Tuesday 30 September 2008


Being a priest is so difficult that we tend to settle for being something less. My ordination anniversary ticked by again and I’ve been recalling this warning.

The base definition of ‘priest’ would appear to be someone who does things which create a link between God and people (performing a sacrifice or giving an absolution are probably the most obvious examples). But if you have both a ‘priesthood of all believers’ as well as a ministerial priesthood then perhaps this definition needs to be revised to remove the implication that God and people cannot make contact without us. Perhaps a priest is meant to be a catalyst in the reactions always going on between God and people.

So when we lead worship or we teach we are simply trying to increase the likelihood that God and people will connect. When we offer pastoral care we are simply trying to work this out in individual lives. When we run churches we are simply trying to apply this to corporate Christian life. When we work in the community we are simply trying to seek this to society. But, because this is so difficult to define and so difficult to do, the temptation will always be to settle for being good at using the basic tools instead.

We need to handle liturgy creatively but the danger will always be that we end up providing an aesthetic experience or entertainment rather than opening up possibilities of connecting with God. Whenever anyone says to me after a service ‘Thank you, I enjoyed that’ I have to stop myself saying ‘But making you enjoy it wasn’t what I was trying to do’.

We need to speak informatively but the danger will always be that we end up providing academic understanding or information rather than opening up possibilities of connecting with God. Whenever anyone says to me after a sermon or study session ‘Thank you, that was very interesting and I learnt a lot’ I have to stop myself saying ‘But being interesting wasn’t what I was trying to do’.

We need to care professionally but the danger will always be that we end up providing counselling or therapy rather than opening up possibilities of connecting with God. Whenever anyone says to me after a pastoral encounter ‘Thank you, I feel much better’ I have to stop myself saying ‘But making you feel better wasn’t what I was trying to do’.

We need to lead effectively but the danger will always be that we end up providing efficient management rather than opening up possibilities of encounter with God. Whenever anyone says to me after a church activity or meeting ‘Thank you, that went very well’ I have to stop myself saying ‘But making it go well wasn’t what I was trying to do’.

We need to relate openly and widely but the danger will always be that we end up behaving like an ecclesiastical deputy for the Mayor rather than opening up possibilities of encounter with God. Whenever anyone in the community says to me ‘Thank you, that was really helpful’ I have to stop myself saying ‘But being helpful wasn’t what I was trying to do’.

(Of course they don’t always say how enjoyable, interesting, making better, going well and helpful are the things I do, but that would be a topic for a different post.)

Sunday 28 September 2008

Trollope and I

In the year that Trollope published The Warden my father’s father’s father’s father was Master of the Corsham Almshouses. It was only recently that I discovered that a photograph of him exists. The very distant relative who owns it has just been to stay for a couple of nights and she gave me a proper copy of it which is reproduced above. I can’t make up my mind whether it carries the character of Trollope’s conscientious, gentle, musical Warden, or whether it carries the contemporary caricature of a pluralist disciplinarian fond of country sports. I wrote a short account of his life a little while ago and, whatever impression the photograph gives, the truth is a mixture of all those elements.

The Revd George Mullins was born at the end of the eighteenth century and appears in the first edition of Crockford’s Clerical Directory; the largest parish of which he was incumbent only had a population of little over a hundred. Like Trollope’s Warden, in 1855 as well as being responsible for the Almshouses where he lived in the substantial Master’s House he was the incumbent of a small parish not far away. He was also a schoolmaster, and, unusually, the Corsham Almshouses contain a substantial old schoolroom. We know nothing of his musical ability, although his grandfather’s will mentions ‘all my musical books and instruments’. We do know he dug up Roman remains in his garden, bred fish in his pond, travelled distances by horse, and dined with local clerical and literary acquaintances. And, sadly, he became a chronic invalid in his 50s: he retired because of ill health, and is reported to have had ‘giddiness of the head and fits’.

All this gives me the totally unjustified feeling of being rooted in a certain form of Anglicanism beginning just ahead of the reforms of the first half of the nineteenth century and living through them. I value quite disproportionately having his photograph.

