Thursday 29 July 2010

Serenli massacre

The camel-mounted armed Constabulary of Somaliland at the time of the Great War has distracted my attention from the other things I should be doing.

I took the picture of the plaque in Gainsborough Parish Church when there for the Ordination recently. It caught my eye as the son of an African District Commissioner from the 1950s, but it stood out as a remarkable period piece in its own right.

There is the litany of names: Jubaland (that part of modern Somalia nearest Kenya, through which the Juba river flows), Bardera (one of its largest modern settlements), Serenli (around which the famine of the 1970s and the Civil War of the 1990s raged) and 'the frontier grave'.

There is Elliott’s close interest in the people he served: alongside his colonial service responsibility he is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and his family are sufficiently proud of the comments on the value of his research to include a quotation about it.

There is the quotation from the end of Henry Newbolt’s Clifton Chapel (published seven years earlier) with the Latin who perished far away before his time but as a soldier and for his country.

I discover that regular troops were withdrawn from Jubaland at the outbreak of War because they were needed elsewhere, so an armed Constabulary had to fill the gap. Elliott, thirty-five African police and fifty villagers were all killed in one attack by a local warlord while their arms were locked up in the guard room for the night. The looted arms and ammunition fuelled other raids for the rest of the year.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website gives him as of the Lincolnshire Regiment and his burial place as Mogadishu, one of only three Great War graves in a mainly Second World War cemetery to which his body must have been moved from its original burial place.

It also gives his birth place as Gainsborough and his father as a clergyman in Lincoln, who turns out to have been the Headmaster of Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Gainsborough from 1874 (before his son Francis was born) until 1906 (by which time he would be twenty-five).

That is a satisfying amount to have found out in a couple of hours, but, nevertheless, I think I ought to get back to some work.

Monday 26 July 2010

Stillbirth reflection

Last month I found myself having to say something at another such Funeral, this time following the cot death of a girl of three months. Her parents wanted a short and simple service and had prepared some beautiful things about their daughter which they wanted to say, so I suggested that there might not need me to add very much. ‘No,’ they said, ‘we want you to say something proper.’

What I found myself saying was this. It seems to me that we get our own sense of meaning from those who for some reason appear to value us. They may well do so because we are attractive or witty or successful or useful, but we know that doesn’t count, because either now or in the future we may find that we are unattractive, uninteresting and of little achievement or help. So we really get our own meaning from those who value us without cause. Many of us are lucky to get that from different places: from among our family and friends; from total strangers; and from God.

What I tried to say was that this child had all three: in her distraught parents, in the NHS and in her Baptism. We know her life had meaning because her parents loved her, because we bothered directing our taxes towards her care, and because God’s activity was made visible around her. So it seems to me her life had no less meaning and no more meaning than any of ours.

Obviously, hardly anyone at the service could be expected to follow a line of intellectual reasoning like that, but at least her parents were thankful that something proper seemed to have been said. I have no idea whether the reasoning would stand up to serious scrutiny anyway.

Nevertheless, I even dare to wonder whether such things would be true about the stillborn child for whom I will take a service tomorrow. I know her life had meaning because she was valued without cause - in being loved unconditionally by her parents, in being dealt with without charge by a firm of Funeral Directors, and in being owned openly before God in the same hospital’s Chapel.

And the extra thought I would say to those of you who come to a summer Evensong in a Cathedral is that all this might alert us to an important reason why we are taught that we should not value people by how attractive they are, what good company they are, how successful they are, or how useful they are. It is that if we place meaning in those wrong places, we find that we are denying our instinct that the life of such a child has meaning.

I've been spending time over the last week with another family who have suffered a stillbirth, and I've dug out again for myself these words which I prepared as part of a sermon when preaching in the Cathedral almost exactly four years so.

The picture is a different view of the recently vandalised cross on the 1927 grave of fifteen year old Bert Davis in St Michael's churchyard. I've noticed that the three burials in the churchyard in the month after his were of a 12 year old (whose address was a Mental Hospital outside Lincoln) and children aged 8 hours and 5 years (from the streets adjacent to the one in which Bert lived).

Friday 23 July 2010

Two integrities cont

I tried the argument in my last post on our Archdeacon when I saw her on Wednesday and she offered me exactly the opposite point of view, so I may be wrong yet again.

There is no Ecclesiastical Committee yet in place for the new Parliament, but there is a new Second Church Estates Commissioner (the MP who steers General Synod Measures through Parliament). He is thus a new ex-officio member of General Synod and I’ve now had a look at what he said in the debate, which, if it persuaded a tiny handful of clergy who would not otherwise have done so to vote against the Archbishops’ amendment, may have made all the difference.

He said his personal opinions would not matter as he’d be neutral in attempting to steer through any Measure General Synod passed. He said his personal opinion happened to be that it should become legal for women to become Bishops.

