Sunday, 20 May 2018

A Levelled Churchyard

If you can, imagine the scene as you pull into St Pancras Station, on the East Midlands tracks which run past - on the right - St Pancras Churchyard. The Churchyard that Hardy was partly responsible for flattening, and tidying up the gravestones of, as part of the work to create the station. Just a few gravestone are scattered around. Although these are the posh people's. Mary Wollestonecraft, for instance, has a monument here. Although in fact Mary herself isn't here. She's in Bournemouth. Her grandson moved her remains 60 years later.  But mostly, it's a flattened, mown-grass, tidy little patch.

The tidiness of Old St Pancras Churchyard

And now you've got that in your mind I'd like to introduce you, if I have not done so before, to the poem "The Levelled Churchyard" by Thomas Hardy.

"O passenger, pray list and catch
Our sighs and piteous groans,
Half stifled in this jumbled patch
Of wrenched memorial stones! 
"We late-lamented, resting here,
Are mixed to human jam,
And each to each exclaims in fear,
'I know not which I am!' 
"The wicked people have annexed
The verses on the good;
A roaring drunkard sports the text
Teetotal Tommy should! 
"Where we are huddled none can trace,
And if our names remain,
They pave some path or porch or place
Where we have never lain! 
"There's not a modest maiden elf
But dreads the final Trumpet,
Lest half of her should rise herself,
And half some local strumpet! 
"From restorations of Thy fane,
From smoothings of Thy sward,
From zealous Churchmen's pick and plane
Deliver us O Lord! Amen!" 
The levelled churchyard is tidy. It's well-kept. It's low maintenance. It's a place where the dead have been erased for convenience and easy management. It'safe. It's sanitised. It's dead.
Lots of gravestones arranged "tidily" in a circle round an ash tree
"The Hardy Tree"

The River Fleet used to flow through Old St Pancras churchyard. But it got smelly. And it used to flood when there were storms on Hampstead Heath. So they stuck it in a pipe. Nice and tidy.

The levelled churchyard for me is an analogy of where a church ends up, if its aim is the convenience and safety of its members. Nothing new, nothing unexpected, no unsafe gravestones toppling over, no trip hazards. But no unexpected wild flowers in a corner. No long grass where wildlife can hide. No change, no movement, no spirit, no adventure.

The young Church could have settled for a quiet, happy life. Jesus is alive. Isn't that great. Jesus goes back to heaven. Well, let's stay in the Upper Room, quietly praying. We're a disciple short. Let's get the committee structure right - and they elect Matthias. No need to do anything. Did Jesus say something about preaching the Gospel to the nations? Yeah. But that's a bit ambitious. Let's have another pray.

Then on the Day of Pentecost. 50 days after Passover. 50 days after Easter Sunday. They're quietly having their morning meeting. And fire falls from heaven and a rushing wind fills the room and they're blown out into the streets to praise God. And they're finding new languages to praise God - and as the commotion grows the people of the streets rush round and find that they're hearing God praised in their own languages.

And Peter stands up and tells them that this is because Jesus - who was dead - is alive. And these are the end times. Pentecost is the beginning of the end. And nothing is going to be the same again.

And the Church now will have all sorts of problems to deal with. Samaritans believing in Jesus. Gentiles being filled with the Holy Spirit. Persecution. Opposition. Martyrdom.

It ain't tidy. But it's where God is.

We can light our tea lights. Make a quiet space. Let people feel comfortable.

But the disciples had to come out of the Upper Room. Had to give up the safety of those closed doors. Had to share their experience of a Living Christ, fired into them by the Holy Spirit.

You know, all the images we use for the Holy Spirit involve movement. Water - flowing water, or springing up out of the ground. Rushing wind. Fire. You can listen to the still small voice of the Spirit - like Elijah did - but you'll still end up being pushed out to confront the world, to make plans, to go where the Spirit leads you.

Three English people - three different ways the Spirit worked.....

On this most royal of weekends, I was thinking about St Thomas Beckett. The King's side-kick, Chancellor of England, a great administrator. Henry II made him Archbishop of Canterbury, thinking that he'd have his own man keeping the Church in line. Instead Thomas seems to have had some kind of a conversion - saw the seriousness of his spiritual role - stood up for the Church and wouldn't let the King dip into the Church's money to fund his wars. Sure, Beckett had no diplomacy. He probably caused the crisis that led to his martyrdom. But when he took his faith seriously, he found a depth and meaning that went past the safety of being the King's man.

John Wesley - a good, safe Anglican. MA of Oxford University. But he couldn't rest in his family's clerical comfort. He looked for more. Found his heart "strangely warmed" by the story of salvation and turned the religious life of England upside down.

