Saturday 29 January 2011

Wednesday 26 January 2011

Forth telling

Weather forecasters know absolutely nothing whatsoever about the future. No gift or training of any sort can confer on them (or any of us) the ability to tell fortunes. What a weather forecaster is required to be is not an expert about the future but an expert about the present and an expert about the past.

Forecasters needs to be experts about the present. They need to know exactly what the situation is now. A huge range of factors have to be observed, measured and understood. If even a single relevant one is forgotten, missed or neglected, they are starting from the wrong place.

Forecasters needs to be experts about the past. They need to know widely what the situations have been. A whole wealth of experience, record keeping and analysis is needed. If this doesn’t given a handle on exactly what went on (and, if possible, why), forecasting ability is badly compromised.

Only with deep knowledge of the past and the present can forecasters say ‘those who have been in the present situation have most often found that what happens next is...’ or 'the implication of where we are now is...'.

And (although more often than not they are right) even then they know what they predict may not be what does happen next. Sometimes they even know as they speak that the evidence could point to other less likely outcomes. They may have misread or been unable to take into account one of the factors about the present or the past (or the moment just after which they spoke) which will skew their forecast.

So what? Not much really, except that it is an image I’ve recently found myself using often in quite different circumstances, so I’ve been trying to think it through.

It is close to Bible study in which I’ve engaged in the past about the nature of prophecy not so much as fore-telling (almost like a magical knowledge of what God is about to do) but as forth-telling (a working out of the implications of where we are before God which most people do not see).

It seemed a helpful way of understanding why those in the nursing and medical profession cannot always be ‘accurate’ about the timing of someone’s approaching death, either when asked ‘how long have I got?’ or when a relative is called to a bedside either too early or not quickly enough.

It is helping me explore one element of priesthood and church leadership in trying to accompany the discipleship of individuals or of churches or of communities. In the process it has attracted me more to the strengths and hubristical vulnerability of the ‘liberal catholic’ position, if you understand ‘liberal’ as a rigorous attention to things as they really are and ‘catholic’ to be a thorough engagement with our whole inheritance of faith.

The light was falling on the east window in St Michael’s after a Funeral there yesterday, but the photogarph doesn't begin to capture the way it made it glow.

Sunday 23 January 2011

Feckless liturgy

The form of the Baptism service which we use in this parish is the shortest and most simple which the Church of England allows. This is in part because (during a single five year term as a member of the General Synod) I had a hand in making some of the more simple variations possible in our Common Worship provision.

I fear (and I see that briefing papers for a debate in the Synod next week also express a fear) that there are many clergy who are using out of date early versions of the Common Worship service which do not include these simpler options or who have up to date books but have never really read the rubrics and notes in the service so are unaware of them.

We’ve gone further. We’ve carefully divided the service into four (each part with its own heading and picture) so that people can navigate through it easily at preparation sessions and on the day. We gather around the Bible. We turn to Christ. We Baptise. We are sent to live as Christians in the world. We could do even more with the four related symbols (book, cross, water and light) and related movement around the building, and sometimes do so.

I was told recently about a priest who had a ribbon for each godparent to represent a prayer, which were then tied together for the baby to have.

So, it seems to me that a simple service is in fact already possible, its presentation can be clear, and creative ideas can be incorporated into it.

The Synod debate is being initiated by some of those ministering in deprived areas of Liverpool who are aware of godparents who have not been to preparation sessions and don’t understand the questions they are asked in public, and are aware of unchurched attenders whose attention they see being lost during the extended metaphors of the longest prayers.

They ask for an alternative form of Decision which is less abstract and which confronts parents and godparents more directly with the life choices involved. They ask for a Prayer over the Water like the one already authorised for emergency Baptism. They ask for some texts for the Commission as good examples of the total freedom already allowed in the wording at this point in the service.

We will see if they get any of these things. Meanwhile, the Daily Mail has reported all this under the misleading headline ‘The christening without much Christianity’, and comments there and elsewhere indicate this untruth is already being used as evidence against the Church of England’s faith and integrity.

As it happens I’m also facing a less important dilemma about the paper's choice of headings. The person developing a new website for the parish has e-mailed the Daily Mail and gained permission to reproduce a meditation on the role and example of Joseph (written by Ian Duncan Smith), but in the process had imported a heading attacking ‘feckless fathers’ which rather changes the tone and purpose of such a meditation.

The picture is of patterns on the wall at St Michael’s last week.

Thursday 20 January 2011

Encountering Easter

The wood of the trees cut down because of disease is not sound enough for carving. It is quite an obvious conclusion now that the tree carver points it out to us. But carving features into living trees (a possibility which hadn’t occurred to us at all) could be on our agenda; only a small portion of the bark would be effected. We’ll need an early bit of consultation with the Archdeacon and someone from the relevant Diocesan Advisory Committee in case this idea bites the dust too. We looked at this site - on the far side of the churchyard as one enters but straight ahead; we’d need to shift the bonfire site from between the trees (which we ought to have got round to doing before anyway), and I favour something which doesn’t ‘shout’ but which emerges for those who approach with perhaps the figure of Mary Magdalen on the left and an angel at the entrance to the empty tomb on the right. Meanwhile, we’d need to take other advice about whether tidying up the stumps which eyesores can be done within the budget we have.

