that it was chosen by God, that it worshipped God as he really is, and that its members would flourish together.

But a closer reading of the passage from the Hebrew Bible set for the Sunday Eucharist yesterday (and of the verses which precede it and of the way the story runs on after it) reveals a different story:

Abram’s father Terah had already set out with his family for Canaan and had travelled all the way up the Euphrates (the green corridor which was the only practical trading route for such a journey), getting perhaps 60% of the way there, when, for some reason, he settled down instead at Harran (in a region we know well in our prayers today being about 100 miles from modern Aleppo in Syria and about 250 miles from modern Mosul in Iraq), and he eventually died there.

God then called Abram to get un-stuck from his late father’s new home and complete the journey to ‘a country I will show you’ and about which God will soon say ‘I am giving this land to your descendants’.  But when he moves through the land he finds a famine, so he passes through it to Egypt (exactly the process familiar to us from the story of his grandson and great-grandson Jacob and Joseph) - where he almost seems to pimp his wife to secure his own safety and establishes his own fortune in the fertile Nile corridor (quite like the original family home at Ur). 

When he finally returns to Canaan it turns out to be a place for his family to struggle together.  First they quarrel, then they find they can only live peaceable with each other by living separate parallel lives, and then they are engulfed in war with others - before too long Abram is pursuing enemies half way back to Harran.

My half-remembered version of the story is compatible with the genuine testimony of many:

they lived in pagan disbelief and debauchery, had a single moment of clarity and a call from God, and have lived since in a reformed and Godly way.

The closer reading, however, is more compatible with a different story and testimony.

I am on a journey to where God wants me to be, intending to leave behind the beliefs, habits and values of my home community.  

But I can get comfortable and stuck on the way and can easily recreate a fresh version of the place and life I began to leave behind.  

Even when God gives me another shove, I find the place where he wants me to be sometimes barren and often conflict-ridden.  

So, put under any particular pressure, I can easily revert even to old moral choices of which I ought to be ashamed.

And, put alongside others on the same journey, I can find it much easier to live a separate stream from them rather than to pursue a struggle together.

As an individual, there is some comfort in recognising how simply Abram-shaped a faltering Christian journey can still be; it is as if it is almost our foundational pattern.

As a member of a church which says things about ‘mutual flourishing’ but which doesn’t demonstrate a willingness to engage in the mutual struggling of 'good disagreement' this is also an important message – perhaps a subject for a subsequent post.

And alongside all of this, there is a further detail which people do often notice when engaged in a close reading of the few verses set for yesterday.  When we get some of this right, it isn’t meant to be for my benefit or the benefit of my own people at all.  It is to be blessing on others - ‘so that you will be a blessing... and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’.  Perhaps that is also worth a subsequent post in itself.

Meanwhile, we now know that the building work at St Nicolas’ is going to take a couple of weeks longer than first anticipated, so our ambition for the congregation to be back there in time for Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Easter is going to be disappointed.

The picture shows the mess on which the main beam running east-west (on to which the south aisle's roof beams rest) turns out to be sitting upon - the wood on the left is probably an earlier roof beam reused and the brick work to its right is probably the bottom part of what we know was the Victorian bricking up of an earlier clerestory window.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Great Coates progress



The village War Memorial has finally found a permanent home, and one at child eye-level.  The fraught saga over several years hasn't helped anyone much, but it is good that it is visible to the public again and that its new home is a building in which some of those commemorated on it were educated.

Meanwhile, round the corner at St Nicolas', work is well under way on the south aisle, although it looks as if our ambitions to be back in the building for Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Easter is in doubt now that the roofers have discovered how extensive the work is which they need to do.  A small bonus is that they have found and removed the wasps nest in the roof space which has given us problems over the last few years.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Following the cross





The top two photographs were taken inside St Nicolas' earlier in the week: work has begun sheeting off and protecting the fabric ahead of the building work which will take place during March.

The bottom two pictures were taken inside St Michael's this morning: St Michael's has put away its own processional cross for Lent and replaced it with the one from St Nicolas' ready to welcome both congregations worshipping together for a few weeks until the building work at St Nicolas' is completed.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

It matters enough


There were two by-elections last week.  The weather was foul.  So was the political climate. In their different ways, these two factors must have contributed to the result which came out like this:

Registered to vote but didn't do so: about 66 000.
Voted Labour: about 19 500, and they got a new MP as a result.
Voted Conservative: about 19 000, and they got a new MP as a result.
Voted for someone else: about 14 000.

