Wednesday 28 April 2010

Grimsby Minster

I’m fascinated by the response to the announcement that our neighbouring Grimsby Parish Church will next month become known as Grimsby Minster, not least by the quantity of response with a range of different people inside and outside the church who I know well or only a little bit beginning conversations about it with me.

One side of the coin is their pleasure at the idea: ‘Good news about St James’’ or ‘How exciting to have a Minster in Grimsby.’ They see the area being affirmed. They seem simply to like the idea that the town might be seen to rank with Beverley rather than with Scunthorpe. They don’t quite see that the ancient title has been used for churches as different as the village church in Stow and the cathedrals in Lincoln and York. They haven’t picked up the title being newly used in Doncaster, Huddersfield, Rotherham and Sunderland.

The other side of the coin is their puzzlement at the idea: ‘What is a Minster?’ or ‘What criteria are there for deciding whether a church is suitable to be a Minster?’ They are not quite sure what this alien word means. They can’t quite work out how a change in historic status like this can simply happen. Trying to share any sense that the move is aimed at enhancing the church’s impact on and service of a whole local authority area hasn’t proved easy, probably simply because the idea is quite abstract.

The press coverage has also been interesting in itself. When I asked the Bishop’s office for sight of the Press Release (this isn’t something the diocese thinks it needs to provide automatically to the local Rural Dean) I discovered how ungrammatical, wordy and repetitive it is, but also that major features of the reporting aren’t in it at all; either the local press found it too difficult to understand or some of the briefing went off in different directions.

A potential boost to the local tourism industry isn’t something it suggests. This is the thing on which the comments column on the local paper’s website pours most scorn, about equally balancing the comments of pleasure expressed there. The redevelopment of St James’ House isn’t something it mentions. This has perhaps has been rightly talked up as an illustration of the consequences of the commitment of the present Grimsby Parish Church to the town’s ‘renaissance’ planning.

The idea that the Minster will become a hub from which local clergy will go out to serve churches as far as Cleethorpes and Immingham is also not in there at all. The Press Release is actually quite careful to say in different places that the ministry of the Minster would complement rather than replace that of neighbouring parishes and ecumenical partners. It would be fascinating to know how this alternative impression has been given.

And none of the reporting seems to have noticed the sentence ‘an important part of Grimsby Minster’s work will become its advocacy for the poor, its calling for social justice and for providing hospitality to the many organisations in the town who are working to build capacity within the community’.

Sunday 25 April 2010

First fissures opening

It has been an ominous few weeks. Outwardly, I continue to be safe and prosperous. But nevertheless, like any observant seismologist or vulcanologist who picks up the threat in the hints round about, I can’t help being increasingly anxious about the safety of the region in which I live.

First, early in March, the formal consultation letter came from the Church Commissioners. It wasn’t a surprise: the pressing need to restructure pension arrangements has been as widely canvassed in the church as elsewhere, and across the country people in other jobs are facing radical reductions in future provision. But nevertheless, it is the confirmation that I’ll have to work longer and expect less when I retire.

Then, attending a briefing on the new Ministerial Review scheme in which I’m about to engage, mention was made of the theoretical possibilities of redundancy contained in the new clergy tenure provision. This doesn’t differ from the position in which most other people have always been, and it is nothing like the stark fact of actual job loss for so many as the credit crunch has bitten. But nevertheless, if this had been signalled in the introductions to Common Tenure at the Candlemas Convocation and elsewhere, I had missed it until now.

Next, a letter came from the Bishop regretting that our stipends will not increase this year. This shouldn’t really be a surprise either since the unsustainability of the diocesan budget is something highlighted by many observers for some time. But nevertheless, I hadn’t seen this one coming, and it represents a cut in income in real terms however small.

Finally, attending the area Pastoral Committee brought home the impact on a senior colleague of a Bishop’s proposal to take the most creative and rewarding parts of his work and simply allocate them to the Job Description of a new post elsewhere. The nature of the consultation process involved doesn’t spring any surprises: is it consistent with that around a couple of initiatives he has (perhaps quite rightly) felt it important to set out and follow through more locally. But nevertheless, it contributes to the disturbing feeling about what could happen to any other of us at any point without any contribution we might want to make to the discussion making any real difference.

And at the same time there hasn’t been anything further heard about the Candlemas Convocation. That it turned out not to be the opportunity for the Bishops to take counsel with us about these sorts of things is already fully accepted. But nevertheless, there is a curious sadness that no report or response has yet emerged about the things about which we were asked to talk.

So, despite personal prosperity, Easter, and this picture taken yesterday of the blossom coming in St Michael’s churchyard, it feels as if all things which we are being asked to do to help others see and embrace major change are having to be done against frequently reinforced low grade background anxiety.

