Tuesday 29 June 2010

Petertide Ordinations

There was a rehearsal this morning in All Saints’, Gainsborough for the Ordination on Sunday of five Deacons to serve in parishes in the northern half of the diocese. Between them they have a range of musical taste: one is a former Head of Trusts and Foundations at the Royal Opera House (she will be Curate in Gainsborough itself) and another is a Heavy Metal fan (she is the one who will be Curate with us). Our parish is in the nice position of both ‘giving’ and ‘receiving’ a Curate at the same service since a member of St Nicolas’, Great Coates is also in the picture as she prepares to be Curate in Skegness. A similar batch of five is being ordained at Sleaford to serve in south of the diocese, and no less than sixteen of last year’s Deacons will be ordained Priest in the Cathedral at the same time.

Saturday 26 June 2010

Bells on her toes

This lady rides her horse across the road from the modern market cross in Banbury. I took the picture yesterday visiting my mother in hospital and discussing with her residential homes I’d been exploring for her. It is all a strange to stage to be at (much more for her than me, I realise) made all the more difficult by the way I can only realistically get down there once a fortnight, don’t have the capacity to support managing her affairs and house at this distance, and am far from sure we ended up making the right decision.

The only highlight (other than discovering the statue) was that a very old friend of hers, who was a colleague of my father’s in Africa fifty years ago, called at the same time; he told me his last clear memory of me was when I was aged two bouncing enthusiastically in my cot despite having my eyes bandaged over following one of the early operations on them.

The situation with my mother, the angst evidenced in this Blog about the ministerial situation we are in, and much else including difficult and time consuming things in some of the governing bodies of which I’m a member, was all picked up in a Ministerial Development Review in the week, a trial run for the system the diocese is seeking to put in place alongside the new clergy terms and conditions. The reviewer was perplexed at my trying to cope with all this at once, but nevertheless supportive and encouraging. It will be interesting to find out whether repeating this exercise each year and communicating the results to Bishops will clarify or develop what I do and what they pick up.

Driving back from Banbury yesterday for three hours with the radio on in the car meant I heard substantially similar tributes to Alan Plater in turn on the obituaries programme, the news programmes and the arts programme; the first of these startled me by praising him for managing to ‘insert some comedy’ into his TV adaptation of Trollope's The Warden and Barchester Towers which confirms that not everybody who contributes to Radio 4 knows what they are talking about.

Wednesday 23 June 2010

Community Pledge

What sorts of things do young people at the local comprehensive school want the communities around to say to them? I’ve sat down the pupils on the School Council at its last two meetings to ask this.

The Government design for each Inspiring Communities programme is that it should include a ‘Community Pledge’ and it seemed important to involve the pupils in developing this.

The School Council (whose members are drawn from each Tutor Group) has had the first ideas. They are going to be shared in the school through the Tutor Groups and with those on the neighbouring estates through a community magazine which is distributed across the area. There is a link between the two because one Inspiring Communities project has been to involve some of the pupils in the Community Press Office which produces the magazine.

There is nothing earth shattering about the first very provisional draft which groups what they have been saying under four headings:

Support the good. We want to support and encourage those people who try their best in the school and community.
Tackle the bad. We want to stop of few people making it difficult for others to live and learn well in the school and community.
Inspire individuals. We want lots of individual people to find how much more they can achieve for themselves.
Celebrate communities. We want people to know much more about the good things going on in the school and on the estates.

One of many dangers, of course, is that this is a series of abstract pious generalisations. The present idea, therefore, is that community groups will eventually be asked not only to adopt the Pledge but also to think about specific ways in which it they might deliver on it. The number of action points which result will be much more significant than how clever, glossy or well publicised the Pledge itself turns out to be.

Switching hats from being the Community Champion for the programme to being a local parish priest, I’m also now beginning to say to our churches that it would be good if the we were not only part of this but also including the themes in our prayers.

Meanwhile, I’ve also been going round taking some new photographs to match some old ones which it is planned to display at a Festival in St Nicolas’ soon. My unexpected abiding sense is how much more wooded our urban area is than it was a hundred years ago; in an old picture from this spot the whole church and the house to its west are clearly visible, and something similar is true in a number of other places (including the photographs of the view from the Chapman memorial at St Michael's posted here earlier this year).

Sunday 20 June 2010

Town supporters

Supporting Grimsby Town turns out to be the perfect preparation for following the World Cup. We are almost unique in being fully psychologically prepared.

