Monday 26 December 2016

Elephants at home

My wife has digitised some old slides of my mother's, and we were able to include discs of them as Christmas presents for my brothers.

For a few months in 1964, between returning to England and finding our own permanent home here, we let a flat at the top of a large house at Burwash in Sussex.  It belonged to a diplomat who had recently retired from successive stints as Governor of the Falkland Island and then of the Bahamas.  His wife’s father had also been a diplomat, our Ambassador in the USA at the time of the First World War where he wrote the poem I vow to thee my country

She is supposed to have referred to my brothers and I (aged 5, 4 and 3) as ‘the three little elephants from Africa’, presumably the only reasonable explanation for the thudding sounds above her.

So here is my mother waving from the flat window, and here are my brothers and I in the grounds and (the clues to the exact location are substantial) at Rushlake Green nearby; the two pictures appear to have been taken on the same day.

Tuesday 20 December 2016

Seeds of hope

I’m engaged in first steps towards bringing order to eleven years worth of not quite sorting out or throwing away things in my study.  I now have boxes marked ‘throw’, ‘shred’ and ‘keep’ (the volume of paper going into these is in this order) and even a pile marked ‘these things belong to St Michael’s'.

From near the bottom of the oldest pile, I’ve just excavated a sheet I appeared to have used for groups in Advent 2007.

In 1986, three years before he became President of the Republic of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel was asked ‘Do you see a grain of hope anywhere in the 1980s?’.  He replied

“Hope is a state of mind, not of the world.  Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul, and it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation.

Hope is not prognostication.  It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond the horizons.

Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed...

Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism.  It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.”

The seedpod pictures were taken in Arizona a few weeks ago now.

Tuesday 13 December 2016

Instruments of peace

A member of one of our congregations was embraced so enthusiastically during the exchange of the Peace at a recent Sunday service that she had a rib broken.  She suffers from osteoporosis (literally ‘bone porousness’, medically ‘reduction in bone density’) and apparently the snap was audible.

A recent tripping accident at this church got into its ‘accident book’ and thus on to the agenda of its District Church Council for a ‘lessons learnt review’ which has resulted in the marking of a dangerous edge and the provision of a torch by the south door so that those entering in the dark have light by which to find their way to where the light switches are located.  All simply following good practice guidelines. So I ought to make sure we don’t allow the implications of this incident to slip and follow a similar procedure again. 

I’m not sure where that will take us as it means engaging with an odd situation the Church of England has found itself in – a habit embedded over perhaps forty years of treating the exchange of the Peace as an assertion of human fellowship (often represented by a determination to greet everyone present and to engage some of them in extensive conversation) rather than a symbolic passing of the touch of the peace coming from God.

What I do feel (much later in the year than usual) is a Christmas sermon coming on.  The Prince of Peace did not embrace our fragility with force but comes almost imperceptibly alongside it.  It is the ‘wise’ men who blunder in thinking they’ve discovered an alternative seat of power and human strength thus unknowingly provoking the slaughter of the innocent and flight into Egypt.

Perhaps it is having joined the members of the local Hope for Justice group for their Christmas meal last night – six people from five Anglican, Catholic and Methodist churches and from the Harbour Place Day Centre who have raised significant money for projects tackling human trafficking and modern slavery and quietly engage those able to keep this a priority in local policing.

Perhaps it is being reminded that Harbour Place’s Mission Statement says it ‘aims to serve those who may be considered vulnerable or socially excluded within the community through actions which promote positive choices in people’s lives’ which is probably as good a greeting of Peace as one could get and certainly one which doesn’t propose hugging so tightly that damage might be done.

The ship on the rough sea is on the Churchwardens’ staves in St Nicolas’ (and reflect St Nicolas’ role among the patron saints of seafarers and perhaps of those being trafficked).

Tuesday 6 December 2016

Vital things

I’ve been remembering Fr Ken O’Riordan a lot over the last few days.

