Saturday 30 April 2011

Wedding Prayers

If the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge had used the Common Worship Marriage Service wouldn’t that have enabled them to offer words which really focussed what they wanted prayed at their Wedding?

It is known that their closest advisers on such things (the Prince of Wales and the Bishop of London) are both fans of the Book of Common Prayer, so it wasn’t a surprise that they chose the 1966 (nee 1928) light revision of the BCP service.

It all seemed to work really well too in the setting, until, at the end of the sermon, the Bishop revealed that the couple had written a simple prayer as part of their marriage preparation. As he read, it became clear just how different the register of the service was, and, as the service continued, it became apparent then neither their prayer nor anything like it was going to be included in the actual praying at the service.

The thoughts they wished to express as prayer included:

In the busyness of each day keep our eyes fixed on what is real and important in life and help us to be generous with our time and love and energy. Strengthened by our union, help us to serve and comfort those who suffer.

Had they used Common Worship they could have included those words, and/or they could have included this part of the set prayers there:

May the hospitality of their home
bring refreshment and joy to all around them;
may their love overflow to neighbours in need
and embrace those in distress.

Instead, at just the point this might have happened, those leading the prayers ploughed their way through things like this 122 word sentence (including what is today its almost surreal final words):

O God, who hast taught us that it should never be lawful to put asunder those whom thou by matrimony hadst made one, and hast consecrated the state of matrimony to such an excellent mystery, that in it is signified and represented the spiritual marriage and unity betwixt Christ and his church: look mercifully upon these thy servants, that both this man may love his wife, according to thy word, (as Christ did love his spouse the church, who gave himself for it, loving and cherishing it even as his own flesh,) and also that this woman may be loving and amiable, and faithful to her husband, and in all quietness, sobriety, and peace, be a follower of holy and godly matrons.

Beginning to take Weddings twenty-five years ago in Berkshire not far from her home I’d always offer couples a choice between the traditionally worded 1966 service and the then modern Alternative Service Book 1980 service. I was happy to use both, and, given a genuine even handed choice, found couples as likely to opt for one as for the other; the two services appeared to speak equally to people’s expectations and needs in that time and place.

Well into the twenty-first century, and in a totally different social setting, it is now the Common Worship service I find I almost always use; most of those for whom I take Weddings here find much of the older service impenetrable. Nevertheless, yesterday, it was lovely to hear the old words again (and to remember that ‘with this ring I thee wed’ is more poetically balanced and performatively true than the reductionism of ‘I give you this ring as a sign of our marriage’), but, as the sermon finished, I did have a pang of regret at what they were missing by not benefiting from and showcasing the new.

The picture was taken fifteen minutes ago. We used the same reading as the royal wedding, and we used the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's prayer, but we used a different form of service.

Wednesday 27 April 2011

Sham Marriage Precautions

I fear that the Church of England is reacting too strongly to the problem of sham marriages. We’ve already seen the situation in which essential child protection precautions were being interpreted in such a way as to prevent parents sharing transport arrangements to and from sporting events. We are still in the situation where arrangements to prevent money laundering means that even a change in a signatory on a church account involves the church member having to go to the bank to prove his or her identity. We don’t seem to be good at taking necessary precautions which don’t involve new unnecessary blanket restrictions and burdens.

There is a problem about sham marriages and it does need to be taken very seriously. This blog has demonstrated how naive I’ve been locally about this in the past. Exploitation of the vulnerable is quite as much a problem as those seeking to go through a form of marriage simply seeking to gain immigration advantage. Great care needs to be taken if someone who does not have the indefinite right to remain here asks us to conduct a marriage which would assist him or her achieve that right. In those circumstances precautions to establish things like genuine residence in the parish are essential and genuine preparation for a real marriage are important. It is right that we are being strongly reminded of this and offered advice about good practice.

But the Church of England has actually had to apply for an exception to the Equalities Act to put in place new precautions, and the directions we’ve received are contradictory and (it seems to me) place unneccessary restrictions on those who wish to contract genuine marriages; in these ways we’re going too far. We’ve stood up for those whose race has made them disproportionately vulnerable to suspicion and ‘stop and search’, and yet we appear to be making the same sort of mistake ourselves.

Some documentation we’ve received in this diocese directs us not to use Banns for foreign nationals. Other diocesan documentation makes this direction only about foreign nationals from outside the European Economic Area. Still other diocesan documentation makes this direction only where someone does not have indefinite leave to remain in this country. Still other national documentation seems to encourage us to conceal the right to Banns from such couples while going on explicitly to acknowledge that such people may in fact insist on their right to Banns. Some of these documents insist that couples attend the Registry in Lincoln to follow this through even if they are, let us say, migrant workers in the Fens a couple of hours bus ride away.

