Monday 30 June 2008

Anglicanism divides

An asylum seeking family had been given a televison. The family asked those who were helping them to take it away. They were not happy having in their home the things which were being broadcast. They found a huge amount of it indecent and immoral, showing people treating as normal forms of relationship which they didn’t want their children to think were acceptable. It can be that only when someone from outside our culture looks in and expresses surprise that we even notice what our society is assuming to be normal.

Many people say the Bible and Christian tradition has always taught that homosexual relationships are immoral; Christian people in the future will be astonished that some people today were so influenced by liberal society that some even considered blessing same sex unions or ordaining people in same sex partnerships.

Many people say that homosexuality is simply the God-given orientation of their lives and that faithful same sex partnerships are as much an appropriate and fruitful expression of love, commitment and self giving as marriage is for the majority whose orientation is heterosexual; Christian people in the future will be astonished that some people today were so influenced by a literal approach to the Bible that they condemned such things.

They look from outside at each other’s assumptions with as much surprise as our asylum seeking family looked at what our television dramas regard as normal. It is not just that they think the other side has got the balance of the argument wrong. It is that they are deeply shocked by what they see of the totally different culture which the other people occupy.

There is a culture which assumes an agenda of equality; being asked to hold back from acting on their emerging conviction that faithful homosexual activity is acceptable and moral is like being asked to hold back from acting on their conviction that slavery is wrong and women are equal. There is a culture where Moslem neighbours regard Christianity as degenerate and false; being associated in any way with those who act on their emerging conviction is to them like being openly exposed as sexually degenerate themselves.

This is a highly edited version of my attempt five years ago to help puzzled local Christians understand a little better those with whom they instinctively disagreed. There is a danger for those who use the Bible unmediated by any modern understanding; they are almost required to attribute illness to possession by demons. There is a danger for those who use modern understanding unmediated by the Bible; they are almost required to accept anything an individual finds fulfilling. Walking the tightrope between the two is no less dangerous.

This morning I have two print outs on my desk.

One is the statement yesterday from the Global Anglican Futures Conference (Gafcon). It treats those who are open to a fresh understanding of homosexuality as ‘compromised churches’ with ‘a false gospel’ and ‘overt heterodoxy’. The Gafcon movement will succeed in engineering a future for Anglicanism which keeps them out of Communion with such people. It anticipates the future church celebrating this principled realignment.

The other happens to be the previous week’s New Scientist. It reports more research unavailable to the Bible writers and the early church: ‘the most compelling evidence yet that being gay or straight is down to biology... in gay people, key structures of the brain governing emotion, mood anxiety and aggression resemble those in straight people of the opposite sex’. This growing body of evidence will succeed in shaping a world which will look back on the Gafcon statement with as much incredulity as people today look back on the church’s rejection of new insights from those of Galileo to those of Darwin.

The picture is of a single church wall at St George’s, Bradley where the original stonework is almost undetectable among the many bodges, improvements and repairs.

Sunday 29 June 2008

Three phone calls

The picture shows some of a yew tree at St George’s, Bradley. It is seen through a hole in the church’s east window and through the grid of the heavy duty protecting guard across it. I love the way in which the long tips of fresh growth on the yew are such a light bright green compared with the rest of the tree.

But, of course, there shouldn’t be a hole in the east window. One of the phone calls this week was from the Churchwarden who had found first the broken glass on the window ledge and then the abandoned beer cans and bent back protecting guard outside. She and the Treasurer are now beginning the tedious round of contacting the police, the insurer, the stained glass window specialist who has repaired the window in the past, and the Archdeacon. It is such a pity that this is what they have to spend their voluntary time doing.

Last year, the phone calls were quite regularly about damage to the south aisle roof at St Michael’s, Little Coates. These were the result of different attempts to lift the lead. We eventually had it all removed ourselves. The phone call this week was to say that a heritage advisory committee in the diocese has (on a second time of asking) agreed to sign off our application to put slates there instead, which will match the neighbouring roof. We had already worked our way through getting an engineer’s opinion, architect’s plans, English Heritage approval, the local authority’s Conservation Officer’s support, and then Planning Permission. Now all we have to do is apply for a formal church Faculty and shell out the £2000 or so this will cost us over and above what the insurer has paid. Who would have thought that the rise in world metal prices would put members of an ordinary congregation to so much trouble and expense?

