Monday 28 December 2009

The Stamford Nose cont

There has been a minor flood in one of the archive stores at Brasenose College, Oxford. All seems to be well now, but sorting it all out has been the main preoccupation of the part-time Archivist. Nevertheless, just before Christmas she did reply to my query about the College buying Brasenose, Stamford and its mediaeval door knocker in 1890.

No, she doesn’t think it likely that Bishop Edward King played a role. The house wasn’t sold by his acquaintance Mrs Johnson, and the advertised particulars for the auction make something of the door knocker and its association with the College, so the Archivist assumes that the College heard of the sale by this more prosaic route.

What of Mrs Johnson? She did not own the house - it was sold by Thomas Tertius Paget of Humberston, Leicestershire. She probably had been Paget’s tenant - the particulars indicate the property was available for immediate occupation and College’s Agent at the time mentions a local Estate Agent called Johnson as being ‘a son of the late occupier’.

Meanwhile, although all the roads were clear to drive along through the snow and bad weather before and after Christmas, our greatest challenge was getting out of our drive (as pictured) on Boxing Day.

Friday 25 December 2009

Happy Christmas

It occurs to me (and thus, perforce, to those to whom I preach today) that the Bishop who alerted us to the danger of broadcasting a cosy ‘Happy Christmas’ sentiment from within our own cocoons of well being, heedless of how vacuous such unproductive greeting must seem to the distressed, might be helped by the Sermon on the Mount.

The English name ‘The Beatitudes’ picks up the repeated declaration of those who are ‘blessed’. But the word makarios, most often translated ‘blessed’ in these texts, is most often translated ‘happy’ in other texts (‘happy the one who does not lose faith’, ‘happy are you, Simon, because this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood’, ‘happy the servant whose master finds him at work’). The English sense of knowing oneself to be profoundly fortunate could embrace both being joyful about it (happy) and being aware of it as grace (blessed), and there may be no way to unsplice the two in this particular piece of Greek.

So, perhaps the greeting ‘Happy Christmas’ actually turns out to be particularly apposite for the drained, bereaved, hungry and persecuted: ‘it is this incarnation which pledges God’s makarios to you, however irrelevant and vapid the tinsel laden greeting may seem to you at this moment’.

Of course what this (and my Christmas sermon) does not go on to ponder (especially in the year when St Luke’s Gospel is the principal source for our readings with everything from the Magnificat to the woes which follows his version of the Beatitudes) is whether it can then be appropriate for anyone to say ‘Happy Christmas’ to those like me who are wealthy enough, comfortable, well fed, laughing and even respected today.

Tuesday 22 December 2009

The truth eludes us?

At the beginning of the month, a Bishop wrote that Advent is not meant to be comfortable and warns that a totally blanket use of the greeting ‘Happy Christmas’ can trample on those for whom there is no chance that it will be so; he is castigated in the press for liberal trendiness and being out of touch with the celebrations around him.

Since then, a teacher sent into the home of ill children is reported as being sacked for offering to pray, something offered as further evidence of anti-Christian bias; her own account reveals that she actually took the opportunity of being in one vulnerable non-Christian home to give her testimony about Christian healing two visits running.

This morning, the objective BBC’s flagship radio news programme reports the SNP’s case that any broadcast election debate in Scotland should not ignore the fact that there are four main parties in Scotland; the item concluded that the BBC is unlikely to wish to unpick the agreement it has made with ‘the three main parties’.

Today, it does seem a fair cop that a priest is reported suggesting that the most vulnerable should shop lift; he turns out to have been talking about the impossible situation those who fall through the benefit net are in and was encouraging them to avoid prostitution, burglary and mugging, and says ‘the observation that shop lifting is the best option that some people are left with is a grim inditement of who we are’.

But, while spotting these things, I find strangely that my main reflection is about being in the same boat, and how difficult it is to observe, think or write objectively myself.

For example, how honest and open or self deceiving and spin laden is a blog like this?

Does it manipulatively seek the admiration of any readers there might be? In this way, does it share the unreflective implicit boastfulness of many Christmas circular letters?

Does it unconsciously betray less admirable things this innocent writer doesn’t even suspect? In this way, does it share the distorted selective reporting of the media accounts I've spotted recently?

Would any published column, public speaking or parish pewsheet stand any better chance of avoiding these traps?

Would any private diary, personal conversation or formal confession do so?

Saturday 19 December 2009

Walter Tapper

An enthusiast for the architect Sir Walter Tapper has just put up a new website about the churches Tapper built. John Whitworth’s interest began with his home church of St Erkenwald, Southend (now demolished) but has since spread. He came to see St Michael’s, Little Coates a little while ago to take some pictures which now appear on the website. We were able to share with him then Tapper’s original ground plan and a photograph of how the church looked when newly opened in 1915 both of which now also appear at

Once I’d remembered to click on the + signs to open up wider options, I’ve enjoyed spotting cousin relationships, the most striking of which are between St Michael’s and The Ascension, Malvern Link where the family resemblance includes the nature of the chancel vault and the shape of the east window as well as details such as the light fittings, chairs and pulpit. When he is able to put up pictures of St Mark’s, Whiteley people will be even more struck by how similar the tower there is to the one at St Michael’s.

