Wednesday 31 December 2008

Keeping silence

Sara Maitland spent forty days and forty nights in silence on Skye. It is part of a longer story which grew towards her present life in a hermitage. One of the many books to make its way into the house at Christmas is her new A Book of Silence. I’m only half way through but am already intrigued by questions such as how far some mystical experiences are part of the common phenomenon of silence rather than religious encounters as such. Meanwhile, her account of her time on Skye at the beginning has so many touching points with my far less isolated sabbatical experience ten years ago when I spent Lent in a religious community that I’ve also gone back to things I wrote then to spot a number of them.

Coquet Lighthouse seen from the Friary at Alnmouth

Being an habitual philanderer
with myself, I know how to prompt and tempt
(savouring irritations, flirting with
fantasies, enticing myself into
control and judgement) and do so with the
practised ease of a coquet’s winking eye.

Yet I am loved faithfully and can be
drawn quite another way, knowing even
acknowledged dalliances receive an
‘all is well’ as much as a ‘put this right’,
as somehow being asked to breakfast on
the shore merges with the cockerel’s call.

So, beginning intentioned silences here,
I try to see what dross my flirtations
leave, and value the metal left refined,
but find instead, at first, a single ore
whose indistinct spread is edged with joy, like
the long gaps marked by Coquet’s winking light.

The picture of tiles built into a wall are a further one from a post-Christmas walk by the Humber Bridge and the neighbouring clay pits and tile works.

Wednesday 24 December 2008

Loss of Advent hope

It is a little hard, in the face of the situation in Zimbabwe, proclaiming cosy Advent thoughts about the gathering lights of dawn.

I posted on 9th June and 20th September about the parish we support in rural Matabeleland. Just before Christmas we sent a fourth donation this year of £400 (collected in Botswana to avoid the rapid reduction in value of the Zimbabwe currency) and received these greetings and thanks.

I would like to say thank you for the great gift of money you sent through my son. As we are approaching Christmas Day we will buy some few items for the elderly and orphans as they face the hardest time.

The situation is now too bad and people have lost all the hope they had some months ago that may be the situation will be better. Now people are dying of treatable diseases like cholera which has taken many lives. It is going to be a hard Christmas for many as there is no food and where you get it its unaffordable.

Again, thanks very much for your kindly assistance; without you I donʼt know how we would be surviving. HAPPY CHRISTMAS AND A PROSPEROUS NEW YEAR.

Monday 22 December 2008


Did Leonard Cohen nick his basic idea from Eastern Orthodox liturgy? The trick of finishing each verse with an Alleluia is already there in a song by John of Damascus in the burial service; John Tavener set this hauntingly to music three years before Cohen wrote his own Hallelujah. It is likely simply to be a coincidence, but I’m very struck by it.

I sometimes use one of the alternative commending prayers in the new Church of England burial service which I assume comes from the Orthodox source:

All of us go down to the dust,
yet weeping at the grave,

we [still] make our [Easter] song:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

The text of Tavener’s Funeral Ikos conveys the wonderful sense that, in the face of death, we cannot know all we would wish to sustain our faith other than depending on our ability to sing Alleluia, so some verses include:

Whither now go the souls?
This mystery have I desired to learn.
Do they call to mind their own people as we do them?
Or have they forgotten all those who mourn them and make the song:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Where then is comeliness?
Where then is wealth?
Where then is the glory of this world?
There shall none of these things aid us, but only to say oft the psalm:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

With ecstasy are we inflamed
if we but hear that there is light eternal yonder.
Let us all, also, enter into Christ,
that all we may cry aloud thus unto God:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Much of Cohen's song is about different ecstasy, but it takes only a slight stretch of the imagination to think that at least his final verse belongs there:

Even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of song
with nothing on my tongue but
Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah.

Saturday 20 December 2008

One project complete

Actually the final touches to the project to create access for the disabled at the entrance to St Michael’s churchyard are still to be put in place: the replacement gates need engraving and installing; the final accounts need to arrive and be settled; the final returns to some of the funders need filling in and sending off.

Then St George’s will need to seek ways to fund work on its roof (we await the report of the assessment done last week), St Michael’s will need to seek ways to fund redecoration (what we hope is the final element of the substantial work there over seven years), and St Nicolas’ has an ambition to seek ways to fund a new heating system (we await the arrival in January of those who will assess the costs involved in this).

Tuesday 16 December 2008

A second blog

Putting all this stuff out on the internet is probably much more self indulgent than it is faith promoting. But (having discovered how easy it is to run a blogspot site) I’ve just started a different one as a access point to the parish’s different approach to Family Services in 2009, which may have more of a point to it. It is at The picture of the weathervane at the top of St Michael’s tower is part of it.

The challenge to do something like these blogs came at one of the periodic residential conferences for all the clergy of the diocese held at Swanwick in April where the focus was on our use of this sort of technology. I’m aware that several of us started a blog as a response, although I’ve settled for mine being a diary for my own benefit which, while it is open for others to read, may not be what the speakers at the conference were really getting at.