Finally, a phone call also came in this week about our third church at St Nicolas’, Great Coates. Its churchyard gets over grown in May each year as the spring flowers are allowed to set seed. A community group then comes in and mows in June. Except this year at the very end of May its equipment has been damaged in an arson attack on the place in which it was stored so they told us in early June that they can’t come. We’ve put a notice up in the churchyard explaining this, volunteers have already cleared at least a third of the area, and a Churchwarden is trying to get a Working Party together to do some more. My caller had been to visit an over grown grave, had been ‘disgusted’, felt the ‘the church should do something’ and doubted we had ‘any respect for the dead’, and went on doing so even after I’d explained the situation. I'm sorry she was upset.

Friday 27 June 2008

Communicating community

The eight or nine years I have been here doesn’t feel very long, but in that time I’ve seen the local authority abolish its network of community development workers twice. The one in place when I arrived was the victim of the budget crisis in about 2002. After a gap, a similar one was put in place with Neighbourhood Renewal Funding (NRF), a funding stream which has now also come to an end. The financial realities of providing such support are unavoidable. Nevertheless, those involved in community development work know that sustained engagement and capacity building is key, so this cycle of brief intense activity and then withdrawal is sad.

The photo is of demolition in progress this week on the Yarborough estate, the only part of the parish to be allocated a worker under both schemes. Major development to create a new Freshney Green estate continues, and some elements of other community development is in place alongside it, so all is not lost.

The NRF funded work with which I was involved was the provision of a community magazine centred on each of its target areas (and delivered to every house in and around it). A Community Press Office (now CPO Media) was created and quickly established a significant reputation both in quality and in involving local people. The end of NRF has removed the ability to finance the range of very locally based magazines, but this week three new publications (one each for Cleethorpes, Grimsby and Immingham) will be beginning to drop through doors for which the total distribution will actually be larger than before. Proper market research and the recruitment of a fresh tranche of often younger volunteers also means the Insight magazines have a quite different feel and style.

Somehow I managed to migrate from just helping with the magazine centred on the Yarborough estate to also chairing CPO’s Board of Directors. We met again this week and, after so much planning, were delighted to see the new magazines and discuss where this is all going. The staff have had to work extraordinarily hard to achieve this fresh start with old and new volunteers, and serious work continues to secure the funding needed to ensure the reshaped project’s future, so it is a privilege to remain along side and support what they are seeking to do.

Wednesday 25 June 2008

Bishop Edward King Centenary

It is remarkable how visible Edward King (Bishop of Lincoln 1885-1910) still is in churches in the diocese. The top picture shows where a banner and portrait from the former Bishop Edward King Church hang in St Michael’s, Little Coates. But the lower picture is less calculated and more telling: it shows King’s ‘last message to the diocese’ hanging at the back of St Nicolas’, Great Coates as it still does in a large number of churches and vestries across the diocese; when I last drew attention to it in a sermon I discovered how it is now almost unnoticed.

Within a few months of King’s death a collection of his letters was published and soon after that a first biography appeared. The scale of the informal ‘canonisation’ of which this was part was sealed in 1935 when the Archbishop of Canterbury came to Lincoln Cathedral on the fiftieth anniversary of King’s consecration to institute the use of a special Collect, Epistle and Gospel for use on the anniversary of his death each year. His commemoration on 8th March remains in the Church of England calendar.

I was in Lincoln today for a Working Party which the present Bishop has gathered to plan ahead for King’s centenary in 2010. One idea is to make a booklet widely available with quotations from the early publications so that knowledge of his life and teaching might be renewed across the diocese as a real legacy of these celebrations.

So here as a flavour are four examples (from The Spiritual Letters of Edward King edited by B W Randolph Mowbray 1910) which I happen to have used with different groups this year already.

I long to see a real and simple imitation of the life we have shown us in the Gospels. It seems to me that if people go on allowing themselves to shape their lives so much more by the circumstances of the world than by the Gospel, they will be in danger of disbelieving the truths of the Bible itself. I am anxious to prove, if it please God, in my own life that the Gospels are true.