But the picture above doesn’t come from his website. I’ve just pulled out the small collection of papers in the church safe to check some details for him and noticed again this memorable slip of paper from about 1912. Clearly some recent burials had taken place on the ground north of the old village church where the new Tapper church was to be built. The slip records the permission given by the relevant next of kin for four of these burials to be moved. The first signs with a mark. The last says:

I agree to my baby being removed but would very much like it buried in the same grave as my other one. C Nicholls.

Wednesday 16 December 2009

Sunday morning texts

Look towards the east, O Jerusalem, and see the glory that is coming from God.

Arriving for Matins at St Nicolas' it looked as if the church itself was already saying the Advent antiphon for the Benedictus.

Let us put away the works of darkness and put upon us the armour of light.

Arriving for Communion at St Michael's it appears that during the night someone had lifted all the trees the Council had recently planted on the green outside the church.

Sunday 13 December 2009

Some men don't get it

What has Starlight Express got in common with Thomas the Tank Engine? It is a question which it has amused me to ask ever since we saw Starlight Express at the Grimsby Auditorium some time ago, and I’ve had some grudgingly tolerant answers when I have labouriously trotted it out.

Both have a master figure in charge, and this figure has the same name (Control in one case and the Fat Controller in the other). In both cases, steam is good and diesel is bad. And in both, the engines which drive everything are male and the carriages which trail along behind are female.

It appears that a Canadian Professor has spotted the last point, and is being roundly castigated for highlighting it. One of the pair of male presenters on the objective BBC’s flagship Radio 4 news programme introduced an item about it by saying ‘you are not going to believe this’ and finished by saying that it was ‘not surprising’ that she is being taken to task.

Her basic point is that there are no neutral standing places, and that what children assume to be normal is absorbed among other places from the unspoken assumptions in the books they read and the media they consume; it would have seemed an uncontroversial point to make a generation ago, but somehow it is now greeted with incredulity.

But do the subliminal norms of this sort really make enough difference to make a fuss? Well, they appear to do so in the church. Last week unsolicited I’ve had two different female priests totally independently tell me the debilitating way some male priest have treated them and what it has felt like; I’m sure that some of the opposition to women’s ordained ministry is principled, but it is so difficulty to disentangle this theological context from the non-neutral background assumptions which appear to fuel this sort of behaviour.

And it is endemic. Last week I was also at an almost exclusively male meeting of Rural Deans and watched the face of the only woman present squirm as one of them chortled while described an able female priest as ‘a stunner’.

Meanwhile, the picture is the Kingsway Printers’ Band playing at a Christmas Spectacular in St Michael’s on Thursday.

Thursday 10 December 2009

The Stamford Nose

Did Bishop Edward King have anything to do with an Oxford College getting its nose back?

First, the esoteric background. ‘Brasenose’ may simply be named after its mediaeval door knocker. What may be the original ‘metal nose’ may have been taken by a group of fourteenth century breakaway students to Lincolnshire; just as some students from a college in the village of Merton established Merton College, Oxford so these students from Brasenose College, Oxford established Brasenose College, Stamford. The new college did not survive, but the name did, and a house called Brasenose in Stamford did have a grand mediaeval door knocker until 1890 when Brasenose College, Oxford bought it (the whole house) and claimed or reclaimed the ‘Stamford Nose’ which is in the College’s Hall today.

Secondly, one scrap of information. The Rector of Scartho (on the edge of Grimsby) trawls the internet for memorabilia of Bishop Edward King, and this week he gave me the final part of a letter (it is torn off at the fold) because he knew I’d appreciate having something, however slight, in King’s almost illegible hand; I’m touched and grateful. What looks like another Victorian hand (belonging to the vandal who tore the letter?) notes that it was sent by King in 1888 to Mrs Johnson of Brasenose, Stamford. It appears to read "... prefer the quiet Dinner Party which you propose on the 20th. I must return to Lincoln as soon as I conveniently can after the Service. With many thanks for your kindness. Bless you. Yours truly, E. Lincoln".

So, on the one hand, King was Bishop of Lincoln and thus also Visitor of Brasenose College, and he had only left the University himself three years earlier on becoming Bishop. On the other, here he is on cordial terms with someone at Brasenose, Stamford two years before the College bought the house. I’m asking the College archivist who it was who sold the house to the College, and I’d be fascinated whether or not the archivist knows of any role which King might have played in at least introducing the idea.

Monday 7 December 2009

Degrees of separation

I have the greatest sympathy with the synagogue official in the story of the bent women (Luke 13.10-17) - a good man doing his very best to be faithful to the traditions and ordinances of his community. He is in no way against the woman being healed - but not at that moment. The woman in the culture of the day is not simply ill but deeply ritually unclean. She is brought by Jesus into the centre of the synagogue, where only men may be. As a result of meeting Jesus and being touched at the deepest level, she, the ritually unclean one, stands tall. And the first thing she does is publically praise God in a place where only men are allowed to publically pray. No wonder Jesus caused trouble wherever he went.