Getting a good goal early but then giving away a stupid or easy goal and ending up with a draw? The most common story for the first part of last season.

Having a ‘must win’ game against a weak opponent but not even ‘turning up’ on the day? The constant experience through the middle of last season.

Reduced to intricate calculations about unlikely combinations of results which just might make things alright? The major preoccupation of the last part of last season.

For the rest of the country this may be an agonising trauma, but for us it is simply our normal way of life.

Thursday 17 June 2010

Conversion and Club

How do you unpick the extent to which religious observance is faithful or social? The question is, of course, as silly as attempting to unbake a cake. But I keep returning to it since any strategy which thinks it relates purely to faith motivation stumbles around when it encounters sociological realities, and any strategy which is tuned to sociological habits can fall short of prompting or nurturing faith possibilities.

English people have never developed customs around welcoming or naming a child simply because there was no need to do so when universally Christian England provided Baptism. An English person today who wishes to respond significantly to the arrival of a child thus faces a choice. Either take part in some invented ritual with no heritage and without much substance, or approach a church for a Baptism. Those who then approach us for a Baptism come with greater or lesser ingredients of faith and of need for some ceremony. At one end of the continuum we’ve recently had a family who couldn’t really understand why they couldn’t nominate a Hindu as a godparent, yet others near this end have a strong sense of seeking something of God. At the other end we’ve recently had a family whose particular request was for Baptism at the Easter morning Eucharist, yet others near this end want us to adapt what we do and when we do it to suit their other cultural assumptions about the day.

Equally, the behaviour of a substantial numbers of regular church goers sometimes appears most convincingly explained by their support for their own club rather than their devotion to God. Why else would they prefer to stay away from worship altogether on those rare Sundays when we ask them to do so in a different place? Why else would some of them put great effort into the maintenance of their building and cultural events within it and resist strongly invitations to respond to the need of the community in which it is set? Yet most of these same people cannot be caricatured as club members in other clear specific faithful and prayerful ways.

There is a kind of one eyed evangelical solution which has little truck with sociological phenomena: insist on the Gospel perspective in season and out of season come what may. There is a kind of one eyed liberal solution which meets sociological phenomena where it is: understand, affirm and allow. Somehow I find that I can even manage myself the double vision of offering a Gospel perspective where it seems most intrusive and the open welcome where it seems most vapid.

The Spring picture from St Michael's churchyard is now a few weeks out of date.

Monday 14 June 2010

I was wrong

I appear to have been wrong in what I blogged about wedding licences in 2008.

At that time we had a surge in applications, often involving a combination like an Egyptian man and a Lithuanian woman. On 10th August I noted that some asked ‘whether we are being naive and in some cases visa manipulation may be a factor’, and I opined ‘but there doesn’t seem to be any advantage of this sort when marrying another foreign national’. On 4th September I mentioned that the Church Times then identified this as a national phenomenon and our church licence system as being a loop hole for sham weddings, but I persisted in suggesting that it was legitimate for resident foreign couples to seek to avoid excessive state fees by seeking a church wedding.

A little while later the Border Agency showed an interest in the particular church at which most of these weddings were taking place and straight away the stream of applications dried up, and last week the Church Times returned to the subject reporting the prosecution of a clergyman from elsewhere for knowingly facilitating a similar spate of sham marriages; it mentions that there is indeed an advantage in terms of permission to reside for someone from outside the EU when he or she marries an EU citizen.

All of which raises the question for me about how wrong I might be about a whole range of other things which seem self evident to me (some of which I blog about with equal confidence).

In which context, I’ve enjoyed the following quotations in another blog.

First, the Chief Rabbi:

The test of faith is whether I can make space for difference. Can I recognise God’s image in someone who is not in my image, whose language, faith, ideals, are different from mine? If I cannot, then I have made God in my image, instead of allowing him to remake me in his.

And roughly the same point succinctly from Anne Lamott:

You know you have created God in your own image when he hates all the same people you do.

Friday 11 June 2010

Lincoln College, Oxford

Three things we greatly enjoyed finding on our trip to Oxford. The grave of an ancestor who was Mayor in 1839 and 1847: Thomas Mallam's father became a Freeman in 1788 (which is the date on the signs at Mallam's Auctioneers in the city today) and his son became a solicitor in 1858 (which is the date HMG Law, which still operates from the Tudor building opposite what was All Saints' church and is now Lincoln College's Library, gives for its foundation; the M stands for Mallam). A quotation from Francis Bacon's On Masques and Triumphs on the wall of the College Chapel. A detail from the magnificent east window in the Chapel: Jonah being brought up by the whale is again used as a symbol of the resurrection (the thrashing of his tail is causing quite a storm for the ships behind him); each of the lower lights of the window has an Old Testament scene as a 'type' of the Gospel scenes above it.