Thursday 22 April 2010

Once at South Ferriby

I’ve been praying this morning for two families I only met once about sixteen years ago but who I clearly remember, have thought about once or twice since, and about whom I was reminded yesterday.

There is a resident of this parish who had his own Blog which covers everything from his visits to local historic churches and his criticisms of the Archbishop of Canterbury to his crushes on television personalities and his reviews of lap dancing clubs, and I’ve taken to leaving comments about those features about which I have the experience and information to do so.

His post yesterday was about South Ferriby church, where the village is tucked away at the western foot of an escarpment and the church a short steep climb above it. I’ve been there once to cover a service, so I posted a comment letting him know that the church is unusually orientated north-south. Much of the original west end of a east-west orientated church slipped down the hill leaving the people of the time to remodel what remained along the more stable north-south line of the escarpment; the altar now stands before what is liturgically the ‘east’ window but what is in fact the original north transept window.

I can’t think why I was covering a Sunday service as far away as South Ferriby, but two families made up the whole congregation. One couple were celebrating a major anniversary; I don’t hold in mind whether it was a Silver Wedding or a Ruby Wedding or something else. The other couple had small children with them including a boy they had ben fostering who they were to return to his own parent or parents the following day. They both spoke to me about these things before the service, and I remember abandoning my prepared sermon and intercessions to let then talk about their families and pray about their situations during the service.

At this distance I’m trying to work out why I remember so much of this. I suspect what was so distinctive about it was that they prayed for each other. It wasn’t just that each had something special which brought them to church specifically that day. It was that they found other people who had also done so and gave their attention to celebrate and support them (which is, I suppose, what really ought to be happening in every church every week).

The couple the celebrating their anniversary may well be dead by now, and the boy who was returning home will be an adult, but I prayed for them again this morning none the less (and on my way home I took this photograph of the grave of a child in St Michael’s churchyard who was a contemporary of mine).

Monday 19 April 2010

Friday 16 April 2010

The value of my vote

Before the Reform Act in 1832, Grimsby was a ‘Rotten Borough’. A few hundred male and propertied voters returned not one but two MPs. The pubs remained open twenty-four hours a day for the weeks ahead of each election so that the electors could be fuelled by the candidates and by the local magnates who sponsored them. The Freemen of Grimsby freely collected bribes, often from both sides. Formal petitions to Parliament to overturn the election result were the most common outcome. The Speaker of the House of Commons even once imprisoned the Borough’s Mayor for allowing false votes and disallowing legitimate ones, but I guess most Mayors simply got away with it. We had a reputation for being the most electorally corrupt corner of the Kingdom.

Things have got a little better since then, but I am still not sure my vote actually makes a ha’pence of difference today. In common with the majority of constituencies, it appears to be a ‘safe seat’ (although large swings are always possible to upset things). It is a strange thing that a few thousand party members in safe seats across the country are the ones who really select the majority of our MPs for us; in parliamentary elections we are denied the choice between candidates of the same party which would make the difference.

I have no control over either of the things which might affect whether my single vote ends up on the winning side anyway. I have no control over how many candidates stand in this constituency, nor over how many other people will turn out to vote. Either of these factors could alter whether my same single vote backs a successful candidate. If there was only one alternative candidate then he or she might well replace the apparently safe sitting MP, but if there are several candidates the way they divide the votes between them may be the real things which lets him in again. If disillusionment with politicians means turn-out slumps, or if it goes the other way and there is an unexpected revival in participation in democracy, then the pattern of votes might produce quite a different outcome.

So my single vote in a ‘first past the post’ system really has no power at all, and I do not think an English election has ever actually been determined by a single vote anyway. But I shall use my useless vote none the less. I always have, and I always will. I could not look English history or contemporary dictatorships in the eye if I did not.

I was still eighteen when I voted in the 1979 General Election. I was one of less than a third of the registered electors who voted in the first European elections a few weeks later (as was my younger brother on his eighteenth birthday). Three years later I also voted in the Beaconsfield By-election at which an A.C.L Blair (Labour) garnered 3886 votes and lost his deposit; I am told he had subsequent electoral success elsewhere. I have gone on voting ever since.

When I started voting there were still plenty of English women doing so who had reached their majority at a time when English women couldn’t vote at all, and who only eventually started being able to do so at the age of thirty. The majority of the population of South Africa couldn’t vote even then. Learning about and watching the cost of their struggles to gain the vote, I could hardly not use my own.