Christina Rossetti - quiet, posh, restrained, apparently a bit scared of the idea of marriage. And yet God gave her the ability to write for me the greatest, most theological of all Christmas carols, "In the Bleak Midwinter." Within a quiet, constrained life, then through terrible financial difficulties, yet through the Anglo Catholic tradition the Spirit gave her mind the restless power to produce so much beauty. The Spirit blows into all our ways.

As long as the Church is open to the Spirit we'll need new languages to tell out God's glory. New ways to know God's love. New excitement that Jesus is alive. It can be scary, messy, challenging. But it's the only reason why the Church exists - to be filled with the Spirit, and faithful to Christ.

Want to support this blog?
Want a good laugh? Want to laugh at the church? Want to be secretly suspicious that the author has been sitting in your church committee meetings taking notes? Then Writes of the Church: Gripes and grumbles of people in the pews is probably the book for you.

From Amazon, Sarum Bookshop, The Bible Readers Fellowship and other good Christian bookshops. An excellent book for your churchgoing friends, relatives or vicar. By the creator of the Beaker Folk.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Quentin Letts Himself Down

I know of an Anglican priest who worked in a school as an RE teacher.  He taught children aged broadly 11-13. And he used to beat them up.

When they misbehaved. Not all the time. But children that age do misbehave. And if they know the teacher is actually incapable of controlling a class, and they might send him over the edge, they'll go for it.

He bashed someone's head on the desk while holding their hair. He pushed people's arms behind their back. And everybody knew about him. Everybody knew he was a danger to the children.

He taught there for about three years, before he had to leave.

After all, he was a teacher. And a priest. Highly respected, both those professions in those days. Who'd believe a snotty twelve-year-old with a patch of hair missing over a priest who was a teacher?

Which is why Quentin Letts really shouldn't have, should he?

Tried to be funny about child protection, I mean. In an article in the Mail.

Obviously, the headline is already wrong. Not all church volunteers are obliged to take an abuse prevention course. Certain are. Those who work with children and vulnerable adults. Clergy. Other people in a position of responsibility. Quentin Letts is apparently a "deputy churchwarden". I'm not sure if that's an official post in the C of E, But presumably it comes with the sort of responsibility where children and vulnerable adults may be involved. So safeguarding training seems reasonable.

Quentin Letts lives in Herefordshire, I presume. So I imagine he went to the Hereford Diocese training, which means his making the trainer anonymous is a bit pointless. He tells us that she is a former police officer - as if, in the eyes of the Mail, that could be a bad thing. (Where has the Mail sunk to?) He tells us that the training lasts 4 hours. Most diocesan websites say it's between 2.5 and 3 hours. You can be the judge of who's right there. Maybe the 4 hours included 90 minutes of Quentin Letts telling everyone what a waste of time it all is. I don't know. I wasn't there. Just guessing.

Incidentally, judging by the picture in the article, Quentin Letts attended his training in Wells Cathedral. That's a heck of a schlep from Herefordshire. Maybe that's why he was so grumpy.

Not a small church in Herefordshire
Apparently what was outrageous was that "Wendy" told them that they should be alert to the signs of abuse in their community. I'm not sure what is so wrong with that. Quentin Letts thinks that noticing a child turning up with signs of bruising, and considering it might be best to point this out to the authorities if it looks like a pattern of abuse, is akin to what the Stasi did.  Looking out for other people, protecting the vulnerable - isn't that the sort of healthy community self-protection that the Daily Mail would be in favour of? Each looking out for the other. And informing the police of any criminal behaviour might be going on. Best of good old Britain, I would say. Wouldn't the Mail?  Use it for any  other alleged or suspected crime  and see if it works - "I was running a  crack den and someone called the police. Is this 1984?"

Quentin is next outraged about the idea that an organisation that potentially has children visiting it, should adopt a safeguarding strategy. In fact, might even go so far as to pin up the "small print" on the church notice board.

Frankly, stuff the small print. Make the cover of the safeguarding strategy bright fluorescent green, with the title in 6" pink letters, and put that up on the notice board. It sends a simple message - we take the welfare of our children seriously, and if they are in this building they are protected and watched. You may be able by doing so to inform the parishioners of their responsibilities. You may even make a potential offender go away. They'll go somewhere else, sure. But hopefully that somewhere else is equally robust. I know which parish Quentin Letts has advertised as being not too bothered, however.