Commentators have focused on the way the votes fell.  Labour should have done better than this since the by elections were in areas traditionally more supportive of it.  The Lib Dems and UKIP don’t look like significant players any longer if they can’t emerge from the pack at by-elections.  And so on.

But where is the commentary which focused on the majority who didn’t vote?

There has always been a perhaps unhealthy percentage who don’t, from about 20% at General Elections in the 1950s to about 40% more recently.  But more than half the registered voters?  Seriously?  Imagine how different either result might have been if just 10% more had been tempted out in the rain.

Perhaps those who have been most energised to campaign or vote by the prospect of the sorts of changes which ‘take control’, ‘keep immigrants out’ and ‘create a smaller state’ don’t see anything they are lacking. 

Perhaps those who have been energised by the old liberal consensus see a House of Commons in which a majority believe we are on a destructive path but vote for it anyway so don’t see much point in electing more of them.

Most of which aside, this makes me wonder whether this relates to my recent posts about Prof Linda Woodhead’s anlaysis of the ‘rise of the nones’ (that is, those who describe themselves as being of ‘no religion’ rather than, for example, atheist, Christian or Moslem)?  Perhaps non-identification and non-participation is quite as much a societal issue as one of faith?

Meanwhile, there was a real buzz in St Michael’s yesterday at the Traidcraft Big Brew event for Fair Trade Fortnight.  Four families involved in our Youth Group and ‘Last Saturday Thing’ worship took the lead.  Two newly attending families were also there getting to know people.  One of our regional MEPs (on the left in the picture) dropped in.  Over £200 was raised.

Linda McAvan chairs the European Parliament’s Fair Trade Group and has achieved its agreement that Fair Trade tea and coffee are automatically served in the Parliament building and changes to procurement laws so that public bodies can specify Fair Trade produce in their tenders.

Perhaps it is this patient low grade work to which both politicians and church are called – ‘there can only be speaking and acting authentic possibilities... our picking up that many people think we are onto something when we explore forgiveness (may) be one hint; the chord struck by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s focus on Wonga may be another significant example...’ and sticking to our guns about fairness may simply be another (however high the percentage of those who are simply not interested enough even to be hostile).

Friday, 24 February 2017

Excellence


My wife only has an occasional walk on part in this Blog (I've noted before that this is normally on the edge of a photograph, either to provide scale or because she hadn't moved over quite far enough to keep our of shot) but this week City & Guilds announced the Medal for Excellence for each of their 2015/16 courses and Deborah (who is an artist in textiles) is one of those medallists - so all this post needs is Proverbs 31.28,29 and a picture such as this one which was taken in our kitchen this morning and is of the latest batch of threads which she has dyed.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Gifts we don't want


Some of the things which made Birmingham an important place in which to train for ordination in the middle of the 1980s have been coming back to me. 

The Bishop of Lincoln happened to ask me about it at breakfast earlier in the month and we named both Prof John Hull and Prof Frances Young in the conversation. 

And then the beautiful film Notes on Blindness was broadcast on BBC 4 this week – a film based on the notes which John Hull was making at the time as he explored the process of his going blind – and I was back in the midst of those conversations thirty years ago.

The film brought him to the place in which an overwhelming experience of grace gave him a sense of God placing a dark cloak over him – so that he had to own his blindness as a gift (albeit one he did not want) and the only question was then what he would do with it.

At the same time Frances Young, then a newly ordained Methodist Minister, was articulating her response to her son Arthur’s severe disabilities using what I take to be the same ‘theological method’.

But neither John Hull’s blindness nor Frances Young’s son’s disability were simply ‘raw material’ for ‘theological reflection’ but rather the realities integral to their lives, the lenses through which they read scripture, the questions with which they interrogated tradition, the filter through which they sifted other Christians' explorations and experience.

It strikes me belatedly that my own ministerial formation alongside these sorts of reflections explains why I find those who have a ‘problem with suffering’ so puzzling - when they made me want every such encounter to be the starting point which strips away previously easy answers and casual assumptions and takes me somewhere new.

So facing the realities of dispossesionbereavement, dementiasecular assumptions (thanks to Stephen Pattison, another of my Birmingham teachers of the time) and of stillbirth are examples of the places where faith can be refined and therefore renewed and validated rather than undermined and abandoned.

