Thursday 30 December 2010

Fowler restoration

St Nicolas’ appears to have had a clerestory and a south porch ahead of the major restoration in 1865 (at least, I assume that is when the changes were made, as I also assume other changes were made at the time including the insertion of a plaster mock chancel arch which was then taken out in about 1900).

The first picture is part of a late eighteenth century drawing which shows clerestory and porch as well as a very irregular roof line. It can be compared with the picture of the church posted earlier in the month where the tower in particular shows no change and the general shape of the nave, south aisle and other windows are the same.

I’m sorry not to have discovered any paperwork about the Fowler restoration, and can’t think why he would have chosen to eliminate either clerestory or porch. I also regret not knowing whether there is a connection with the present position of the indent of a missing brass which is where the south porch would have stood (was it in the porch? or did the stone on which it stands get repositioned there when the porch was removed? or was there some other sequence of events?).

Monday 27 December 2010

Jonah 9.24

The great East Window in Lincoln Cathedral includes the impossible biblical reference Jonah 9.24. I hadn’t previously spotted that it included any biblical references at all, but I was looking at Gordon Plumb’s Flickr images (he has recently put up sets of the twentieth century stained glass in St Michael’s, Little Coates and St Nicolas’, Great Coates) and found his set of the sixty-four panels in the main body of the window. I knew that sixteen of them are images of prophets but had not spotted the fact that each carries a scroll giving a reference. The sixteen references help explain and shape the character of the window as a celebration of the sacrificial nature of Jesus’ death. At least fifteen of them do; I can’t explain (and I’ve contacted Gordon and he cannot either) the reference in the scroll in Jonah’s hands in the panel almost at the bottom right. The twenty-eight panels in a large central cross are stories from Jesus’ life. The remaining twenty round the edge are from the Old Testament and favour stories of sacrifice including several stages of the scape-goat story. The prophets are in groups of four between the central cross shape and the outer frame. (I can’t lift pictures from his Flickr site, so the illustration above is a general view of the window from elsewhere.)

Meanwhile, I very glad to learn that I may have been more apocalyptic than I need to have been in my two references earlier this month to the side aisle coming away from St Nicolas’, Great Coates. The structural engineer’s report which arrived just before Christmas suggests it is possible that the crack is long standing and that what has deteriorated over time and finally fallen out is in-fill introduced to repair it relatively recently; a genuine earthquake type shift would have been likely to show up in other ways. Nevertheless, there are different more minor cracks in the plaster elsewhere in the aisle and he will monitor the situation to be sure there isn’t something more serious going on.

Friday 24 December 2010

Hopes and fears

If you go hill walking in certain more remote parts of England today, from time to time you’ll come across a low almost circular wall with a single opening in it. It isn’t an ancient stone circle - it is much more recent than that. It isn’t the remains of a shelter or hovel which has lost its roof - it never had a roof in the first place. It is simply a derelict pen for sheep - an enclosure into which sheep could be gathered - what is called a folding or a sheep fold.

The same simple pattern of wall has been used for thousands of years - and in still exists and is used in different parts of the world. The Spanish word corral is used for similar cattle enclosures both there and in America. The related word kraal is used in South Africa. And so on.

There is actually an even older English word for it - a cote or sheepcote - and it is possible that Great Coates and Little Coates today take their names from Anglo-Saxon enclosures on the edge of the Humber marsh long before Vikings came along and named a nearby port as ‘Grim’s by’.

Such cots or foldings or kraals have existed in the Middle East for centuries, and they still exist today. They are needed particularly where there are dangers - from robbers, or from War Lords, or from wild animals like bears or lions or wolves.

The herdsmen would need to gather their sheep together at dusk. The low stone wall wouldn’t be enough. A sheep steeler or a wolf could easily climb or jump over it. So the walls would need to be tall, and the herdsman is likely to pile thorny bush on top of it as well. A simple gate across the opening at the front wouldn’t be enough either. The herdsmen would be likely to build their fire in front of it, some of them might sleep across it, and at least one would be likely to keep awake and keep watch by night.

It may sound like a remote rural scene. But think of the sheep as valuable trading goods. Think of the stone circle as a steel fence. Think of the thorns on top as razor wire. Think of the fire as floodlighting. Think of the watchman as a security guard. Think of the hillside as looter’s paradise in a war zone. That would give you a better picture of what was needed and what was there.