I do value so highly a natural growth in holiness, a humble grateful acceptance of the circumstances God has provided for each of us, and I dread the unnatural, forced, cramped ecclesiastical holiness, which is so much more quickly produced, but is so human and so poor.

I have never had any harsh feelings towards Methodists because I have always felt that it was a want of spiritual life in the church and brotherly love which led them to separate. The more we can draw near to Christ ourselves and fill ourselves with his Spirit, the greater power we shall have for unity. What we want is more Christlike Christians.

We need to be more kind, more considerate, less selfish even in carrying out religious plans, more ready to acknowledge God’s presence in others, and to fall in quietly and brightly with their different ways - freedom from any religious harshness, a docile, child-like, simple loving spirit; more humility, more love.

Monday 23 June 2008

Damp fingers

I was given a small volume of poems for my birthday. ‘Tilt’ is the third of Jean Sprackland’s collections; I already had her ‘Hard Water’. On first readings, I marked up a third of the poems as ones to which I wanted to return, which is a high proportion. Now I have been re-reading those again and been drawn into her images (from the roll of silk spilling on to the floor, to the security of following a stream downhill, via the revived fish in the sink and the colonising ambition of bracken).

The poem which is staying with me most is ‘Spilt’. The image is of a child’s futile attempt at scooping up water from the sea to fill the moat of another child's sand castle, and how the child sees this as its own failure rather than as ‘the fault of the water, its special talent for escape’. The twist is the adult experience: ‘still you arrive with nothing to offer the people you love but damp fingers, the evidence’.

It has also led me to think that those of us who claim to know about ‘springs of water welling up to eternal life’ ought to recognise that it is not our fault that it is not easily packagable. We ought to value more highly the damp fingers which, in the nature of things, are likely to be the only evidence we have that we are in touch with such a reality.

The picture is of the restored stoup at the entrance to St Michael’s, Little Coates. In it is a bowl of fresh water from a recent baptism into which people can dip their fingers to bless themselves. I suddenly like the idea that people can at least have damp fingers as they come into and go out of the church.

Saturday 21 June 2008

Lincoln fragments

In Lincoln yesterday afternoon for a Working Party looking at how the significant sum of income from the historic resources of the diocese is parcelled out to different deaneries. I think they simply wanted one Rural Dean from the northern part of the diocese, and the one from the deanery which is allocated 10% of this money might be the one. Or perhaps they are fed up with my pestering them about so many other details of diocesan financial policy that they thought quite sensibly it would be better to get me involved in the difficult work. And it is difficult. It is a ‘zero sum’ game (a greater allocation to any deanery would be a reduction for another). Too much going back to first principles might result in recommendations which produce greater changes in allocation than is reasonable given deaneries will be budgeting on the present basis. Too much pragmatic tinkering would result in recommendations about which justifiable complaints would come from some who would be disadvantaged although the application of particular principles would have dealt with them better.

Then, because we were staying for the evening, I was able to take part in Cathedral Evensong, with a particularly lilting chant for the Psalm and the opportunity to read out the description of the Leviathan from the end of Job, and the attention to the details of diocesan finances could be put into perspective. I noticed that the number of people present for this esoteric Friday evening service (about seventy clergy, choir and congregation) was roughly the same as the particularly low combined number of people at the three services in the three churches in this parish last Sunday, whatever the significance of that.

The evening event was Baroness Butler-Sloss giving the annual Magna Carta Lecture on ‘Magna Carta and Modern Day Justice’. The demand for tickets was such that the lecture took place in the Nave rather than the Chapter House. She was clear, rigorous and well received, although she did not say much which her listeners should not have known or expected. She did, of course, touch on the issue of up to forty-two days detention without charge, and referred to the quotation from Benjamin Franklin being popularised by Liberty: ‘They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security deserve neither liberty nor security’. I was interested most by her identification of those who might want to take out a civil case but who are not poor enough to get legal aid nor rich enough to pay themselves as those being denied access to justice today; nevertheless she too was sympathetic to the financial dilemma (this time of the government) in relation to the costs which might be involved to put this right.

The picture is one I took on the Cathedral roof last year.

