Sunday 31 December 2017

Sustainability of English churches

I was told when looking at this job that I would be able to concentrate on ministry because the major building jobs had been systematically tackled in the last few years.  And, yes, a prodigious amount had been done, and at the daughter church we may even be about to return some money to heritage bodies because the work there was cheaper than expected and fully funded. 

But I find that one of the two parish churches is just negotiating renewing its heating boiler (for which funding is in hand) and will soon face renewing its main roof (not funded – and the funding stream which enabled earlier roof work has dried up), and the other is developing urgent plans for rewiring, for a new lighting scheme which it seems sensible to tackle at the same time, and for substantial redecoration consequent on both this work and earlier work (towards which accumulated funds will only make a partial contribution).

And this is all in a locally clear version of a nationally recognised context of smaller regular congregations already being asked to meet substantially increased levels of payments to their dioceses whilst the national heritage funding streams which have met the biggest parts of such costs in the most recent past are smaller or more heavily competed for or have indeed ceased to operate at all.

I’ve frequently said that local congregations have rarely contributed the money to build or restore their churches at any point in history.  On the contrary, the size of ancient parish churches usually simply reflects the prosperity of the local mediaeval merchant or manored classes, remarkably so in areas with substantial ‘wool’ churches.  There is always a good chance that their guidebooks record restoration funded by something like a rich eighteenth century Anglo-Catholic squire or a wealthy nineteenth century Evangelical Vicar.  Here both parish churches (one rebuilt in 1880 and the other built in 1910) were largely funded by the same mill owning family.

All of which is background to saying that the Government published a new report after Christmas on the ‘sustainability of English churches’, by which it means buildings rather than Christian communities.  The Working Party had two clergy (a Bishop and a Dean) but otherwise consisted of ‘the great and the good’ of the heritage industry, so the main focus is an awareness that three quarters of the Church of England’s buildings are listed and that 45% of Grade 1 listed buildings nationally are parish churches.

Their best shot is that diligence in routine maintenance will reduce or even eliminate the need for unaffordable substantial repairs in the future.  They are, of course, half right: poor routine maintenance will certainly increase the frequency of major emergency repairs.  But I suspect they are also a little optimistic: significantly expensive projects such as our re-roofing and re-wiring ones will come round however systematic locally funded routine maintenance is.

Their major proposal is that a significant tranche of the more limited Government grant making capacity should be diverted to finance a network of Community Support Advisers (CSAs) and Fabric Support Advisers (FSAs).  The CSAs would work with churches to ensure their widest possible use, thus developing a group of people as large as possible who value and are committed to each local church.  The FSAs would work with every listed church to ensure a proper maintenance programme is followed through.

I hope that what my last parish in Grimsby and my present parishes around Haworth have been and are doing model at least a good part of what these CSAs and FSAs would advise.  My experience of wider community use is that it can reflect a Gospel commitment to the local community and can improve local income streams to increase the chance of routine maintenance being delivered well, but that it simply doesn’t build a wider constituency able to give the substantial amounts which one off major appeals require.  My experience of rolling maintenance plans intended to cover major repairs is that most average sized congregations would find the additional level of expenditure involved very challenging even when spread out over a ten year period.

One of their further recommendations is that the law is clarified so that it is clear that local authorities can make grants to churches.  This would be welcome at a ministry level – there have been small level grant opportunities for specific pieces of work from which we have been excluded from applying in both Grimsby and now here.  But this week’s Keighley News once again reports the extreme position local authorities are now in (Bradford ceasing to fund public conveniences and bowling greens, our local Parish Council worrying about the maintenance costs if it tries to take these sorts of things on) so I can’t see substantial grant making support for local buildings of importance for heritage and for community cohesion coming from this source.

And many more words than the report attempts need to be said about the value of praying in these buildings and what they represent.

The picture was taken on Oxenhope Moor soon after Christmas.  