And just perhaps the Church of England is at such a moment with the gifts of both the experience of those who wish to own the reality of their same-sex marriages before God and of the painful division this has provoked.

It has brought our Archbishop this week to focus anew for those of whichever very different views of these realities:

No person is a problem, or an issue.  People are made in the image of God.  All of us, without exception, are loved and called in Christ.  There are no ‘problems’, there are simply people...  we need a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church... this must be... based on good, healthy, flourishing relationships, and in a proper 21st century understanding of being human and of being sexual... The way forward needs to be about love, joy and celebration of our humanity; of our creation in the image of God, of our belonging to Christ - all of us, without exception, without exclusion.

It brings me back to my reading of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 - returning from what would have been a marginalising experience at the temple in Jerusalem and full of urgent questions about his reading of Isaiah 53.

I’m certain it is not just or even chiefly a story of an intellectual question (‘who is Isaiah speaking about?’) receiving a satisfactory academic answer (‘this is how we understand the ministry of Jesus’) and thus provoking a religious response (‘what then prevents me from being baptised?’).

It is a story of a painful reality (of emasculation and religious exclusion) encountering Gospel possibilities (‘don’t let the eunuch say I’m just a dry tree’ comes in the same part of Isaiah) which opens up new life itself (‘and he went on his way rejoicing’).

The picture was taken in St Nicolas’, Great Coates after the children had left last week.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

How you look at it



I’ve been as touched as much as others by the story of the antique lace wedding dress of her great, great grandmother’s which a recent bride rediscovered and wore at her own wedding and then thought she had lost when a dry cleaner firm went out of business.  It was identified in a heap in the abandoned shop, easily mistaken for a pile of discarded lace.  I’m briefly thinking of swathes of the Christian tradition as being that dress.

The essays in the catalogue of the Jerusalem exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art included a quotation read out to me yesterday: “It is in the same [Crusader] period that Islamic scholars increasingly began to interpret Qur’anic discussions of jihad, or struggle, to embrace the concept of fighting as a religious duty, rather than an inner struggle of a defence of a community.”

Members of a large school group in St Nicolas’ today were tasked with drawing things in the church which were symbolic of faith, and were directed in particular towards the font, the stained glass and so on.  I suggested that a tin of carrots was symbolic of the faith of the person who had bought it as an extra item when shopping to place in the Food Bank collecting box when coming to church on Sunday.  I checked at the end: four of them had drawn the tin.

Meanwhile, a Duke of Edinburgh Award group have returned yet again to St Nicolas' to work at the western edge of the churchyard extension on which for many years has been dumped surplus earth from digging graves and general rubbish.  There will be room for at least an additional fifteen burials when they have done, quite apart from the back rows of graves being in a more seemly setting which is something I'd promised some of the next-of-kin a very long time ago.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Investing in eternity


I’ve been thinking about how a cult and a mainstream church might both use the same theology.

It is a side effect of the three Bishops in this diocese processing all the clergy through a series of breakfast meetings for the first time: I set off for Lincoln at 6.45 a.m. one morning this week to be at Edward King House in times for shared Matins, an impressive cooked breakfast, and a hour and a half seminar about promoting financial stewardship in our parishes.

I suspect that twenty-five years ago such seminars (at whatever time of day!) would have begun by exercises enabling participants to express the theology they use or value when doing this and what they find difficult.  Things have moved on, and this time more than 80% of the time was taken by Bishops’ talks.

The talks centred on a theology often worried away at in posts on this Blog: the total self-giving of God-in-Christ and the absolute call for a sacrificial response to this.

My only contribution was to suggest that we need to be exploring and living the implications of this all the time and then seeking to apply it in different circumstances. 

It is one thing to preach it regularly and to apply it frequently enough in different circumstances.  In this case, it would simply be a mainstream activity to ask from time to time the discipleship question ‘how does this relate to our financial giving to those in need and to the church?’.

It is quite another thing to be seen to practice it rarely (for the avoidance of doubt, it is myself I’m typing about here as much as anyone else) but to produce it suddenly to encourage a good response to our appeal to fund the ministry and mission of the church.  In this case, it could look like the manipulative behaviour of a cult.

To present a congregation with theological guidelines the final question of which is ‘how much do you want to invest in eternity?’ (which is what the one example of apparently good parish practice presented to us did ) might be judged to have strayed too far in the cult direction.