We have to imagine all that. But an extraordinary thing is that we don’t have to imagine what the herdsmen thought. We actually know what those watchmen hoped for. We know what the security guards wanted. We know - because some of the poems and songs written about them or by them or for them are among the oldest poems and songs which we still read today.

So when someone dies today, and their family brings their body here, it is the words of one of those songs which we most often use to comfort and encourage them. We tell them that God is our herdmen. He isn’t going to leave us huddled and anxious in this kraal. He is going to set us free to roam and flourish on lush ground. Getting there we may walk through ravines made so dark by the bereavements and worse things closing in around us that we feel as if we’ll lose our footing, but his crook and his stave will keep me safe.

And tonight we’ve read another of those poems as the first of our two readings from the Bible.

From torn stumps of the deforestation around us new shoots will come. They’ll come from the family of Jesse from near by Bethlehem. They’ll come through his son the shepherd boy David who became King of Israel. It won’t be like having anarchy and War Lords around any more. There will be reliable justice even for the most vulnerable.

And best of all: the wolf and the lamb will lie down together and a child will lead them. It is not going to be predators and sheep folds and watchmen any longer. It is going to be their young all playing together: wolf and sheep and humans; cubs and lambs and children. We won’t be afraid of each other. We won’t be in danger from each other.

And then - it began to happen. God began to stir like one of their young. Even the sky split open with rejoicing. Close by the only people awake to notice were the night watchmen at a local sheepcote. The story says they were scared witless. It took them a little while to understand what was going on.

The awakening of a new born child was God beginning to live among all the possibilities of abuse, anxiety and attack. The filling of his make shift nappy was God deep in the mess of a world of bereavement, bullying and burglary. His beginning to cry was just God’s first tears which continue in the face of things like cancers and cold and cuts. The visit of some of those shepherds was God’s first human encounter with ordinary people who face death and debt and doubt.

God was beginning to move. His transformation of the world isn’t nearly complete, but he knew their hopes and dreams, and he had begun to get stuck in. We are never again going to be left alone with our fears, and we know we’ll come safe through the dark ravine. Some of the old ways things worked are beginning to break down, and new possibilities of reliable justice and peaceful relating are beginning to open up for any willing to embrace them. It began to dawn on the herdsmen that the hopes and fears of all the years were beginning to be met near by that night.

Tuesday 21 December 2010

Cold and judgmental

The temperature dropped to minus 11 degrees at 2.00 a.m. today.

We’ve been to two Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust local branch lectures recently, one a few weeks ago by the resident meteorologist from RAF Coningsby and the other this month by the Ecology Officer of the local Council. We have been grateful, although the experience alerted us to what it must feel like coming to church for the first time - painful seats, over solicitous enquiries about whether we had been before, long notices with frequent references to a range of people by their first names, ugly coffee, and so on. This is where we learnt about the local weather station managed by the Ecology Officer and the way instant information from it is available on the local Council website at

He told us how low the temperature had fallen the previous night and was contradicted by a member who said she’d recorded a much lower reading. He explained that his weather station used Met Office standard cones over its thermometers so that a genuine air temperature could be recorded without the exaggerating influence of any wind. She wasn’t going to have what she had already decided was true taken away from her and would have none of it, remarking that she had several thermometers on different walls. Again I was reminded of the way in which most religious (and political) arguments make no progress simply because people are fundamentally settled on the way in which they look at things.

It has to be one of the main reasons we are told not to judge, and why the judgmental remarks in the last two paragraphs point back at me and the churches of which I am part. This is the Advent message I’ve been preaching to myself and others in the last two weeks. In Matthew 11 Jesus says both ‘tell John what you see’ and ‘what did you go into the desert to see?’ and the wonderful traffic safety awareness clip at has helped me drive home the point that we are not as well equipped to give the sort of objective answers to such questions as we would like to think we are.

Saturday 18 December 2010

Nut traces

The new Industrial Chaplain told me at the clergy Christmas meal that some local food processing plants take the danger of contact with nuts so seriously that workers are not only told not to include anything with nuts in the packed lunches they bring in to work but also not to have eaten anything with nuts in it for breakfast before coming to work lest there be a trace of nuts on their hands.