It was almost exactly seven years ago that I posted:

I’d encountered Ken’s creative opening up of the Bible before I came here ten years ago, and he was the Catholic parish priest here when I arrived; he read one of the lessons at my licensing service. Everything from the creation of the North East Lincolnshire Credit Union as Churches Together’s Jubilee Millennium project to the striking reordering of St Pius’ church seemed to be down to him.

He had moved on to a final role coordinating adult education for the Catholic diocese, something for which he was especially suited, and I guess there are people today who will still benefit from catechists whose imagination he caught as he trained them how to teach and enable others.

He retired the following year and succumbed to a sudden aggressive cancer only two years later.

Now, within a few days of each other, it has been announced that the Credit Union has failed and that St Pius’ is to close.
The Credit Union was the product of a millennium project for our local churches and grew from an awareness of the principle of Jubilee.  The reordering of St Pius’ was the product of application of the principles in Vatican II documents. 

How we cry out for renewing creative application of first-principles in the social and worshipping life of our churches.  How sad that these parts of this legacy of his are being lost.

It isn’t public why the Credit Union has failed, although it is clear that the 600 or so members will not lose their money.  To state the obvious, it is not a helpful symbolic development at a time when the church seeks to promote the idea that pay-day lenders and loan sharks need undermining.

It is public that the Catholics in North East Lincolnshire will be served by just one priest in a few weeks time and that he can only say Mass in three churches over a weekend.  So two of the present five churches will become unused, which I know to be a traumatic outcome for some of those who have invested so much creativity, emotion, money, prayer and time in them.

Meanwhile, the pictures are of a sculpture by the Swiss artist who genuinely has the name Not Vital among many things which we enjoyed discovering during a return visit to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park recently.  

Tuesday 29 November 2016


At least two of those helping after the delivery of the new chairs for St Michael's yesterday enjoyed themselves.  A long planned more comfortable future opens up.

And, in the afternoon, in a short ceremony in the Chapel at Edward King House, Lincoln, the Bishop of Lincoln licensed Anne McCormick as a Team Vicar for our parish.  As welcome as the new chairs and as promising for our future.

Meanwhile, I cast a long shadow across the parish when arriving at St Nicolas' for Matins this morning, which one can only hope is not a contraindicator.

Tuesday 22 November 2016

What Hugh did

For more than twenty-five years, I’ve got to know the stories of St Hugh.  The first parish in which I worked in the diocese of Lincoln had a St Hugh’s Parish Church; last week I was again at the annual College of Canons’ St Hugh’s Days celebration in the Cathedral.  So I’ve heard the stories again and again.  

I’m glad once to have bothered reading the short Magna Vita (‘Great Life’) written by Adam of Eynsham (who was Hugh’s Chaplain) which is the source of them all.  I’m slightly ashamed once to have exchanged a glance and a shrug with the Cathedral’s Librarian in the middle of a Bishop’s sermon which named the wrong King in re-telling one of the stories we both knew well.

But this year it strikes me more forcefully than ever that these twelfth century stories are contemporary guidance over 800 years later: not just the criteria WWJD? (‘What would Jesus do?’) but also WDHD? (‘What did Hugh do?’).  No growing chorus ridiculing points of view as liberal, left-wing or politically correct can drown out the stories of what Hugh did.

Hugh was head-hunted from being the Novice Master at the Grand Chartreuse monastery in the Alps to rescue and lead the royal foundation which was the failing new Carthusian Priory at Witham in Somerset.  He quickly identified the manner of its foundation as the root of the problem: peasants had been dispossessed of their land to make way for it; other monasteries had been pressurised into handing over some of their treasurers to resource it.  He went back to the King who had founded it and insisted that this all be put right before he could stand any chance of getting the place on track.

It is a story I want to tell when the Oxford English Dictionary selects ‘post-truth’ (first recorded in 1992) as its ‘word of the year’ for 2016 having noticed a huge spike in its usage.  To say to those with power and authority that we court disaster by making our choices and building our institutions based on what dispossesses, exploits or simply misleads is not to be part of a whining liberal elite; it is to be a Christian asking ‘WDHD?’.