Thursday 19 June 2008

A different way of living

When Jimmy Mizen was murdered in London last month, his mother spoke of the parents of the man who killed him saying ‘we’ve got such lovely memories of Jimmy and they will have such sorrow about their son’. This seemed the most compassionate and understanding thing which a mother could possibly have been said. I noted it down, partly so it might help focus me in other less troubled circumstances when I need to respond more compassionately and with more understanding than my instinct usually prompts me to, and partly (I admit) simply in case it would become useful in a sermon.

His Funeral takes place tomorrow in the Catholic church in London which he attended, and I’ve just listened to the radio interview with his parents which was broadcast on Sunday. The trail said his mother refused to be bitter because ‘it would destroy my family if I’m not careful, and I won’t allow that to happen’ which also seemed to be a simple careful putting of the Lord’s teaching into practice. But what struck me most was they would not allow themselves to be trapped into producing predictable sound bites for sermons, and somehow this seems to give those quotations an impact they would not have had if they were spoken with fixed certain smiles.

The interviewer invited them to say something like ‘we know we’ll meet again in heaven’. They didn’t. Instead they said they did believe in eternal life but they had no idea how that would be experienced. He invited them to say something about being angry with God or not. They didn’t. Instead they spoke about how society has had similar troubles for many years. They also said they understood there were those who lost faith at times like this and they were grateful that their own experience instead was that their faith had supported them. He invited them to say something about forgiveness. They were explicit that they could not give an answer to the question. They said it was too soon to know how they will feel in the future but they hoped the peace they had would prove to be the seeds from which forgiveness might grow. He invited them to say something about blame. They spoke instead about how we need to look towards ourselves and see whether a different way of living is possible.

The picture is last year’s Easter Candle at St Nicolas’, Great Coates.

Sunday 15 June 2008

Crossing the Humber Bridge

The people at St Michael’s, Little Coates were told this morning that their efforts last month for Christian Aid Week have now resulted in almost £2500 being sent.

Over £1000 had been collected door to door. This is less than last year, partly because a few reliable collectors had been away. The organiser was a little disappointed, but it didn’t seem to me to be bad given knocking on doors isn’t anyone’s favourite activity and there might only be forty people in the church on a Sunday.

But the huge fillip was that very nearly £1500 came in from taking part in the annual sponsored crossing of the Humber Bridge. This year the few who have taken part in the past suddenly gathered a group of forty-four and took a coach.

Some came from a health promotion scheme called Walk Well. It has been using St Michael’s as a base each week for guided walks along the River Freshney next door. Others came from a new Pop-In group at the church owned Little Coates Community Centre. Members of St Michael’s started this and have been staffing it.

I have the vague sense that our churches should be used by the community as much as being used for worship. I have the loose aim that our church members should be as stuck into work in the community as much as into worship in the church. These things seem good in themselves, but I also have a totally unfocused hope that ‘something’ might happen as a result. This seems to be to be just such a 'something'.

So here are a couple of the pictures they took on their way which catch quite nicely different aspects of the character of the walk.

And, although I'd like to add a link with more reflective or rigorous thinking, for the moment it seems to make more sense to leave the loose, vague, unfocused sense that the 'something' is more significant than merely having raised an extra £1500.

Friday 13 June 2008

Farewell Jenny

We said goodbye to my colleague Jenny Vereker at St Nicolas', Great Coates tonight and it is going to be very difficult seeing her disappear into retirement. She spoke movingly about her calling, and about our calling to love one another. We sang her favourite hymns. Her newish grandaughter nearly stole the show. And we eat our way through some of an extensive buffet in her garden.

I was able to say that I'm not sure that I or the Church of England speak often enough about just what we owe to those who come to priesthood late in their career with extensive experience of church membership, family, voluntary work and work. All this background has come to play in the sort of priest Jenny is (and our parish has both produced and received quality ministry from other such priests).

And I also suspect that, while priests like me hide their insecurities by making most of the things other people will notice (a blog here, a diocesan Working Party there and a building project for people to admire elsewhere), priests like Jenny reveal their security by making most of the hidden things of priesthood which often are not visible at all if only because of confidentiality (prayers here, care there and a community initiative to be supported elsewhere). We shall miss her.