The point at which St Nicolas' tower and side aisle appear to be coming apart is right in the middle of the picture. Nothing seems to have moved in the last week, so it is possible that (a little like an earthquake) pressure which had built up was released by the opening up of the recent crack. The engineer says he will monitor it for a short while and wonders whether a down pipe discharging at the base of the wall over the years has softened the ground.

Wednesday 15 December 2010

Mary Rose

You would have thought that Henry VIII’s sister (herself briefly a Queen before being Duchess of Suffolk, and the one after whom the Mary Rose was named) would have a more significant monument than this, but even the low marble edge was only added by Edward VII who thought much the same when he visited it.

It appears she was granted her request for burial in the great Suffolk Abbey at St Edmundsbury but her death in 1533 was only just ahead of the initiation of the dissolution of the monasteries and her grave was soon moved to a neighbouring Parish Church. It also appears that the table tomb over the grave was later dismantled because it over dominated the sanctuary of the church; I somewhat doubt a Faculty would be granted on such grounds for such a tomb today.

The picture is another of those left over from our trip in Half Term.

Sunday 12 December 2010

John quickens

Not the joy of expected births but from the very start the sort of terror at what is to come which provoked the angel’s ‘do not be afraid’, caught in Sally Read’s Mafia Flowers which is about the victim who has received his named funeral wreaths and reacts

... as if 14-year-old Mary had gone running
to Elizabeth, broad-sided by her elaborate tale, saying
it was nothing of her idea and she’d soon forget it.

Too late. Already the gold congeals about her head,
and Elizabeth eyeing her warily, her flesh
and blood womb leaping in fear...

Thursday 9 December 2010

Praying for Zimbabwe

While I've been without internet access, pictures have come from the priest and parish we support in Zimbabwe. The chickens and goats are part of an income generation project we funded. He says It seems the rain season has changed because it used to start end of October or early November but only now are we just starting to receive good rains - we hope it will remain the same and have a good season - in your cycle of prayers please include good rains, the hardship that we face under this government, and my health.

Wednesday 8 December 2010

Not single spies

At least part of the south aisle at St Nicolas' is coming away from the church. We'd always known that the construction was basically that of a lean-to. We were aware that cracks in the plaster indicated a degree of movement, but not more than such cracks indicate in most buildings. But something has shifted this week, and the church's architect is now trying to get an engineer to look at it for us as quickly as possible. I'm trying not to think about the potential implications.

Tuesday 7 December 2010


Any mild frustration with the Church of England or the diocese of Lincoln has been eclipsed in the past fortnight by banging-head-against-wall frustration with BT and Virgin Media which has dominated the last couple of weeks of my life.

The story may begin with the fact that we have sold my mother’s empty house in Northamptonshire. The repeated travelling there and back for final arrangements and clearance was inevitably consuming of almost all my available ‘time off’ and much emotional energy, but the good thing is completion of the sale has removed one of the significant sources of background anxiety from my life, and was achieved just before the heavy snow made travel so difficult.

The link is that my mother signed several copies of a standard letter saying she was now living in a Home elsewhere, giving the completion date of the sale of her house, and asking that final bills be sent to me. These letters went to those responsible for everything from Council Tax (who responded immediately and helpfully) to electricity (whose final bill is still awaited). BT, however, responded by cutting off my phone here. At least I am guessing that this was the reason they did so; nobody at BT can offer an explanation.

An e-mail from my internet provider popped up on 23rd November. Virgin Media said it was sorry I was leaving. I phoned to ask why. BT had told it that the phone line down which it provided my e-mail and the internet was to cease at the end of the day. I phoned BT. I was told the order to cease my line would be cancelled. It wasn’t. It would be unedifying to write pages about every stage of what has happened since. Suffice it to say that I have been on the phone to BT and Virgin Media sometimes several times a day since, and the story is not yet complete.

Neither has a customer care department which wanted to assist putting things right, let alone liaise with the other. Both treat my re-connection as the connection of a new customer seeking to receive services for the first time. I had a few days without a phone line, a week without my widely advertised phone number, and three weeks (until today) with no access to the internet; typed as one sentence this doesn’t look as life destroying or even occasionally tear provoking as it has felt trying to sort it all and not being able to use the channels of communication on which we’ve come to rely for everything from work to leisure, from accessing information to on-line banking.