The centre of Quentin Letts's sheer wrongness, in my opinion, can be summed up in this statement:
"But others, in the politest way, started to bridle. The Austrian countess told me afterwards, rather perplexed: ‘I thought the English believed in minding their own business.’"
So listen. There are abusers in the Church, as there are in all walks of life. The Church, because it often has children associated with quires; uniformed organisations; as servers; in Sunday Club, is attractive to some abusers. So are other organisations that serve or involve children - sports clubs, schools, the Social Services. In the past all of these organisations, including the Church, have let children down. Some of this has been the misguided putting of the organisation above people. "You can't investigate that - it will give the Church a bad name." Well guess what. Not acting has given the Church a worse one.

But Quentin Letts cleverly links two ways to protect offenders into that little central whingette. The first is his (repeated) identification of one of his fellow delegates as an "Austrian Countess". The Austrians are by and large very nice people. But "Countess". Why is this important to Quentin? Because it suggests she is beyond reproach. A member of the aristocracy. And not one of those nasty British Lords who keep making the Government think about Brexit. A faded aristocracy from a republic. A well-meaning person who maintains noblesse oblige, or whatever that is in German. Why should such a genteel person be soiling her noble mind with such thoughts of vile behaviour? The sort of vile behaviour that could not imaginably happen, apparently, in the rolling acres of the rural backwaters of this green and pleasant land?

Well that's why assorted vicars and quire masters and other offenders have got away with it, isn't it? The "Father Knows Best" routine - also practised by evangelical church leaders in parts of the world. The vast vast majority of church leaders are of course innocent. But the ones who got away with it did it by assuming the mantle of holiness. "Old Fr Bernard? He could never do that. He's so nice and always talks to Nan about the War.  I couldn't believe it of him."

And then the classic old Mail "The English are the best" trope. "I thought the English believed in minding their own business."

Yes they often did. And that was the bloody problem, wasn't it? When Jimmy Savile's caravan was rocking with his latest teenage victim inside it - people minded their own business. When Rotherham schoolgirls were claiming rape, people minded their own business. When the NHS, the NSPCC and local churches noted signs of abuse in Victoria Climbié, they minded their own business.

 When "Wendy" tells them all that she believes no-one, as an ex-copper she's in about the right place. If someone comes to say they are being abused or suspect abuse, take it seriously. Report it. It's not your job to judge right or wrong. Not unless Quentin Letts is on the PCC with an Austrian countess, a centenarian, and Miss Marple. When someone tells you they definitely didn't do it, or when someone else tells you someone else isn't that kind of person - don't believe them. Again, it's not your job to believe them. It's not your job to investigate.

To summarise - using another paragraph from Quentin Letts:
"I know several PCC members in our diocese, including a churchwarden who is a pillar of the county, who intend to quit rather than succumb to any safeguarding course."
A "pillar of the county". Like Jimmy Savile, Rolf Harris and Stuart Hall were pillars of the BBC. Like Bishop Peter Ball was a pillar of the church. Being a pillar of anything is irrelevant if you're innocent - which most pillars are. But if you're not, being a pillar of something is an opportunity. A chance to use your power against somebody who won't be be believed because they're that famously "loose" girl, that trouble-making boy, that child of a single mum, that person with special needs who could be making it up.

Why would you quit rather than succumb to a safeguarding course? Because you're too good? Because your pillarness of the county makes you immune to suspicion? Then your threat to quit is a symptom of the problem. Not a heroic reaction to oppression.

Full marks, really. Quentin Letts has written one of the worst, smuggest, most ignorant, wrongest columns I have ever read.

Oh, and never use the term "kiddy-fiddling". It makes the crime sound so much less important that "child sexual abuse", don't you think?

Oh and yes, Quentin Letts. You want an Archbishop to promote Christian values? I'd go right back to Jesus. He liked kids. And he wanted them protected. What do you want, exactly?

Want to support this blog?
Want a good laugh? Want to laugh at the church? Want to be secretly suspicious that the author has been sitting in your church committee meetings taking notes? Then Writes of the Church: Gripes and grumbles of people in the pews is probably the book for you.

From Amazon, Sarum Bookshop, The Bible Readers Fellowship and other good Christian bookshops. An excellent book for your churchgoing friends, relatives or vicar. By the creator of the Beaker Folk.

Friday, 18 May 2018

Scare Your New Curate with "Writes of the Church"

As we near Petertide, you may be wondering what to buy as an ordination present for that soon-to-be-Curate or about-to-be-priest in your life.

You could buy them a wonderful serious book on their future ministry. But then they've had 2 or 3 years being serious. Or you could get them a Bible. But then who doesn't?

Alternatively, you could decide to get them a book to scare the wits out of them. In which case what you really want is "Writes of the Church" - a book to tell them what it's really all about.