So Fr Ken O’Riordan writes in the current Tablet. I’d encountered Ken’s creative opening up of the Bible before I came here ten years ago, and he was the Catholic parish priest here when I arrived; he read one of the lessons at my licensing service. Everything from the creation of the North East Lincolnshire Credit Union as Churches Together’s Jubilee Millennium project to the striking reordering of St Puis’ church seemed to be down to him.

He was writing out of the experience of attending another Anglican celebration, where he was also asked to read from the Bible, for the 25th anniversary of becoming a deaconess of the artist and priest Jean Lamb. By coincidence we have mutual friends with Jean, and the poor picture is of her superb Annunciation which is on one of our walls at home here: the exploratory touching across the divide which traditionally marks the middle of Annunciations is as eloquent as the fruit shaped space between the figures.

Ken writes from the experience of seeing this women priest standing tall as one whose ministry is touched by the Lord while knowing that his traditions and ordinances say that the issue of women’s ordination is not even open to discussion. I read with traditionalists crowding in on every side to denounce the ordination as Bishops of those who are either female or gay (or both), and with our Archbishop able publically to urge that they shouldn’t cause trouble without being able publically to urge gracious restraint on those who would even legislate to pursue such people to death.

Tuesday 1 December 2009

Untie by love

Do not be disheartened, Peter; answer once, twice, yes three time. This threefold confession of love is necessary to recover what you lost three times by your fear. Untie by love the knot that you tied about yourself through fear.

I’m still dabbling in information about Augustinian Canons, as well as remembered this quotation from a sermon of St Augustine’s on which I used to focus often when I had a copy of it up on my study wall.

It turns out that the earliest of Henry I’s Augustinian foundations in Lincolnshire may well have been the one in Grimsby. Wellow Abbey a short distance from here stood where the present Abbey Road and Abbey Drives meet.

The neighbouring Grimsby and Clee churches were both theirs, as were those at Riby, Humberston, Tetney and others further way. In 1444 the Bishop directed that Clee should in future be served by a non-monastic priest rather than by one of the Canons, which is a clear indication of the way at least some of those churches were served over several hundred years before that.

There were also Augustinian Canonesses near by at St Leonard’s Priory near the present Nun’s Corner, and it is this house which held Little Coates (as well as Ravendale), appointing a priest to care for this parish ‘vicariously’. The tomb of a recumbent knight in Grimsby Parish Church today comes from this Priory.

One hopes that the direct and vicarious care of our local churches was more often marked by attention to St Augustine's Rule and sermons than the local drinking and gossip for which it appears the Canons of Wellow were denounced in 1386.

The picture is simply a closer look at the new trees outside St Michael’s.

Saturday 28 November 2009

A force for bad

Christianity is a force for bad in the world, and this week’s report about abuse in the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin is simply the most recent piece of evidence. I had half bought the line that less rigorous children protection policy in the past was in part due to naivity and inexperience, but the report indicates that there was full awareness and cumulative experience about what was happening to children vitiated only by a desire to protect the institution of the church.

I do believe and continue to promote the line that Christianity is a force for good in the world. I’ll be in a School during the week responding to a request to bring material about how Christians respond to natural disasters. At the end of the week we’ll be marking St Nicolas’ Day by highlighting our parish’s support for child headed families in Zimbabwe and many parish’s support through Christingle Services for the work of the Church of England’s Children’s Society whose most recent press releases are about engaging with children who are victims in divorce and the hidden nature of trafficked children.

But the second position doesn’t cancel the first, nor does either win an argument between the two, and it is strange to me that Christian people so familiar with the necessity to confess personal sin do not see and say this more often.

The place where I tried to be clearest about this was in the review of The God Delusion I wrote for the diocesan newspaper:

In 2 Samuel 16 there is the wonderful story of Shimei, a member of Saul’s family, running along cursing David and throwing dust and stones at him. David’s supporters wanted to cut off Shimei’s head, but David rather thought that God might have intended Shimei to curse him, so he simply kept on walking as the missiles fell...

My first, perhaps rather flippant, reaction to Prof Dawkins’ book was that I agreed with about 85% of it. There are some very bad arguments for believing in God, and he sets these out and disposes of them. There are some very bad examples of how some believers in God have behaved, and he sets these out and exposes them. This is not that surprising since the toughest things Jesus said were to religious people who had got things very badly wrong both in what they taught and in what they practised....

It may make the most sense for us to admit that we are deeply flawed and failing people, part of a deeply flawed and sometimes abusive institution, and share deeply flawed and partial understanding of what God means. It may make most sense for us to admit that these failures have sometimes been most pronounced when we have been most sure that we are right. When a Dawkins curses us for these flaws we should probably carry on walking and assume that anyone who does so has a perfectly valid point.

Meanwhile, outside St Michael’s during the week the Local Authority has planted some new trees on the green and supported our new disabled access provision by painting some new markings on the road.

Wednesday 25 November 2009

Child headed families

With the maize seed we are going to identify the child headed families and the elderly who have no one to help them and each family will receive a 10kg bag. Please pass our thanks to everyone who made this possible and it will be a great Christmas present.

