Thursday 31 March 2011

Never let me go

I don’t remember any recent film disturbing me as much. It opened last month and we went to see it last night, and I’m still unsettled. I’m not quite sure why this is. Some of the presuppositions of the plot don’t really work, and there have been equally unpleasant predicaments and tragedies in other films.

Perhaps it is a tribute to the way the story is told: there are enough clear indications from the beginning about the true nature of the story but these are developed and played out slowly and deliberately through the whole film.

The narrator speculates at the end whether all human beings also go through life not understanding what they are living through and feeling they didn’t have enough time, but I’m not sure that was it.

I suspect it may have been a little earlier when her former Headteacher observed that the wider population’s greatly enhanced well being meant it couldn’t afford to consider the full humanity of those whose predicament brings that well being about.

If that is it, it makes participation in everything from slavery to a lifestyle only really possible through the poverty of others more recognisable and believable, which is unsettling enough.

I’ll have to read the original 2005 Kazuo Ishiguro novel to see how far this is all played out there.

The picture is another of those I took at Berkhamsted School recently.

Thursday 24 March 2011

Rewarding outputs

Attempting to manage school improvement by financial reward, league tables and targets has entirely predictable side effects as Headteachers cynically, unconsciously or reluctantly allow budget, public reputation and specific measures of ‘success’ to skew their planning. Measure which are intended to (and may often succeed in) ‘driving up standards’ will also be skewing what is perceived and delivered as quality education.

So a standard was set by the previous Government of what proportion of pupils achieve ‘5 GCSEs at Grades A-C including English and Maths’; a laudable aim to see how many achieve good quality basic qualifications in literacy and numeracy and at least some width in other subjects. But you then discover schools abandoning a rounded education in English by putting pupils through an early GCSE so that if they achieve a Grade C they can stop teaching them the subject to make room for extra intensive tutoring in Maths. Or you discover schools abandoning a breadth of education and concentrating on what are perceived to be easier subjects and on some vocational qualifications which ‘count’ as multiple GCSEs.

Now a new Government sets a different standard: a new combination of GCSE passes at Grades A-C is set (with what may be a misnomer as ‘the English Baccalaureate’); humanities (limited to ancient history, history or geography), science (not BTEC) and a foreign language is required. The aim is explicitly to make it easier to identify ‘those schools which succeed in giving their pupils a properly rounded education’. But straight away there is wide publicity about aspects of a genuinely properly rounded education (from art to religious education) where there will be sharp declines in GCSE entries and where the teacher redundancies necessitated by declining budgets are likely to fall.

I continue to wonder what behaviour by schools would be prompted if money, praise and box ticking was to be linked to ‘contextual added value’ in core subjects along with at least something imaginatively extra to them?

This is at the front of my mind because I attended a briefing yesterday from the Skills Funding Agency about developments in funding Further Education Colleges. A chill went through me when the official spoke of a possible shift towards funding ‘outputs’ rather than ‘inputs’ - paying Colleges in the future for how many qualifications are achieved rather than for how many students are taught. I could see the point - part of a ‘relentless’ (I’m sure the word would be used) ‘commitment to drive up standards’ so that the Colleges would only be financially rewarded for achieving qualifications. But, if this does turn out to be the direction of travel of Government policy, it is inevitable how some Colleges (most of whom are already having to take increasing care over appropriate advice and guidance about recruitment to the right courses) will behave by beginning to restrict recruitment even further to those who are certain to succeed. I simply can’t see that being a gain for the more vulnerable in our society.

An illustration of a Public School may be an unusual accompaniment to this post, but I took the picture of the chapel at Berkhamsted School (in which I was Confirmed) when I was there on Saturday for the Memorial Service for a former Second Master of the School; Peter Gibbs was a kind and witty man, a close friend of my father’s from the days when they were at the school together in the 1930s, and my House Master when I was there in the 1970s. The school taught me well enough to get good A-levels and a place at Oxford (and provided a wealth of extra-curricular activity) but the present Government wouldn’t label my education there as sufficiently rounded since my only Science O-level was in joint sciences which doesn’t count towards the English Baccalaureate.

