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Wednesday, 31 October 2012

A Break with Samhain Tradition

There's nothing like a well-celebrated Samhain. Especially the chickens in the Wicker Man. I hasten to add, to calm the most mimsy of hearts, that these had been purchased, frozen, from Waitrose. And, to calm the most Health and Safety-minded of hearts, we defrosted them before cooking. There's nothing quite flame-grills a chicken like being placed within the torso of a Wicker Man.

Still, I have to ask myself - just how traditional was it? In particular, I'm pretty sure the Ancient Beaker Folk didn't know about peri-peri sauce.

Dressing up for Halloween

And so we enter that time of year when the Beaker People agonise over what to do about Halloween. I don't know why they bother. The ritual for Samhain is exactly the same this year as it is every year, ever since the Great Liturgy was defined by Archdruid Arabica in 579BC, before the coming of the Red Haired Invaders. Simply put, we stand around the Wicker Person praying that light will one day come back to the land, while looking forward to the taste of the wicker-roast chicken and baked potatoes that we will fish out of the embers while trying not to get pin-hole burns in our Hi-viz.

But still they worry about whether the now-traditional Halloween rituals in this country are an incitement to children to dabble in the occult. And on the whole, without any serious statistical analysis available, I have to say I doubt it.

Let's consider the traditional Halloween costumes. A witch, for example. Said witch, in pointy black hat with evil ugly face, is pretty well an invention of the early modern era, when in a time of mutual distrust between Protestants and Catholics, everybody decided they needed someone else to blame. So they picked old ladies and other odd people. The genuine old English beliefs in Evil Eye (being "overlooked") and the insertion of pins in "poppets" - not a voodoo spell at all - don't feature that much in Halloween.

Then there's the red-clothed devils. Again, a post-Biblical invention. Middle Ages this time. Why do evangelical Christians insist on scare-mongering on the basis of a Catholic creation? Let's face it, if the Dark One really did appear, looking like Pan in a Man Utd replica strip, nobody would go near him. That's why he doesn't - instead sneaking up, whispering in your ear, making cunning suggestions, coming in the guise of things that are attractive, not repulsive. He's evil but he's not an idiot.

And then the skeletons and ghosts - maybe confused echoes of the association with All Souls' and its Catholic manifestations in particular. But again, nobody expects to be able to summon up dancing skeletons. Nobody confuses these silly outfits with anyone doing serious spirit-summoning. There are programmes on the telly that worry me, and mediums that worry me - but the mediums more than  the ghost-watches, as they  peddle a message of no judgement, no moral responsibility - and an eternity like a front-room in Morecambe on a rainy day.

If we really wanted to send people out to be scary, maybe we'd be looking at costumes representing the things that have really brought some evil into the world, or allowed it to flourish. How about the EU bio-fuel subsidy, which wastes energy and reduces food production so we can put inefficiently-produced diesel in our vans? How about the kind of commodity trading that thrives on food shortages as it pushes prices up? What about the kind of systems that fail those who should be protected - the organisational failures in social services, letting girls be exploited because the organisations are worried about being accused of racism, or because they're star-struck, or they just don't care about the children?

But to be fair, if we sent people out dressed as commodities speculators, bio-fuel technologists and failed social services and police chiefs, we really would terrify the neighbours. Perhaps we'll just stick to the pumpkins.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...

Star Wars


Episode VII

The Disney Take Over

It was a time of civil war. Angry droids swarmed the skies, searching for the Lion King, who had ordered the destruction of the Death Star.

101 Dalmatians have been unleashed against the Jedi Knights. The Force has been felt, and these are not the dwarves you're looking for.

When you wish upon a star, makes no difference where you are - when you wish upon a star, your dreams turn into a hideous nightmare where the Sith warp the Force to compel Bambi's mum to run onto crossbow bolts.  Where are the clones? There ought to be clones. Send in the clones.

Across the sub-ether radio waves of the Federation, it is revealed that I fell in love with a starship trooper.

While a million voices cry out in terror:


There is just one moon and one golden sun 
And a Hutt means terror for everyone. 
Though the X-wings we shoot 
And the Ewoks are cute 
It's a small small world. 

A Safe Jerusalem

Burton has been watching events unfolding in New York with increasing concern. Not for the poor souls struggling in the cold and wet, but for us.

It is folly, says Burton, to build a large city where its underground can be flooded. There must be a better way. Not for the New Yorkers, but for the Beaker Folk. We must find, says Burton, a safe place. Somewhere that is a long way from the sea, a safe distance from nuclear power installations and not too close to airports. A place that is seismically inactive, and a long way from volcanos.

