Saturday 27 June 2015

I'm a problem

Not just in the usual ways which I recognise – I take those for granted.  Nor, I suspect, in the ways hidden from me by my blind spots – if there are any attentive readers of this Blog they will take some at least of those for granted.  But in a way which I actually remember writing up twenty years ago when I was responsible for clergy in-service training in the diocese.

There has long been a recognised phenomenon of clergy ordained quite young who reach their middle fifties with thirty years experience of ordained ministry behind them but with possibly as much as a further fifteen years in front of them.  Given the ‘career structure’ (more on this sort of terminology at the end) is very flat - that is, the vast majority of clergy end up and remain as incumbents rather than ‘move on’ to one of a handful of ‘senior’ of ‘dignitary’ appointments - a question often recurs of how the church might encourage and get the best out of them as they continue to do much the same thing for a number of years yet. 

They may well already have had all the appointments which evidence ‘career progression’ (for all I know when I wrote this up I may have actually included a list like the one which now turns out to be my own - in chronological order, responsibility for clergy in-service training, membership of the General Synod, Team Rector, training incumbent, Canon of the Cathedral, Rural Dean, Hon. Fellow of the local College of HE and FE, membership of the Bishop’s Council) so a diocese is quite out of fresh gestures of affirmation or ‘promotion’. 

They may well be doing the job in a way which was imaginative and cutting edge when they were ordained thirty years earlier or when they took on a substantial parish fifteen years after that but which doesn't quite make the impact needed now in a rapidly changing church - so a next (perhaps final) appointment is, for the first time in their ‘career’, likely to be one with less apparent ‘seniority’ since it is not only key parishes which seek an incumbent with energy and with a track record of leading previous parishes into growth.

And suddenly, there are hints that this is me.  Not hints, actually; more like warning claxons going off all over the place.

First and most explicitly the invitation came to go to a retreat house this autumn on a course called Celebrating Wisdom.  I recognise the provision (obviously - I used to suggest it for others) even if I don’t recognise the branding (which reminds me of the trainer of Bishops who told me all those years ago that he had increased episcopal take up of courses by ceasing to call them Refresher Courses and starting calling then Master Classes).

Secondly and much more implicitly, I sat down last week with one of the diocese’s Discipleship Development Advisers to look together at this parish’s Mission Development Plan, the next iteration of all the initiatives taken over the years here which haven’t actually moved things forward in the way I might have hoped.  She was encouraging, wants it re-expressed with one year objectives on a diocesan Growth Plan template, and is generously arranging for a Bishop to come to a parish event in the autumn to focus it all again for us.

And, finally, this week (I really couldn't have forged a more finely pronged illustration if I had tried when writing this up twenty years ago), I learnt that my new Archdeacon is to be someone who was first ordained in the year I was made a Canon of the Cathedral.   Sometime such appointments are the result of a Bishop genuinely celebrating having available the wisdom of a well respected senior priest already serving in a diocese (put out of your mind the picture of me with my eager hand jiggling high up at the back of the class with a face scrunched up and eloquent with ‘ask me, me, me’), but in truth it doesn't happen that often and we do need able and well qualified Archdeacons like him.

So I’ll see where ‘Celebrating Wisdom’ takes those of us who go.  It will be good to have a few days at Launde Abbey again anyway.  I suspect at least part of it will be a reminder that all those words tediously enclosed in inverted commas above are fatal borrowing from the culture around us and have nothing at all to do with priesthood or vocation - I know this because I have taught it to others really quite often.

The snails were on a gravestone in St Nicolas’ churchyard when we launched the new guide there in the week.

Wednesday 24 June 2015

Oxford again - 2

The other speaker at the Sabeel Conference was from Palestine, which is as it should be. 

There are places in the West Bank where the Wall does not follow the 1948-67 Israeli border but cuts deeper into occupied territory, most often where there are already Israeli settlements or where these are soon planted.  Sometimes Palestinian farmers are cut off from their fields by the Wall.