Wednesday 16 March 2011

Do not call unclean

My three ordained colleagues (Assistant Curate, Non-Stipendiary Minister and Team Vicar) happen all to be female, indeed I can count a dozen priests from this parish over the years who happen to be female (the three of them, five of their predecessors, and the most recent ordinands produced by the parish the fourth of whom is due to be ordained priest this summer).

There is such a quiet normality about this that I am always surprised when I trip over the conviction / prejudice (sometimes one, sometimes the other, and sometimes a strange combination of the two which it is difficult to unravel) that their ministry is unacceptable. One of the three tells me that she has never really encountered this, but I know that another feels instances of it keenly; I did have a rare phone call this week about arranging a Funeral for a non-church attender whose family ‘wanted a man to take the service’ and I have no idea what influenced this request because we got no further than establishing that I was already booked to take another Funeral at exactly the same time this new one had been arranged.

There are those whose conviction is that the Bible sets its face against such ministry, and who will presumably be shaping their whole way of life around faithfulness to every attitude equally evidenced in the Bible. There are those whose conviction is that the long standing tradition of the church sets its face against such ministry, and who will presumably be shaping their whole discipleship in equal resistence to all present cultural norms which the church has not previously inhabited. And there are those (like ourselves) whose Christian experience of the grace made known through their ministry means we cannot ‘call unclean what God calls clean’, and who presumably need to be equally alert seeking to discern the activity of God in other unexpected places.

And (most often totally woven into all this, which is why the conviction / prejudice strands are so hard to unravel from each other) there is the influence of the cultural context in which we operate. We have had a female ordinand from South Africa staying in the parish for ten days. Her choice of parish to visit has been partly determined by her awareness of cultural resistance to her future ministry in the rural area from which she comes. We suggested she visit our female Archdeacon who began a conversation with her about the way in which the English agreement to ordain women followed years in which the secular leadership of women was very visible in society (so it felt to many like the church ‘catching up’) but the South African agreement to do so has preceded anything like this (so it feels to many like the church acting in opposition to the norms around it).

I continued this conversation by wondering why the South African church had been such an ‘early adopter’ of this idea in the first place. My guess is that the history of apartheid has made what might otherwise have been a conservative church on this issue into a strong resister to any other form of apparent discrimination. If so, this might be similar to the liberal commitment of the American Anglican church where I observed before we may under estimate the degree to which being asked to hold back from acting on an emerging conviction that faithful homosexual activity is acceptable and moral is like being held back from acting on a conviction that slavery is wrong.

We found the pelican in her piety during Half Term on a wall in Amsterdam.

Sunday 13 March 2011

Revesby poem again

This is nearer what I wanted to achieve.

The Mirror of Love

‘Even locals are hazy about mid-Lincolnshire’
was all he meant to say,
but somehow lit upon
‘nobody knows where Revesby is’,

so I had to bite back
‘where I once bought an ostrich egg’,
‘where Aelred wrote Mirror of Love',
‘where Joseph Banks kept his kangaroo’.

Where the Wolds abruptly become the Fens
as if the fold in the map between north and south was visible
just where the world agrees west divides from east;
at the cross hairs of England.

Where there are bumps in the ground above
where Aelred first tested out an Abbot’s role
and might just have written his great work on love
and reflected all he wrote about.

Where, a short way off, near the ostrich farm,
a country house assumed the Abbey’s name
with the first garden planted with antipodean trees and shrubs
which Banks, with Captain Cook, brought home.

Where, equally far from our two homes,
two of us were allowed to unlock the church
to pray for our friend before he died
and look into a glass darkly distorted.

The view is from our bedroom window last week. The land falls away to the Golf Course but the owners of a strip behind the bungalows wants to build four story apartments here and thus help secure the viability of the hotel next door.

