Friday 30 September 2016

Passionate about ministry

I’ve been encountering the clergy appointment process a lot recently both as a recruiter (we are about to announce the appointment of a new Team Vicar) and looking from the perspective of an applicant (among other things, having a Curate who is in the fourth year after ordination in which most move on).

Paying attention to all this again reminded me of a paragraph I posted in February 2012:

The absurdity of many adverts for clergy posts was pointed out to me a long while ago by someone who suggested the simple stratagem of mentally reversing the redundant phrases to reveal things like “lazy priest, with a poor track record, a tentative hold on faith, and an marked indifference to both young and old, sought for a contracting and unsupportive parish in an unattractive part of the country”.

But it is the prominence, almost ubiquity, of the word ‘passionate’ in such adverts which has struck me most recently.  Perhaps parishes are right to want their prospective parish priests to be passionate about something, but I guess that, while they may rationalise this as a wish for a form of attractive Christian commitment, they simply don’t realise that they are replicating relatively recent American-sourced secular Human Resources speak (which has given us ‘passionate about customer service’, ‘passionate about quality’ and much more).

In fact my inner fear is that many have gone even further in being totally captured by the norms of a consumerist society (as unrecognised as a the air we breathe) which sees such forms of competitive recruitment as simply natural.  What might it look like instead if the task was vocational discernment with a counter-cultural model in mind (perhaps the sort of model which  has been branded as ‘wounded healer’ and ‘suffering servant’)?  I'm sure it is what many do in fact strive for.

I continue to be challenged by a quotation form Bonheoffer which I posted in May

Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great general disillusionment with others, with Christianity in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves

but the fear is that any mature Christian who fails to suppress such a perspective and instead sell hard a perfect picture (or ‘illusion’) of him or herself would be unlikely to get appointed.

The problem isn’t actually new.  The whole ordination selection process which the Church of England still operates  was one originally designed immediately after the Second World War based on the secular good practice for the selection of Army officers (albeit much developed since).  I’m not sure which is the chicken and which is the egg: that Vicars were operating as Officers in command of troops (alongside what they might half imagine were the NCOs and foot soldiers in parishes) so the approach to recruitment seemed to fit well, or that it was the recruitment process itself which unconsciously identified as future Vicars those who would be more likely to replicate this sort of model as if it was self-evidently normal approach to ministry.

Anyway, I was ordained deacon thirty-two years ago today, and the picture was taken almost a year later when I was ordained priest on Michaelmas Day 1985, three-fifths of a lifetime ago.

Thursday 22 September 2016

Further than I want to go

I’m catching up late with the Gospel readings for the last two Sundays and am newly struck by the fact that roughly the same story comes up three times in Luke 15 and 16.  At least the basic shape is the same.  I’m catching up with the challenge they present which seems to go much further than I really want to go.

The Bible Study bit is easy.

First, read two Sundays ago, Jesus eats with tax-collectors and sinners, and the religious authorities of the day disapprove (so Jesus then tells two stories about seeking out what has been lost).

Second, read in Lent so skipped over in our Sunday readings this month, there is the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

Third, read last Sunday, there is the Parable of the Corrupt Steward (the one who is sacked and who immediately falsifies his master’s accounts to build favour with the master’s clients).

All three have a figure who is God: Jesus, the Prodigal’s father, and the Steward’s master.

All three have figures who are wastrels: the tax-collectors and sinners with whom Jesus eats, the Prodigal himself and the Corrupt Steward himself; it is possible that some of the sinners with whom Jesus eats are repentant, and the Prodigal does become so, but this isn’t the common theme

In all three cases the God figure celebrates the wastrel figure: eating with tax-collectors and sinners, slaughtering the fatted calf to throw a feast for the returned Prodigal, and commending the shrewdness of the Corrupt Manager.

In all three cases there are voices of incredulity from the respectable: the religious authorities of the day grumble at Jesus choice of eating companions, the Prodigal’s older brother is angry and resentful, and (I’m stretching a point here, but go with me) almost every preacher agonises, twists and turns to avoid joining Jesus in commending the actions of the Corrupt Manager.

