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’.