Monday 25 December 2017

Happy Christmas 2

And here is a picture a Churchwarden took at the Christingle Service at St James', Cross Roads yesterday afternoon, and a version of the sermon I preached in turn at all three of our churches during the course of the day:

A few weeks ago, I was having a coffee in a bookshop in Bradford when there was a moment’s pause in the hubbub going on around and I heard a voice from the table behind me which simply said “I’m really worried about him – he thinks that angels are talking to him”.
So I’ve been re-reading each part of the Christmas story with those words coming back to me each time.

At the beginning of Luke’s Gospel there are three places where people think that angels talk to them.

There is a story about an older childless couple called Zechariah and Elizabeth.  Zechariah was a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem.  He drew the lot to go and burn incense in the innermost and holiest part of the Temple, where an angel appeared.  The story says Zechariah was disturbed and “fear (‘phobia’) fell on him”. 

The angel told him Elizabeth was to have a child; the child would become John the Baptist.  It didn’t seem credible, and Zechariah said so, so he was struck dumb.  He didn’t speak for most of a year – he could only communicate by signs and by writing things down.

Then there is the story we know best about Mary, who was Elizabeth’s cousin.  The angel comes to her and says “Greetings, most favoured one, the Lord is with you”.  Mary isn’t simply “disturbed” by this – it says she was “greatly disturbed”. 

She too thought what the angel said simply didn’t sound possible, although she did come to accept it quite quickly.  So she wasn’t struck dumb, but she did run away for three months; she stood to lose any respect in her community and her fiancĂ© and probably much more if she had stayed around.

Finally, shepherds.  Sky full of angels.  It doesn’t say they were “disturbed”.  It doesn’t even say they were “greatly disturbed”.  It says “they feared with a great fear (a ‘mega phobia’)”. 

They lived in occupied territory and the language the angels used was the same language which would be used to announce a coup; it could have felt as if they were being caught up in a revolution against the state beginning round the corner.  They came to visit Mary’s child, but it isn’t surprising that they only did so at night, under the cover of darkness.

I can imagine gossips in Jerusalem, in Nazareth, in Bethlehem astonished as Elizabeth’s pregnancy, worried about poor mute Zechariah, sniggering about Mary, incredulous at the shepherd’s tale – and worried about them all because they thought angels were talking to them.  But, much more, I notice how frightened they all are.

Meanwhile, Matthew’s Gospel tells it differently.  There it is Joseph who hears angels – and he does so in his dreams.  So, first, stick by your fiancĂ©e even though she is pregnant by someone else.  And then, flee the country - all this talk of revolution means a state sponsored massacre is coming.

So I had a think - and two things struck me.  One is very challenging.  The other is a little more comforting.

The challenging thing is that receiving a message straight from God isn’t as much fun as we might think it would be.  Our instinct might be if only we heard a voice direct from an angel everything would be clearer and easier.

But actually, as likely as not, we’d be fearful, dumbstruck, caught up in something quite out of our league, and possibly fleeing for our lives.  The fact that our friends would be worried about us would be only a very small part of our problem.

I put it this way to myself: if I think I have discerned correctly what God might be saying to me then, if I am not at least a little disturbed by this, if I am not at least a little worried that it might not be deliverable, if I don’t suspect it might get me into some trouble, then it isn’t really very likely that I’ve heard what God really wants from me at all.

But the more comforting thing is that God has been getting his message across despite the frightened and fallible people he has had to work with from the very beginning of this story.

It shouldn’t be a real surprise that the Church of England today has many priests who are are tongue tied and inarticulate in the face of the challenges of the deeply secularised world around us and not actually very confident that God is able to do new things around us.  Zechariah was a bit like that.

It shouldn’t be surprise that Church of England today has some members whose instinct is sometimes to hide away quietly rather than be public about the things from God which they suspect are growing  within them.  Mary herself may well have been a little like that, certainly to begin with.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the Church of England has some supporters who wouldn’t want to be too publically associated with it but occasionally want to come to a service held in the middle of the night.  The shepherds sound a little like that.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the Church of England regularly joins in prayers for places across the world where Christians are being massacred or have had to flee – it is going on in south-western Pakistan at the moment.  Joseph knew all about things like that.

