Saturday 28 January 2017

Taking the strain

I was asked recently to prepare something brief for a group thinking about ordained ministry expounding the Gospel passage which ends ‘the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath’, which took me unexpectedly back to my poem Pointing which I read for them, and it then came out like this:

Blocks of stone (such as those which you find in the walls of churches) will expand and contract with sun and frost, which is why the mortar between them will crack and eventually fall out, so that the wall then requires re-pointing. 

Occasionally someone is so frustrated with the time and cost involved in re-pointing that the person has what they think is the bright idea of using more robust material; sometimes it is even concrete.
But as soon as the pointing is stronger than the stone, it is the stone and not the pointing which takes the stress, and it is the stone which cracks and flakes away: the pointing is no longer a sort of safety valve to protect the stone but a sort of vice which will not give to relieve any pressure.

There are church walls where strong and robust pointing now stands proud of the wall and the stone within it is damaged and hollowed out.

It strikes me that the poem and that image might provide a helpful tool as we try to think how to apply the last and most famous words from that Gospel passage: Sabbath was made as a gift for us; we were not made to be held in check by Sabbath.

Looking back at the commandment we know Sabbath is to be holy, to be without work, and (the bit to which attention is paid least) to be where we are not a burden on others: to sanctify, rest and let up.

As the slabs of our lives expand and contract under it strains and pressures, they cannot be laid endlessly one on top of the other; we all know that they need to be next to more friable, Godly, free and non-assertive material.

But as soon as this is ‘stronger than the life it frames’ it is in danger of being the burden itself.  

I had the classic illustration of that again only a couple of month ago when someone was telling me about his pre-War childhood in rural Aberdeenshire and not being allowed to read his aircraft magazines at his grandparents’ home on a Sunday, something which still seemed to shape his relationship with the church all these years later.

As you think about ministry, you will be aware of clergy whose ministry is damaged by not giving enough time to what sanctifies, rests and lets up: they don’t pray enough, don’t take the time off they should, don’t see how their incessant demands can be a burden on others.

But I think Jesus’ words, the poem and the image of ‘the wrong sort of pointing’ identifies an opposite danger. 

In the last few weeks I’ve come across one situation in which a Churchwarden of a newly vacant parish told me that she had never been inside the new Vicarage built for the last incumbent, and another situation in which a group of Funeral Directors expressed extreme frustration at how difficult it is to get a prompt response when trying make arrangements with a few clergy. 

It is almost as if it is the strength of the protection which has been built around their ministry is in fact the thing which is damaging and hollowing it out.

Yesterday, a charity which works at issues of work-life balance published a report which achieved its desired headlines about just how many young fathers wanted more time with their children.  

Even a brief look at the actual report reveals that the issue for most of them was not about doing less work but about being able to be more flexible about the work they did do.

My prayer is that their and our pressures receive the gift of the Sabbath’s ability to take the strain.

The shape of the lens which took this picture of St Michael’s old Chancel (now its Lady Chapel) captures marvellously the way the layout of furniture is designed so that those who pray there gather around the lectern and altar.  

It isn’t one of mine but one I’ve just discovered on the Geograph website (an attempt to illustrate every square of the map) and was taken by John Blakeston.

Saturday 21 January 2017

Driven wild

The diocese is abandoning its practice of sending its daily cycle of prayer to clergy (the expectation is that they will either download it or specifically request a paper copy) so I imagine it will become much less used (unless, I suppose, the shift to clergy saying Matins from texts on their smart phones becomes normative).

This morning, the less gracious part of me didn’t think this would be a great loss.  The request is to pray today for:   

HMP Lincoln, IRC Morton Hall and HMP North Sea Camp.  We pray for the governors and all staff in each location.  Pray for the multi-faith chaplaincy teams and volunteers, as they continue to learn to work together in building hope and in showing people the difference that faith can make in their lives.

I’m sure the staff and chaplaincy provision are well worth praying for, and that building hope and showing people what faith can do are always good things.  I’m just gobsmacked that the compilers of the cycle of prayer don’t think that those detained are worth identifying (other than, by implication, as the passive subjects of ministry and evangelism).  

For the avoidance of doubt, IRC Morton Hall is an Immigration Removal Centre, so its appearance in the middle of a list of prisons is, at the very least, a striking mis-characterisation.