In turn, Hugh was head-hunted from being the Prior of Witham to become Bishop of Lincoln.  Adam of Eynsham records the sometimes wearisome frequency with which the progress of the episcopal household’s baggage train was delayed as the Bishop stopped to have an abandoned body by the roadside properly buried.  Adam reflects on his own revulsion and unwillingness to touch the lepers whose sores Hugh was willing to wash.

It is a story to tell when emergency loans to cover funeral expenses become unavailable and send the bereaved into the hands of loan sharks or when the widening of health or social care funding for the poorest comes under threat.  To say that a society is judged by how far the wealth generated by the strongest is used to support the weakest at their times of most extreme need  is not to champion some naive left-wing redistributive ideal; it is to be a Christian asking ‘WDHD?’.

When Hugh’s body was brought back from London where he had died to Lincoln where he was to be buried, the Jewish community gathered at the gate of the city to welcome it home.  The community could not, of course, enter the Cathedral or take any part in the funeral, but it recognised that this Christian Bishop had been its protector; it was right to be fearful as the following century was to see its persecution and expulsion.   

It is a story to tell when rising anti-Semitism and Islamophobia become a feature of extreme right-wing reconfidence and resurgence, among other things, with women who chose to dress in what they consider a modest manner being forced to undress on beaches or being taunted in streets.  To champion the rights of minority and immigrant communities around us (as happened most notably when our local mosque arranged an evening to thank local churches for their support when an isolated disaffected individual tried to fire-bomb it in 2013) is not to fall unthinkingly in line with some vague notion of political correctness for its own sake; it is to be a Christian asking ‘WDHD?’.

The picture is the early morning light catching the top of the weeping ash at the entrance to St Michael’s churchyard.

Saturday 19 November 2016

St Hugh's Day

As part of the annual College of Canons meeting, we were taken up to the work being done above the North Transept from which we got this view looking back down at the Cloisters (left) and Chapter House (right).  The weighed-down board at the bottom of the picture is presumably protecting a skylight in what is the newish toilet block, and the cunningly concealed floodlights are visible from this angle a little above that.

This is the main roof work which is going on.  The roof on the left has copper ties waiting for the lead to be laid there (as it has already been on the right).  Whole sections of the organ are housed immediately beneath this roof, so this piece of work is particularly challenging.  One of the members of the Cathedral Works Department was explaining how different it is to judge and execute every different installation rather than do the simple calculations and straight-line drawings classroom-based training assumed would do the job: I suggested he be invited to preach at the next Ordination.

This is how to restore a flying buttress (there is new stone at the far left end of it): the metal girder is the crucial thing; without it the buttress would collapse when one stone is removed and it wouldn't be possible to put it back together again.

And I real bonus for me was getting this near to a window in the Sailors' Chapel which I normally have to strain my neck to look up to so that I can see the Grimsby Dock Tower pictured in it (it is there at the top right of the photograph).

Monday 14 November 2016

A cartoonist's view?

The view from the top of St George’s tower today can be compared with earlier views here.

We were on the tower as telecommunication equipment was being removed.

We got one year’s rent before the equipment’s owner discovered that it was badly positioned to pick up the necessary signals.

Make of that what you will as I type on.

Meanwhile, I have long thought, and sometime preach, that Jesus’ would have made a fine cartoonist.

You only need to imagine a simple drawing of someone leaning over a friend’s face and carefully using the corner of a handkerchief to take a speck from his eye while a plank protrudes from his own eye.

Or an outsized needle with a camel’s nose crunched up against it with the caption ‘Nothing is impossible to God’.

When we know we are looking at a modern cartoon, we recognise the convention that it is the exaggerated features which (whilst they can be misused to be cruel) bring clarity.

Which always raises the question about the place of apparent exaggeration in so much else of Jesus’ teaching, possibly following Aramaic conventions we can no longer access.  

If we label them as hyperbole, we are in danger of saying he didn't mean any of it and ducking the impact.

If we take them in any plain contemporary sense, we are in danger of treating scripture as if it was some sort of factual manual and we would all be maimed and hate our parents.