This is the message we received this week to thank the parish here for transferred a third contribution this year to our linked parish in Zimbabwe. Over several weeks £540 had come in from St Michael’s Harvest celebrations and from one regular generous donor, so we were able to respond in the month that the rains have started and the particular appeal is once again for seed.

The phrase ‘child headed families’ is all the more haunting for the way it is handled as being factual and unremarkable.

The picture of, in our case, winter sowing was taken in a local field last month.

Sunday 22 November 2009

Augustinian practice

My mind is still on priestly good practice in the twelfth century rather than in the twenty-first. In his St Hugh’s Day lecture, Professor Mayr-Harting suggested some conclusions from evidence from two Abbeys then within the diocese of Lincoln. The background is the Papal reforms of the eleventh century, the consequential repopularising of the Augustinian Rule, the resulting fresh foundations in England under William the Conqueror’s son Henry I in particular, and the Canons’ willingness to cover existing parishes where there were not sufficient trained clergy.

At St Frideswide’s Abbey in Oxford (my attention was captured because it was this church in which I was ordained priest) it was the records of miracles at the saint’s shrine to which he drew attention not for their own sake but because the stories they tell demonstrate a non-judgmental pastoral awareness of a whole range of things including marital and sexual disharmony.

And from Bourne Abbey still in the present diocese of Lincoln it was the Ormulum to which he drew attention. I wish I’d heard about it before. A selection survives of the preaching of a Canon called Orm. This is of particular importance to those who study Middle English because Orm takes care to let speakers of French and Latin know how to communicate in English. It is also the only evidence of preaching in the period.

Orm provides retellings in English of the Gospel for the day which would have been read in Latin, and he then provides comments on it, so his concern is for those who needed the Gospel understood and applied in their own language long before Wycliffe let alone before anything from Tyndale to Vatican II.

Meanwhile, the blurr is the Team Rector of Boston being seated in the Cathedral Chapter House by the Dean as a new Cathedral Canon alongside other existing members of the College of Canons.

Thursday 19 November 2009

Augustinian hints

Noone has the right to lead a life of contemplation in which ease makes him forget the care of his neighbour, nor has anyone the right to be so immersed in a life of activity which neglects the contemplation of God.

The quotation is from Augustine’s City of God, and Professor Henry Mayr-Harting drew particular attention to it in his St Hugh’s Day lecture for the College of Canons at Lincoln Cathedral on Tuesday. Those who came to live under the monastic Rule of St Augustine held together the ‘contemplative’ vocation of monastic prayer and the ‘active’ vocation of pastoral ministry; the latter included working both parishes within the several mile walking distance of their monasteries and parishes further away in which they had lodgings.

There is much talk today of a ‘Minster model’ which for some people evokes a folk memory of a principal Saxon church whose college of priests served churches across a wider area. It was thought that Professor Mayr-Harting might be able to ground this folk memory in history for us. He decided to talk about the Augustinian Canons instead, because much more is actually known about how they operated, and because the model seems closer to our present situation.

He warned that there was really no simple existing early model from which to read off direct lessons for today, but wondered whether one or two principles might emerge on which it would be worth reflecting.

This holding together of the contemplative and active was the one which struck a chord most. People recalled twentieth century parallels in the writing of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in particular. I was reminded of the Missionary Congregation emphasis on being both ‘distinctive’ and ‘engaged’, rooted in both God and the local community. It seemed that any new structure should be judged by how well it is able to support this.

The Vicar of Grantham, whose major church has been the centre of a disbanded Team Ministry and is now touted as a possible Minister, followed up the lecture by speaking simply about the way the Deanery clergy were building partnership rather than formal structures by praying, studying and gossiping together once a week; a variation on the approach in Louth about which I posted on 27th October.

One of several other highlights of the day was the bright low sun shining off autumn oak leaves all along the journey to Lincoln; I stopped and took this picture at Middle Rasen on the way.

Monday 16 November 2009

Negative Capability

John Keats may have been one of the people who has saved me from ossified religion (which does seem to be its most admired, common and flourishing form).

We’ve just been to see Bright Star, the newly opened film which doesn’t do much more than trace Keats and Fanny Brawne falling in love, but does so entrancingly. Afterwards I took down my Sixth Form Keats.

I discovered how fragmentary is my recollection of the great Odes, and I also discovered endless detailed pedestrian comments scribbled in the margins, reminding me for all the world of Brawne in the film innocently exposing how little she had learnt from the lessons in poetry Keats had given her.

I did not have any memory of the poem Bright Star at all, and I found no scribbles in the margins next to it, so I assume that taking a class of adolescent boys through the sonnet about Keats’ wish to be constantly ‘pillowed upon my fair love’s ripening breast’ wasn’t regarded as an essential teaching exercise.

But those Sixth Form lessons were not lost time. There are two things from the volume which have stayed part of my perception since and to which I’ve returned often.

One is the sense in On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer of how a fresh intellectual insight or discovery can be like a new world opening up:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific, and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise -
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

The other is the famous thought captured in an 1817 letter to his brothers:

Several things dovetailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a man of achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously. I mean negative capability - that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.