A young Polish man with mental health problems killed himself there ten days ago having been refused bail, the second such death there in a short period of time.  There are all sorts of prayers which could be offered, perhaps 'please God, turn the hearts of those in government so that fewer vulnerable people die as a result of their policies' would be among the most appropriate.

This sort of thing isn’t unique.  I remember once being invited to a meeting to ‘pray for Grimsby’ at an independent church in this parish.  At one point we were told of a church which was hosting a new group for the families of those who are drug dependant.  Prayers were then offered that this would be an effective form of witness.  No prayer was offered for the drug dependant or for their families.

I have no new photograph, so have unearthed this old one of mine from the churchyard at Northchurch in Hertfordshire.  Peter was found in a German forest in the eighteenth century and brought to England by the Queen.  

His lack of speech was attributed to his having grown up in wild isolation.  Today we suspect that he has a genetic disorder (his portrait shows some of the facial features of one the symptoms of which include lack of speech) and is much more likely to have been abandoned not that long before he was found.  He lived (on a royal pension) to be an old man.

Revised 26th January

Sunday 15 January 2017

St Michael's stove pipe

The top picture is Claude Natte’s 1795 picture of St Michael’s, part of an extensive collection of drawings of Lincolnshire churches in particular commissioned by Sir Joseph Banks and completed in a few years.  I don’t think I’ve posted it before, although I have posted his picture of St Nicolas'.

The bottom picture has kindly just been sent to me by the local person who bought it on eBay, where I find at least two other local people who take an interest in such things have also seen it; it is a good thing that the four of us were not bidding against each other.

The photograph shows what a really good quality drawing it was.  For example, the squared gable end drawn in 1795 is exactly as photographed here, and a close look at the building today shows that what is now a pointed top stone is weathered and lichen covered in such a way as to show it is indeed more recent.

It can be dated to 1911 or 1912, give or take a few months, because the inscription on the east face of the white monument is clearly there and this commemorates someone who died in 1910, but by 1913 building work would have begun to remodel and substantially extend the church.

The stove pipe is a particularly striking feature and the stove is shown in the relevant position in a diagram of the layout of the church as it was when work began in 1913, but even slightly earlier pictures (including a painting in church said to date 1890) gives a different chimney on the north side of the chancel instead.

The eastern of the two south windows did not match the western of the two in 1795 but had been replaced by a replica which does by 1911-12 (and again it is clear when you look on the ground that the stonework of the eastern of the two is less worn and thus more modern).

The east window of the south aisle has been blocked up since 1795, something I’ve never seen before as this corner has a big bush in it in the painting and in other photos I have; this was clearly unblocked either in 1913-15 or later because there is a Gothic style window there now.

The east window of the chancel in 1795 had been replaced by a larger Gothic style window by the time of the 1890 painting and this later photograph (and it is clear inside the building that a mediaeval beam had to be cut to make room for  this window of greater height).  I can’t see whether the window has stained glass in it or not but I presume it does as this was unveiled in October 1910.

Sunday 8 January 2017

The rise of the nones 2

Three further thoughts growing from puzzling away at Linda Woodhead’s article.

The first, and longest, is about what she writes.

The main thrust of her conclusion, not mentioned in my previous post, is ‘it is not just that Britain has become less religious but that religion has become more so; not just that people moved away from churches but that churches moved away from them’.

In her sociological terms she sees churches since the 1980s becoming less ‘societal’ (perhaps, inclusive places which express the spiritual aspirations and values of a majority) and more ‘sectarian’ (perhaps, exclusive places which express the religious commitment and values of a minority).

It is true that a significant shift has happened.  An example would be the virtual disappearance of Confirmation as an adolescent rite of passage (and I’m fascinated that she notes the rapid rise in school Proms as ‘in effect ritual celebrations of each child’) and is used mainly instead as an expression of individual adult religious commitment.

And it is true that a major gap now exists.  Her example is the way majority opinion on issues such as abortion, contraception, divorces, euthanasia and homosexuality (on some of which some churches have often even led on issues of liberalisation in the past) differ from the conservative public positions of many churches today.