Thursday 10 March 2011

Cathedral stonework

These two dates (1746 and 2009) appear in the section of the Cathedral where major work is being undertaken at the moment which a group of us were taken to visit after the meeting of the Cathedral Council last week; this is where the modern statues posted here then can be found.

There has been Victorian work in this area in between the dated work; we’ve been told before that the cycle of work on the building means this sort of major work visits every part of the building once every century or so.

We were shown examples of where the Victorian work had used iron wedges and sandstone blocks the deterioration of both of which had contributed to the problems now being addressed. But the most significant engineering feat appears to have been managing to insert this new stone into a flying buttress in 2009.

Monday 7 March 2011


... as an arch gives stone the power of flight,
the place where faith would give
the clay of flesh its flight...

The image is from an American poet standing in Chartres Cathedral, and it is in his first full-length collection (which comes from an Irish publisher which gives its address improbably as the Cliffs of Moher): Glenn Shea Find A Place That Could Pass For Home Salmon Poetry 2010.

I’ve had the collection with me during our time away in Amsterdam during Half Term and since, and I’ve marked up half a dozen poems in it in particular.

The more important image for him in this poem is not stone but human: a teenager at prayer

... his face hid in his hands, the muddle
of life outside pursuing him here as well...

and later exchanging the sign of the cross with a friend with dipped fingers from the Font, so that the poet too prays in the same muddle

... abject as any man is
in the weight of his faults, scanted
of hope, but who has seen at least the image
of what he desired: another like himself,
whose flesh he might inscribe
with the water of blessing.

I’m still dwelling on images such as this, and that of A Tree on Inishmore bent to permanent west with obeisance its trick for still being able to stand

... It leaves leaning
east against the wind to us.

But what remains with me most strongly is Sheep. He is in a Scottish hotel, aware

... hooves
that tap crossing the paved road
can stamp on fingers and will snap them
in a mothering rage...
... the thousandfold
brainless herd of the skittish...
... all you hear all night are the cries of the sheep,
the mothers and the young penned apart.

So far, so familiar. There are strong echos of the Ormulum (with its standard moral)

... it can cnawen swithe wel
it can know very well
his moder thaer gho blaeteth
his mother where she bleats
bitwenen an thusende shep,
among a thousand sheep
thoh that teg blaeten alle
although they all bleat
& all swa birth the cnawen wel
and so it befits you to know well
thin God & his lare
your God and his law.

Then I turn the page and find a simple connection which on its own made the collection worth buying and may change listening to sheep bleating from now onwards

... and who of us who have carried and buried
in the unnoticed ground of memory
all this miserable century’s images
of fences and separation,
the reaching hands’ failed attempts to touch...

I took the picture of the distant Cliffs of Moher six years ago from one of Inishmore's neighbouring islands.

Tuesday 1 March 2011

Work in progress

This poem hasn’t yet come out quite as I want, so probably needs putting in a drawer for a fresh look in six months time. I don’t actually know whether St Aelred wrote any of On Spiritual Friendship in the brief period he was Abbot of the newly planted community at Revesby (coming from being Novice Master of Rievaulx and returning to be Abbot there). Sir Joseph Banks (President of the Royal Society for over forty years) helped sponsor and sailed on the Endeavour; although his country house was called Revesby Abbey it isn’t on the ground where the mediaeval Abbey stood.

Revesby Abbey: at the cross hairs

He meant to say
few people know
but said instead
‘nobody knows
where Revesby is’,
naming a place
where bumps in fields
call out to me,

where suddenly
the Wolds become
the Fens as if
the fold between
the north and south
was visible
at just the point
a line divides
the east and west;

where Aelred wrote
on being friends
and practised it,
and Joseph Banks
indexed his finds
for Captain Cook,
and on a turn
today you find
an ostrich farm;

where two of us
found the mid-point
between our homes
so each could drive
an hour or more
to meet to eat
and pray to God
for our sick friend
before he died.

Meanwhile, work began today to fill in the crack betwen the tower and south aisle in St Nicolas', Great Coates.