Wednesday 24 September 2008

Monday 22 September 2008

Living words

I’m being reminded that Bible study need not start with the text and then seek to apply it to our situation. It can begin with our situation and seek out what may speak to it from the Bible.

The most simple illustration came a little while ago with the growing Youth Group which our Curate has been nurturing. One evening we leafed through a week’s supply of the local newspaper. They pulled out the stories which struck them most. There was a ‘have a go hero’ who’d defended a young mother who was being attacked in a supermarket Car Park. There were drugs raids. And, most importantly to them, there was an asylum seeking school friend who was being expelled from the country.

I hardly had to ask ‘which bit of God’s story helps us understand all this?’. The newspaper’s headline writer and their RE teacher had already done the work, and they could tell the story in their own words. We ended up with three pictures on the church wall for our Family Service. The mother who’d been attacked was labelled ‘a man was on a journey when he was attacked’. The helmeted police were labelled ‘people were frightened to get involved in case they caught a disease or something’. The asylum seeking family was labelled ‘but someone else helped even though he was from another country’.

It doesn’t always fall into my lap quite as easily as that. But this was what I was on about when posting on 7th September about preaching at Funerals. And our Reader in training preached helpfully on Sunday about the victims of the credit crunch and the parable of the workers hired for different lengths of time but each paid a living wage; like our Youth Group members, he provided twists which made the passage more challenging for me.

So the message to myself this month appears to be that I really ought to get back to doing much more of this myself. This reminder and resolution might also be an important part of the design for the radical revamp of our Family Service provision about which our District Church Councils have been enthusiastic this month.

The picture is a return to the surprisingly substantial surviving fragments of decoration at Byland Abbey.

Saturday 20 September 2008

Zimbabwe's dragons

First hand news from rural Matabeleland only confirms and brings home how desperate the situation in Zimbabwe continues to be. Messages from the parish which St Michael’s, Little Coates tries to support also tell us of the death of their Bishop (whose quality we know about from his time teaching at the missionary training colleges at Selly Oak ten years ago), and knowing about the loss of such leadership in his 50s and at this time is, as a friend who has worked in the diocese says to me ‘very sad news, and possibly drastic at this time of uncertainty for the country’.

The messages we have had this month are:

I hope that this letter reaches you in good health. I am in town to see my doctor and buy some tablets. Last week we were supposed to Confirm some members of our church but unfortunately the Bishop fell ill and he was unable to come we hope he will come at a later date.

The situation in the country side continues to be going bad as the NGOs have not started giving people relief food. People are now facing starvation and in the shops there is nothing to buy. We pray that the negotiations between the political parties bears fruits and come to a conclusion.

May the grace of the Almighty be with you.


I am here to let you know that our Bishop, the Right Rev Dr Wilson Sitshebo, has passed away after a short illness. He suffered a stroke and was taken to a hospital. I shall go to his house today to find out the burial arrangement. As I told you in my last letter that he was supposed to come to confirm the candidates I thought l was going to brief him on the situation we face in the countryside.

I was denied to buy maize at our home village, the officer in charge of the police station told me that l did not have a share. Some of those who bought 50kg of maize were war vets, store owners , teachers and Gov employees. These people do exchange maize for goats or chicken as for cash they accept foreign currency. The food situation is so bad that some people eat wild fruits and roots that they cook and then they get sick.

Me and my wife do all we can to help those who find themselves in a sad situation. On my way back l shall pass by another town just to find out what l can buy for my family. I might buy mealie-meal. I shall have to use foreign currency as they do not accept our own money.

The picture is of a newly carved dragon on display on the floor of Lincoln Cathedral at the moment before being placed on the roof.

Wednesday 17 September 2008

Naomi Campbell and I

The popular quiz question is ‘what links these celebrities?’ or ‘what links two pictures?’ and in the case of Naomi and I the surprise is that there is an answer at all. The answer turns out to be community service at the Whitechapel Mission.