Furthermore, says Burton, the safe place will have large towns nearby - for supply - but not actually be in a large town - in case rioting breaks out. There should be a supply of water - but it must not be on a river flood plain. Indeed, the soil should ideally be a free-draining, light sandstone. Transport links must be good - but we should not be right next to a motorway junction or a railway station, lest we suffer in some crash.

In this haven of health and safety, says Burton, we shall build a new Jerusalem!

I've pointed out to Burton that he's just pretty well described Husborne Crawley. Which is as safe as they come, as long as you rule out the marginal risk of rampaging lions and wolves from the Safari Park, should the End of Civilisation break out. Should we build a new Jerusalem here? I asked him. Because if so it's a bit dull.

And isn't that the problem? The big cities of the world are built in dangerous places. This isn't because their inhabitants are inveterate thrill-seekers. Rather it's because next to the sea is where to put a city if you want to move goods in and out. People live at the feet of volcanos because the soil's good.

Maybe it comes down to being made in the image of One whose great creative activity created a universe of brightness and brilliance, and yet of great dangers. The carbon of our bodies was forged in the heart of now-long-dead stars, and the seeds of life themselves are fed into our world throught the cataclysms of volcanic and seismic action. All human activity has risk attached, and the greater the activity, generally, the greater risk. You can't go putting yellow tape around entire villages to keep the danger out.

I would have pointed this out to Burton. But he has gone out. I'm told he's putting yellow tape around the village. When he comes back I'm gonna force him to light a tea light for the people of the eastern seaboard and Haiti.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Total Internet Deprivation

They're starting to scream now. That was bound to happen. Once they realised the existential horror of their plight, they were bound to start screaming.

But I never made them sign up for the Total Internet Deprivation retreat. Oh no. It was a totally voluntary agreement.

You see, the concept of "retreat" has become blurred in the Community lately. The idea of "retreat" was about getting away from all external stimuli. Shaking loose all social ties. Withdrawing from mundane and quotidian considerations. Freeing oneself up to be and be known.

Yeah, well. That was then. The mobile phone was the first crack in the edifice, of course. Suddenly you were able to ask God to hang 5, while you checked on Gertie's bunions, the results of the Church Committee elections, the progress of the new marketing material in selling the new range of tea bags and so on. At most retreat centres that just involved popping outside, although I believe inmates at Launde Abbey had to indulge in a certain of moutaineering to achieve this.

And then along came the Smartphone, and smashed the whole "alone with God" concept to pieces. I mean, who's not going to have a quick peek? I bet even old Simeon Stylites, armed with a smartphone and a wireless connection, would have been checking out the timeline of St Ephraim the Syrian and throwing a cow at Augustine, just in case anything had been going on in the last fifteen years. In fact, Simeon would've probably been in pole position for 3G - what with being positioned, as it were, on a pole.

And so we introduced the Internet-free retreat. Three days in the South Wing. Of course, they all think "one little android's not going to do any harm." And they think they've evaded our security screening when they are presented with the same level of rigour as Belgian customs - just a bloke saying, "Got any phones?"

But that's because we know the heart of a retreat isn't the giving up of material objects. It's the electronic white-noise generator that blocks all phone signals. And the way you can't get out of the building. And the way we "accidentally" wired those ethernet connections to the mains.

They go through what we call "The long dark dead-spot of the soul" for about three days. After which we let them out. And the minute they're out, they're straight onto Twitter and Facebook telling all their mates how terrible it was.

Of course, that's still two days away. They're at the screaming point now. From there they will try throwing the furniture through the windows, and discover the glass is unbreakable. Then, if we're lucky and cannibalism doesn't set in, just after they stop dragging their fingernails down the doors, they may get 10 seconds of enlightenment.

Overall I'm not sure what spiritual good we're doing. But on the bright side, it pays quite well.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Geeky Methodist Hymn-book

Thanks to Burton for his kind donation of the Geeky Methoist Hymn Book.

It's actually exactly the same as the standard "Hymns and Psalms". Except that it's missing one hymn. "It is God who Holds the Nations in the Hollow of his Hand".

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Infected by the Daily Mail Virus?


It's not been a great day, on the whole.

It all started around lunchtime, when I accidentally came into contact with the Daily Mail. Now I'm not saying that anyone could catch a virus from the Daily Mail. But my immune system's been a bit low. I've been taking the Vitamin Cs and fish oil. but all this working too hard has worn me down. You can't be too careful, that's all I'm saying. You've got to be very careful when handling the Daily Mail. 12% of all UK inhabitants "could be suffering from Daily Mail Virus."