But I just wonder how much ‘chicken and egg’ there is here.  My reading of everything from George Herbert’s instructions about ministry in the seventeenth century to Christian Youth Work manuals in the first half of the twentieth century doesn’t seem to indicate a Church of England which held its place in the past by agreeing with the (particularly sexual) moral norms around it.

The second is about my own simplistic mapping of some of this onto the trio of diversity and pluralism, democracy and individual choice, and establishment and shared tradition, and the difficulties of holding any two of these together with the third.

I simply notice that one of the things which is going on is that those who express a democratic rejection of diversity also express loyalty to (or at least nostalgia for) an imagined shared tradition.

This is there from the notorious British National Party’s claim that it was more genuinely Christian than the churches, to the key phrases ‘taking back control’ and ‘making America great again’ (separate out the words and you get a wish to be in control and to be part of a great nation alongside the dynamic of ‘taking back’ and ‘making again’).

Third, only the briefest of hints, what do we do now?

There is no going back.  Her article notes ‘the ‘self-reinforcing success’ of the new ‘norm’, for example, the tipping point we’ve noticed when the choice of a secular funeral becomes the option people simply assume is normal when a Funeral Director calls. 

Perhaps instead there can only be speaking and acting authentic possibilities: the way the series The Monastery a decade ago got under some people’s skin is something which showed the way; our picking up that many people think we are onto something when we explore forgiveness may be one hint; the chord struck by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s focus on Wonga may be another significant example.

The ‘becoming more religious’ needs to be ‘here are unexpected insights and depths in the tradition (which we are in danger losing contact)’ rather than ‘here is why you are wrong (about sex in particular)’; a project to clear up a local grot spot on Maundy Thursday rather than a 'walk of witness' on Good Friday.

The Christmas decorations at St George's, Bradley are actually the striking ones those from 2015 rather than the ones which have just been taken down.

Tuesday 3 January 2017

The rise of the nones

Prof Linda Woodhead may be the best known of the sociologists who have been trying to understand the phenomenon of religious commitment in England today, including, recently in particular, the rise in the number of ‘nones’, that is those who say they have no such commitment.  She does not see a straight forward growth in hostility, secularism or atheism but rather a process of indifference, perceived irrelevance and invisibility.

I’ve been working through the last part of a newly published article of hers on this ‘emergence of a new cultural majority’.  She focuses first on the ‘usual suspects’ of pluralism and individualism in the society of which we are part.

Pluralism can mean ‘it becomes harder and harder for religion to be an unquestioned part of the culture, handed down from generation to generation’.  For many, it also ‘involves an embrace of the ideal of tolerance’ so that ‘a multicultural value set is normative for young people’.  So there is both the decline in one cultural assumption (the Christian default setting – albeit still influential in many ways) and the growth of another (an increasing sense that absolute religious claims are not possible – quite apart from sometimes clearly being dangerous and destructive).

Individualism is not primarily about being self-centred but about both equality as an absolute value and a wish not to defer to what presents as a limiting higher authority.  Her observation is that for much of our society ‘contrary to the view that there is pervasive moral fragmentation... there is actually a massive moral consensus about the importance of individual’s freedom of choice’.

As an aside, the picture clearly isn’t uniform.  For some, individual choice in a pluralistic setting means taking strong personal ownership of an intolerant and/or religious position: I was struck by her footnote that ‘Olivier Roy argues in relation to many second-generation and third-generation Muslims in Europe, it leads to a rejection of the ‘cultural’ Islam of their parents in favour of a purified, scriptural ‘religious’ version of faith’; we are all also aware that ‘having enough of experts’ can mean ‘we don’t want to make room for a multi-cultural reality’.

Anyway, leaving the aside aside, I’ve been plotting her analysis in my own mind on top of an earlier piece of thinking which identified the problem for any society of attempting to be diverse, democratic and have an established religion; the suggestion was one of the three simply has to give way. 

So perhaps it is simply that pluralism, individualism and the insights of a dominant tradition cannot play out together, and the present strength of the first two make it particular difficult at the moment for those of us who feel that the third has a lot to offer.  

The photograph is again one from last year’s trip to Arizona, and is one I considered for making a Christmas card (except that many things, including a huge glut of Funerals in the ten days before Christmas, means I didn’t actually send any for the first time in ten years - and perhaps now need to get on with a circular letter for those who sent one to me).