I left school thirty years ago this term and went with Community Service Volunteers (CSV) to spend my ‘Gap Year’ there. I now dread to think what they really made of an ill prepared, immature, naive, over confident school leaver; it can’t have been much more strange having a Supermodel turn up thirty years later to serve her community service punishment imposed for air rage and assault on the police.

CSV expected its volunteers to receive basic accommodation and pocket money, but I was in fact generously given a large vacant flat in the Mission building. I had no real idea how to keep it clean and I set off the firm alarms on my first morning because I had even less idea how to cook for myself. The hospitality of Sister Nora, the dedicated Wesley Deaconess whose smaller flat was across the corridor, was one of the things which enabled me to survive.

A limited staff was supplemented, for example, by people like a
doctor and a couple of nurses from the London Hospital next door who volunteered to run an informal clinic for the men and women living on the street. There were many more such.

I remember using those inadequate cleaning skills over several days in a council flat the Mission had been allowed to take over because it was ‘hard to let’, and I remember the caretaker’s doubts about my level of application to the task of mopping the Mission's floors. I remember trying to hide my total inexperience at cooking when someone off the street was ill and given a bed for the night in small clinic created in a basement, and I remember one evening opening a huge number of tiny baked bean cans instead of the usual catering size ones because these happened to be what a supermarket had donated (because they were as about to go out of date). I only got through because of the tolerance of the staff and other volunteers, and they even gave me occasional duties like a hospital visit, pastoral work and taking a service at which to try my hand as a potential ordinand.

This discovery of Methodism in action made it my second spiritual home for twenty years. It was directly responsible for my joining the MethSoc at University, trained in a joint Anglican / Methodist /URC Theological College, doing postgraduate work at the Irish School of Ecumenics, and working in a joint Anglican / Methodist /URC congregation as my first incumbency.

It is possible that it will make as much difference to Naomi Campbell; she is reported as saying that she will want to continue to support the Mission after she completes her sentence there, and she may be able to do more than I can with my modest but grateful annual Standing Order.

Of all the snaps I could have posted I haven’t chosen one which shows work with those who live on the street but one which shows Sister Nora and happens also to show the haircuts favoured by small boys in the East End in the 1970s.

Sunday 14 September 2008

Byrd clues

William Byrd’s signature (spelt Wyllyam Byrde - so it would be more logical to spell him William Bird today) is in the Cathedral Accounts in the 1560s. It is beautifully set out complete with the same curls beneath it as those beneath the well known signature of Elizabeth I. The other signatures in lines above and below are, by contrast, either scrawled or simply marks. It was on display when we went to the Cathedral Library on Friday evening to hear a short lecture about him followed by a short harpsichord recital of his works which including a wonderful representation of a battle right down to the clashing of the armies.

Byrd was the Cathedral’s Organist and Choirmaster for nine years from 1563 (when he was just 23) until 1572 (when he obtained a position at the Chapel Royal where he may have sung as a boy). The lecturer reminded us that he was suspended for a while in 1569, apparently for playing music too elaborate for the taste of the clergy, and this may well link to his continued Catholic commitment and may also link to his taking the opportunity to move back to London three years later.

This all happens to relate to my recent posts about Roger Dalyson who would have been the Precentor when Byrd was appointed Organist but who was ejected two years later because of his Catholic commitment. The Cathedral Librarian pointed out that both the Dean who appointed Byrd and Dalyson (and also the Subdean, who was also ejected in 1565) had been appointed under Mary I, so they may have provided a congenial base for Byrd when he arrived in 1563 but wouldn’t have been able to give him any support by 1569 when more Puritan minded staff suspended him.

By 1572 Byrd’s position as a Catholic would have been even more dangerous (the Papal Bull which encouraged Catholics to overthrow Elizabeth I was issued in 1570) so it is strange if her Chapel Royal did in fact provide him with a safer berth than Lincoln, especially as the anti-Puritan (and Grimsby born) future Archbishop John Whitgift would have just become Dean of Lincoln.

