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.