I’m most at home with faith which is silent in the face of mystery and which is not restless in the face of ambiguity, and the Keats who appears to have been there first still provides these definitive expressions of why this should be so.

I took the photograph at about four o’clock.

Friday 13 November 2009

Tuesday 10 November 2009

Kingdom delivery systems

People change denominational allegiance all the time. It isn’t as big a deal as the media sometimes makes out. If any or many among the Anglicans who can accept the full Catholic Catechism decide soon to become part of what are in effect new non-geographical Catholic dioceses, their choice will only be one among many such stories over the years.

Each of our three churches has a Treasurer. Only one was brought up in the Church of England (and I enjoy his rootedness in this expressed when asked to read at a service by always using the Authorised Version and by his gently chiding me if too many of the hymns at any Evensong are not the ones which were in use in his school chapel as a boy). One of the others was brought up as a Catholic, and was received into the Church of England a few years ago. The third was an active Methodist until quite recently, indeed a Local Preacher. And of those who have ceased to worship in the parish in my time at least one family now worships at an independent church and another with the Salvation Army.

I discovered just how wide spread this sort of movement was fifteen to twenty years ago when each year I was asked to teach a day on ecumenism for the then diocesan Local Ministry course. I would always begin by asking how many had experience of adult membership or regular childhood worship in another denomination. I never failed to get answers which covered the whole range of the main stream denominations. There was also always at least one example of something less usual (perhaps someone brought up as a Moravian or in an Orthodox church). It appears that any pool of the thirty or so committed active lay Anglicans in Lincolnshire will contain this range of denominational background, and I assume that any similarly sized pool in any other denomination is likely to contain at least one former Anglican as well.

My old colleague the Bishop of Buckingham has a Blog it is often a treat to visit and he has this very simply: ‘I’ve always thought people should serve within the denomination in which they can best be discipled; all denominations are only delivery systems for the Kingdom after all’. I’d want to sell my own brand of Christianity because I value what it has given me and what I believe it can offer others, but I do it knowing full well that selling a particular brand isn’t my primary Christian calling at all.

Saturday 7 November 2009

Canon John Bayley

‘He was a modest man with nothing to be modest about,’ concludes his obituary in yesterday’s Church Times, an affectionate article which catches a flavour of the sort of priesthood which builds up the church.

I lived in John’s parish for the five years before I moved here, and used to meet to say Matins as part of the large group he gathered very early each day. I once made the mistake of beginning to gossip with him about the failings of a member of the Bishop’s Staff, something he quickly (and, I later learnt from others, habitually) deflected by telling me a story of a kindness that priest had exhibited.

He was a Curate here in Grimsby in the mid-1960s and then Vicar of a parish in Gainsborough for five years before serving for twenty nine years (1973-2002) as the parish priest for the area around Lincoln Cathedral, of which he was also an honorary Canon from the age of 36.

The obituary records ‘unobtrusive support to the Cathedral clergy and congregation through thick and thin’ (code for periods of acute trauma in the Cathedral’s life), and it happened to fall to him to preach on the first Sunday when a Dean was present after a long suspension; his sermon attacked nobody, but nor did it allow anyone off the hook of reflecting on his or her own constant need for repentance and reconciliation.

And he was a draftsman and artist of rare skill, so it was a delight that his obituary was illustrated not by a picture of himself (which he would have hated) but by one of his drawings. The exquisite one above is a Jesse Tree from a boss in the Cathedral; David playing his harp is the chief figure emerging from his father's loins, but there are others along the sides. He allowed me to use it in a couple of small diocesan publications which I produced when I was in Lincoln, just one of the things for which I hold him in grateful remembrance.

Wednesday 4 November 2009

War Horse

The First World War began with huge optimism, and each reminder of this brings a strange chill in the light of the millions of deaths which were about to follow.

St Nicolas’ has first hand evidence, which I’ve just dug out again preparing to take the service there on Remembrance Sunday. It has detailed drawings prepared in 1913 for a substantial restoration of the church. A letter about the cancellation of the project (from Townsend, the architect, to the Rector) is tucked in with them. It catches the mood in October 1914 just before the full horror of trench warfare was revealed.

I am afraid many good works will have to wait till the war is over. I congratulate you on your son getting a Commission. All this patriotism which has so stirred up Old England is what the German Emperor did not arrange for and I hope it will be his undoing. My brother Alfred’s only son has just got a Commission in a cavalry regiment and is now training on Salisbury Plain.

I have no idea what sort of preparation a cavalry regiment was making that month, whether Alfred Townsend’s son had a horse, or whether he or it survived very long, but a week ago, when we were in London, we watched the dramatic recreation of an early cavalry charge unexpectedly encountering machine guns, and it was chilling.

War Horse, based on Michael Morpurgo’s novel, is at the New London Theatre, and it is well worth looking at for some clips which show the totally convincing way the Handspring Puppet Company staged the horses; it was one of the most effective pieces of theatre we think we’ve seen with every snort, twist of the head or twitch of the flank looking like that of a live animal.

