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