The sorts of people who might be interested in the First Sunday Thing are as likely to look for information about it on the web as anywhere else, so posting something new about it each week may be more what the conference organisers were actually on about.

Sunday 14 December 2008

Pitching it right

It is getting on for twenty years ago that I found myself taking an Infant School assembly one morning and taking a Theological College seminar that afternoon, with an inspector sitting at the back of both. I thought then, and have kept repeating since, that there are few jobs where one can be scrutinized ‘teaching’ appropriately at both Key Stage 1 and University Diploma levels in the same day. When I put it like that, the expectation that I’ll manage to pitch it right every time seems a little far fetched.

So this week I’ve walked innocently into a Sixth Form Study Day at a Lincolnshire Grammar School without having any recent teaching at that level to help me calibrate the scale. And the modest task was to provide an hour of Christian reflection for each of four groups in turn tackling ‘the problem of suffering’ after they had watched the recent BBC drama about a group of Jews in a concentration camp putting God on trial.

I took the obvious tools I have to hand (including Elie Wiesel’s Night and Andre Rublev’s icon The Hospitality of Abraham) and made the best fist I could. I tried to get them to think whether a creation free of decay and pain was actually possible. I ventured that God got involved in the world in Jesus because he couldn’t see any other way out of this problem either. Asking pairs to discuss and report back I think I was able to detect those who’d understood what I thought I was getting at (which I’m thankful was a lot of them), those who didn’t really (which I confess was quite a number), and those who didn’t even want to try (which I’m relieved was the smallest group, unlike my other Secondary School encounter this year at a Grimsby Comprehensive).

Of course, it also works the other way around. One of the others speaking at the Study Day had been at the lecture by Gillian Merron MP about which I posted on 29th November. Where I had perceived ‘the commonplaces of world development discussion’, he had been struck by innovative thoughts, particularly by the discovery that we help train customs officers in Mozambique because the development of efficient trade and revenue collection may make as big an impact on poverty reduction there as emergency aid.

Meanwhile, the picture comes from the top of St Michael’s tower during the week, looking across the Freshney river and the edge of the Willows estate to the industry along the south bank of the Humber, including the distinctive Tioxide tower.

Friday 12 December 2008

Thursday 11 December 2008

Monday 8 December 2008

First Christmas Sermon

I don’t want to say that I am amazed how many people have forgotten the real meaning of Christmas, but instead, just to be different, to say the opposite. I am astonished each year just how many people do really understand.

You’ll know the First World War story about soldiers from opposing armies climbing out of their trenches and, famously, playing football in No Man’s Land. Why did they think that on 23rd December it was fine to shell the opposite trench and that on 27th December it was acceptable to machine gun someone in No Man’s Land, but that on 25th December it wasn’t fine at all? The only answer I can come up with is that there was something about the birth of what the prophets called the Prince of Peace which they understood. They might not have read the prophet who said that when God comes among us there will be an end to war, but instinctively they knew it was true. For one day the message that God has come among us was so powerful that they couldn’t do anything other than lay down their weapons and play games with their enemies.

There is an organisation originally called Crisis at Christmas which began a number of years ago in London by setting up a shelter for a few days where those living on the streets could have warmth and good food over Christmas. Why should the welfare of such people seem to be a problem it is too difficult to tackle in October, and a problem to expensive to fund in February, but somehow be something so many people want to do something about and pay towards at the end of December? There is something about the message of the holy child born in a stable because there was no room in the inn which instinctively makes many people really uncomfortable about the idea of others being homeless, and for one season of the year the message is briefly so powerful that they are willing to do something about it.

I don’t know whether you’ve heard in the last few weeks people say something about a difficult or lonely friend or neighbour or member of the family along the lines ‘we can’t leave him or her on their own at Christmas’. Why? We know the answer instinctively. There is something about the birth of the one who is going to say ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ and ‘do good to those who persecute you’ which is powerful enough on the edge of Christmas to provoke ourselves into being better people than we sometimes are.

I give thanks that the message is so powerful that something of the promised Prince of Peace, born in a stable, ready to teach us how to love God and each other, is effecting the lives of people up and down the country and across the world this mid-winter. The real puzzle is about grudging and over pious people like me who think we own this story. Why is it that the message of God among us, which is so powerful for a few days that it shapes so many people’s faith, lives, and relationship with God and with neighbours, doesn’t transform our lives much more comprehensively at this mid-winter festival and doesn’t deepen with the transforming presence of Christ alongside us day by day as the New Year lengthens?

The picture is one I took in St Nicolas’ churchyard before the morning service yesterday. The words are some old material I rehashed for an ecumenical service for the Willows estate in the closed St Peter’s Catholic Church in the afternoon.

Saturday 6 December 2008

Burial space

One of the things which gives me most unease and others most grief is simply the extreme shortage of burial space at our village church of St George’s, Bradley. I receive frequent requests to allow the burial of someone who, say, used to live in the village, has family buried in the churchyard, or worships there at Christmas or another time. Explaining carefully that the remaining burial space has to be kept for those with a legal right to it as residents or regular worshippers is rarely perceived to be sympathetic.