Sunday 1 November 2009

Friday 30 October 2009

Tuesday 27 October 2009

It can be done

The churches in the Louth area are trying to adapt to at least some of the new ways of working which the diocese would want.

They have not made the whole deanery into a single Team Ministry, nor have they designated a single Minster with a small college of priests serving the wider area, but they have made sure that the incumbents outside the Louth Team Ministry all live in the villages closest to the town so they can all meet to pray together every day. They also have one Deanery Office which is where, for instance, Funeral Directors have easy access for making arrangements rather than seeking to track down individual clergy through their answering machines.

And, most significant of all, the clergy share responsibility for specialist areas of community engagement and ministry rather than simply being designated as parish G.Ps each faced with the temptation to minister more to their churches than their parishes. For example, in the Louth Team Ministry itself, the Team Rector is active in the District Council’s Strategic Partnership and a new Team Vicar has a brief which includes the world of education across the deanery.

We know about this in particular because we said farewell to our Curate on Sunday as she goes off to join them. I was able to say, at a single service for the whole parish here, that of all the Curates I have known Sue Allison has been the most thoroughly reflective, determined to think through and then improve upon whatever she has done, and even insisting on a final supervision with me in her final week. There were several people in tears at the service, and I shall miss her as much as them.

She will now give 60% of her time to an ark of villages north and north west of Louth (from Fotherby to North Somercotes), as Priest-in-Charge of what were until quite recently two separate benefices served by two full time priests, although they have both been in vacancy for quite some time now. She will also give 40% of her time to the agricultural sector, and I know she has already made links with the weekly market, the community nurse who is based there, and the ‘rural stress’ support network.

With such a good and likeable priest and a good and necessary plan they may well be on to something in a way we are not yet managing here.

Saturday 24 October 2009


The Bishop of Grantham thinks we are addicts. Our lives are controlled by our need to have some things which once seemed to feed and enhance the life of the church but which now simply consume all our attention, time and money. He floated the image at a Diocesan Synod in the summer, and he works it up in the papers we’ve now had for the annual Rural Deans’ gathering in early November. He names built heritage, hierarchical authority, and the incumbency model of stipendiary priesthood as the things to which we are addicted in particular.

I know what he means. I see that I was blogging exactly a year ago (20 and 22 October 2008) about the models of ministry we should develop and why this ‘good that I would I do not do’. I see that what I’ve blogged since (such as 29 March 2009 and 9 May 2009) shows I’m aware both of a more healthy approach and the difficulties involved in adopting it. The language of addiction does indeed help illustrate or explain what is going on.

But, if we take this language seriously, we are no longer using the language of free choice and will. In normal circumstances it is reasonable to say to a newly convicted drink driver that he or she should make a firm resolution never to make that mistake again. But where the person is an alcoholic it would be irresponsible to do so without providing at the very least access to treatment.

If we (incumbent, Churchwardens and parishioner) were to step away tomorrow from our responsibilities for the three Grade 1 listed buildings in this parish, in due course we’d face prosecution certainly from English Heritage and possibly from a whole range of others perhaps right through to those involved in bat protection. If I was to step away tomorrow from the responsibilities tied up in being an incumbent, in due course I’d face discipline under new clergy competence or discipline procedures for an astonishing range of legal responsibilities I would by then have neglected.

When the language was simply one of embracing a different shape of priestly ministry, the responsibility for change was chiefly mine. If the language is now that of addiction, there is little that I can do if left on my own to make the necessary changes.

The picture is another of the lone elm in the fields towards Laceby.

Wednesday 21 October 2009

Tree survival

A solitary elm stands on the edge of a field just across the parish boundary towards Laceby. I went out to look for it at the end of last week when a combination of family illnesses meant I hadn’t got away on my annual Retreat; a newsletter from the local Wildlife Trust had drawn our attention to it. I found I’d actually walked past it before without noticing it. The speculation in the newsletter is that its standing alone had isolated it from contamination from disease spread to other elms.

Its appearance and survival are both magnificent, although its loneness has a strange sense of sadness; I’m minded again of the sense of the undermining of Christian community in the suggestions that we keep apart by not sharing the Peace or the chalice lest our proximity to other Christians makes us vulnerable to swine flu.

Meanwhile, the second photograph is the stump of a tree which has not survived: it is the one at the entrance to the churchyard at St Nicolas’, Great Coates felled on Sunday.

Sunday 18 October 2009

Visible injustice

Some of the first local victims of the new approach to Community Pay Back are a small group of offenders who refused the highest visibility task of helping clear up the main shopping street in town. According to the local paper yesterday, they now face the possibility of being re-sentenced.

The public and editorial lines, which I’m sure fully accords with local opinion, are that those convicted of anti-social behaviour should not just be ashamed but should be willing to be publically shamed. It seems futile to point out that the legislation claimed to be about satisfying the public appetite for the visibility of justice and not about satisfying the public appetite for removing offenders' dignity.

The Church Times published an article of mine at the end of May (most of the material for which for which I’d blogged here first) in which I identified the fine line between engaging communities and humiliating offenders, between making justice public and putting offenders on display. The line is crossed here, and it will be incredibly sad if it turns out to mean that one of these offender ends up invisibly and expensively in prison (from where his chances of re-offending would be high) rather than discreetly and cheaply in community work (from where his chance of rehabilitation are higher).