It appears competition has achieved lower prices by ensuring a basic and inflexible level of service since no provider can afford to become more expensive than its rivals by providing anything better. A member of one of the congregations here (who staffs a different sort of telephone help line) had told me only a few days earlier that she had been on a period of ‘notice to improve’ because she was taking too long trying to be helpful and was thus not getting through her calls fast enough. So, I have discovered since, I am helpless in the face of what has even been contradictory but equally inaccurate answers and undertakings from those locked into set procedures and sometimes out of their depth at the same call centre on the same day. It has indeed been ‘like one of those bad dreams’.

Sunday 21 November 2010

Implicit values

The introduction of the new form of clergy tenure is not a neutral act. As we work in turn through the required processes of role description, ministerial development review, stating objectives and targeted professional training, and do so alongside provision for capability procedures, grievance procedures and redundancy, we buy into all the implicit values of a very specific form of modern personnel management.

This may all look very innocent - and an alternative to such safeguards of purposeless, unreflective ineffectual drifting is hardly to be commended - but every theologian knows very well how alien world views smuggle themselves in and distort our perceptions. We can see very clearly how often prevailing social norms have shaped aspects of minister’s self understanding and action in the past; I have an increasing dread that in my turn those who look back at me will marvel at my capitulation to a wider culture of everything from tight mission statements to line management as if it is all self evidently helpful, Christian and necessary.

This week our newish Curate was discussing Common Tenure, so, after she had gone, I dug out again some work which Professor Stephen Pattison (who was involved in my training in the 1980s) did in the 1990s. He had observed at first hand the unpleasant side effects of giving the necessary goods of management first place in the National Health Service. He tried to analyse what were the implicit values involved which most contentiously included

... a few of the fundamental beliefs and doctrines that seem to lie within much managerial practice:
the world and other people exist for the benefit of organisational survival, exploitation and expansion;
human beings can control the world and create a better future if they use the right techniques;
individuals must be subordinate to greater goals decided by their superiors;
relationships are fundamentally hierarchical and require clear lines of upward accountability and downward responsibility;
the nature and condition of work should be such as to extract the maximum from the employee;
everything worth doing can in some way be measured;
the future can be planned and colonised.

He doesn’t say that these understandings are implicit in all management practice, still less in most management theory, but he alerts us to how counter Gospel and even heretical anything which isolates narrow specific human perceptions, clarity, control and goals can be.

He doesn’t attack the integrity of most managers, still less the usefulness of taking care in organisation and planning, but he warns us that if we are going to use tools which have been shaped by often hidden secular assumptions then we ought at least to be fully aware that this is what we are doing.

I’m thankful that, for example, much of our ‘Ministerial Development Review’ language is about affirmation, episcopal awareness of the pressures we are under, encouragement, support, and vocational discernment and development. Nevertheless, I’m not sure that we see how dangerous or distorting it can be to deliver such things through processes some of which have not been developed for such purposes.

We saw the modern Green Man at St Edmundsbury Cathedral in Half Term.

Thursday 18 November 2010

Taylor and Cordeaux

This tablet at St Nicolas’ is the only monument on the wall of any of our three churches which dates from before the twentieth century. The absence of others may indicate the modest means and status of most of the inhabitants of the three villages in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Its presence has made me wonder from time to time who Richard Taylor might have been; his status and/or longevity in Great Coates or in the life of St Nicolas’ must have been enough for others to wish to commemorate him in this way.

I found him in the 1851 census. It says he was born at Gayton-le-Wold, was unmarried, lived in what the census spells as Cook Lane, and was one of seven farmers who lived in the parish. His was the largest farm (670 acres, employing fifteen men and boys; all but one of the other farms were half the size). There were eight employees living at the same address: a housekeeper, three young servants, a waggoner, and three farm labourers.

Richard Taylor’s twenty year old ‘nephew’ John Cordeaux was also living with him in 1851 as an ‘agricultural pupil’, and the 1861 census shows John (by then married with a five month old baby) has taken over the farm. I've found out no more about Richard Taylor, but John Cordeaux turns out to be of particular interest, partly because a listed estate cottage in Cooks Lane is called Cordeaux House today, and the name is also that of a Secondary School in Louth.

A family history website fills in the picture for John Cordeaux (1831-99) who turns out to have been one of the leading ornithologists of his day writing on issues like parasitology and migration. He cataloguing the birds of the Humber and his work provoked early surveys of the variations in bird numbers round the coast of Britain.