A dozen years ago the then acting Team Rector determined that no burial were to take place at all as no proper plan existed to show where space remaining. I now almost regret the substantial work I put in to identify where at least the next couple of dozen burials could take place because the worse part of me feels it would save angst and trouble simply to tell people that the churchyard is full and closed, and I would be able to avoid the really difficult conversations with newly bereaved people which I’ve had again recently.

The case is simple. The village only has sixty houses and the rate at which new grave and cremated remains spaces are requested from the regular congregation and residents is sometimes not even one a year; at this rate the churchyard can be kept open for at least another generation. The rate at which other requests come in is at least one or two a quarter, often with substantial links with Bradley, and each convinced that their particular single request cannot make any real difference; I said ‘yes’ to the first couple of requests of this sort I received before I realised how frequently they would come; to have said ‘yes’ to all the requests over nearly ten years would have brought us near the final closure of the churchyard, and the vast majority of the last fifty burials would have been these exceptional cases and not those with a legal right to the remaining space at all.

But the situation distresses those making the requests and each time a family puts me under particular pressure I feel bad about it for days. In every other aspect of the life of the church it is open to those far beyond the village and regular congregation: a much wider group is now legally entitled to be married in the church, Harvest and other special events attract people from far afield many of whom think of it as ‘their’ Parish Church, and we even look to this affection to support it when we have to make a substantial financial appeal. It is really hard that we can’t also offer this wider constituency burial space without very quickly depriving the village of the use of its own churchyard.

Thursday 4 December 2008

Community Pay Back

We don’t want those sentenced to perform community service becoming a public spectacle in the one of our churchyards which they help maintain. This is the reply St Nicolas’ District Church Council gave to the enquiry about the new Government scheme that those undertaking such work should wear high visibility vests labelled ‘Community Pay Back’.

The stated intention that justice should be visible seemed to us to tip over far too quickly into satisfying an appetite for public humiliation; appropriate punishment, community benefit and victim support are all vital, but loving our enemies and doing good to those who persecute us ought at least to make us stop short of making a public display of those involved.

But it is very difficult to think this way. My own instinctive reaction to petty nuisances, vandalism and violence when I am a victim or encounter someone who is, is to hunger for retribution and for something which will knock sense into the perpetrators. And the comments left on media sites which have reported the Government initiative indicates that those who dislike the idea of public humiliation in these circumstances are in a very small minority.

So I’m quite proud of the District Church Council for taking a Christian position which requires us to moderate the instincts of many of us and take a position which may seem quite weak and silly to most people in the community.

Repentance (I’m reminded on another blog) isn’t about feeling bad but about thinking differently; the Greek meta-noia is 'after-perception’ which is close to ‘beyond normal thinking’ and thus ‘adopting a different approach’. We pray for that in Advent for ourselves before we pray it for others including those undertaking community sentences.

Not that anything is going on at the moment. We've been really grateful for the work in the past, but those involved haven’t been able to come to us at all this year because of problems with machinery and transport. The picture is of how overgrown the churchyard got at times this summer as a result, despite dedicated work by a number of people. We will need to wait until next February to find out whether they’ll be able to come next year. And the local organiser tells me, whatever the media reports, that there are situations in which high visibility isn’t to be insisted upon and their present vests say ‘Unpaid Work’.

Tuesday 2 December 2008

Deference dangers

Your plane is more likely to crash if the senior officer is at the controls at that moment than if a junior officer is. This is a surprise given you’d expect the senior officer to be more competent and have more flying hours. But it is a fact identified in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The story of success and his agent’s publicity has been excellent because I’ve come across it several times on the radio and in print in the last week. And it is deference which seems to be the problem.

If someone junior is at the controls then colleagues and the senior officer will have no hesitation in alerting him or her to a dial reading or a danger. If the boss is at the controls other people may assume that he or she knows what he or she is doing, or simply be less willing to be seen to criticise. The extreme example quoted often from Gladwell’s book was revealed in a cockpit recording following a Korean air crash in which the extreme deference of the culture meant the junior officers are heard only to hint very obliquely that something might be going wrong.

I posted a passage of Rowan Williams’ on 10th November which mentioned ‘the spiritually damaging effects of hierarchy and deference’ which may be why I’ve noticed Gladwell’s point being repeated inn the media.

Receiving criticism graciously and appropriately is one thing. Simply seeking to remember to respond to justified criticism with ‘thank you, I hadn’t spotted that, it is useful when people point out things like that’ is difficult, but spotting when one is not even being offered the justified criticism is more difficult still.

Giving criticism is another thing, and I'm even further away from mastering the art of doing that graciously and appropriately. ‘Telling the truth in love’ can be cover for Christian ineptitude, dislike and manipulation, but, when it isn’t, it is must be much safer than deference. Some clergy have created publicity by banning I vow to thee my country at church services. Each time such a story emerges I make a point of picking it for the following Sunday, and was glad to tell something of the story of the hymn on Remembrance Sunday last month. Nevertheless, I think the hymn gets it wrong with the line ‘the love that asks no questions’; the down side to the unquestioning obeying of orders must be one of the lessons of the twentieth century.

The picture of dawn is taken from our kitchen window.