Friday 30 November 2018

Mingled yarn

The twice yearly Bradford Area Episcopal Forum took place in the week.  Not so much this time to consult and explore as to brief and encourage those not involved with the Diocesan Synod.  So we heard briefly about its budget (and the human cost of redundancies in diocesan staff was mentioned), the operation of an Intern scheme (where the questions about what is appropriate remuneration and fair access for those unable to finance themselves were not probed) and the importance of parishes having ‘leadership pipelines’ (for the active nurturing and sending on of new leaders, to which the evening’s brief Bible Study related).

Samuel’s journey from before his birth to his anointing of Kings of Israel was the chosen pipeline story, something reflected on in a post here in June.  The recommended Bible Study findings focused an upbeat message – making me recast my earlier reflections in my mind:

Eli had a significant church activity and plant to run and was grateful for the diligent involvement of Samuel, an Intern working with him (albeit on terms which would give rise to significant safeguarding concerns today).  He was able to offer inspired spiritual direction to his Intern and exhibited mature willingness to take the challenging Ministerial Development Review feedback which his Intern offered.  This experience was all foundational for Samuel’s vocational discernment which eventually flowed through to a post of particular responsibility for identifying those to serve at the most senior level, although he then selected deeply flawed leaders whose lack of mental stability and whose sexual exploitation of others (among many other things) eventually brought repeated institutional conflict and crisis.

All consistent with what I have felt to be the important way of reading the confession of Peter, although perhaps I was over reacting to being in a bubble of asserted and encouraged confidence (not to mention one style of loud and repeated praise).  Perhaps I have been over influenced by the sorts of old and new quotations which have come through in the bubble of my Twitter feed in the week (not to mention one style of silent and penitent prayer):

There is an epidemic of certainty and I am increasingly aware of the importance of not knowing.  Jean Sprackland

The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together: our virtues would be proud if our faults whipped them not; and our crimes would despair if they were not cherished by our own virtues.  William Shakespeare

Friday 23 November 2018

Jolts needed

I’ve long enjoyed (and pointed out to others) the sense of joyful competition behind provoke one another to love and good deeds (Hebrews 10.24b) and outdo one another in showing honour (Romans 12.10b). 

Knowing what it is to provoke and to be provoked in a negative manner, I’ve loved the sense that Christian people and communities are intended to get a rise out of each other – to entice or incite each other – in a positive manner.  Alongside this saint, you are impelled into being better.  Alongside these people, you can’t but help reacting well.

When the text came up in the set readings last Sunday it made me notice that, while the pew Bibles in St Michael’s do give provoke (they are the New Revised Standard Version), those at St James’ instead give spur (New International Version).

There are obvious links between provoking and spurring but the discovery sent me back for the first time to the Greek.   I found paroxysmon – which, of course, gets directly into medical English as paroxysm with its sense of involuntary recurring outburst.  Its only other occurrence in the New Testament is about the sharpness of the disagreement which broke out between Barnabas and Paul at Acts 15.39.

So my previous playful reading of the text perhaps missed the suddenness and startlingness of what may be best rendered as to goad or to needle.  Not some gentle supportive environment bringing out the best in me but some definite and unexpected kicks up the backside.

I’ve now just had a quick look at what the New International Version does with the New Revised Standard Version’s outdo one another in showing honour.  It offers honour one another above yourselves. 

Here the root word is proegeomai, which doesn’t show up anywhere else in the New Testament at all.  Its use elsewhere reveals two possibilities.  There is a literal use: a leader setting the example by doing it first.  There is a metaphorical use: preferring.  Either way, my sense of friendly competition (outdo one another) rather underestimates the challenge of pioneering an example and laying aside a focus on my own preferences.

The pictures continue to come from Venice.  It is the lion (with a gospel book) as a symbol of St Mark - and it was everywhere.

Sunday 18 November 2018

The redemption of captives in Algiers

Records of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials at Haworth date back to 1645.  This is about as early as anywhere, although it isn’t unusual (for example, my direct line Mullins ancestors can be traced back in similar records at Box in Wiltshire to the mid seventeenth century but not any earlier). These sorts of records predate registers with standard formats and take the form of annual lists submitted to the Bishop.

The early records at Haworth only survive because in 1786 John Shackleton, the local schoolmaster, made a proper copy in a single volume of the deteriorating, occasionally jumbled and partially lost records.  Twenty years ago Steven Wood, indefatigable local historian, transcribed Shackleton’s work, and has now given me a disc with his transcription.

An interesting feature of the early Haworth records is the notes which appear at the end of each year’s list.  There is nothing systematic about them, simply being what someone like the Parish Clerk at the time thought remarkable – beginning with a huge thunder storm in July 1646 and the Battle of Preston, thirty miles away, in August 1648 (the Parliamentary victory there being welcomed by the writer).

The feature of seventeenth century church and community life which stands out for me is the regular collections made for churches and individuals in need around the country.  Specific references to ‘collectors’ and ‘letters patent’ indicate that someone travelled round the country and turned up with a licence (I discover elsewhere that the term 'church brief' was used) to request or make each collection.