His mother was a Taylor and he developed his interest in nature when visiting her family in the Louth area. The Richard Taylor whose tenancy in Great Coates he took over was his great-uncle. John both farmed local land and went on to be Agent for Sutton Estates which owned most of the village (which would explain how his name became attached to an estate cottage).

Rod Collins’ website has a recent reference to his antiquarian discoveries and interests.

It is after his grandson Edward (1894-1963) that Cordeaux School in Louth is named. Edward was born in Great Coates but also ended up living in Louth. He had a distinguished war record (including a DSO) and ended up both a Deputy Lieutenant and High Sheriff for the county.

Monday 15 November 2010

Winter begins

The youngest of the walnut trees in St Nicolas' churchyard was only just clinging on to its last leaves when lit up by the low sun after Matins this morning.

Sunday 7 November 2010

Giotto's Bones

What from even quite close looks like a standard quality piece of thirteenth century stiff leaf capital moulding on the west front of Lincoln Cathedral, albeit the colour of the stone and the sharpness of its edges shows recent restoration, turns out on even closer inspection to be a replacement carved in the year that hunting was made illegal. The Subdean, who is also the Canon Pastor, pointed out the signature detail, which I had never noticed before, when hosting the annual gathering of the Canons Pastor from about half the English Cathedrals in the week.

I shared with them the material I’d trailed here on 7th August, and then observed and tried to feed back for them the way they are alive to the almost artistic balance in the contrasts, complexities, constraints and opportunities of their roles and that of the Cathedrals they serve. Being magnets for some of the most vulnerable people and for the most powerful, each appeared to be seeking to be alongside the development of faith and commitment for a whole variety of communities from significant groups of volunteers to regular congregations, from those with a tangential but nevertheless real sense that the building belongs to them to those who choose to come precisely because they don’t want to be bothered by people like a Canon Pastor.

Some of them expressed appreciation for the poem I blogged here on 31st May and for the sort of bible study I blogged here on 9th November 2008 and 6th March 2009 (which was obviously a nice response to have, although I was much more impressed by them) and I also enjoyed sharing a poem of Robert Bringhurst’s newly published in England about the investigation of the twisted mismatched bones of Giotto discovered in Florence Cathedral precisely where Vasari said the marker used to be speaking of the man who could make plaster dust and water, egg yolk, charcoal and red ochre hunker down and sing the blues by making a taut and perfect gesture with a splotched, disfigured hand.

Monday 1 November 2010

Saturday 30 October 2010

Monday 25 October 2010

Authentic performance

It is the ‘negligible details’ which make good art and drama, Jonathan Miller suggested when talking at Barton at the weekend.

He read Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts including suffering... takes place while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along and the poem’s reference to Breughel’s The Fall of Icarus where people, animals and ships all seem to be looking elsewhere despite the splash of the white legs disappearing into the green water. He drew attention to the same phenomenon in a different Breughel painting (reproduced above): the Conversion of St Paul appears to cause a slight hold up on the busy road to Damascus rather than the drama of the moment (he said) which founded Christianity.

The highlights of his life story as he told it turned on close observation and on the diligent application of what is discovered by this close observation. It began before he was born birth with his father as a Great War doctor taking seriously the symptoms of shell shock. It continued with his own education, including a Biology teacher who got his pupils on an expedition to squeeze egg and sperm from fish and then observe under a microscope the single fertilised cell divide for the first time. It continues with current publications about and his own observations of the hand movements people make when speaking.

He repeatedly declared himself an enemy of the stylised gestures and cliches of many dramatic and especially of many operatic performances. He dwelt at length on the way humour works by revealing to us something we in fact then recognise. And I was particularly struck by his observation that, although he would often change the period in which a play or opera is set (provided he had researched the negligible details with care), he could never do so when the writer or composer had set it in his own day (where the original negligible details would be unconsciously intrinsic).

Saturday 23 October 2010

St Nicolas' old and new

We have been digging new graves on what was the northern boundary of St Nicolas’ churchyard before it was extended beyond there. In one of these graves the gravedigger had to cut his way past a large stone which he says is the same as the major stones in the church walls (the top picture shows this) and on the other side lower down he found some ancient brick. He also said that the bottom of the deep grave appeared to be at original top soil level. I’m not sure quite what to make of this. Was there a ditch on the edge of the churchyard into which spare building material was flung when some mediaeval repairs were being undertaken? Was there previously a much greater slope away from the churchyard at this point which this spoil and much other later work has levelled off? Meanwhile, the other picture shows the newly installed aumbry in the church just before it was brought into use for the first time a couple of weeks ago.