And that is the point.  It shouldn’t be difficult to preach about the last of the three passages if one has just read the first two. 

The first two say that the great banquet (of which we catch the foretaste now, and to which we are promised full participation soon) will be chock full of bankers and wastrels and people not unlike me a lot of the time and worse.  That is how God is.  It is hardly surprising news.

So how can any reader be puzzled in any way by the third story?  As we stand ready to pronounce judgement on the corruption we see in it, we hear God say ‘you’ve got to admire his chaputz, his imagination, his sheer financial agility, haven’t you?’.

Perhaps it simply sets a standard for our inclusivity.  If there isn’t someone out there – or a something inside me  – screaming ‘how on earth could you include them?’ then I probably haven’t gone far enough.  Certainly not as far as loving my enemies and praying for my persecutors.

But how far should this take me?

From resisting the humiliation of convicted criminals (as St Nicolas’ was doing in 2008 - something I was remembering this week) right up to giving medical treatment to a bomber (not something commended by every candidate for high office – as we were all observing this week) we may only really playing at it.

Please God, may the abuse, bombing, corruption, deception, exploitation and fraud around us be exposed and ended, punished and prevented, and may the victims' needs never be forgotten, minimized or neglected.  Let justice prevail.  But even then, give us your longing for the lost perpetrators - however hard our inner being calls out against this prayer.

Saturday 17 September 2016

One rule to divide them

The more detail pinned down in any rule, the more likely it is to make the rule difficult to apply in a balanced way.  The less flexibility which is built into a process, the less discretion there is available to make it work.  It can actually be the degree to which one strives to write in fairness which is what produces anomalous results.

So the Boundary Commission has been given a task to produce Parliamentary Constituencies as close as possible to equality in numbers of registered electors and has been given very specific parameters within which to deliver this.  And the predictable result is that many people will be less obviously ‘represented’ as a result.

The particular public focus has been on Cornwall.  If the number of registered electors in the county had been a few hundred fewer, the county could have been divided into Cornish constituencies of approximately equal size.  But, because the total population is a fraction too big to make this work, a whole set of Cornish constituents will be represented by an MP the majority of whose electors live in Devon.

The particular focus ought to be on Grimsby, represented in parliament as a Borough since the thirteenth century.  It historic heart is too small to justify a parliamentary seat on its own (it has 84% of the registered electors needed) and, given it is tucked away in a corner of a region, the only way to make the maths work is to divide it in two and add each of these halves to a neighbouring constituency. 

Half the electors in the area of the historic Borough will in future be represented by an MP the majority of whose electors live in Cleethorpes and its fringe of suburban villages.  The other half (including this parish) will be represented by an MP the majority of whose electors live across a swathe of rural northern Lincolnshire, some up to twenty miles away.

The ‘inner city’ East and West Marshes of Grimsby including the town centre and along with this parish to its west have been represented in parliament since before I was born in turn by Tony Crosland, Austin Mitchell and Melanie Onn, three striking and independent Labour personalities.  We will provide 38% of the elctors in a new constituency and our next MP will soon be someone chosen for us mainly by the residents of the market towns of Brigg and Barton and of the ‘Brocklesby Hunt’ area in between them.

And don't get me started on what 'equality of representation' means when it is registered electors rather than population which is used as the basis of the calculation in a country in which the rate of registration correlates with levels of deprivation; it is quite a feat even for a Tory Government to have invented a totally new category of the 'undeserving poor'.

The stained glass window of the discovery of the empty tomb isn’t a recent photograph; I think I took it because I liked the satchel on Mary Magdalene’s back, an entirely practical choice of bag in which to bring the ointments needed to anoint a dead body.

Saturday 10 September 2016

Trent, tile and taste

It is only in most recent times that the final stage of the River Trent has flowed north from where Newark now is into the Humber estuary.  For half of the last 250 000 years, it flowed north east to pass through the gap in the Lincoln edge now used by the River Whitham.  In the process it laid down a substantial gravel bed - the line of recently flooded gravel pits near Whisby shows this up clearly.  Apparently the gravel (and the fossilised fragments in it) yields significant information about where the water had flowed from and what animals lived around it; during inter-glacial periods, lion and hippo roamed what would be Lincolnshire.