Monday 9 June 2008

Shadow of the cross over Zimbabwe

Despair at the prevalence of AIDS, drought, hyper-inflation and political intimidation in Zimbabwe presses on us more than most other things. On Monday, St Michael’s, Little Coates sent out a few hundred pounds more to an African priest in a rural parish; it is some twenty years or so since he came on a placement here and the prayers and donations have not ceased since. It is much more efficient both financially and strategically to channel such giving via one of the major aid or mission agencies but somehow the personal link trumps this knowledge each time.

I’d been a little surprised at how quickly the fund for him replenishes itself until I discovered one member of the congregation was being paid for a few voluntary hours she does each week and was channelling the money into the fund. The point of trying to keep a church like St Michael’s viable may actually be to nurture this sort of discipleship, or perhaps to be nurtured by it. I also suspect that it is this sort of relating which is what the Anglican Communion is about far more than it is about mutual understandings of sexuality.

So here is the latest image of the Passion which I've taken (this one is in St George's, Bradley); it is hard to believe that the regime will actually change, that rural areas which do not support the regime will not be left to starve, and that regime change could turn things round very quickly anyway.

And here are the three most recent e-mails we have received from him simply as first hand confirmation of what is in our news.

Thank you very much for the money you sent to help me with God's work here. In the fields the crops have wilted as the whole of February we haven’t received any rains and the people are facing another drought. The rains had initially started well in December and January and people had high hopes of escaping from hunger, but now all their hopes have been dashed. I am in town to buy a few things but the cost of goods are so high and the cost of travelling is expensive. With the money you sent we will help the needy and orphans with food. (February)

I hope this message finds you in good health and everyone else. We hope you had a lovely Easter ours was fine and today one of our members is being ordained as a Priest, which is why I am in town to witness this great occasion this afternoon at the Cathedral. The situation on the ground continues to be bad as we are now approaching elections and we pray and hope that our suffering will come to an end and we ask for your help and prayers in these challenging times. (April)

I was supposed to come to town two weeks back but I fell ill and unable to come. My whole body aches - the doctor said I am suffering from a bone disease so I am living through medication and, as you know, our situation everything is expensive. In the country side life is tough and the political atmosphere is not good as Mugabe's people are beating up people so that they will vote for him in these coming elections. Worse people are starving - as there is no food the life is not good. But people are saying enough is enough. They are determined to vote him out because if they donʼ't starvation will continue. Pass my warm greetings to everyone who contributes help for us. (June)

Friday 6 June 2008

Too many churches?

This week, the local Catholic Church (St Peter’s) is expecting the delayed announcement of its closure. This is part of a radical recasting of the Catholic Community in North East Lincolnshire. Ten years ago the number of Catholic priests in North East Lincolnshire was reduced from four to three. Instead of rearranging the four parishes into three, the bold decision was made to create one unit; the Sunday Mass times in the six churches were arranged so that two priests could cover all six services if the third priest was ill or away. But things have moved on in the short time since. Now it seems the Catholic diocese will only be able to deploy two priests and St Peter’s may not be the only one of the six churches to close.

So here is a picture of St Peter (who I greatly enjoyed finding on a door post when on holiday in Ireland).