That's the first symptom, of course. Putting implausible claims in quotes to distance yourself just enough to avoid embarrassment if the claims are as complete a pile of foetid dingo's kidneys as they always appeared to be. Anyway, I wandered out for a walk round the village. Saw two men getting out of their car outside the White Horse. Clearly, in my opinion, going in to ask if they could arrange the reception for their gay marriage in there - after such things are legalised by David Cameron. They were driving a large old thing - Landrover Freelander or some such. Big enough to have - oh, three or four asylum seekers in the boot, I reckon. Especially if one is smuggling gay party drugs in from Holland, and stopping off near Calais at the special 5-star hotel in which the French put up Afghan drug-lords and terrorists, as long as they promise to cause no trouble until they get to England. And one of the men looked a bit foreign.

Naturally, I rushed into the pub, shouting out "Stop! You are betraying our country by allowing foreigners to arrange same-sex marriages so as to obtain residency. Are you sure he doesn't have distemper? "45% of foreigners have canine distemper," claims health expert."

There was a nasty silence. I thought, on the whole, it was best to leave them to their turbo-shandies, "shots" and other such deadly drinks, purchased out of their dole money, but paid for by the tax I work so hard to avoid*.

Walked back up School Lane and past the school. Obviously, it's half term, and the weekend. But I bet even though they're not there, and definitely not working (having enormous holidays as they do), the teachers were busy planning the additional dumbing-down of lessons. In a proper school, each day's curriculum would be three hours' Shakespeare, three hours' adding-up and a two-hour cross-country run - through the snow - to make men of the little blighters. Instead of which they're probably getting a few hours of Tolerance Cross-Training and some Bowdlerised nursery rhymes. IT MAKES ME MAD.

Obviously, on a Saturday afternoon in an English village, there should be a fete in the grounds of the Church. (I drop the accent on the first "e" as it is clearly an effeminate foreign innovation). But no, there was nobody at all in the churchyard. Another example of Health 'n' Safety GONE MAD. The vicar - in all probability a female liberal who is converting to Hinduism and living with a same-sex partner who has brought ash  tree fungus disease into the country -, has obviously stopped all fetes occurring in the graveyard until the gravestones have all been put back to perfectly straight lines, and each one surrounded by safety tape and a "Beware of Falling Gravestones" sign. She's probably locked up in the church now, pulling the pages containing "I vow to thee my country", "Jerusalem" and "Land of Hope and Glory" out of all the hymn books before having A BONFIRE OF PATRIOTISM.

Perfectly safe churchyard from which fetes are clearly banned


I noticed that I was getting over-excited. Several veins were throbbing in my forehead. Was I, perhaps, entering the third and terminal stage of Daily Mail Virus? I wasn't sure. The irony is, of course, that Daily Mail Virus makes you convinced you've got various illnesses - maybe including Daily Mail Virus itself. I knew I needed to settle down in my best reclining chair in the conservatory, and dab the old temples with Cologne.

"According to experts", 45% of the population could have Daily Mail Virus within the next ten years. Will the Government take action? Or is this country to be over-run by reactionary hypochondriacs, convinced that Islamic fundamentalists are sneaking into this country to spread homosexual equality and exotic diseases? Let some Christian couple ban me from their bed and breakfast on the grounds that I'm not married. I'll sue their bottoms off.

* Thanks, Erika

A Radical Structural Rethink

So to deal with the over-commitment on committees, I've decided that the problem is with the whole organisational structure. I mean, since I re-organised last time, I've had what's known as a "flat organisational structure". Which, on the bright side, keeps the assistants in their places. But on the down side it does tend to over-emphasise my position at the top of the tree. And it means that the Music group is a long way from discipline - and you know that's not a great idea.

Old-fashioned organisational hierarchy

So I figured what we needed was a more post-modern, less patriarchal (or even matriarchal) organisation. Something where everybody feels they have their place - and the whole subordination thing is removed. So in future, I'm going for the following, radically different organisational structure. I'm sure you'll agree it's a vast improvement.

Vastly-improved, post-modern organisation losing all that hierarchy business

Death by Committee

When I sacked the Druidic Council the other day (replacing them with themselves), I decided to ensure that things were going correctly in the various aspects of Beaker Life for which they are responsible. I thought I'd better take a more detailed interest, in other words, in the private empires of my direct report underlings.