The Church of England has just published Setting God’s People Free, one of the reports on lay discipleship which come round at intervals.  It reminds us yet again that there is a need for a real culture change (this is the report's main point and language) to value normal people’s everyday life as the primary place for their discipleship and to focus on equipping them for this rather than to identify and value chiefly their contribution to the life of the church.

At one point, it asks:

How are Christians who are not in specialist ecclesial roles within the Church (such as Readers) equipped to integrate their regular patterns of Sunday (and weekday) worship, personal devotion, Bible reading and other practices of faith with the demands of family life, finances, personal relationships, politics, media and consumerism? 

This is one of only two points at which it mentions the word 'finance'.  I’ve just had another quick search and found the report does also contain three references to money: an example of the release of capital for mission activities through the sale of surplus Vicarages; praise for initiatives to train people as debt councillors and money coaches; and the sharp claim that ‘some laypeople at times feel little better than pew fodder whose task is no more than to give money, receive teaching, sing nicely and comply meekly’.

There is an obvious irony that the first recent systematic attempt to gather all the clergy for briefings and encouragement should address the issue of promoting stewardship to finance the ministry and mission of the church just at the time that the issue is again raised of promoting a culture change in what we count as lay discipleship in life beyond the ministry and mission of the church, but I’m not sure it would really be that hard for a mainstream church to hold the two together.

Its statements and training would include the report's recognition and encouragement of the careful weighing of the difficult balance all of us face with the resources of time and money we can expend on ourselves, our families, our neighbours, charities and (of course) the ministry and mission of the church.  Perhaps it would begin with a celebration of the sometimes sacrificial generosity which does often flavour many people’s community and family lives.

Meanwhile, here is another quite different picture of St Michael’s, one which shows the whole of the 1915 chancel screen (the gallery of which was lost in the 1970s and the body of which was moved at the beginning of this century).  I think they sang ‘Praise my soul the King of heaven’ and ‘Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us’.

Revised 10th February

Sunday, 5 February 2017

A rhyme for 'God'


This week, I’ve found Bono writing of a new book by Richard Rohr:

Humanity is a perfect rhyme for what Christianity, trying to express the inexpressible, calls the holy trinity.

And Marilynne Robinson quoted in The Tablet:

I tend to think of all language as necessarily inexact when it is used to describe things beyond the experiential world – or, better, as free from the narrowness of meaning this-worldy understanding implies of it.

So I’ve returned to a little story I tell often.  In fact, I’m a little surprised to search back over eight and half years of blogging here to find that I’ve not posted it before. 

One of my brothers began an A-level science course forty years ago.  The school teacher welcomed the students.  He said how good it was to have so many who had done well at O-level wanting to study further.  He added that it would be fun to teach them without having all those who were not keen on the subject clogging up the class as well.

He then gave them a warning.  “If you are going to do well at A-level,” he said, “you need to know that a lot of what we taught you at O-level isn’t actually true.”

It links firmly in my mind with a quotation from Archbishop Anthony Bloom which I have posted before:

The little we know of God makes it difficult to learn more, because the more cannot be added to the little, since every meeting brings such a change of perspective that what was known before becomes almost untrue in the light of what we know later. 

You’d get stuck doing A-level science if the only model of an atom in your mind was one of a mini-solar system probably imagined with ping pong balls.  You’d get stuck growing in knowledge of God if the only model in your mind was the children’s hymn ‘All things bright and beautiful’ probably imagined as a powerful white bearded deity in the sky.

More profoundly, science traces back the origins of our expanding universe to a point 13 or 14 billion years ago when everything was one tiny point.  It warns us that this can’t be envisaged as a particular point in otherwise vacant space or to a particular time after an eternity of waiting: both space and time have their origins at this point as well.

So it is not possible to talk of ‘before’ or ‘outside’ or ‘causing’ this point simply because such language doesn’t make sense without space and time – which is as clear an illustration as I can imagine of the sort of ‘change in perspective’ and view of God ‘which becomes almost untrue’ of which Bloom writes.

I see that the earlier post acknowledges this and suggests a way through this, a way which does also have a Trinitarian shape:

Our instinct and hypothesis remains that it is meaningful to use this word God about what sometimes seems to meet us in these flawed places and sometimes seems to call, draw and take us beyond them.  Our instinct and hypothesis remains that in Jesus of Nazareth we can see most clearly what God would look like when expressed within the time and space beyond which we cannot conceive. Our instinct and our hypothesis is that what we encounter in creativity, love and communication are also echoes within time and space of the life of the God who draws us and who we see in Jesus.