Sunday 17 October 2010

Harrowing of Hell

The reason the Chilian mine rescue caught more than people’s imagination is that it hooks into one of our archetypes, or so I ventured this morning while displaying a picture of this icon.

The risen Christ has broken into hell (the broken doors are in a cross at his feet, the black abyss below is inhabited by the shadows of demons) and has pulled out Adam and Eve by their wrists; the whole of humanity is no longer subject to the destruction and futility of its fallen condition. Below, others await their rescue while two angels bind Satan. Above, Kings (David and Solomon) are among those who watch and welcome.

So the rescue mission is able to drill down and draw the men one by one from what they had described as ‘hell’ and from the darkness which they had begun to think would be their final reality. Below, the medics have gone down to help those who are yet to be brought up. Above, the President, crowds and media gather and respond.

Only in naming the capsule ‘phoenix’ does this parallel appear to miss a beat, but the Christian faith and reaction of those brought up balances this; this really is our story.

In this icon, says Rowan Williams, “Adam and Eve stand for wherever it is in the human story that fear and refusal of God began - not a moment we can date in ordinary history, any more than we can date in the history of each one of us where we began to forget God. But we are always dealing with the after-effects of that moment, both as a human race and as particular persons. The icon declares that wherever that lost moment is or was, Christ has been there, to implant the possibility, never destroyed, of another turning, another future."

In this icon and this story, at the very least we are literally pulled away from ultimate fear and final abandonment. The icon declares and the story makes graspable this possibility, which is why both capture us.

Wednesday 13 October 2010

St Michael's old and new

The painting of St Michael’s, Little Coates belonged to Joseph Chapman and is from about 1890, and the photograph is (obviously) an attempt to picture it from the same spot today. Standing on exactly the same spot proved impossible (it would mean climbing into a neighbour’s garden and photographing his fence) but this is close, and I’ve been glad to get the two churches roughly the same size to aid comparison. I’ve just stuck the pair up in the church near where the painting hangs.

The churchyard has clearly been extended since the painting was made, and the substantial 1913-15 additions to the church paid for from Chapman's legacy make quite a difference too. The huge angel on Chapman's memorial for his wife can be seen on left of the new picture, and a comparison with the painting shows that it was erected quite close to what was then the gate (which is what one sees in the postcard image of it posted on 13th March). The path from the south door to this old gate would have been roughly straight, which explains why it sets off in that direction today before diverting sharp right to where the modern gate is.

Sunday 10 October 2010


Opening the ground to lower in a coffin is a similar act of faith to opening a roof to lower someone on a stretcher. The link was made a few years ago by the priest conducting a burial of a friend. I had not thought of it before. It prompted me to write something printed in the Methodist Epworth Review in July 2005:

All they can do is
to unturf the turf
and break through the ground
to make enough room
to bury this man
who is beyond help

as others once worked
to unroof a roof
and break through dry mud
to make enough space
to lower a man
who they could not help

in desperate hope
he’ll undoubt their doubt
to break through their dust,
discern enough faith
to tell him to rise
beyond need of help.

The phrase around which the poem developed is taken straight from Mark 2.4 where the technical term for breaking through a mud roof is used: ‘un-roof-ing the roof’ or ‘ape-stegas-an ten stegon’.

I have just been reminded of this by a poem in Seamus Heaney’s new award winning volume Human Chain. Miracle grows from his own experience following a stroke of being carried up and down stairs by others.

Not the one who takes up his bed and walks
But the ones who have known him all along
And carry him in -

Their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplocked
In their backs, the stretcher handles
Slippery with sweat. And no let-up

Until he’s strapped on tight, made tiltable
And raised to the tiled roof, then lowered for healing.
Be mindful of them as they stand and wait

For the burn of the paid-out ropes to cool,
Their slight lightheadness and incredulity
To pass, those ones who had known him all along.

The tiled roof appears in Luke 5.19 where the story is retold for those in another culture and place who perhaps assumed all houses were roofed this way and knew nothing of the flat mud roofs of the Holy Land; a much more precarious place on which to stand and seek to manipulate a man on a stretcher.