It's not that I started chairing all the meetings, deciding all the agendas, deciding strategy. Oh no. That would be serious control-freakery. I see myself as being in more of a holding role. Basically I come along to all the meetings, see how things are going and then just gently correct things if I see they're going down the wrong lines. I'm the one with the overall vision for the Community in my head.  (I'd rather not write it down as it may not stand up to public scrutiny and I'd only have to resort to sulking and taking my ball home.) So it behoves me to ensure that all the streams of activity flow as one river.

Of course, this involves attending a lot of meetings. 48 at the last count, this week alone.

And then there's the pre-meeting meetings to ensure the group leaders know what the right form of grass-roots decision-making and individual inspiration is.

And the post-meeting debriefings, where we discuss just what the group leader allowed to go wrong this time, and the candidates for their replacement.

Frankly, I'm shattered.

I've found myself falling asleep in meetings. Sometimes, as Justin Hayward put it, in the gray of the morning, my mind becomes confused. Which is real life - the Committee or my dreams of fleeing romantically across the border into Buckinghamshire?  The subject-matter being discussed in the real world starts infusing my dream-world. At the Outreach, Mission, Fund-raising and Cake-Baking Committee meeting, I woke up and announced that we were going to have to convert the people of Woburn to Manicheism at the point of the sword. Rather worryingly, three people swore allegiance to me there and then, and went off to arm themselves. And then I proposed to the Worship and Godly Order Group that "smurfs are nice. We should have some robotic, life-size smurf acolytes". The smurfs are now on order.

At night, I'm not sleeping at all - just turning over in my mind all the things that have happened during the committee meetings of the day, and fretting that I've not got the time to do anything about it. I've formed a Committee for the Streamlining of Committees, but they've immediately decided to have five weekly sub-committees, and I'll have to attend those as well now.

Although there is one bright side. At least if I attend the Streamlining (Process) sub-committee, the Streamlining (Governance), Streamlining (Downsizing), Streamlining (Paperclips) and Streamlining (Strategy) sub-committees, I may get a bit more sleep.

Friday, 26 October 2012

It's better to be a Politician than a Scientist

I note that Silvio Berlusconi has been sentenced to four years, reduced to one (thanks to a law he passed), which he'll never serve (thanks to a law he'll pass).

Meanwhile the scientists who tried to predict earthquakes and failed, get six years

Which just goes to show. If you want to get on in life and stay out of pokey, don't be a scientist. Hire some stripping housewives, commit some serial fraud and just make sure you get to be Italian President. It's certainly what my old nan told me when I was young.

Sexist Man Complains About Ageism

'Nuff said. I'm sure the "Booby" is pleased he'll be around the house more.

Quick Welsh Orthodox Church Joke

It was kind of the Welsh Orthodox Church to invite me to their service today. A solemn and yet joyful occasion, the liturgy enhanced by the musical voices and the male voice choir.

Just one thing though. Why did all the people there have so many ears?

The Geek Winter Collection

Where there's a perceived need, there's someone making a few bob.

The weather having gone all Arctic (ie cool, which is "Arctic" in weatherperson language), Burton Dasset is dithering over what gloves to wear. Given that Burton is always wandering around the place trying to work out what's going down on Twitter, i'd suggested fingerless.gloves would be a good idea, so he can tweet in warmth.

But there's no fingers in fingerless gloves, as generations of schoolgirls have discovered. And so Burton has discovered the "touch-screen glove" collection. Now he can follow his five people on Twitter, check the railway timetables, and still remain with toasted fingies.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Nativity of Wellington from "The Perishers"

Wellington: Crumbs, Boot! It's Crispin's Day! Men abed in England will wish they'd never been born that they were not in Husborne Crawley on my birthday.

All: Oh? Is it your birthday, Wellington?

Wellington: Every day for the last week I've been hinting...

Maisie: Your birthday, Wellington? Well in that case I need to give a big kiss to..... Marlon.

Marlon: Oh cripes, Maisie. Do you have to do that?

Boot: Has it ever occurred to you little humans that we're just a British version of  Peanuts without the religious overtones? And I am merely a shaggy version of Snoopy without delusions of grandeur? I after all have no delusions of grandeur, having previously been a peer of the realm (oh, curse that gipsy wench!)

All: But Peanuts never had the crabs and the "Eyeballs in the Sky" - pure genius!

Boot: I don't see what the crabs had to do with it. And what are the Eyeballs in the Sky?

All: You don't know about the "Eyeballs"?

Boot: Of course not. Do you think I know everything?

All: Oh, the bitter irony. Cue the singing crabs.....