He argued from scripture: God entrusted the first proclamation of the Resurrection to women (and yesterday, 22 July, happened to be the feast of Mary Magdalen, ‘Apostle to the Apostles’).

He argued from reason: leadership by women, once almost unthinkable in any context, has been found to be widely valued and fruitful (including the Vicars of the two major parishes in his constituency, and of the parish in which he worships, and the most significant civic leaders in the area).

He didn’t argue from tradition.

But, he said, Parliament is a different place to the 1990s, has recently strengthened equality legislation, and would be unlikely to take kindly to a Measure which appeared to qualify the status of women Bishops in any way. In the 1990s, the Ecclesiastical Committee wanted to make sure that provision for women priests included safeguards for objectors. Today, he opined, it would be certain to want provision for women Bishops not to be undermined by the extnet of such safeguards.

We will see who is right (but perhaps only if the Measure in its final form does achieves a majority of two thirds in each ‘House’ of a new General Synod about to be elected).

If the Second Church Estates Commissioner is right, then the question of whether or not provision for objectors should be by Code of Practice (as in the present version of the Measure, which they see as no fundamental safeguard at all) or by legal provision (the Archbishops’ suggestion which didn’t get into the present version of the Measure, which they desire) will be determined by a secular political understanding of equality quite independent of any weighing of Christian scripture, tradition or reason.

Whatever the rights and wrongs, this is exactly the process of decision making the Catholic movement in the Church of England has always feared.

Meanwhile, a grave at St Michael’s was vandalised in the week: the broken cross was found elsewhere in the churchyard, and the heart memorial down by the river.

I’ve honoured Bert by reviving his memory in looking him up in the burial register and his family in the 1911 census. His father was also a Bert who’d come from Harwich, worked as an oil boiler, and married a seventeen year old Grimsby girl (Jane Riley) in 1902.

In 1911, shortly before Bert’s birth, they lived at 10 Hargrave Street with his three older sisters (Doris, Gladys and Ivy). It was still the family address when he died in 1927 aged 15, and they seemed to have worked hard at what appear to be hand made memorials to him which had survived for over eighty years.

Tuesday 20 July 2010

Two integrities

If I was unhappy with the proposals to enable women to be appointed as Bishops in the Church of England (which I am not), I’d take a particular interest in the formation of the Ecclesiastical Committee of the new Parliament, and I’d then be doing a lot of work with those who are appointed to it.

Any Measure passed by the General Synod has to be approved by Parliament before it can receive the Royal Assent. There is normally a brief debate in both Houses of Parliament to nod the Measure through; Parliament may not amend the Measure, but it retains the right not to approve it at all. Because of this, there is a preliminary stage at which a Committee of fourteen members drawn from both Houses of Parliament considers whether or not it is ‘expedient’ to put the Measure before Parliament at all.

Before the Measure to allow women to be ordained as priests was presented to Parliament, the Ecclesiastical Committee of the time made it clear that it would not regard it as expedient to present the Measure unless there were safeguards in place for those who could not accept it. The payments which were made to clergy who left the Church of England when women were ordained priest and the whole ‘flying Bishop’ provision for parishes which did not wish to deal with Bishops who ordained women followed from this. The language of ‘two integrities’ in the Church of England over this issue stems from this balance of Measure and related safeguards.

Now, the shape of the Measure which has just emerged from the General Synod does not make nor relate to any provision about payments to clergy who may leave and it dismantles the whole ‘flying Bishops’ provision. I’d have thought that the very least any well primed new Ecclesiastical Committee would want to know is how the General Synod justifies removing precisely the provisions without which the earlier Committee wouldn’t have let the previous Measure through; it might even feel that Parliament has been the subject of a confidence trick in this regard.

I’d have thought it quite possible that the message the Committee could then send would be legally binding safeguards for ‘the other integrity’ would have to be built into any new Measure before it would be regarded as expedient - which is exactly what the Archbishops proposed to the Synod, what a majority of the whole Synod supported, and what motions from many Diocesan Synod over the next few months may very well request.

The weeping ash at the entrance to St Michael’s churchyard has featured here before; this picture of it was taken yesterday.

Saturday 17 July 2010

Wednesday 14 July 2010

A way of the Cross

This week I have visited two people I know well both deeply unhappy in Old People’s Homes into which they have moved recently, while also noticing gratefully the attention and awareness of those caring for them. One is my mother, fully conscious of the way her recurring dizziness among other things severely curtails living her life meaningfully; her constant refrain is that she doesn’t want to wake up in the morning. The other is a regular member of one of our congregations here, confused and with diminishing memory with which to relate to anyone meaningfully; her insistent, frustrated, angry refrain is that she wants to go home.

I feel increasingly sad and helpless about this myself. I’m also puzzled again by the absence of significant theological reflection on this predicament. Without anything else, I return to a long established question, however heretical it may seem.