Sunday 16 January 2011

Beyond scars

We think we might be able to turn this eyesore into a feature, and a craftsman who carves trees is coming to Bradley churchyard later this week to explore the possibility with us.

It is a some time ago that St George’s had to raise £5000 (most of the annual turnover of this village church - there was a generous response in the village) to make safe several horse chestnuts which had been attacked by bleeding canker. If we had had further money at the time we might well have gone on to remove the frankly ugly stumps which remain, but we didn’t.

This picture was taken in the summer (the bags in the centre relate to work which was being done refurbishing a grave) and only shows the most prominent of several stumps with which we have been left.

For a little while we’ve been canvassing the idea that the stumps might be carved, and that the results might become something people would want to come to see. I fancy a ‘calvary’ or an ‘empty tomb’ which could even be a focus of devotion for those who find the church itself locked. Another idea is to have at least a dragon or perhaps a St George as well. There is also a desire for a bench in the churchyard; the fear that such a bench might be stolen would certainly be eliminated if it was part of a tree trunk and thus literally rooted in the ground.

There are various hurdles we’d have to jump to pull off a project like this. Is the wood sound enough for such carving? Is the craftsman able to take the particular stumps and ideas and do something with them? Would his design be fitting for bereaved people who visit graves here? Would it help us preach the Gospel? Would the diocesan and heritage bodies whose permission we’d need let us do it? Would a recent legacy of about £3500 be enough to cover the work involved? We shall see.

I sometimes use a hackneyed sermon illustration about a beautiful pearl which had been so deeply scratched that no amount of polishing could make good the damage, but which was eventually engraved in such a way that the scratch appeared to be the stem of a rose. I sometimes take people to see the ‘Bishop’s Eye’ window in Lincoln Cathedral whose kaleidoscope beauty is the result of fragments of mediaeval glass being set together as something new which transcends the tragic loss of the original design.

We don’t look to God for some sort of magic to avoid or remove the messes we inflict on ourselves or which are inflicted on us, but we do look to him for the Easter possibilities which will take us to a renewed places albeit with the scars still visible as were those of the crucifixion. If we can pull off this project, I’d like our tree stumps to be another parable of this.

Thursday 13 January 2011

Brisbane news

‘It has not stopped raining for weeks - torrential rain every day,’ is the word from the Revd Linda Kologaras sixty miles north of Brisbane, but she is in a much better place than many others across Queensland.

Linda was a member of St Michael’s and was ordained to serve as a Non-Stipendiary Minister here in the 1990s. She moved into stipendiary ministry first as a Curate in Immingham and the as the Rector of a parish in Australia. She is now in retirement helping out in the parish of Cooroora. We sent her a message when a member of the congregation here was concerned about how she might be being affected by the floods, and she has e-mailed a reply earlier this week.

Thank you for your concern re-floods. It started many weeks ago about the end of November. Unusual amounts of rain coming from the monsoon in the Northern Territory. For some reason the monsoon came further south which has affected us all over the past weeks - soaking the ground and filling the dams to capacity.

We live on the Sunshine Coast near Noosa - 100ks north of Brisbane. It has not stopped raining for weeks - torrential rain everyday and causing wide spread flooding. Fortunately we built our house very high up and, although we have had times when we were a bit worried it would rise and cause problems, it hasn’t come into the house.

We are so much better off than so many people throughout the state who have lost their lives, their animals, their property, everything. It really is devastating. Please keep us all in your prayers as its not over yet as the floods head for Brisbane itself.

I have been helping out in our parish (four churches) especially since our Priest in Charge has been very ill and then away on holidays to recover. I enjoy keeping my hand in and being part of the community. I would like to do more but I still get quite tired and Alex makes sure I dont overdo things. Give my very best wishes to everyone at St. Michael`s

I’ve just looked at the parish website ( and see that periodic flooding is not the only weather danger they face - there are historic pictures of the churches ‘blown off their stumps’ by hurricanes. Among other things, I also notice that the parish has an imaginative project offering rowing training and experience to disadvantaged teenagers.

The picture is another left over from my Retreat last year.

Monday 10 January 2011

The King's Speech

‘What was the film about?’ we were asked at supper. ‘Speech therapy,’ was my deliberately uninformative reply. ‘No, it was about a dysfunctional family,’ was the better offer from the other side of the table.

Speech therapy. A man with a speech impediment had a job which required public speaking. At the beginning of the film he made a speech incoherently, and people were embarrassed. At the end of the film he made a speech haltingly but effectively, and people were congratulatory. Both the man and his speech therapist are heros.