The Gospel accounts are consistent in attributing the miracle to Jesus seeing how much faith the men had. I am struck for the first time as I type the two poems side by side by our shared contemporary assumption of the limited or tentative nature of that faith. In the one case, hope which is desperate, which is limited by nature of the human condition, and which mixes elements of doubt and faith. In the other, familiarity with the human condition and incredulity at what is pulled off by their action. In both cases, it is enough.

Wednesday 6 October 2010

Roman occupation

I spent today with a Primary School class at a mock Roman Fort on the edge of York ('an open air classroom' was the well justified claim, and the education was all done most engagingly), and these are the only two pictures in which children can't be identified.

At some point normal blogging may resume, but I already have a few days booked out for a Retreat this month, am still covering for the colleague who is off work, and am now trying to follow through what will be the time consuming business of clearing and selling my mother's house for her, so even keeping on top of the minimum essential work and existing diary commitments is proving a challenge.

Tuesday 28 September 2010

Fully alive

How appropriate is it to say of someone with dementia that part of him or her has already died? This was one of the things talked about when the diocese’s Safeguarding Adviser ran a trial study morning for four clergy yesterday; I went to help me reflect further on a subject about which I blogged on 14th July and 1st August.

In one sense it is literally true. Brain cells have died. But we would not use the language of someone who had lost the function of a different part of the body; someone who is blind, or has lost a limb, or who lives without a kidney.

In another sense it is metaphorically true. Something almost essential to our relating has been lost. But the metaphor makes more sense from the perspective of the one relating than it does to the person with dementia.

It is language with which many carers and partners are not only happy but actually find helpful. We heard more than one say this. But we heard one take a step further speaking of ‘watching someone die’ which might even appear to place care of those with dementia on the hospice rather than the care home side of a line.

The majority view was that the way the language made sense to carers and partners clearly made it appropriate. It would seem quite cruelly in their faces to challenge them about it. But the majority recognised why I remain deeply uncomfortable with language which open up a door to thinking of people with dementia (and thus in some ways relating to them) as anything less than fully alive people fully in the image of God.

Meanwhile, the light on the flowers in St Nicolas’ illustrates a side benefit of a move I made a little while ago to rationalise the random proliferation of furniture in the sanctuary there; the more simple arrangement only fitted together when the flower stand was moved from the north side of the altar to the south side, but ever since I have enjoyed the occasions when the light has fallen on them from the south facing window.

Saturday 25 September 2010

Gear change jolts

It is the change of gear in this job to which I have never quite got used.

Returning from a difficult Funeral to be caught by someone’s urgent and immediately demanding trivialities. Trying to settle to prayers with a preoccupation still spinning round. Finding the level for a ‘Key Stage One’ assembly in the morning and an adult cross examination about the Pope’s opinions at a dinner in the evening. Returning from a complex personnel issue as a school or college Governor to an attempt to finish a piece writing or preparation with any creativity. And today’s jolt was as sharp as it comes.

The wedding at St Michael’s was fun. Quite apart from the pleasure of the couple and the congregation, we had Harvest flowers just in place, the newly decorated walls, a glow I hadn’t seen before in the steam cleaned carpet, freshly dusted surfaces (every single one of them - the picture illustrates the necessary post-redecoration process), a lively choir, and an exchange of happy news among them - all evidence of a huge amount of generously given time.

Then the message waiting at home was that the Hospital wanted someone to come in straight away. The frequency of these calls varies with the availability of the official Chaplains and, when they do come, are most common on a Saturday; almost always the call is to a dying patient or to his or her family, or to baptise on the neo-natal unit or (most frequently, but not today) following a still birth. Although the call is always the result of a request by a patient or immediate relative, sometimes some members of a distraught extended family express quietly and understandably their hostility to the idea of God at all.

For what it is worth, I’ve never expected the words I find myself using in either such setting to be adequate to the task (which is just as well) but some of the words of blessing I did speak over the newly married couple and in the hospital were in fact the same.

Wednesday 22 September 2010

Nameless of Irby

The body of a baby abandoned at Addlethorpe last year was buried there in July after a funeral in the local church. Neither the identity of the baby nor that of his mother has been traced. The name Jacob was used. A local businessman met the costs involved, including those of a memorial.

Jacob’s death and burial is just one modern repetition of what we know is really a common story. I’ve been doing a tiny bit of research about an earlier one using the microfilm records in the Grimsby Central Library. The story is that behind the memorial in Irby churchyard to which Rod Collins’ Blog drew attention a short while ago.