If you don't like to support "The Man", can I recommend purchasing from The Bible Reading Fellowship shop. On the other hand, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that you can get a copy at a very competitive prize from Amazon at the moment.

You may think that this was a bit late, and you should have got them the book ready for their BAP. And you may well be right. But still. Better late than never!

Anyway, thanks for this. And it'll go back to an advert at the bottom of the posts again.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

A Traditional Wedding

The BBC, as is its way, has shared with us somebody's explanation of why she walked herself down the aisle at her wedding.  Which is an improvement, to be fair, on the Guardian. Which would have had an article from somebody who would have walked herself down the aisle, only the men she meets on Tinder are for some reason only interested in sex and not marriage and anyway marriage is such a patriarchal thing yah. 

So I'm wondering about the whole "traditional" marriage concept in the article, where women are walked down the aisle by their fathers to be given away - as a form of property - to their new owner.

Now, I'm not likely to be a blushing bride. Not at my age. And there's no chance of Young Keith's dad ever making an honest woman of me. Not if he ate those olives I sent him. And no chance of my dad walking me down the aisle. Not after that incident with the hay bailer. But still.  Traditional? 

So the original BCP (1549) has the following: 

Then shall the Minister say,
Who geveth this woman to be maried to this man?
And the minister receiving the woman at her father or frendes handes: shall cause the man to take the woman by the right hande, and so either to geve their trouth to other:

I have no idea what a trouth is. But it's good to know they both give the other one. But that's 1549. And already there the minister can receive the woman at her father or frendes handes. It doesn't have to be Dad. Even then. OK, so there's a good chance that Dad would be dead of plague, or burned for heresy, or something. So Dad's was more optional than you'd think. 

So go ahead. Walk yourself down the aisle. Take your dad, your mum, your springer spaniel, your pet Dalek or your favourite chair. It doesn't matter. The C of E has never said it has to be your dad giving you away, and since Common Worship the vicar doesn't even have to ask that question. "Traditional"? There's no such thing. Be yourself. But don't kid yourself you're radical. 

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Michael Gove - The Thinking Tory's Idiot

You can't beat Michael Gove's self-importance or lack of awareness.

He's told the Tories that it's no good harking back to the golden days of the 80s if they want to appeal to the young. Margaret Thatcher is no role model for those who want a gentler, kinder, less profit-centered kind of Tory.

I'm mapping back to when I was 20, in the 80s. The 80s are thirty or so years ago now. So the equivalent would have been Norman Fowler, lets say, telling us the Tories shouldn't hark back to Anthony Eden.

Even to say that is ridiculous, of course. The Tory grandees of the 50s were mediocrities and failures. Unfit even to buckle Thatcher's slingbacks.

And now the generational cycle of history turns. And Margaret Thatcher is in the distance past while Gove, as he poses in the mirror in the morning, imagines himself the new, kinder, consensual Tory.

You know what Margaret Thatcher did? She was tough with Europe, but believed in it.  She was a driver for the single market. She wasn't some chancing mediocrity become, against all possible logic, a cabinet minister, with the charisma of a breeze block. She was somebody who knew that cooperation and easy trade, with our nearest neighbours, was the  best bet for all concerned. She was,  unlike the current shower of flag -wavers and incompetents, pro-business.  Not in a "freedom to poison  your  workforce"  way, like Jacob Rees-Mogg. In a "let's make business easier" way.

 You  know what  young people want? They   want to enjoy all the benefits  of being part of the EU  that their grandparents did. Before a bunch of  people  whose touchstone in history  is a war almost nobody can remember,  took it away.

If Michael  Gove   wants to get down with the kids, he should  remember Maggie. Maggie knows best.

Want to support this blog?
Want a good laugh? Want to laugh at the church? Want to be secretly suspicious that the author has been sitting in your church committee meetings taking notes? Then Writes of the Church: Gripes and grumbles of people in the pews is probably the book for you.

From Amazon, Sarum Bookshop, The Bible Readers Fellowship and other good Christian bookshops. An excellent book for your churchgoing friends, relatives or vicar. By the creator of the Beaker Folk.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Gammon and (Br)eggs(it)

It has been suggested that calling angry white older people "gammons" is racial abuse.

Now obviously you can have a serious political debate without insulting people and comparing them to tasty cuts of cured meat. In fact it's much better to. But if you are calling someone "gammon" it's not the world's worst slur. I mean. You could do something much rasher.

Much rasher. Never mind.

But maybe you are an older white person who has suffered as a result of being called "gammon"?  Are you worried that your pride in the superiority of the English boiled sweet or bicycle has caused others to discriminate against you?

