Monday 24 September 2012

Bennetts of Grimsby

This apparently unremarkable unit on an industrial estate in the parish is the home of a company which has been operated by the same family for over two hundred years. Earlier this year the local paper reported a major new contract with Tesco and commented that the Bennett brothers who run it are the sixth generation of the family to do so. William Bennett, founder of the firm, was born in the eighteenth century, and he would have begun his working life when Grimsby was still a tiny port of 1500 people.

He had, among other children, three sons. James (1822-50) married Docea Wintringham (a member of another prominent Grimsby timber merchant family) but died young leaving her a widow with two small children. Henry (1827-1905) was to be one of Grimsby’s most prominent citizens; he was Mayor in the year it was granted County Borough status and was knighted as a result. Joseph (1829-1908) moved to a large house in Louth (the railway allowed an easy commute for Grimsby businessmen) and was MP for Gainsborough for two short periods. Members of their families keep turn up in this Blog

James’ widow Docea married as her second husband the Joseph Chapman whose fortune was also to be made as a timber merchant and whose legacy paid for the building of St Michael’s; the huge angel monument in the churchyard is in her memory. My wife has followed this through and unearthed the extraordinary story of this marriage. It took place in 1859 by license in a City of London church with the groom declaring himself to be of full age (he wasn’t – he was nineteen) as did the bride (in fact twelve years older than him) but at the time of the 1861 census three years later they were living apart and still declaring themselves to be ‘unmarried’ and a ‘widow’; it would be intriguing to know at what point their families and friends discovered that they had in fact been married secretly.

Sir Henry’s daughter Hilda married Edward Cordeaux of Great Coates; it is their son after whom Cordeaux School in Louth is named. Edward was the son of the ornithologist John Cordeaux (great nephew and heir of the Richard Taylor whose memorial is in St Nicolas’) and Agent for Sutton Estates in Great Coates after whom Cordeaux House in the village is named.

Joseph was the great great grandfather of the Bennett brothers who run the family firm today, and also, we discover, great great grandfather of their third cousin Paul who owns Brackenborough Hall. It was a remark of Paul Bennett’s at the Heritage Open Day there which set us off following this all up. He said that the Hall had been bought over a hundred years ago for a great uncle of his whose health had made him unable to continue in the family’s timber merchant business in Grimsby (the moment our attention was fully caught). The great uncle had died young so the Hall had passed to a brother - Paul’s grandfather.

Doubtless unknowingly I bump into other descendants of William Bennett every time I type about figures in Grimsby’s history, or, perhaps I do so every time I step outside my front door.

Monday 17 September 2012

Polishing leaves

Our Area Bishop has announced his retirement at the age of 59. Although we might well have expected him to carry on for another five to ten years, one can understand why a Bishop, after twelve years in post, wants to take what he calls the ‘risky step’ of exploring whether the years before final retirement could be used doing new things.

We shall be poorer for the absence of his strengths - everything from his personal way of conducted Confirmation services to his clear sighted view of the changing landscape within which the church operates.

It is a challenging image from a Sabbatical he undertook a while ago which I may remember best - set out here from the beginning of an article in his own old Blog:

The most valuable aid to my thinking came from a fig tree... When I arrived, the tree looked magnificent, with leaves of a dimension that could cope with any Adam. The fruit was forming, although still bright green and firm.

What I had not realised was how sterile a fig tree could be in terms of other life... [until], as the summer moved on and the fruit ripened, the tree developed a community of its own - a community drawn to the fruit. There were insects and birds eating the fruit, birds eating the insects, and birds eating other birds.

Inevitably, my mind was drawn to the passages in Mark and Matthew where Jesus goes to a fig tree looking for fruit, finds none, and curses the tree so that it withers and dies… Israel, with so much potential for responding to God’s desire to engage with his creation, had let God down.

The cursing of the fig tree and other episodes such as the clearing of the temple and Jesus’ turning water into wine, speak of God moving on in the person of Jesus – the new wine of God’s relationship with the created. God’s agenda was not to be held back by the Jewish religiosity of the time which produced vast amount of religious leaves – but when those hungry for God reached into those leaves, there was nothing there. It was all leaf.

Observing the fig tree, I realised that as the fruit was eaten or fell to the ground, the vibrant community which had gathered and established itself, disappeared with the fruit. The tree became very dull – still plenty of leaves but very dull…

The danger for a Church is that it can be all leaf. It may ‘look the part’ on the human landscape but it may in fact be fruitless – and God moves on. It is fruit that reveals God’s relationship with his creation, and the religiosity, the system and structure of Judaism, had let God down – and Jesus cursed that tree…

I could not help but see the danger for the Church in our age. It can be good at producing leaves of religiosity – reports from Synod; new liturgy; umpteen commissions and renewal schemes – but where is the fruit?

With this in mind, as I studied church growth, I found I was frequently reading about institutional survival. This was true even of material from the evangelically minded independent churches. When we talk about growth, we’re usually talking about more members for the institution, and fruitfulness comes a long way down the list of what the Church might offer the world.