Anyway, Byrd, having left Lincoln aged 32, lived and composed safely into his 80s. The present Assistant Organist, who gave the recital, added a few thought to the lecture and was very careful to point out Byrd’s influence on subsequent Low Country composers and their influence in turn on Bach.

Meanwhile I'd still like to know more about Dalyson. What did he do between the suppression of Thornton Collegiate Church under Edward VI and his appointment as Precentor of Lincoln under Mary I? What did he do after he was ejected as Precentor under Elizabeth I?

The photograph was taken from beneath the Cathedral Library a short while ago when the cloister was being set up for the performance of the Lincoln Mystery Plays.

Friday 12 September 2008

Keeping Ramadan

The way Ramadan is observed may be close to the way early Christians fasted. This is what William Dalrymple suggested when speaking on the radio recently. He had observed the similarities between the Coptic Christian and the Moslem approaches to fasting. The similarities made him speculate about how the modern practice of both must indicate drawing on a common heritage.

The Imam with whom we spoke earlier this week was also reminding us about the real nature of fasting. He suggested it is a level of discipline which teaches the participant that he or she need not be controlled by appetite and habit. My own very occasional and very sub-Ramadan experience is that it is astonishing what it does indeed teach one about oneself and about dependance of God, which makes it all the mores surprising that it is not a mainstream major natural prominent regular Christian activity in the way it is a Moslem one.

And, of course, real fasting, his mosque was reminding its children, includes abstaining from lies, from swearing and from what angers God, indeed is ‘invalidated’ by not including such things. This is all part of our heritage too: Isaiah wasn’t keen on those who thought they fasted but on those days sought their own pleasure, oppressed their workers and quarrelled.

The picture attempts to pick up some of the faded outline of a former Prior of Thornton Abbey on his tomb slab there.

Wednesday 10 September 2008

Moslem neighbours

The majority of Christians want better relationships with Islam but think that Muslims do not want this, and the majority of Moslems want better relationships with Christianity but think that Christians do not want this. So the Tony Blair Foundation reports on its polling.

However, even among apparently well informed Christians, basic knowledge of Islam is almost non-existent. (So it can hardly be surprising that, say, even a mildly sophisticated public discussion about Sharia results in vituperation from among those who one might expect to be less well informed).

Our monthly gathering of local Anglican clergy invited the young local Imam to be with us yesterday. It was mentioned at the start that it was Ramadan, which didn’t stop him being offered a drink or half those who had brought their sandwiches getting them out and chomping away at the table in front of him as he talked. A visitor on placement spoke with a sincere smile about how deeply meaningful her encounter with Islam had been at her Theological College, sweetly without naming any particular insight (which did take me back to the style of some of the placements reports I had to read when I ran what was then the diocese’s Post Ordination Training).

Nevertheless, the intention was good. We know that we will hear comments about the nature of Muslim centre being developed in a redundant Methodist Church and it makes good sense for us to have first hand awareness from being shown round by him. The worshipping community is already larger than it was at the previous small mosque in a more difficult area of town where worshippers’ cars were frequently damaged.

Meanwhile, our guest quietly got on with the task of defining moderate Islam over against the image he thought we would have and over against the character of what he hears preached or suggested in some mosques elsewhere in the country. He did so by highlighting the subtle sense of particular Arabic texts in the Koran, for all the world like a liberal Christian picking over popular conservative misinterpretations of particular Greek phrases in the New Testament.

The picture comes from inside the gatehouse at Thornton Abbey.

Sunday 7 September 2008

Hold your head up high

One of yesterday’s brides did away with the services of an organist and selected CDs to accompany her arrival, the registration of her marriage, and her departure with her new husband. It is quite usual at funerals (both those I took last week had music from CDs at the beginning, in the middle and at the end) and I’ve been anticipating it beginning to happen at weddings as well. ‘When you walk through a storm’ proved, sadly, an apt line for the beginning of the music at what turned out to be a rain besieged wedding.