Meanwhile, I turned up at Matins at St Nicolas’ early this morning to find I couldn't get though the churchyard gate because a rotten tree on the side of the road was being nosily removed. The workmen were very nice, said the day and time was dictated by the need to work when the road wasn’t busy, and they promised to have finished by main service time. A colleague took this photograph of them at work.

Thursday 15 October 2009

God speaks directly

Detailed knowledge of the background to any text is the crucial thing (whether one is attacking or elucidating the text in question).

I followed up Rabbi Danny Rich’s lecture last week by buying one of the books which he mentioned as impressing him - Prof Hyam Maccoby’s Jesus the Pharisee (SCM 2003). Part of the way through, I’ve discovered what a wonderful polemic it is. Maccoby is convinced that Paul is the real founder of a Christianity quite unlike anything which the Jewish Jesus could or did inaugurate; he attributes this to Paul’s relying on direct visions from God.

Some of his arguments like this don’t seem to stand up to real scrutiny. He thinks that the Eucharist is an invention of Paul’s, and that the absence of an account of its institution in John’s account of the Last Supper is one of the things which gives this away. He hasn’t noticed how far the poetry of ‘I am the bread’ and ‘I am the vine’ weaves around John’s Gospel.

But, even with these things put aside, his knowledge of the Jewish background appears to allow him to spot quite as startling misinterpretations in Christian commentaries, such as an unhelpful habit of confusing ritual impurity with sin.

So far, however, I’ve enjoyed most of all discovering the story in the Talmud when the direct voice of God was ruled out of order in a rabbinical discussion. God had given the law and its methods of interpretation, and a particular decision had been made after careful consideration, so the rabbi who called successfully for support from a stream asked to flow backwards and a voice asked to speak from heaven was judged not to be following God’s own chosen methods of deliberation and judgement. (I found the full text in an on-line Talmud by searching for the reference b. B. Metzi’a 59b.)

Maccoby suggests this rabbinical approach as helpful background in understanding Peter being told in Matthew that what he binds or looses on earth will be bound or loosed in heaven. It is all fascinating stuff.

Meanwhile, for me the most satisfying photograph so far this week has been this close up of the grass beneath the feet of the disciples at the Ascension in St George’s, Bradley’s east window.

Monday 12 October 2009

Sister faiths

Contemporary Judaism and contemporary Christianity should not be seen as ‘mother and daughter’ but rather as ‘sisters’. In other words, although they both have their origins in first century Judaism, they are both quite unlike the first century Judaism from which they both developed.

For Christianity, the decision of the Council of Jerusalem as early as about 50 AD that Gentile Christians did not have to become Jews in order to become Christians was the first crucial development. For Judaism, the destruction of the Temple and its sacrifices in 70 AD and the subsequent development of rabbinical leadership and synagogue worship were equally crucial developments. Both were then shaped within a Hellenistic world view unknown to earlier Judaism. In the immediate following centuries, the development of the Jewish Talmud and Mishnah quiet as much as the development of Christian patristic thought provided the ground work for these distinctively new forms of faith.

It is thirty years this month since I began to study Theology at University, and this perspective is one which was impressed on me then and has been consistently since. A form of it was rehearsed again when Rabbi Danny Rich, Chief Executive of Liberal Judaism, lectured in Lincoln Cathedral’s Chapter House after the dedication of the Little Hugh plaque there on Thursday. He placed the first stage of the separate parallel development of both the new forms of faith in the trauma of the destruction of the Temple, but actually the separate Christian development does seem to have begun as much as a generation earlier.

In the 1970s, Geza Vermes’ Jesus the Jew was a startling new reminder of the implications of Jesus’ rootedness in first century Judaism. Thirty years on, a questioner at the lecture again noted how like internal Pharisaic discussions and disputes some of the teaching of Jesus seemed to be, however much it is represented as Jesus attacking the Pharisees; ‘they seemed to get along close enough to be debating and walking in the corn fields’, was his tack.

As the latest gesture towards persuading myself that I haven’t totally stopped study, I’ve bought more than 4lbs of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s new A History of Christianity, and I notice that he devotes the first fifty pages (the whole of Part One) to a survey of the Hellenistic and Jewish background to the first century before arriving at the birth of Jesus at the beginning of Part Two.

Saturday 10 October 2009

Little Hugh

On Thursday, a Jewish Kantor sang the Kaddish for Mourners at the tomb of Little Hugh in Lincoln Cathedral. He wasn’t singing for Hugh (a boy who died or was murdered in Lincoln in 1255) but perhaps for the innocent Jews executed for his murder, or perhaps for all Jews killed as the result of such ‘blood libel’, or perhaps for all Jews killed by Christians. It was a poignant and significant moment at which to be present.