I attended a meeting before Easter for those who are involved in issuing marriage licences, and I expect that at least some of the discrepancies in the documentation will be ironed out as a result. But the meeting made me all the more anxious about the way in which we are casual about our freedoms and history. An official opined that people are so used to needing to prove their identity these days that the Church of England need not be squeamish about expecting everyone to do so routinely. A clergyman claimed that so much money is spent on marriages that it doesn’t matter if we add an extra small fee to this large sum. Another clergyman thought we ought to get used to thinking of our use of Banns as a ‘privilege’.

At the very least those to whom a fee is paid when a marriage takes place by Licence rather than by Banns are under a strong obligation to restrict direction that this should be so to circumstances in which it is essential.

The photograph of the entrance to the Ugandan Embassy in Trafalgar Square was taken when we were in London to see The Children’s Hour a couple of weeks ago; the crane is Uganda’s state bird.

Sunday 24 April 2011

Holy Saturday

Love hopes all things, love hopes always, love hopes all ways. The French uses ‘hope’ although the subtitle domesticated this to a more conventional ‘Love is eternal’.

Last night we caught up with the film Of Gods and Men when it came to the Film Theatre housed in the Secondary School in the parish, with the story of the murder of French Trappist monks in Algeria in the 1990s. We’d prepared on Palm Sunday by giving those who came to St Michael’s and St George’s a copy of the ‘testament’ left behind by one of monks, Fr Christian de Cherge, and a couple of them joined us as a result.

The pace and atmosphere echoed strongly that of Into Great Silence, the film portrait of the daily life of the monks at the Grande Chartreuse, which we had had to go to Hull to see a while ago. But woven into this was the sense of the growing menace, and the gradually growing consensus among the monks that they cannot choose to flee. And endless small touches which witnessed to their approach and their struggle with its growing implications.

I do not see how I could rejoice if this people I love were to be accused indiscriminately of my murder. It would be to pay too dearly for what will, perhaps, be called ‘the grace of martyrdom’ to owe it to an Algerian whoever he may be, especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes is Islam. I know the scorn with which Algerians as a whole can be regarded. I know also the caricature of Islam which a certain kind of idealism encourages.

The picture is from the foot of the cross in Bradley churchyard on Good Friday.

Saturday 23 April 2011

Good Friday

The cross itself is missing from the top of the churchyard cross at Bradley which is a listed building and scheduled monument all in its own right (picture taken yesterday) so I showed those who came for a service there yesterday a picture of what it might have looked like (picture taken in Berkhamsted recently). When I arrived in the parish there was no Good Friday service in the small village, but for the last eleven years we’ve had one in the otherwise unused 5.00 p.m. slot in the day and do it gathered around the cross; this approach has caught the imagination of some and there were seventeen of us there yesterday (which is about twice the size of the average Sunday congregation).

Thursday 21 April 2011

Maundy Thursday

This slab (with its representation of a priest and his chalice) has been reused as the lintel above a window beneath the tower in the redundant church at Buslingthorpe; it isn't something we'd found before, but we were there again last week when we had a visitor and had it pointed out to us. I was going to type a reflection here but have run out of the space in which to prepare it between the Chrism Eucharist in the Cathedral this morning and our own Last Supper services this evening, so the allusive and elusive nature of the carving and its accidental preservation through reuse will have to be the whole of the meditation on priesthood and Eucharist for today.

Monday 18 April 2011

Friday 15 April 2011

Fourth plinth

Ten per cent of those on board Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar came from outside Great Britain. Nine of the seven hundred came from the West Indies, and there was one sailor from Africa. I pulled down one of the naval history books on our shelves to dig out the figures when we got home after two nights in London during which we enjoyed stumbling across the present occupant of the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. The artist, Yinka Shonibare, said the installation was partly about the legacy of colonialism, and the sails represent patterns on African dresses; I hope she knows about the multi-cultural nature of the crew.

Tuesday 12 April 2011

Monday 11 April 2011

Friday 8 April 2011

The graveclothes

I’m sure we should pay more attention to the graveclothes left behind in Jesus’ empty tomb.

It may seem strange to post an Easter thought just as Passiontide is about to begin, but we began to read John’s story of Lazarus at Matins this morning, and I’m just writing the notes I need to preach about the same passage when it is read again at the main service on Sunday morning, so the graveclothes are again at the centre of my attention.

John does not waste words or images, so it has to be significant that he says both that Lazarus came out of his tomb (from which the stone needed to be rolled away) still bound by the graveclothes and also that Jesus came out of his tomb (from which the stone had already been rolled away) leaving his graveclothes in a neat pile behind him.