Tuesday 8 June 2010

Multi-parish context

There are different forms of multi-parish ministry, and the churches here on Sunday were being reminded about the pattern which exists for the priest we help support in Zimbabwe (whose seventy-fifth birthday it was). He has nine churches scattered across a wide District serving subsistence farmers who are the poorest of the poor in the most unpromising situations. His latest letter tells of using a donkey cart to reach the closest and using buses (followed by a walk of several kilometres off the main road) to reach those furthest away. They had forty-two candidates at their latest Confirmation.

I wasn’t there, but instead playing a Rural Dean’s role authorising a new volunteer Parish Lay Minister in Cleethorpes. There I fell back on the diocese of Derby’s old formulation that ministry is not what ordained people do and are helped by lay people but it is what baptised people do and are helped by ordained people. I didn’t this time fall back on my habitual reminder that this is worked out in the often large churches like the ones we are linked to in Zimbabwe which expect to be self sufficient most of the time and look to the visiting priests to add value in advice, care, word and sacrament.

Bishop Alan’s comment on my last post (that the incumbent’s skill is no longer like performing well from sheet music but now more like improvising well as in jazz) reminds me that our Bishops point out that the key skill incumbents here need is the ability to deal with the complexity to which this all gives rise; this is simply not something called for by the basic labour of being a priest in a single parish or in a small group of parishes or even as a visiting priest for scattered self sufficient parishes.

The Principal at Cuddesdon had emphasised the 'labour' of parish ministry (the value of which it is difficult to explain to outsiders) in contrast to 'work' and 'action' (in which the unappreciated priest might seek more visble achievement; 'show me a priest in his 50s and I'll show you a building project'). The training incumbent who made a presentation about work in the neighbouring multi-parish benefice spoke of protecting the deacon there from too many parishes and in particular from the one which is most challenging. I can see genuine wisdom in aspects of these thoughts and approaches, but I don't think my basic discomfort was simply having just turned 50 and finding it hard to juggle all the visible developments and projects in which I'm engaged.

I’m also grateful for and fascinated by the Principal of St Stephen’s House comment (which is that senior inspectors of theological colleges may still be expecting the best practice of their own day); I’m certainly aware of the way in which league tables and inspection regimes can skew the lives of schools and colleges.

The picture from the church at Iffley was taken on my way to Cuddesdon.

Saturday 5 June 2010

Curate training

The revolution in patterns of stipendiary ministry agonised over in so many recent posts doesn’t appear to be on the agenda of the Church of England’s theological colleges.

I’ve just had another few days away, including twenty-four hours at Ripon College, Cuddesdon from where an ordinand is about to come to serve as Curate here. The opportunity was very welcome. We had a briefing about what the college does today, and receiving incumbents and their new colleagues were able to work at issues like expectations alongside each other. The hospitality was also excellent. I’m grateful to them for thinking of the opportunity and for the work involved in putting on the event. But I was surprised by two huge things.

The first was that the necessarily brief introduction to the training programme didn’t include anything which couldn’t have been included in a similar briefing at my own theological college in the early 1980s, which would in fact have had more of an emphasis on missiology and on the ecumenical and multi-faith contexts. I guess that a more detailed exploration would have uncovered subtle and important differences and filled in the apparent gaps. But both the ethos and modelling and the content and approach to teaching seemed to match almost exactly step-for-step what was being provided twenty-five years ago.

The second was that questions I raised about the rapid changes in stipendiary ministry received yesterday’s answers. The first time, I was told that placements in multi-parish benefices alerted students to the pressures incumbents are under. The second time, I was reminded that the language about priests exercising oversight of lay ministerial development has been around for a long time. But it wasn’t mentioned in either the outline of the sort of ministry for which the Principal thought its students were being formed nor in the presentation by a recent student now serving in rural parishes near by. Indeed the things emphasised in those two presentations were exactly the important things which incumbents of the future will not be able to provide to anything like the extent in which they have in the recent past in Lincolnshire and the present in Oxfordshire.

The most extreme form in which I ventured the question was this. We had been reminded that between fifteen of us we had hundreds of years experience. But in fact we will be helping prepare our Curates for a style of ministry as incumbents of which we have no experience at all. And this we did not get to discuss.