In a tree there is an essential balance between leaves and fruit. Leaves are essential for the producing of fruit. They are essential for the health of the whole tree, but they are not the purpose of the tree. There is a delicate balance between the need for a tree to have the structure and mechanisms needed to give it life, and the fruit, which is the purpose and future of the tree.

We talk about how to ‘grow’ the church but we are caught up with conversations about institutions and ‘leaves’. Yet without fruit how dull the tree is – no community, no vibrancy of life, nothing for those who hunger. The question hangs there: ‘what is the purpose?’

When I recognised the dullness of the fruitless tree, I recalled the rubber plants and cheese plants of the 1960s and 1970s. In truth, they were very dull plants, but we tenderly cared for these monsters growing in our living rooms. We bought bottles of leaf shine, so that with leaves carefully polished they looked splendid, but actually they continued to be very dull plants. For me, it sometimes feels that much of what we do in the Church is actually polishing leaves!

The picture is of the Deserted Mediaeval Village site at Brackenborough Hall.

Tuesday 11 September 2012

Heritage Open Days

This is a capital from the top of a column in Louth Park Abbey now upside down and used as the base of a garden ornament at near by Brackenborough Hall.  It is just one of a number of interesting things we were shown there on Sunday afternoon.

And this is me gesticulating at St George's, Bradley the previous day.  We provided guided tours of each of our three mediaeval churches on Saturday and most of the photographs seem to show me waving my hands around...

... including this one introducing people to the Tickler Memorial Window inside the church.  I had prepared a post yesterday about the announcement of the unexpected early retirement of our Area Bishop (including some quotations from useful things he has written in the past) but I can't get Blogger to accept any 'paste' commands so that will have to wait.

Monday 3 September 2012

Split-brain Anglicanism

Is there a link between the two sides of the human brain and the division which runs down the centre of modern Christianity?

I need to read Ian McGilchrist’s The Master and the Emissary. It’s author says it ‘argues that the division of the brain into two hemispheres is essential to human existence, making possible incompatible versions of the world, with quite different priorities and values’. I’ve just been filing a recent discussion of the book by Mark Vernon in The Tablet ( which make it clear that this isn’t an idea that the left brain is rational and the right brain emotional.

Rather what Gilchrist appears to think is going on is a left brain whose ‘personality’ seeks precision and certainty, putting in an order the knowable it has encountered; without this we would be unable to navigate our way around anything. Meanwhile the right brain has a ‘personality’ which is simply more open, making new connections, exhibiting ‘negative capability’; without this we would be imprisoned by the inevitably partial maps with which we operate.

The suggestion is that we need both kinds of attention to survive: the narrow conceptualising focus of the left brain and the open engagement of the right brain; the ability to stand back and to continue to be a participant at the same time; a definite distant view but not from a final undetached position.

What struck me about this is the way it parallels the ‘metaphors about the extreme danger those of us in the Church of England have been in from the beginning when we engage in the theological enterprise’, to quote a letter of mine published in Theology in 2000. Examples I used included ‘a tightrope with infallibility on one side and apostasy on the other’ (Paul Avis 1986) and ‘between the Scylla of free-floating spirituality and the Charybdis of over-reactive fundamentalism’ (Advisory Board of Ministry 1996).

It is something I traced in Doctrine Commission reports: ‘if we apply words to God in their ordinary literal or univocal sense, then we all too easily make God in our own image and fall into idolatory; if we use them in an entirely different or equivocal sense, then we have no reason for using one word rather than another, and we are lost in agnosticism’ (1976) and there being ‘no satisfactory way of avoiding [problems] by the sectarian or by the latitudinarian route’ (1981).

So I wrote about ‘the dangers for conservatives of falling into idolatry, infallibility, over-reactive fundamentalism and sectarianism’ and ‘the dangers faced by liberals of falling into agnosticism, apostasy, free-floating spirituality and latitudinarianism’ while ‘I continue to long for pieces of internal Anglican polemic which actually take the two dangers equally seriously’.

Now, might McGilchrist’s analysis help? Do these tensions in Anglicanism simply reflect tensions in all integrated thinking and living? Is it only isolated left brain working which is stuck with the formulations on which we depend to know? Is it only isolated right brain working which gets lost in the endless possibilities it isn’t safe to ignore? Is it only (normal!) whole brain living which is essential if we are to navigate round all this?

Of course, those who have engaged in theories of language have already been on to much of this, so I ought to go back to those next. What I have begun to read is Malcolm Guite’s Faith, Hope and Poetry. I keep getting distracted by following up the individual poems to which he pays attention. But (part from his treatment of language, symbol, faith and imagination) I’ve already spotted at the very beginning that what he identifies as the Enlightenment dilemma matches step for step my Theology quotations:

... the Christian faith , which was forced to choose sides in this divide, either to be relegated to something subjective, not there, essentially made up, or to become a pseudo-science, reducing the great mysteries embedded in the ancient story-telling of scripture to quantifiable exactitudes, patient only of a literal interpretation. Theology felt itself forced to choose between increasingly vague and amorphous liberalism, happy to keep reinventing the faith, and increasingly strident fundamentalism, which tries to treat the vast subtle poem of scripture as a single scientific treatice whose every word is literally and only literally true...

The picture of the Judgement of Solomon comes from our visit to the Burrell Collection.