A dysfunctional family. His impediment was the result of parental bullying and emotional deprivation as a child. In the middle of the film he makes desperate, sincere and effective attempts to relate better to his own children, but by the end of the film the perceived requirements of his job have sabotaged this project. ‘It is extraordinary what human beings will do to each other,’ was the follow up remark from the other side of the table.

I already knew the story backwards. I devoured the history at about the age of eleven in everything from reading the Duke of Windsor’s A King’s Story to listening to the play Crown Matrimonial . So I recognised all sorts of phrases planted in the dialogue from George V’s ‘I’ll make sure my children are afraid of me’ to suggestions about the origins of Wallis Simpson’s sexual techniques.

I even still have LP records of the speeches involved, and know them well enough to recognise how close Colin Firth comes to George VI’s voice, and how Guy Pearce fell at a final Edward VIII hurdle (only half capturing the strangled ‘I’ in the middle of the abdication broadcast).

I enjoyed a huge amount (from Helen Bonham Carter to witty turns in the script) and could see why people praise Firth’s acting, but in the end felt more queasy at the air brushing. Did Edward VIII’s friend and supporter Churchill really take the Duchess of York aside to agree with her about Wallis Simpson? What happened to the whole appeasement process right through to Chamberlain being invited to the Palace balcony?

I fear it wasn’t about speech therapy or about a dysfunctional but instead about the one simplistic version of history British people are allowed to believe in relation to the undoubtedly real royal contribution to the morale of the Second World War. What we don’t know is what sort of leader, speaker and inspired of the nation Edward VIII would have turned out to be if he’d been on the throne through it, and whether or not his ‘Prince Hal’ would have been a ‘Henry V’.

The picture with the last post was from a retreat at Alton Abbey last year. The picture with this one is of some of the minor damage done in Great Coates churchyard by the weight of recent snow.

Friday 7 January 2011

Sudan votes

Our churches need to be both distinctive and engaged. So says the National Officer for Evangelism in the Church of England. By distinctive he means there must be something at the heart of each congregation which matters and which shapes its life. By engaged he means there must be involvement in the local community which understands it and shares its life.

But, he warns, it is not easy to be both distinctive and engaged. Some churches may be tempted to be so distinctive that they are a foreign land to anyone who is not part of the club. Some may be tempted to be so engaged that you would never suspect that their members had values which differed in any way from those of the community around them.

A Bishop from southern Sudan visited our Diocesan Synod last year. His diocese in the largely Christian south had a handful of congregations and was cut off from the wider world for several years by the effects of the Civil War there. Nobody even knew whether he was still alive. Then, as the Civil War eased, he emerged and was found to be Bishop of a diocese of a hundred congregations.

‘What did you do?’ we asked him. If there was a trick up his sleeve, we wanted to know what it was. ‘We prayed and we stayed,’ he said. At first that seemed a disappointing answer. About the only things which are characteristic about our most vulnerable congregations are that they have their services and they have not withdrawn from their locations in each community.

But, when he said ‘we prayed’, it turned out that he meant things like spending the whole night in vigil. When he said ‘we stayed’, he was talking about being the only people who did not flee for their lives as the horror of persecution closed in around the local people.

This is a version of material I was hawking around fifteen years ago, and I remember arrogantly and prematurely trying to offer it as a template for the parish when I moved here a couple of years later. But I wasn’t prompted to dig it out again to remind myself of the call to Christian living which is distinctive and prayerful as well as fully engaged in the concerns and needs of the place in which we stay.

The reason I searched for it again was that I keep seeing things about the referendum on Sunday in southern Sudan. It is the next stage in the fragile peace process agreed for the country. It asks whether the south wishes to separate from the mainly Muslim north. So memories of that Bishop’s visit sixteen years ago have returned strongly.

Many of those displaced to the north have been returning to the south so that they can resettle and vote - for some of them it must feel a bit like the Exodus. But even the expected positive vote is likely to lead to wilderness years and tribal conflicts especially in a under developed part of the country not yet equipped for nationhood.

Tuesday 4 January 2011

Burst pipes

The first real challenge in 2011 may be keeping open the two community buildings which St Michael’s owns (last outlined here on 4th July 2008).

The photograph shows one result of the water pipe which burst over the New Year at the Littlecoates Community Centre (on the site of what was St Alban’s Church between the 1950s and 1970s). For years, the Centre has always seemed to be six months away from closure, but things like the support of the Ward Councillors has usually staved this off. A new community group has just registered itself as a limited company in the hope of making a viable business plan and taking on a peppercorn lease in 2011, but there is almost nothing in the Centre’s bank account at the moment and the flood does make it look all the more like an up hill struggle.

Meanwhile what was Bishop Edward King Church between the 1960s and the beginning of this century is safely let to the Grimsby Institute of HE and FE on terms which include allowing use by community groups. I have no specific reason to think this will come to an end soon, but a silent alarm goes off under a different hat in the back of my head each time mention is made of the need in the current economic climate for FE Colleges to rationalise budget and plant.