The background assumption to the question is this. From the moment of incarnation God was part of the limitations of our time and space. This meant ‘choosing’ to be subject to the pain and wearing out which is hard wired into any creation. So from that defining moment, as Christ that night was a single dividing cell, it was inevitable that this had to be worked through into trauma and death. However we express our theology of atonement, and whichever side we take in an argument about the passibility or impassability of God, this taking up of pain, wearing out, trauma and death by or into God is somehow where we find our salvation.

The question is this. This was worked out in execution in his 30s. But was that particular place and method simply contingent? Would it have been less salvatory if it had worked out in abortion or miscarriage? Would it have been less salvatory if it had worked out in the stripping away of meaningful life in frustrated decline and in dementia? Do I encounter a Pieta each time I’m called to a stillbirth in our hospital? Do I encounter Christ’s cry of dereliction is the helplessness (theirs, but also mine) in these situations in our Old People’s Homes?

Meanwhile, my wife has continued her late father’s exploration of their Aberdeenshire ancestry, including information about a great great uncle (and his Orcadian wife) who happened to come south to find work in Grimsby, and who at one stage lived in this parish. It would have been too strong a coincidence if family weddings had taken place in one of our churches (they took place mainly in Grimsby URC, which was then St Columba’s Presbyterian Church) and his burial in the 1930s had been in one of our churchyards (they are buried in the Scartho Road Cemetery).

We discovered their grave and its gravestone (in the foreground of this picture) last evening in a section of the cemetery where few gravestones survive, and we assume that she has unsuspected third cousins near here today.

Sunday 11 July 2010

Ministerial outcomes

I’m glad a system of Ministerial Development Review is now under way in the diocese - the results of my first one in the trial batch is just about to go to the Bishop - but I regret that the product of the one we now have focuses quite so much on specific outcomes.

I’m glad we’ve finally got one because I know how tortuous the history of the introduction of such schemes in the diocese has been. I did a Note for the then Bishop’s Council in about 1998 which traced initiatives, recommendations and attempts followed by lapses back through about nine yearly stages to the 1970s. By the 1990s, Bishop Bob Hardy’s four yearly personal appraisal interviews and reports had made the whole process widely accepted and valued, and by 1995 we had inserted an assisted self appraisal into the gaps to make it a two yearly cycle.

The process of my giving up as the Continued Ministerial Education officer for the diocese in 1999 had many of the characteristics of ‘constructive dismissal’ when it became clear that this (and the participants' identification of any training implications for themselves) was all going to be allowed to lapse. We’ve lost ten years since, although the present Bishops do have their own pattern of Episcopal Visitation, but it is good that the national introduction of new clergy terms and conditions has made the diocese pick up roughly where it left off then.

But I regret a bit the form which is now provided to feed back to the Bishop is quite so focussed on reporting outcomes. There is space to report a wider picture, and in time reviewers may develop the habit of being holistic in what they record, but I suspect in doing so they will have to consciously resist the lay out’s encouragement to offer above all else quasi-managerial (rather than ministerial developmental) results.

I’d offered the three poems I’d written (and blogged) this year to my reviewer, who commented on them when we met; she has since told me that she’d was less worried about the pressures on me knowing I was trying to write such things, and this is something we should have added into the body of the report. But I noticed their presence had actually been lost by the time we’d filled in a template of outcomes to be delivered in six and then in twelve months time.

The sleeping bridesmaid was at one of yesterday’s Weddings. A while ago I took the Funeral of what would now have been a young Uncle of hers, and I've kept contact with the family since, so the Wedding was a special one for me. The bride's father cried on the way down the aisle too, so it really was a good wedding all round.

Thursday 8 July 2010

Do justly

All the teaching this term in one of our local Primary Schools is about chocolate, and I’ve been trying to add a relevant religious education component.

The school has begun to use the International Primary Curriculum. For this, all the teaching in each term grows out of a single theme. Most recently it was Inventors and then it was Volcanoes. What is taught in areas like History, Geography and Science are then built around this, making a huge investigatory project out of each term.

RE (determined by local syllabuses) isn’t seen as being something which fits into this, but that hasn’t stopped me trying . For Inventors, we worked with Gutenberg’s moveable type, and thus also with the impact of having the Bible in English freely available in the country. For Volcanoes, we picked up Christian Aid (near Christian Aid Week) and thus also support for those who face natural disasters.

But what would you do for Chocolate? I wanted to do something on fasting and feasting, but it turned out this ground was already covered in the normal RE syllabus. I though too late of Cadbury and its Quaker model village at Bournville. What the school suggested was Fair Trade, and we went with that.