There are records of all the burials at Irby between 1813 and 1996 on the microfilm. For only one of these is there no name. It was on 21st February 1888. The Parish Priest recorded:

By Coroners Order for Burial: I reverently committed to the grave the remains of the body of a new born child found in the parish.

With a date established, it was not then too difficult to find an item in the microfilm of the Grimsby News of 24th February 1888:

On Monday, an inquest was held… on... the remains of the body of a newly born child, sex unknown, which was discovered in a green field which belongs to Mr W Nainby on Sunday last. John Vickers, aged 13, in the employ of Mr Nainby stated that he was crossing the green field when he noticed a flock of crows ‘picking at something’… The remains of the body looking as if they had been buried and scratched up by a dog or some animal.

So the discovery (of what had been a shallow grave) was on Sunday 19th , the inquest (in a house in the village) was on Monday 20th , and the burial (with the Coroner’s say so) was on Tuesday 21st.

If the mother (or some other person) had buried the body a good while earlier then decomposition in the ground rather than the pecking of the crows may have been the reason that the sex of the child could not be determined, but they are rather gruesome details.

I remain a little troubled by the memorial stone. ‘Nameless’ seems much more harsh than ‘Unknown’, and possibly untrue. The text ‘Be sure your sin will find you out’ (Numbers 32.23) seems misplaced in seeking to address a third person rather than God or the reader. ‘A child known to God’ and something like ‘To such belongs the Kingdom’ or ‘Nothing can separate us from the love of God’ would somehow be less troubling.

But I realise that not knowing the sex of the child would have been one barrier to giving him or her a name like Jacob, and the person who chose the text would just have had the experience of dealing with the decomposing body of an unknown child.

Monday 6 September 2010

Friday 3 September 2010

Beauty for my blindness

A sort of new year begins and I am going to read more poetry and be much less involved in church organisation.

The first and largest beam for the new building is standing aside as Rural Dean and as Chair of the Deanery’s Mission Area Planning Group. I don’t imagine that much of a gap will open up around the vacancies as (no doubt the result of my own character faults shown up in the ways I’ve put up backs when I’ve tried to insist on alternative approaches) the norm is now that my e-mails or letters to diocesan staff do not get acknowledged, and realistic input isn’t requested from there or elsewhere before strategies for the area are developed. I expect some sort of desire to be at the centre of things has stopped me making this obvious move when I should have done so sooner.

The other building material has been piling up around me since the real New Year. I happen to have tried to write one or two things again myself (and immodestly blogged the texts) and have found this more sustaining than pretending to myself that I am at the centre of things. Also, since blogging about some texts of his, I’ve been doing things like having both a biography and the collected works of Walter de la Mare by my bed through which I am working very very slowly; the poem of his to which I am returning most at the moment has an appropriate sense of confession and hope.

For all the grief I have given with words
May now a few clear flowers blow,
In the dust, and the heat, and the silence of birds,
Where the friendless go.

For the things unsaid that the heart asked of me
Be a dark, cool water calling - calling
To the footsore, benighted, solitary,
When the shadows are falling.

O, be beauty for all my blindness,
A moon in the air where the weary wend,
And dews burdened with loving kindness
In the dark of the end.

The picture is another of Lake Siljan taken from Leksand Rectory.

Tuesday 31 August 2010


My colleague has been more badly hurt and the Inspiring Communities project less badly hurt than my last post before my holiday indicated.

Her hand has been more badly damaged than any of us imagined, other colleagues have been much more engaged in supporting and covering for her while I’ve been away than I realised while I was, and sorting such things out myself has taken more of my time in my first week back than people will have noticed. A little trying for us, but a real burden for her.

And I suspect that a great deal of pressure has been put on the Department for Communities and Local Government while I’ve been away, to which, in the absence of any further news, I added a further demanding e-mail soon after I returned. Three weeks after writing to say that we cannot expect funding for any work not contractually agreed at that point, a second letter arrives saying ‘we have now considered this further’ (an elegant choice of words) and that the agreement we have entered into with them will be honoured. We are not totally out of the woods - maximum savings are required of us and it says it will ‘actively support you in this task’ - but a revised and reduced programme is better than an abrupt termination. In particular, pupils returning to school this week will be able to begin activities and in some cases courses promised to them before their holiday.