I do quite like ‘rhyme’ as an alternative to ‘echo’.

The picture is another one of St Michael’s which I’ve found recently, this time without being able to pin down any copyright possibilities.  It dates from the 1950s – the main road outside the church had already been straightened but housing had not yet encroached on its splendid but still slightly surprising isolation.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Taking the strain


I was asked recently to prepare something brief for a group thinking about ordained ministry expounding the Gospel passage which ends ‘the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath’, which took me unexpectedly back to my poem Pointing which I read for them, and it then came out like this:

Blocks of stone (such as those which you find in the walls of churches) will expand and contract with sun and frost, which is why the mortar between them will crack and eventually fall out, so that the wall then requires re-pointing. 

Occasionally someone is so frustrated with the time and cost involved in re-pointing that the person has what they think is the bright idea of using more robust material; sometimes it is even concrete.
 
But as soon as the pointing is stronger than the stone, it is the stone and not the pointing which takes the stress, and it is the stone which cracks and flakes away: the pointing is no longer a sort of safety valve to protect the stone but a sort of vice which will not give to relieve any pressure.

There are church walls where strong and robust pointing now stands proud of the wall and the stone within it is damaged and hollowed out.

It strikes me that the poem and that image might provide a helpful tool as we try to think how to apply the last and most famous words from that Gospel passage: Sabbath was made as a gift for us; we were not made to be held in check by Sabbath.

Looking back at the commandment we know Sabbath is to be holy, to be without work, and (the bit to which attention is paid least) to be where we are not a burden on others: to sanctify, rest and let up.

As the slabs of our lives expand and contract under it strains and pressures, they cannot be laid endlessly one on top of the other; we all know that they need to be next to more friable, Godly, free and non-assertive material.

But as soon as this is ‘stronger than the life it frames’ it is in danger of being the burden itself.  

I had the classic illustration of that again only a couple of month ago when someone was telling me about his pre-War childhood in rural Aberdeenshire and not being allowed to read his aircraft magazines at his grandparents’ home on a Sunday, something which still seemed to shape his relationship with the church all these years later.

As you think about ministry, you will be aware of clergy whose ministry is damaged by not giving enough time to what sanctifies, rests and lets up: they don’t pray enough, don’t take the time off they should, don’t see how their incessant demands can be a burden on others.

But I think Jesus’ words, the poem and the image of ‘the wrong sort of pointing’ identifies an opposite danger. 

In the last few weeks I’ve come across one situation in which a Churchwarden of a newly vacant parish told me that she had never been inside the new Vicarage built for the last incumbent, and another situation in which a group of Funeral Directors expressed extreme frustration at how difficult it is to get a prompt response when trying make arrangements with a few clergy. 

It is almost as if it is the strength of the protection which has been built around their ministry is in fact the thing which is damaging and hollowing it out.

Yesterday, a charity which works at issues of work-life balance published a report which achieved its desired headlines about just how many young fathers wanted more time with their children.  

Even a brief look at the actual report reveals that the issue for most of them was not about doing less work but about being able to be more flexible about the work they did do.

My prayer is that their and our pressures receive the gift of the Sabbath’s ability to take the strain.

The shape of the lens which took this picture of St Michael’s old Chancel (now its Lady Chapel) captures marvellously the way the layout of furniture is designed so that those who pray there gather around the lectern and altar.  

It isn’t one of mine but one I’ve just discovered on the Geograph website (an attempt to illustrate every square of the map) and was taken by John Blakeston.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Driven wild


The diocese is abandoning its practice of sending its daily cycle of prayer to clergy (the expectation is that they will either download it or specifically request a paper copy) so I imagine it will become much less used (unless, I suppose, the shift to clergy saying Matins from texts on their smart phones becomes normative).

This morning, the less gracious part of me didn’t think this would be a great loss.  The request is to pray today for:   

HMP Lincoln, IRC Morton Hall and HMP North Sea Camp.  We pray for the governors and all staff in each location.  Pray for the multi-faith chaplaincy teams and volunteers, as they continue to learn to work together in building hope and in showing people the difference that faith can make in their lives.