Geoffrey Chaucer was a member of the Cathedral Fraternity and one of his sisters-in-law is buried close by Little Hugh. His Prioress's Tale is such a ‘blood libel’ story. It ends asking for the prayers of ‘Hugh of Lincoln, likewise murdered so’. This is obviously not the great St Hugh of Lincoln (the twelfth century Bishop for whose funeral the Jews of Lincoln crowded round the city gates to see his body brought in), but the thirteenth century boy who, although never canonised, came to be known as Little St Hugh and pilgrimage to whose tomb or shrine came to be one focus of the antisemitism which was to see the Jews expelled from England in 1290.

The Kaddish was sung as a new plaque was dedicated by the tomb, now carefully labelled as that of ‘Little Hugh’ without the use of the word ‘Saint’. It is not the first to mark contemporary Christian penitence at the site. An earlier one had a simple text ‘remember not our sins nor the sins of our fathers’. The wording of the new one has the advantages and disadvantages of writing by committee; it has been prepared in collaboration with the local Jewish community and national promoters of Jewish historical trails.

Instead of the poetic instinct of the earlier plaque, it tells the story in full beginning by driving home one of the morals of the site:

All too often, in too many places, communities define themselves in opposition - who they are not, rather than who they are. It is but a short step from this to distrust, dislike and even hatred of ‘the other’ - frequently neighbours who happen to be people of different faith or race.

A similar and earlier site in Norwich Cathedral is now a Chapel of the Holy Innocents.

Wednesday 7 October 2009


The distress of stillbirth surfaces for someone else again, and I’m reminded of the mother whose stillborn child I’d blessed saying to me ‘I’ll never forget her, but I wish others could have had their memories of her as well’, which led to:

I know
whose voice
which tune
what food
she liked
and the ones she hated
but how
I wish
there were
some more
who knew
such things about her too.

The poor pictures were taken yesterday in St Andrew’s (the modern Parish Church nearest Grimsby Docks) when we met for our periodic local clergy gathering yesterday.

Sunday 4 October 2009

Finding the right road maps

Potentially disengaged young people may not have either a ‘destination’ or a ‘road map’; they may not have an idea of where they want to get in their lives nor of how they would get there if they did. So two at first apparently contradictory phenomena which I’ve noticed are related and not surprising. One is that they may opt for the limited selection of things which have clear destinations and road maps, such as joining the Army (or, I wonder, early motherhood and pregnancy). The other is that they may fantasise about the most remote destinations the road map to which they’ve seen, of which becoming a celebrity whether in football or in another way is the most common.

This is one (of ten) ‘barriers’ to aspiration and achievement identified by BRMB, one of the consultants employed by the Department of Communities and Local Government (CLG) to support the Inspiring Communities programme, the first samples of whose work were finally sent to us on Friday evening. This is not just of academic interest because the work which we need to do during October to refine our proposed programme will be measured partly against BRMB’s insights, so it is a relief to find that at least their national material is comprehensive and recognisable.

The challenge with this example is how far our draft plans share credible destinations and understandable road maps with young people in ways they recognise. Our hope would be that Whitgift Comprehensive’s existing engineering focus, the new partnership with the local Fire and Rescue Service, proposed game show style activities, and the intention to involve as role models those who have progressed into other forms of employment are indeed part of the appropriate response.

It has felt quite a struggle to getting this far. Fitting in with either CLG or different London based consultants’ limited capacity for extensive local consultation, jargon and then additional disclosure, fixed dates and then changes, announced timetables and then delays hasn’t felt like giving us a free run at getting stuck into refining our plans. But interesting and relevant material now seems to be emerging, so it may be a fascinating and constructive month ahead, albeit the timetable of those based in London and outside the educational sphere envisages crucial stages of agreement taking place here with those involved in education during Half Term.

Meanwhile, the picture is a final one from the walk at North Ormsby, where the quarry shows the chalk which lies deep beneath us here outcropping in the Lincolnshire Wolds a very short distance inland.

Thursday 1 October 2009

Knowing about freezing

Some people in this parish turn out to know more about the freezing process than most people in the world.

There is a concentration of cold stores in the area because the majority of the fish eaten in the country has passed through the Humber at some point. There is also a huge amount of processing, and we get the occasional whiff here of fish fingers cooking: I learnt from television a while ago that these are not cooked and then frozen, rather already frozen fish has a coating which is added and cooked so quickly that the fish inside remains frozen.

So this week I was given a very brief tour of the new Humber Seafood Institute on the Europarc development in Great Coates. Major EU, regional and local authority investment has established a multi-million pound research and education base. Most major firms and the Grimsby Institute of FE and HE (GIFHE) are involved, so that industry’s needs and opportunities relate directly to education and training provision. A research group most recently based at the Bristol University has moved up because GIFHE seemed to be ‘the most interesting and welcoming’ base it could find.

It appears that freezing food produces ice crystals within it which damage it, which is why it is looks and tastes different when it is unfrozen, and which is why the process is the subject of so much professional expertise and academic research. So we were shown a piece of Japanese kit which freezes food in a magnetic field making crystals aligned, smaller and less damaging. And we were told about research on a slow freezing process which keeps some foods beneath their freezing point but unfrozen.

The picture, on the other hand, is another from the walk a little while ago at North Ormsby.