We set up the problem some Christian groups had identified and which sparked the modern Fair Trade movement - coca farmers getting low prices from large companies which nevertheless had decent profit margins. We then asked some Year 5s on Tuesday what might people have suggested be done about this. Magically, a few of them said 'protest', ‘get the buying and selling done by somebody else’, ‘set up their own company’, and ‘create a new brand’.

So I’m living this week with the sense that God gives us new eyes not to accept what is in front of us but to look at it anew with his eyes, and the sense that God gives us new ways to begin to live differently as a result.

And I discover this has given me a different perspective to deal with the readings for next Sunday: the prophet Amos’ picture of God’s plumb line revealing how crooked the building of Israel was and how it needed to come down; Jesus’ picture of the Good Samaritan revealing how an idea of ‘neighbour’ being ‘like one of us’ needs to give way to a radically different possibility.

I suspect that Christianity which is primarily judgement can become a burden, and Christianity which is primarily hope can be vacuous, but Christianity which makes us see both what we and others collude in accepting as normal must die and makes us embrace the Easter possibilities beyond it can be true repentance. I hadn’t expected Chocolate to get me back to this awareness in a few days.

The moth was on our window yesterday.

Monday 5 July 2010

Ordination Litany

Does the church make itself ‘accessible’ by being uncompromising in its worship (in the conviction this is what integrity requires and this may be exactly where visitors to that worship might encounter spiritual depth they had not suspected) or by adapting its content or style (in the conviction that this will provide bridges of understanding and experience which visitors to that worship might cross)? On the one hand everything from a Sung Mass to Cathedral Evensong attempts to be a place where visitors encounter the mystery of God on our terms. On the other hand everything from a ‘Family Service’ to the integration of modern music attempts to be a place where visitors find a welcome in part on their own terms.

I was thinking all this again at the Ordination yesterday. There can hardly be a service which carries more weight in its profound statement of commitment and faith; if it does not ‘say’ things to ordinands and parishes which deepens their vocation then it misses something. Yet it is a service at which a significant proportion of a congregation might be expected to be candidates’ family and friends who might otherwise attend church hardly at all; I certainly remember the advice given to one preacher at such a service that he should remember what a high proportion of his listeners this might be.

When the present form of service was being developed, there was an attempt to remove the major Litany of prayer from the service and replace it with intercessions which were shorter and simpler. This attempt was based chiefly on the conviction that the Litany over balances a service into which so much else also has to be included and ends up being tediously long for those unfamiliar with it. This was rejected because the experience of silence, the singing of the ‘Come Holy Spirit’ and the praying of the Litany was valued precisely as almost a Vigil which the heart of the service requires.

So it proved for me at Gainsborough yesterday where the Junior Choir hummed beneath the Rector’s intoning of each of the Litany’s petitions, with the tone rising each time he reached ‘let us pray to the Lord’ and exploded into each ‘Kyrie eleison’. I guess that some visitors, possibly already burdened by listening to a weighty sermon, wondered whether it would ever come to an end. I hope that some of them wished, like me, it wouldn’t.

The Bishop of Grimsby, our new Curate, and the new Curate of Skegness are pictured being marshalled into some order for an official photograph.

Friday 2 July 2010

Secondary Moderns?

If there are things to be said for the Coalition’s education policies, why are those in education so depressed by it all? I just happened to have had recent sets of conversations with those involved in everything from Primary to Further Education and the attitude is consistent. It can’t be that they are all hidebound. It can't be that they are all socialist. It can’t just be the cuts. It can’t just be the demographic decline.

At the Secondary School level I’m not aware of any proposal to create a local Free School, so there isn’t an immediate danger of this form of market forces hoovering up proportions of the rapidly reducing capital and building budgets and taking its pupils ‘per capita’ funding out of the existing provision.

But I at this level I am aware that there is a real fear that North East Lincolnshire is going to end up with what one person said last week would be ‘secondary moderns’ and totally independently another said would be ‘sink schools’ squeezed between successful Academies. They envisage these schools struggling with budgets which don’t generate the critical mass needed for broad and imaginative well resourced work because less ‘per capita’ funding comes in to schools where surplus places are then concentrated. They fear these schools will also be picking up significant numbers of pupils excluded from elsewhere. They realise that the Local Authority will also not be able to afford quality support when its element of 'per capita' funding does not come in for pupils who are in Academies.

One person was also highlighting the way in which freedom to be creative outside the National Curriculum doesn’t much help, say, the child who has to change school as his or her have to move to find work, which may have been one of its original intentions.

Meanwhile, the picture is another of my ‘after’ pictures to display alongside the old ‘before’ ones which will be part of the Festival exhibition in St Nicolas’ over the weekend; the curator wasn’t quite sure where to find what had been the Post Office in Great Coates so I was pleased to be able to pin it down here and notice the garage inserted where the shop front had once been (and a modern post box on the road outside which I guess replaces one removed from the shop wall).