And here is a version of the sheet I shared with our Anglican Deanery Synod a few months ago about our own need to face a similar situation.
  • The physical landscape around us changes gradually until it becomes unrecognisable. Some change we hardly notice, such as the slow silting up of a harbour. Some change is observable over a few years, such as the rapid retreat of a cliff. Some change is instant, such as the result of levies breaking or land slipping.
  • In the past, change in the Church of England has been of the first hardly noticeable sort. In the 150 years before I was confirmed in 1974 the pattern of clergy deployment, relating to society, theology and worship changed fundamentally without any of the individual increments being revolutionary.
  • In the present, change in the Church of England is of the second rapid observable sort. The Alternative Service Book came and went in just twenty years, and the number of clergy deployed in most of the parishes in Grimsby & Cleethorpes today is half the number in the Pastoral Plan of the early 1990s.
  • What is hardly grasped by anyone involved is that change in the Church of England immediate future will be of the third instant sort. The ground beneath us is moving. The pressures created by the demography of our congregations, the tightening our finances and shifts in society have been building inexorably.
  • The demography of our congregations is such that the presence of those who were formed as present and future members of the Church of England in the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s has masked the startlingly smaller number so formed in the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s, but as the former begin to die a huge gap is exposed.
  • The tightening of our finances has reached the point where it costs over £100 a day to deploy a stipendiary priest before we even begin to finance our church activities and buildings; this will continue to increase in real terms.
  • The shifts in society include everything from most people’s use of Sunday, the proportion of split families, a step change in individual consumerist expectations, and a sharp decline in active participation in everything from political parties to voluntary work, all of which work against traditional patterns of church commitment.
  • A very significant financial subsidy from the historic resources of the diocese and the deployment of some full time Curates has helped shore things up, but very soon the combination of these pressures will mean that we suddenly cease to be able to operate as we are.
  • Some people of all ages will continue to make Christian commitment, and many people will continue to look to the established church for varieties of Christian ministry, but the numbers of those committed will simply not be able to sustain anything like our present provision of buildings or stipendiary ministry.
  • Some small parts of this deanery continue to operate as if change is still very gradual; the presence of a priest with security of tenure paid by someone else next door to a single church in a parish means that change doesn’t have to be faced at the moment at all.
  • The majority of the deanery operates as if rapid change is enough: most places where ten years ago a priest lived next door a church in a parish which was his or her sole responsibility have ceased to operate in this way; systematic development of authorised lay ministry and alternative worship is quiet common.
  • Hardly anyone operates as if the major crisis is coming, and the ugly experiences of our Methodist neighbours when seeking to bring together three small churches in the centre of our deanery is one indication of why we have shied away from seeking to propose anything bold.
  • But if we were to be bold we would be doing things like uniting every pair our churches now to create single sustainable congregations in seven or eight places across the deanery which could each be resourced by just one stipendiary priest and together serve a wider area, and we would be deploying some priests directly in community engagement and mission posts.
  • However we know (as the Methodists do) that the personal investment of most of us in the particular congregation of which we are part means that even coming to a common mind about which places to identify and then willingly ceasing regular worship in some others is a task which is beyond us.
  • So are we more likely to wait until the levies break or the land slips, until further specific congregations become unviable or until the provision of stipendiary ministry across particular parts of the deanery becomes impossible, and make emergency plans in the new landscape only when we are confronted by it?

Sunday 1 June 2008

Grief at Funerals

On Friday the teenage daughter of the man being buried was hysterical at his graveside. It is much less common than one might imagine; common English grief is simply less visible. I've continued pastoral contacts with all three recent Funerals including a cot death and a suicide so the amount of visible and invisible raw grief is more than at the front of my mind at the moment. It is difficult paying attention to much else.

So here is the Pieta (Mary with the dead Jesus in her lap) from above the entrance to Glentham Parish Church taken when it was one of the West Lindsey churches open last month. Some old Pieta have a doll size Jesus more like a Nativity. But this one has the full force of the broken adult body sprawled across a mother's lap (as does the one on the Font at Bag Enderby which Simon Jenkins says it is 'worth crossing Lincolnshire to see').

And here is the only Villanelle I've been able to write. I can't remember what feature of the particular Funeral undermined me. Part of the point is (I'm sorry to labour it in an introduction but many readers of the poem thus far have needed this hint) the idea that one is 'safe inside' rather than 'all at sea' is the wrong way around; being 'caught' is being finally safe if one is taking the risk of being 'out'.

Caught out at a Funeral
at Grimsby Crematorium

The rough raucous cry
of the gull inland
swooping and riding
a harsh grating call
is laughter when thrown
across sea and sand.

The screech in my ears
pounds blood as I stand
as curtains glide round
the bier and the pall:
the rough raucous cry
of the gull inland.

Noone who stands there
suspects I’m unmanned;
suspects what I’m too
far in to recall
is the laughter thrown
across sea and sand;

suspects there are things
no soul can withstand
(abuse, blight and chance;
traps dug for us all;
the rough raucous cry
of the gull inland);

suspects only then
can we understand
what seeds itself there,,
albeit so small,
brings laughter when thrown
across sea and sand;

suspects we each need
a free empty hand
by which to be caught
as we laugh and fall.
The rough raucous cry
of the gull inland
is laughter when thrown
across sea and sand.