Then you need our "gammon embitteredness test".

1. Has the Government deported you or anyone like you for being of pink complexion and having a raised blood pressure?

2. Do grumpy men who want to bring back National Service suffer a higher rate of stop and search?

3. If your name is Geoff, are you less likely to get a job interview than if your name is Shahid?

4. If you got a major job in local government, would trolls claim you were using your position to help fellow nominal Christians evade the law?

5. Did thinking that Alf Garnett was one of the 20th Century's leading intellectuals and not a fictional character ever prevent you from being considered for promotion? Well it should have. But I digress.

6. Are you working as a despatch operative in a warehouse in Peterborough despite having been a trained engineer in your native Spalding?

If the answers to questions 1 to 6 are "no", then stop crying. Snowflake.

An Hairy Man

Good news. We've managed to resolve the issue with the drains and all the plumbing should now be working fine.

Bad news. Hnaef had been shaving his chest ready for the sun.

I apologise for telling you this.

Monday, 14 May 2018

Tebbs and Ipps - Norman Gets on His Bike Again

Norman Tebbit makes the Mail by telling us he's not attending worship at St Edmundsbury Cathedral because the Dean is a "Sodomite".

An ancient institution whose central tenets nobody believes in, that has no young members though it tries to act "hip" sometimes but is always embarrassing, the Conservative Party has had Norman Tebbit in its ranks for over 60 years.

Nigel Farage said he wouldn't be surprised if the head of the cathedral staff were a Sodomite. Thousands of immigrants try to get into this country every year and it's time we controlled our borders.

Meanwhile the Mail Online readers congratulate Tebbit on his believing what the Bible says. Well, what does the Bible say about Sodom?

Genesis 19 tells us that Sodom was destroyed because it was a hostile environment for visiting foreigners. While Ezekiel 16 says that the sin of Sodom was to be  arrogant and unconcerned for the poor and needy.

Avoid Sodomites? I'm amazed Norman Tebbit's not calling for a Free Trade Agreement after Brexit.

Want to support this blog?
Want a good laugh? Want to laugh at the church? Want to be secretly suspicious that the author has been sitting in your church committee meetings taking notes? Then Writes of the Church: Gripes and grumbles of people in the pews is probably the book for you.

From Amazon, Sarum Bookshop, The Bible Readers Fellowship and other good Christian bookshops. An excellent book for your churchgoing friends, relatives or vicar. By the creator of the Beaker Folk.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Ascension Day

As happens every Ascension Day, I see Major James has forgotten they don't do the climbing on the roof in Tremlett any more.

It's one of those major rituals of Ascension Day. The complaint that people don't go up on the roof any more. This always seems to me to fall into two categories:
1. Nobody goes to the Ascension Day service any more because they have to go to work.
2. Except the sort of people that are best encouraged not to climb onto church roofs.

The Ascension: Hans Feibusch
Ascension Day seems to be the forgotten major feast. This is probably down to it not being a secular holiday, and being on a Thursday. I know the Catholics sometimes like to experiment with moving to the weekend. But, like transferring the Annunciation out of Holy Week, this always seems wrong to me. There's a sense in divine chronology. It was on that day - none other - the 40th days of Easter that Jesus ascended. Those 40 days matter. That's 40 days of the risen Jesus with his disciples, walking this world as a new kind of human - like us but raised beyond death. One day for each day in the Wilderness after his baptism. One day for each year that the Children of Israel wandered. 40 days of completeness.

You know the problem I have with most depictions of the Ascension? They're all a bit airy-fairy. There's a certain naffness to them. I think especially of the Chapel of the Ascension at Walsingham, where the soles of our Lord's feet are disappearing into the cloud in the chapel ceiling. It's really hard to do an image of Jesus floating off into heaven with clouds and angels, without it getting a bit that way. Which is why I like this image so much. It has echoes of those Resurrection paintings where the guards are asleep and everyone's a bit confused. There's noise and movement and in the middle of it, an Ascension happening.

The Ascension is enormously important. It's the next stage in the story of restoration and renewal. God has become that tiniest thing, a newly-conceived human. God has known our double agony - birth and death. Forgiveness, atonement, unity of God with humanity - however you want to put it, our salvation has been achieved.This one human body has defeated death. And is fit to enter heaven. Forget the idea that the body, the world is evil and to be ignored. Forget the idea that you are to be saved "from" the earth. Heaven has opened and taken in a living human being. One with a body just like ours, and bearing our scars.

Now there's a time for waiting, till the Spirit is poured out. We will be renewed. We will be made like him.