I’m sure the staff and chaplaincy provision are well worth praying for, and that building hope and showing people what faith can do are always good things.  I’m just gobsmacked that the compilers of the cycle of prayer don’t think that those detained are worth identifying (other than, by implication, as the passive subjects of ministry and evangelism).  

For the avoidance of doubt, IRC Morton Hall is an Immigration Removal Centre, so its appearance in the middle of a list of prisons is, at the very least, a striking mis-characterisation.

A young Polish man with mental health problems killed himself there ten days ago having been refused bail, the second such death there in a short period of time.  There are all sorts of prayers which could be offered, perhaps 'please God, turn the hearts of those in government so that fewer vulnerable people die as a result of their policies' would be among the most appropriate.

This sort of thing isn’t unique.  I remember once being invited to a meeting to ‘pray for Grimsby’ at an independent church in this parish.  At one point we were told of a church which was hosting a new group for the families of those who are drug dependant.  Prayers were then offered that this would be an effective form of witness.  No prayer was offered for the drug dependant or for their families.

I have no new photograph, so have unearthed this old one of mine from the churchyard at Northchurch in Hertfordshire.  Peter was found in a German forest in the eighteenth century and brought to England by the Queen.  

His lack of speech was attributed to his having grown up in wild isolation.  Today we suspect that he has a genetic disorder (his portrait shows some of the facial features of one the symptoms of which include lack of speech) and is much more likely to have been abandoned not that long before he was found.  He lived (on a royal pension) to be an old man.

Revised 26th January

Sunday, 15 January 2017

St Michael's stove pipe



The top picture is Claude Natte’s 1795 picture of St Michael’s, part of an extensive collection of drawings of Lincolnshire churches in particular commissioned by Sir Joseph Banks and completed in a few years.  I don’t think I’ve posted it before, although I have posted his picture of St Nicolas'.

The bottom picture has kindly just been sent to me by the local person who bought it on eBay, where I find at least two other local people who take an interest in such things have also seen it; it is a good thing that the four of us were not bidding against each other.

The photograph shows what a really good quality drawing it was.  For example, the squared gable end drawn in 1795 is exactly as photographed here, and a close look at the building today shows that what is now a pointed top stone is weathered and lichen covered in such a way as to show it is indeed more recent.

It can be dated to 1911 or 1912, give or take a few months, because the inscription on the east face of the white monument is clearly there and this commemorates someone who died in 1910, but by 1913 building work would have begun to remodel and substantially extend the church.

The stove pipe is a particularly striking feature and the stove is shown in the relevant position in a diagram of the layout of the church as it was when work began in 1913, but even slightly earlier pictures (including a painting in church said to date 1890) gives a different chimney on the north side of the chancel instead.

The eastern of the two south windows did not match the western of the two in 1795 but had been replaced by a replica which does by 1911-12 (and again it is clear when you look on the ground that the stonework of the eastern of the two is less worn and thus more modern).

The east window of the south aisle has been blocked up since 1795, something I’ve never seen before as this corner has a big bush in it in the painting and in other photos I have; this was clearly unblocked either in 1913-15 or later because there is a Gothic style window there now.

The east window of the chancel in 1795 had been replaced by a larger Gothic style window by the time of the 1890 painting and this later photograph (and it is clear inside the building that a mediaeval beam had to be cut to make room for  this window of greater height).  I can’t see whether the window has stained glass in it or not but I presume it does as this was unveiled in October 1910.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

The rise of the nones 2


Three further thoughts growing from puzzling away at Linda Woodhead’s article.

The first, and longest, is about what she writes.

The main thrust of her conclusion, not mentioned in my previous post, is ‘it is not just that Britain has become less religious but that religion has become more so; not just that people moved away from churches but that churches moved away from them’.

In her sociological terms she sees churches since the 1980s becoming less ‘societal’ (perhaps, inclusive places which express the spiritual aspirations and values of a majority) and more ‘sectarian’ (perhaps, exclusive places which express the religious commitment and values of a minority).

It is true that a significant shift has happened.  An example would be the virtual disappearance of Confirmation as an adolescent rite of passage (and I’m fascinated that she notes the rapid rise in school Proms as ‘in effect ritual celebrations of each child’) and is used mainly instead as an expression of individual adult religious commitment.

And it is true that a major gap now exists.  Her example is the way majority opinion on issues such as abortion, contraception, divorces, euthanasia and homosexuality (on some of which some churches have often even led on issues of liberalisation in the past) differ from the conservative public positions of many churches today.