There are also places where the Palestinian farmers who cannot demonstrate documentary proof of ownership of land which their family may have farmed over generations are declared to be in illegal occupation of what is then declared ‘state land’, again land which is often settled.  Sometimes olive groves are uprooted or fired in this process. 

There is no possible bias in recording this: both Palestinians and Israelis sources would set out these facts in a similar way.

Bil’in is such a place, more widely known than most through the documentary 5 Broken Cameras.  Here Iyad Burnat (whose brother Emad filmed the footage) and a committee participate in weekly non-violent demonstrations.  He spoke quietly and determinedly about the situation and activities which the film had already shown us. 

For me, almost the most heart breaking thing was the sense of victory that the Wall had had to be moved back a short distance and the neighbouring settlement had not be allowed to grow bigger, which in the end seemed to make no realistic difference at all. 

His perspective is that the Geneva Conventions forbid the settling of civilian population in occupied territory, that farmers are deprived of their livelihood and that some external people have even been concealed in the demonstrations to throw stones and thus make them look like violent protest.  The Israeli military perspective is that no filming should even be going on in an area which has been declared a closed military area.

Meanwhile, here is the inscription on the grave of the Sisters of the Holy Childhood; I’ve read the 1911 census return for the Sister’s house and the majority of the names overlap. 

Tuesday 23 June 2015

Oxford again - 1

For a second year, we have followed up a significant feature of our experience of our sabbatical in 2013 by going to the annual conference day of the Friends of Sabeel UK.  Sabeel is the Palestinian Liberation Theology organisation founded by a Palestinian Anglican priest and Israeli citizen growing out of the experience of Bible Study at St George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem where reading the New Testament aware that it was written in the context of (Roman) occupation was what unlocked living possibilities for the participants.

This year one of the two speakers introduced us to the work of the Oxford Centre for Moslem-Christian Studies, a tenant of part of St Stephen’s House (the former Cowley Fathers property in east Oxford) but not actually part of the University itself at all.  It says ‘we equip leaders, resource scholars, disseminate and develop Biblically-based thinking at the Muslim-Christian interface through teaching, research and public education’ and, although this indicates that it comes from a particular place on the theological spectrum, involves Moslem scholars in doing so.

Of all the things said, the most simple was a reminder consciously to eschew a natural tendency to compare their worst with our best.  Objective reflection shows how absurd it is to say ‘that terrorist activity by one of your extreme co-religionists is typical of you and this loving activity by one of my most admired co-religionists is typical of me’ but what is said and thought instinctively or in propaganda actually amounts to this sort of thing much more frequently than we would like to admit. 
There is, of course, a significant strain of the teaching of Jesus which points in this direction (seeking to take the speck out of someone’s eye comes to mind – we will be measured by the measure we use), and there are forms of ridiculing atheism, anti-Christian polemic and of anti-Semitism which fall into the same trap quiet as much as forms of Christian, Jewish or secular Islamophobia.  At my best (which is, of course, the only place from which I really want to be judged) I have tried to think this through in some earlier posts (including this and this and “how different it is to say ‘we can see exactly why you are wrong because it is something we are prone to ourselves’ rather than ‘your evil is unique’” more than once).

On the way we visited both Towcester and Headington Quarry churches, but I failed to have a camera with me so do not have pictures of the fifteenth century cadaver  tomb and the etched C S Lewis memorial window which are such special features of those churches.  But I did have it with me when we visited Cowley churchyard where we went specifically to find this grave of several members of a female religious order for teachers founded by the Cowley Fathers in the 1890s which continued until the 1960s.  It was the Sisterhood of the Holy Childhood.  My paternal grandparents were cousins and Mother Charlotte (Superior of the Sisterhood for the first half of the community’s life) was an aunt of both of them.  The grave of her parents (Thomas and Martha Mallam) is pictured in the second half of this post which mentions that three of their daughters married clergymen from the neighbouring St Philip & James' church but doesn't mention this daughter who became a nun.