If we see them as cartoon, we may instead subject ourselves to the clarity of the message.

All of which is to avoid posting directly about what keeps me awake at night. 

Is there any other course now than patiently to repeat the self evident?

That the consensus of scientists is to be trusted.

That hard worn progress towards treating people with equal dignity in language and deed has not gone too far.

That the impact of globalisation cannot be avoided by retreating into an imagined past nor behind a barrier.

That the way we treat the apparent outsider is as definitive of who we as anything else.

That the harsh manufactured bravado of gameshow competitiveness is not a recommended model for social relating let alone political choosing.

That it is incredible that any of this needs saying, needs patient repeating, needs to attract wider ownership.

That the prophets of ancient Israel and the Galilean cartoonist have had sharply clear things to say about much of it already.

Tuesday 8 November 2016

Infantalised majoritarianism

Waking up on the 411th anniversary of an attempt to blow up Parliament, it was strange that the news headlines were about the Daily Mail’s front page unconsciously directly repeating specific German front pages of the 1930s with pictures of a row of judges’ faces and a headline ‘Enemies of the People’ and about an American judge granting restraining orders against potential intimidation at Polling Stations.  Of course many have commented on all this – how the ‘the will of the people’ can be expressed as much by a lynch mob as by a reflective democratic process and how external independent judiciaries are precisely what enables us to navigate between the two.

My despair continues to be about how ‘a reflective democratic process’ can be informed as much as expressed.  I’ve worried away before at the way things like political PR planning rubbishes any church attempts to open up fresh genuine discussion.  Now referendum and Presidential campaigns have illustrated not only that explicit untruth is one of the marketing tools but also that we are so inured to it that there are no consequences when it is either unmasked or brazenly paraded.

I read the fresh commentaries this week – from Rowan Williams’ “metacrises... grounded in illusion and contradiction... the symbiosis of oligarchy and majoritarianism” to speculation about the way in which game show voting has infantalised expectations of the immediate consequences of a narrow majority vote – but such awareness is not going to deflect the cynical PR management of the democratic processes we have.

So here instead is the burning bush created at family worship at St Nicolas’ on Sunday.  The voice from the bush named the desolate place as holy ground, had God name himself, and promises that he hears the crying and suffering of his people.  Moses reaction is that the people will say it is untrue and that he himself is so slow and hesitant that he wouldn’t be much good at arguing otherwise, at which excuses God gets quite shirty with him.

Thursday 3 November 2016


Still a picture from the Arizona desert, but outside it is cold and wet, and 'inside' the difficult ministry news as I take things up again is that, while we are really grateful for a new full-time Team Vicar who will begin work alongside us in a few weeks with a particular outreach brief in which she will be able to give creative attention to lots of the openings we have, the overall creativity, quantity and variety of such ministry will in fact become much more constrictive locally as the diocese decides not to deploy a new Curate in training here at least in 2017 and it has become public that our local Urban and Industrial Chaplains are being made redundant.

It is slightly strange being in a much more centralised diocese these days anyway (literally so as the Bishops and Archdeacons move to live or at least work from central offices): our Team Vicar interviews took place for the first time in Lincoln rather than in the parish, something to which we were alerted only a few days before the interviews took place (by an HR officer e-mailing to say she needed to 'manage your expectations'); the e-mail telling us about Curate deployment was at best distant after twenty-two years close engagement in this area of work ('Bishop Christopher has asked me to thank you for your interest... they would like me to stress that if you remain interested in curate training for 2018 you will need to make a fresh application'); the ending of all industrial chaplaincy is not what was being explored in the working group of which I was a member a few months ago and a particular sadness given the quality of our local Chaplain.

But the desert cactus flowers and bears fruit, so there is great potential even in landscapes much more barren than ours, and the imminence of the arrival of a new full-time colleague (members of the Bishop's Staff took the initiative themselves to secure more than the half-time appointment we would otherwise have expected) is a joy on this drab and chilly day.

Wednesday 26 October 2016