But I just wonder how much ‘chicken and egg’ there is here.  My reading of everything from George Herbert’s instructions about ministry in the seventeenth century to Christian Youth Work manuals in the first half of the twentieth century doesn’t seem to indicate a Church of England which held its place in the past by agreeing with the (particularly sexual) moral norms around it.

The second is about my own simplistic mapping of some of this onto the trio of diversity and pluralism, democracy and individual choice, and establishment and shared tradition, and the difficulties of holding any two of these together with the third.

I simply notice that one of the things which is going on is that those who express a democratic rejection of diversity also express loyalty to (or at least nostalgia for) an imagined shared tradition.

This is there from the notorious British National Party’s claim that it was more genuinely Christian than the churches, to the key phrases ‘taking back control’ and ‘making America great again’ (separate out the words and you get a wish to be in control and to be part of a great nation alongside the dynamic of ‘taking back’ and ‘making again’).

Third, only the briefest of hints, what do we do now?

There is no going back.  Her article notes ‘the ‘self-reinforcing success’ of the new ‘norm’, for example, the tipping point we’ve noticed when the choice of a secular funeral becomes the option people simply assume is normal when a Funeral Director calls. 

Perhaps instead there can only be speaking and acting authentic possibilities: the way the series The Monastery a decade ago got under some people’s skin is something which showed the way; our picking up that many people think we are onto something when we explore forgiveness may be one hint; the chord struck by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s focus on Wonga may be another significant example.

The ‘becoming more religious’ needs to be ‘here are unexpected insights and depths in the tradition (which we are in danger losing contact)’ rather than ‘here is why you are wrong (about sex in particular)’; a project to clear up a local grot spot on Maundy Thursday rather than a 'walk of witness' on Good Friday.

The Christmas decorations at St George's, Bradley are actually the striking ones those from 2015 rather than the ones which have just been taken down.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

The rise of the nones


Prof Linda Woodhead may be the best known of the sociologists who have been trying to understand the phenomenon of religious commitment in England today, including, recently in particular, the rise in the number of ‘nones’, that is those who say they have no such commitment.  She does not see a straight forward growth in hostility, secularism or atheism but rather a process of indifference, perceived irrelevance and invisibility.

I’ve been working through the last part of a newly published article of hers on this ‘emergence of a new cultural majority’.  She focuses first on the ‘usual suspects’ of pluralism and individualism in the society of which we are part.

Pluralism can mean ‘it becomes harder and harder for religion to be an unquestioned part of the culture, handed down from generation to generation’.  For many, it also ‘involves an embrace of the ideal of tolerance’ so that ‘a multicultural value set is normative for young people’.  So there is both the decline in one cultural assumption (the Christian default setting – albeit still influential in many ways) and the growth of another (an increasing sense that absolute religious claims are not possible – quite apart from sometimes clearly being dangerous and destructive).

Individualism is not primarily about being self-centred but about both equality as an absolute value and a wish not to defer to what presents as a limiting higher authority.  Her observation is that for much of our society ‘contrary to the view that there is pervasive moral fragmentation... there is actually a massive moral consensus about the importance of individual’s freedom of choice’.

As an aside, the picture clearly isn’t uniform.  For some, individual choice in a pluralistic setting means taking strong personal ownership of an intolerant and/or religious position: I was struck by her footnote that ‘Olivier Roy argues in relation to many second-generation and third-generation Muslims in Europe, it leads to a rejection of the ‘cultural’ Islam of their parents in favour of a purified, scriptural ‘religious’ version of faith’; we are all also aware that ‘having enough of experts’ can mean ‘we don’t want to make room for a multi-cultural reality’.

Anyway, leaving the aside aside, I’ve been plotting her analysis in my own mind on top of an earlier piece of thinking which identified the problem for any society of attempting to be diverse, democratic and have an established religion; the suggestion was one of the three simply has to give way. 

So perhaps it is simply that pluralism, individualism and the insights of a dominant tradition cannot play out together, and the present strength of the first two make it particular difficult at the moment for those of us who feel that the third has a lot to offer.  

The photograph is again one from last year’s trip to Arizona, and is one I considered for making a Christmas card (except that many things, including a huge glut of Funerals in the ten days before Christmas, means I didn’t actually send any for the first time in ten years - and perhaps now need to get on with a circular letter for those who sent one to me).