Tuesday 16 June 2015

British Values

The evangelist always known as J John (it was difficult for him to anglicise his Greek Cypriot name Iouannes Iouannon any more conventionally) has laid out what he thinks has happened to ‘British values’; his use of five alliterative points is one of the tools of his trade.

Amnesia.  He is an evangelist, so he begins with knowledge that people have simply forgotten Christian roots.  We don’t remember what shaped our values in the past.  We don’t therefore have access to the tradition which could challenge or renew our values now.  I suspect others would suggest that present religious illiteracy isn’t just about what is no longer known but is also about what people think they do know (which is that Christian values are backwards and judgemental and thus not worth attention).

Adolesence.   I might have come up with four of his five points myself, but I hadn’t seen this one coming.  We actually admire immaturity (his prime example of ‘cultural adolescence’ is the popularity of the behaviour exemplified in Top Gear).  We actually despise sophistication (so a politician is suspect if he quotes Shakespeare rather than parades pretended support for a ‘favourite’ football team).  He teaches me that the French for ‘dumbing down’ is ‘la cretinisation’. 

Acquisitiveness.  It isn’t just that we want things for ourselves, but it is more fundamentally that greed has somehow been legitimised; I’m reminded of Mark Clavier’s recent book on Rescuing the Church from Consumerism where the thesis isn’t that we happen to behave in a consumerist way some of the time but that our assumptions (including what he sees as the illusions of personal choice and fulfilment) have become fundamentally consumerist.  ‘It’s very difficult,’ J John says,’ to instil a sense of charitable values in a country with a mind-set that looks at everything in terms of balance sheets and potential profit.’  

Apathy.  Here he is really talking about disregard for the needs of others: ‘with remarkable exceptions there are very few people seriously concerned about the plight of the poor, the abused and the trafficked’.  It is difficult to gainsay him when in the week I read elsewhere that its acting Leader attributed lack of election support for the Labour party to the fact that ‘it raised issues such as zero hours contacts, the living wage and food banks’ so that she is instead ‘urging the party to choose the leader who will best connect with voters in 2020, rather than make Labour members “feel glowing about our principles and values”’.

Arrogance.  Here he is really talking about self sufficiency:  ‘God has been marginalised not because people have adopted a version of atheism or agnosticism bit simply because we want to be in charge of our own lives’.

This all also reminds me of F S Michaels’ recent book Monoculture where the thesis is that inhabiting one overarching story controls what you expect and limits what you want  - and, just as the overarching scientific story made us expect solutions and shaped us mechanistically, the overarching economic story makes us victims of market forces and limited choices and defines us as isolated and self-interested.   

So, where would one go from here?  I’d already thought that our ‘sales pitch’ might have to become become ‘here is the tradition you have forgotten’ – some alternative gems to catch the imagination.  What Michaels suggests is that it is the nurturing of such ‘parallel possibilities’ which is the only way to grow stories which challenge the monoculture.

The picture is goes back again to visiting Holton-cum-Beckering church. 

Sunday 7 June 2015

Churchyard walk

We’ve just announced the launch of a new guidebook to St Nicolas’ churchyard there at 2.00 p.m. on Midsummer Day (Wednesday 24th June), the time and date chosen to suit the Grimsby Telegraph.  I’ve just collected it from the producers, my old colleagues at CPO Media. 

It is a sixteen page booklet designed simply to enhance a clockwise walk around the building by pointing out features at fourteen stopping points on the way.  As such it gathers up most of the things I’ve found out one way or another over the years, many already featured in this Blog.

We are grateful for the Freshney Ward’s Community First funding which has enabled us to do this and several other things including the removal of the self seeded ash which blocked the view of the church from the road.

My new ambition, following a recent lecture on the Lincolnshire Chalk Streams Project, would be to have a day when we pay the gravedigger to uncover the section of the churchyard through which an underground stream flows through a gravel bed onward (I presume) into the coastal marsh close by.