The first reference in 1663 is to supporting the repair of what might be Harwich church and steeple in Essex.  In 1666 there is the first reference to supporting an individual (one shilling for Jo. Osborn, Russian Merchant - for a ransom?).  Ten years later some collections begin to be named for what may be a poor community (two shillings nine pence for the inhabitants of Newent in Gloucestershire) as the poor of Towcester and Wem are named as such two years later.

Different bits of national history emerge.  In 1680 contributions are made for the ‘redemption of captives in Algiers’ and the following year a much larger sum than usual (ten shillings and six pence) for ‘the relief of French Protestants’, so slavery on the North African coast and Louis XIV’s ramping up the persecution of Huguenots would have been well known  in Haworth, and both reappear in subsequent collection lists.

Ten separate collections (a quite unusual number) are recorded in 1683, one in October ‘according to Order for the relief of the poor of the Parish of Newmarket, in Suffolk, impoverished by fire’.  I cross referenced this to a local history site there which records the Great Fire of Newmarket which destroyed half the town five months earlier; the King (who had been staying locally) issuing a ‘fire brief’ which brought in £20,000, to which Haworth records show we contributed four shillings and one penny.

The Virgin and Child is in Venice.

Sunday 11 November 2018

Armistice Centenary

i.m. The Batty brothers  
Bertie (1900-16) & Lou (1912-2005)

The walk to Art School each day
    past the Recruiting Office.
The longed-for coloured crayons
    left ribbon-tied on the bed.
The lengthening gap in time
    after the one field postcard.
The fruitless search for a name
    he might have used to sign up.
The sergeant searching the house  
    when call-up age would have come.
Ninety years on, these stories
    told repeatedly, freshly.

This poem is explained in full by my wife’s Facebook post for today:

My mother's cousin will be laying a wreath at Gartcosh Remembrance Ceremony this morning in memory of Bertie, Herbert Yates Batty, her uncle, my great-uncle, who signed up under-age in 1916 and, having sent one field postcard home that autumn, was never heard from again.  Having signed up under a false name he has never been traced - one of the many unknown, mis-named soldiers buried somewhere in France or Belgium.  His parents never recovered from his disappearance and death, their pain multiplied when their house was later searched by the military police at the time when he was legitimately to have been called up.  I’ve done a piece as part of the '100 Hearts' exhibition by the Embroiderers' Guild which will be on show somewhere in the country.  It includes crayons representing the bundle of coloured crayons, tied up in blue ribbon, that Bertie left on his four year-old brother's bed, the day he left.

Friday 2 November 2018


Those Anglo-Saxons and Germans who first used our word ‘meal’ were talking about a process  – initially the preparation of grain as meal. 

A sense of this is retained when we speak of ‘wholemeal flour’.

They would then have thought of this as a portion - quite different from the modern sense of plenty in our phrase ‘making a meal of it’.  To eat meals would be, for them, to space out consuming the amounts which could be prepared.

A sense of this is retained when we speak of ‘piecemeal’ – piece by piece.

And the delightful discovery of the week has been that they had many such words including dropmeal for ‘drop by drop’ and pennymeal for ‘penny by penny’.

It is enough to provoke the poet.  Why not grief tearmeal or coaxing a child spoonmeal or treatmeal?

Dr Eleanor Parker of Brasenose College, Oxford, whose tweets alerted me to this, says Gerard Manley Hopkins was indeed on to this with autumn characterised as where ‘worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie’.

All a distraction from the fearmeal news of the week: absolute power strangling dissenting voices, more young Gaza protestors becoming victims of live fire, Christian persecutors fermenting insurrection as legal processes actually release one of their victims, anti-Semites gunning down Jewish worshippers.

When the Roman authorities moved against Jesus, they too were swift and efficient.

The earliest account in Mark has a late evening arrest, a middle of the night trial, a condemnation very early in the morning and execution under way by 9.00 a.m. - a process mainly accomplished through the night, perhaps taking less than twelve hours from start to finish.

My sermons at the moment are mainly focussed on this as the clarifying context of the classic texts we are encountering Sundaymeal. 

From Mark 10.32 onwards the crowd are fearful as Jesus strides out ahead towards Jerusalem.  Knowing this gives an urgency and an edge to his repeatedly asking ‘What would you like me to do for you?’, which I dwelt on his doing once each in the Gospel readings for the last two Sundays.  

And I just wonder, for this Sunday, whether the teacher of the law’s question which we now move onto at 12.28 (‘Which is the most important commandment?’) is not laid out as a proposition for Bible Study but rather as a puzzled plea for insight into what can be held onto in a temple in which the tables were turned over the day before and with the Roman authorities about to move decisively.

The answer?  No time for more than the smallest portions.  The iron rations.  Love God with all you are - urged on us even when he is about to cry out that he feels godforsaken.  Love your neighbour as yourself - urged on us even as those closest to him are about to betray.

Whatever they throw at him, at us: God wholeheartedly; neighbour as if he were me.  Godmeal, neighbourmeal.  Enough.  All.