At its most simple, the point must be that Jesus’ resurrection is something totally different to the mere revival of a corpse. Something new is happening here which doesn’t relate to any category of thought or reality we’ve ever encountered before. Mary thinks she sees someone else who’d she might expect to find there but she certainly doesn’t jump in surprise at a naked man walking around; it is the risen Lord she encounters and we are in new territory.

I’ve written before at Eastertide: I’m always puzzled by some plodding sorts of evangelical who think the empty tomb simply shows that Jesus got up and walked again. I’m equally puzzled by some sorts of liberal who aren’t bothered to begin plodding because they think other aspects of the story show it instead to be merely a profound spiritual experience of the disciples. Why should we think that our existing frames of reference (whether physical or spiritual) are going to help us cope with this new thing?

So I’ve gone back to a poem I revisit more often than almost any other. R S Thomas’ poem The Answer is about twilight and about the formidable and intractable nature of intellectual puzzles in which human living is embroiled. It finishes with the same image and resolution, lines I have also quoted here before:

... There have been times
when, after long on my knees
in a cold chancel, a stone has rolled
from my mind, and I have looked
in and seen the old questions lie
folded and in a place
by themselves, like the piled
graveclothes of love’s risen body.

The hare is at the foot of the Cowper memorial window, the link being the hares he kept.

Tuesday 5 April 2011

Less easy than I'd thought

Before the repair to the south aisle wall in St Nicolas’ (8 December, 27 December and 1 March) was completed serious questions arose about the state of some of the trees in the churchyard (10 February); a colleague has obtained a detailed report on all the trees and was talking again this morning about the process of quotations, Archdeacon’s approval and consultation with the local authority for varieties of work (the removal of those which have died, important work where there might be a danger, and other recommended work).

Meanwhile, the first complaint of the season about our not doing more to make the churchyard neater has come in (much earlier in the year than usual) so we’ve been back to those who’ve promised to give us a hand with such things to see what else we need to be planning to do.

Still at St Nicolas’, we had a helpful visit last week from the Open Churches Officer from the diocese looking at the plans we have for the development of the building for wider community use (16 February), but the Working Group has not really been able to progress things. First, both Parish Councillor and Ward Councillor elections come up in the next few weeks. Secondly, a group in Great Coates believe that a letter to our MP from the owner of the closed hall in the village saying that it will in due course be on the open market (at a value enhanced by planning permission for conversion into a dwelling) is a generously given opportunity to work for its re-opening. We’ll probably have to sit back and see how these two things work through before picking up the Working Group again.

Down at the Little Coates Community Centre (4 January) we had been hopeful that a newly established community group would take on formal responsibility for it; individual members of the group have done remarkable work getting it open again after the water damage at the beginning of the year and encouraging lettings. However, I’d rather over looked the costs involved in a formal lease (the diocese estimates up to £1 500) so we’re just beginning to look at where that might be found.

St Michael’s, which would be glad to be relieved of the anxieties involved in running this Centre if this could be achieved, is itself about to spend £12 000 or so on remodelling the valley gutter in the church in the hope this will finally eliminate the problem of water coming in there, although having completed all the necessary application and public notice we’ve now waited seven weeks for the diocese to issue the Faculty which would allow us to get started on this.

The window is a memorial to William Cowper in Berkhamsted Parish Church where his father was the Rector.

Saturday 2 April 2011

A tree and some frost

... I’ll be asked: what helped us to live
When there were neither letters nor any news - only walls,
And the cold of the cell, and the blather of official lies,
And the sickening promises made in exchange for betrayal.
And I will tell of the first beauty I saw in captivity.
A frost covered window...

I’ve just tripped across this poem of Irina Ratushinskaya again. I’ve looked back and find that I referred to it in a post on 8th August 2008. I was only thinking about it the other day. Now I’ve found it again in Being Human, the new third volume in Neil Astley’s Staying Alive series.

When we were in Amsterdam during Half Term we found long queues outside the Anne Frank House, almost next door to the church pictured here. We decided to come back half an hour before opening time the following day and, not needing to read all the background information in the first few rooms, pressed on ahead of the smaller crowd who came in when the House first opened. So we found ourselves on our own in the annexe at the top and back of the house where her family had hidden and lived, about which we’d read so often and which we almost already knew. It was a privileged few minutes.

Just one of the things about the annexe was a skylight window which had in her day framed a horse chestnut tree (which I’ve since discovered came down only recently having been ravaged by the same canker which brought low the horse chestnuts in Bradley churchyard). The House highlighted extracts from her diary in which she takes pleasure in the tree, and that is when I thought of the patterns the frost made on the window of Irina Ratushinskaya’s punishment cell. And now I’m reading her description of it again.

... a blue radiance on a tiny pane of glass,
A cast pattern - none more beautiful could be dreamt.
The more clearly you looked, the more powerfully blossomed
Those brigand forests, campfires and birds...
That upheaval of rainbow ice...