This story matters – and people are probably quite right to worry about us when we behave as if it does.  God will continue to make the implications of the story known as he has always done  – and will go on doing so even when those who hear it are scared by it, doubtful or simply not very good at following it through.  Thanks be to God.  

Sunday 24 December 2017

Happy Christmas

Here are a couple of pictures from yesterday's version of the Nativity Walk up Haworth's Main Street.

And her si a link to a podcast about Deborah's textile art:

Monday 18 December 2017

Yarn bombing

I’ve come across graffiti (frequently) and guerrilla gardening (people tackling eyesore spots in Grimsby come to mind) but I’d only come across yarn bombing once before until cheered up by this piece outside St Michael’s (among others appearing around Haworth).

Meanwhile, an overheard remark in a coffee shop in Bradford has sown seeds for a Christmas sermon: ‘I’m really worried about him – he thinks angels are talking to him’.

Tuesday 12 December 2017

Good News

I’ve just taken down my copy of the Good News Bible, prepared in ‘standard, everyday, natural English’ and published in 1976, over forty years ago.  It was given to me by my mother for Christmas that year; I would have just completed my first term in the Sixth Form. 

I remember the excitement of the sales pitch that the word translated since Anglo-Saxon times as ‘Go(d’s)spel’ was here directly rendered ‘Good News’ and being intrigued by just how much more could be opened up in the same way (as, for example ‘repent’ becomes ‘turn away from your sins’).

Three years later, in my first term at University, I was trying to come to terms with the vocabulary of New Testament Greek myself, words like logos (word), phone (sound) and thanatos (death).  I found that the prefix eu- (nice) turned each of these into English words I recognised: eulogos (nice words) gave me eulogy (a spoken tribute); euphone (nice sound) gave me euphonious (pleasant to hear); euthanatos (nice death) gave me euthanasia (mercy killing).

So I found exactly where the sales pitch of the Good News Bible was grounded: an angel is a messenger, and thus euangelion (nice message) gives us evangelist (a writer or proclaimer of what at different stages of the development of English has been rendered gospel, glad tidings and good news).

It was only much later that I found that the New Testament writers who wrote the word ‘euangelion’ were also reading it as a word in their own Bibles – the standard Greek translation in their own time of what we call the Hebrew scriptures or Old Testament.  And here, as often as not, euangelion was being used for the announcement of a victory, almost as if it was in fact a technical term for a joyful despatch from a battlefield.

So, on Sunday, as the opening words of Mark’s Gospel came round once more and we began to proclaim ‘This is the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God... I will send my messenger ahead of you to clear the way for you... someone is shouting... make a straight path for him to travel’, I was put in mind of Rowan Williams’ reminder that this has the force of an announcement of regime change.

Not Good News as in ‘settle down children and let us hear some of the lovely stories about Jesus – and then we can have a hot drink and go to bed and have sweet dreams’.

But Good News as in ‘dance in the streets because the word abroad is that the despot who has been in charge for far too long is under house arrest and the longed for successor is now actually in the country - and then align yourselves urgently with the new possibilities opening up in front of you lest either he’ll find you colluding with the old corruption or, worse still, we’ll all miss the chance and the new cabinet will simply get filled up with the same people as the old one ’.

The picture is the result of an apprentice at Airedale Springs in the parish practicing programming a machine to twist single pieces of wire consistently into a carefully specified shape.

Monday 4 December 2017

Light where horses race

Back at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park again for my Day Off last week, we hugely enjoyed the Tony Cragg pieces (top two pictures) but were most fearfully engaged by Alfredo Jaar's work most of which was under a 'no photographs' embargo but which also included his The Garden of Good and Evil (bottom two photographs) which expresses the hidden places of detention in the world.  

He quoted Mahmoud Darwish, a Palestinian poet already important to us: I love the particles of sky that slip through the skylight - a metre of light where horses race.  I was obviously put in mind of Oscar Wilde's little tent of blue which prisoners call the sky - but also taken back to Irina Ratushinskaya's frosted window and Anne Frank's horse-chestnut tree.