It is something to so with the loss of hymns. My rule of thumb is that hymns at weddings are most usually those popular at Primary School Assemblies twenty years earlier. When I first took weddings in the 1980s the legacy of the Assemblies of the 1960s gave us such things as ‘Praise my soul the King of heaven’ and ‘Love divine’ as standard wedding hymns. Today’s weddings live on the legacies of the 1980s Assemblies with things like ‘One more step along the way I go’ and ‘Lord of the dance’. But we are moving into times when brides and grooms have no hymns in their knap-sack from Assemblies in their particular Primary Schools twenty years ago, and increasingly they will turn instead to the music they know.

Meanwhile, at funerals, the puzzle and opportunity has been how to shape a service around a central focus which pounds out non-Christian sentiments, understandings and values. With St Paul preaching in Athens in mind, I take it that the task is to name the ‘God’ that appears to be being worshipped and use that to point to the true God. When ‘Somewhere over the rainbow’ is being played at a service I now always select a passage of scripture which speaks of God’s first covenant with Noah, and speak about it for a moment. I was less sure footed this week when trying to contrast the isolation of Neil Diamond’s ‘I am, I said’ with the standard funeral text ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’, but at least I tried.

The picture is a very normal cluster of buildings which simply caught my eye during a parish Treasure Hunt round Laceby after yesterday’s weddings.

Thursday 4 September 2008

Marriage Licences continued

The one factor I hadn’t thought about is cost. There has now been national publicity about the rise in the number of applications for marriage licences (the local phenomenon about which I posted on 10th August). It is a side effect of Government attempts to monitor the possibility of ‘sham weddings’. A person subject to immigration control now has to pay £295 simply to get a certificate allowing him or her to apply for marriage by Superintendent Registrar Certificate. That is a £590 surcharge if it is a couple. No wonder an increasing number have spotted the possibility of being married in church by licence instead.

Last week’s Church Times has an article beginning ‘foreigners are using a loophole... to gain the right of abode’ and links this to ‘a steep rise in the number of... licences’. It is in danger of confusing finding a loophole through which to smuggle a sham wedding (which will apply to a tiny number of those for whom a licence is issued) and behaving in a sensible informed way to avoid a huge extra fee (which will apply especially to all licences we issue where both parties are foreign nationals, whose marriage doesn’t effect their right of abode anyway).

It is all part of a bigger picture. Relatively new rules designed to stop money laundering by those involved in a tiny proportion of banking activity means that small clubs setting up bank accounts and local charities changing signatories on their accounts are among the huge number who have to jump through the extra hoops of proving identity. The importance of protecting children and the vulnerable elderly from the abusive behaviour of a few means parish time and diocesan resources are quite rightly caught up in the process of making criminal record checks on absolutely everyone involved in any work of this nature in church. And now all those subject to immigration control who wish to marry here are paying the price of the blanket vigilance which is judged necessary to detect the small number among them involved in sham weddings.

The picture isn’t relevant to this post but is a further one from Thornton Abbey; I’ve promised myself I won’t go on including these for ever.

Tuesday 2 September 2008

Heritage Studies continued

Thornton Abbey continues to fascinate, and I’ve stumbled across two further details and would like to find time to look properly at such things.

First, the crown above the statue of Our Lady on the west front of the gatehouse (included in the a picture posted on 26th August) is identified as a rare representation of the Trinity. The dove representing the Spirit is clear sweeping down towards Mary, in fact bringing the crown from God the Trinity towards her. Above it on the right is the crowned figure of the Father, and above it on the left (now weathered away so far as to be unrecognisable? or have I misread the detail viewed from so far away?) was the figure of the Son this time crowned with thorns. The statue is therefore quite a traditional Coronation of the Virgin.

Secondly, the detail about the Dean of the Reformation Collegiate Church isn’t quite as I remembered it from the display board when posting on 28th August about its history. Roger Dalyson DD is recorded as being a residentiary Canon at Lincoln as serving from 1555 until 1565 when he was ejected (certainly deprived of residence, perhaps also sacked as Precentor?) for recusancy and failure to pay 'Tenths' to the Queen (in other words as someone who continued to practice or reverted to practice as a Catholic).