We went on a guided walk on Thursday morning as part of the Lincolnshire Heritage Open Day weekend and were taken to this spot on the edge of Thorpe on the Hill from which we could look across what is clearly a river valley albeit one which does not now contain a river.

Our own offering for the weekend on Thursday afternoon and Saturday morning was entitled ‘A Tudor Tile Tells a Tale’ and shared with a small but appreciative audience material previously posted here.  It appears that our tile has a high quality design but low quality execution, so it may have been commissioned from  a good workshop (the indications are that this might have been in North Street, York) but have been manufactured on the spot at Winestead where the other surviving examples of it were used in the Manor House.

We went round there last week to look at the impressive moated site on which the house stood and reminded ourselves again how easy it would have been to take our tile a couple of miles to the quay at Patrington Haven and then on an eleven mile boat journey across the Humber and up the Freshney to Little Coates.  Or, if a subsidiary Manor House owned by the same family did exist near the church and was being given a new floor at about the same time, perhaps our tile was also made on site and didn’t need to be transported at all?

Meanwhile, those interviewed yesterday for our vacant Team Vicar position were challenged by the Bishop of Grimsby to say what a Christian is and why they are one.  I came home to be reminded that Bishop David Jenkins, who has just died, offered ‘God is as found in Jesus, so we have hope’ and wondered whether, in line with another old post, I would have wanted to offer something like ‘those who have caught a foretaste of God’s kingdom so keep on pursuing the stories and places where they flavour seems to be catchable’.

Monday 5 September 2016

Leaps and salutations

And here (in the top picture) is one of the squirrels, observed when we took binoculars up St Nicolas' tower; it is about to leap on to the bare branch some distance from the church roof, while we were about to assess the state of the roof and also get a photograph (the bottom picture) of a different angle on the church clock.

Meanwhile, my effort for the Cleethorpes Chronicle last week came out like this:

I’m worried about changes in rural pub names and signs.  Goodness, there are enough real problems in society and the world which I should worry about more.  But it is simply pub signs I want to write about this time.

We have a retired sign painter in our parish who used to work for a pub chain.  He remembers the days he would hand-paint distinctive new signs having carefully researched each pub name.  Today the job is probably done on a computer using market research algorithms.

In fact, most really early hostels were places of refuge for travellers or pilgrims in danger on the roads.  These safe houses would often have a religious symbol painted on them so that they could be recognised. 

The best example is the Lamb and Flag.  This was a symbol of Jesus’ dying and rising again – and we have this sign at the bottom of the main window in St Nicolas’, Great Coates.  The lamb is there to represent religious sacrifice; Jesus is called ‘the Lamb of God’ because he was slaughtered like a sacrificial lamb.  The flag is there to represent the resurrection; almost every mediaeval picture of the newly risen Jesus has him carrying a banner just like the one in the pub sign when the painter gets it right.

Another example is the Salutation.  This was a symbol of the angel Gabriel coming to young Mary to announce to her that she will be Jesus’ mother.  Gabriel’s greeting – or ‘salutation’ – is used at the beginning of the prayer ‘Hail Mary, full of grace’ which would have been on the lips of medieval travellers several times each day.  I think of this every time I drive to Market Rasen and pass a pub where the painter has forgotten this and instead generated an image of a Victorian lady and gentleman exchanging polite greetings.

I think of something else when driving the main road to Louth.  This time I pass what was until a short while ago The Granby.  Giving pubs the name of the Marquis of Granby is something more recent.  He was an eighteenth century soldier who died in debt because he gave too much of his money away.  A lot of the money was given to retiring non-commissioned officers who had no new livelihood to which to look forward.  He financed a job creation scheme – he gave them grants to buy or set up and run a pub.  They were so grateful they put his picture up at the door.  It is a bit sad each time one of those is lost and the link to this Christian generosity is broken.