So the only thing is to decide is which way to cast my useless vote, and that is where I turn out to have the biggest problem. It is clearly my duty as a follower of Jesus of Nazareth to ask the candidates what policies they have to support the local corrupt financiers, sinners, prostitutes and immigrants and help them become responsible integrated members of society without exposing them to the judgemental or the vindictive. Strangely this doesn’t appear to be the demand placed on them by most others, so it is just as well that I already realise my vote isn’t going to make a difference anyway.

The article was written for the diocese's newspaper, which requested 'something about the election'. The picture was taken at Kirktown of Rayne, which is where we saw the geese.

Tuesday 13 April 2010

Migrating geese

The end of our overwintering

It was Easter week.
We took my father-in-law’s ashes hundreds of miles north
to the country in which he had not lived for fifty years.

In the kirkyard where his parents and their parents are buried,
my wife and her brother lowered his casket into one of their graves.
I spoke the set confident words
and fingered the first bits of sandy top soil back in.
Some of the respectful semi-circle murmured consent.
A Council workman armed with a risk assessment
slid in to cover the hole and eliminate a trip hazard.
The bright sun picked up green tips of spring speckling every shrub and hedge.

He had traced his great great grandparents
and knew all sixteen had been born and died within ten miles,
each within sight of Bennachie.
So, late that afternoon, we were in another isolated kirkyard
with his family history paperwork in hand.
We found four of them within a few feet of each other.
One stone had fallen, the other was encoded by lichen,
but we resurrected and deciphered what he had once transcribed:
Diack and Souter, the strong Aberdeenshire names
which he and his father carried as the middle parts of theirs.
The low sun slanted across the fields to the hill marked by streaks of late snow

At first we did not note or recognise the call of the geese.
It was simply part of the background noise of the day:
the reproof of the landlady as she turned the breakfast television back on;
the jostling of his children (‘we came over the old pass despite the clouds’,
‘we came along the coast because we’d found out where the cheapest petrol was’);
the beeps and ringtones of his grandchildren’s phones;
the condolences of his friends (‘a good man’, ‘this sad occasion’,
‘it was what he would have wanted’).

But then the noise broke through, and at the gate we stood and heard and watched.
Somewhere to our east skeins of them rose and twisted and formed.
Thousands of them called and swirled and massed.
Distant drifting smoke hardened into squadrons passing overhead.
Their single purpose and instinct and longing was so palpable
that the sky strained and buckled and split open
revealing winged creatures with their necks stretched out like trumpets before them
and all the din of their calls their tuning up.

Sunday 11 April 2010

Saturday 10 April 2010

Saturday 3 April 2010

How much scripture?

How much scripture should we read at the Sunday Eucharist? The Church of England suggests three readings, sometimes quite long ones. I habitually edit the selection down to two, and often only parts of those two (although those who attend are always given a sheet with all three set out in full if they wish to explore further at home).

I have and have had colleagues who think my heavy editing of the official provision is irresponsible, failing to allow the scriptures to speak for itself. I have and have had colleagues who value my highlighting aspects of the official provision, allowing the scriptures to be taken in and savoured.

A member of St Nicolas’, Great Coates have approached my colleague there on behalf of herself and others to request restoration of the full provision. It is always difficult to react to such lobbying; what one person says may be a very helpful safety valve drawing attention to a significantly build up of pressure, but it is also difficult to judge the significance of someone saying he or she speaks on behalf of a group whose size and representative nature is unknown.

My perspective is this. St Nicolas’ pulpit is the best I have ever occupied. It is not very high nor is it huge, but it is brilliantly placed so that a preacher has immediate eye contact with all but the handful of people in the shadow of a couple of pillars.

So I always know by small shifts in position or expression exactly how my sermons at St Nicolas’ are being received. I know when I’ve lost people’s attention. I know when what I say has struck a chord. I know which subtle references are being picked up. I know which bludgeoning references are being resented. At least, I think I do.

I knew in the days when we still had three long readings that saying ‘and this of course explains what is going on towards the end of the second reading we have just heard’ often produced a reaction somewhere between embarrassment and panic. Body language shouted back at me ‘we can’t reclaim enough or anything about what was read a few minutes ago to stand a chance of beginning to make any such connection’.

I know in more recent times when we have had two short readings that saying ‘and this of course explains what was going on in the first of the readings we have just heard’ often produces a reaction somewhere between recognition and appreciation. Body language hints back at me ‘we appreciate that connection and are intrigued by where you are beginning to take it for us’.

But, as I say, I have and have had colleagues who think I’ve got this wrong, and the church has members who also now want to say so. The District and Parochial Church Councils are specifically charged with being the places at which ministers and people come to a common mind about such things, so this may be where any exploration would now take place.

Meanwhile, the churchyard fence was repaired during the week as we had hoped.