Crabs (to the tune of Lord of the Dance)

(Verse)
I'm seeing this lobster who I really can't resist.
My wife's very angry and she's told me to desist
There's only one thing that knows I'm living a lie
The all-seeing Eyeballs in the Sky

(Chorus)

Run then, and maybe hope to die
Hide from the Eyeballs in the Sky
They've seen your sins and they make you want to cry
For they are the Eyeballs in the Sky.

Verse 2

I saw my mate Ernie and he wan't very well
He's suffering from cold cos he hasn't got a shell.
It was me what stole it, and I fenced it to a dab.
Can't be much fun, being a hermit crab.

(Chorus)

(Verse 3)

We're bad crabs - we swear and we like to fight
And have illicit tumbles in the middle of the night.
We love doubles-entendres and we're rather sly
But we're scared of the Eyeballs in the Sky

Feast of SS Crispin and Crispinian

Archdruid: Today we celebrate St Crispin, and his lesser-known brother Crispinian. Patron saints of..... hang on, I've just forgotten.....

All: Cobblers?

Archdruid: No, it's true. It's on a piece of paper. I put in my purse......

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Quick Resistant Materials Joke

Bad news from the Woodwork Worship Workshop. The people who believe in rustic, unfinished, country-style woodcrafts have fallen out with the people who like sandpaper and creating a smooth finish. They've accused them of following the Wesleyan doctrine of perfection, and they want out.

So they've formed a splinter group.

Pouring on the Atmosphere

It's a solemn moment, that of the Filling up of Beakers.

In the half-light as the afterglow lingers over Milton Keynes, three saintly, shrouded men* move across the lawn slowly. They enter the Moot House and approach the Worship Focus. The Bearer of Beakers reaches out for the "Filling-up Beaker". Being the clumsy get that he is, he knocks assorted tea lights, doilies, scented chandlerware and a pyramid of apples all over the parquet floor.

Shoving everything roughly back on the table, they move to the Fountain of Sam Macey's. The Beaker Bearer dips the Filling-up Beaker into the well. The First and Second Plebs kneel and hold their (empty) beakers for filling.

The Beaker Bearer pours out the well-water into the empty beakers. Since Beaker tradition demands this is done from shoulder height, and since he has all the grace and accuracy of an Emile Heskey chip over a goalkeeper, the Plebs, the floor and most of the assembled Beaker People are drenched. The Dry Ice is enabled and the Laser-effect Lasers are switched on.

Second Pleb: I'm wet.

First Pleb: I've gone blind.

Second Pleb: Now I've gone blind.

First Pleb: Now I'm wet.

 This may go on for sometime, while the assembled Beaker Multitude grumble about their wet feet, the dark, the occasional searing agony of getting laser-light in your eye, and the fact that it's time for tea.

Archdruid: Now the Beakers are Filled. The loving goodness of the gentle night may pour out its beneficence on the Beakers we have blessed.

All: Does anyone know what this is all about?

All may exit in silence or, as local custom demands, whistling the Coldplay tune "Yellow".


* The word "men" here strictly refers to men. The masculine emphatically does not include the feminine. Not even old Lorna "Two Left Feet" Lovemoon. Even she causes less trouble than the blokes in the group.

Authentic Newgate Christianity

My old nan was an inveterate Cockney. I remember how hard my grandad had worked to find some cure - aversion therapy with jellied eels, exorcisms, week-long courses with upper-class Anglicans. They all failed, and to her dying day she'd still drink gin from a tea cup, without tonic.

One of my nan's expressions, on seeing my cherubic face when I had been, for example, burying my brother in the manure heap or bog-snorkelling, was "you're as black as Newgate's knocker." Which was, I suppose, black from the dirt of all the poor people banging on it. Or it was black-leaded or something. The past is indeed another country. They all smell funny there.

But these ramblings are really sparked by this BBC article on the Revd Cotton, Ordinary of Newgate in the early 19th century.  Cotton was quite an enthusiast - shouting about the pains of hell even after the felon bound was pushed off his ladder. We should remember that before the Victorians modernised hanging, introducing a nice long drop to break the villain's necks, they would just hang there until they choked to death. In the days of truly public hangings, friends would often grab and pull on the condemned people's legs, to try and throttle them quicker - a relative mercy.

Certainly a mercy compared to hanging there, gasping for breath and losing control of one's bodily functions, while Mr Cotton screamed at you that there was worse to come unless you repented.

It is to be presumed that Mr Cotton believed he was actually performing a good service to the condemned. This was, to be fair, the ultimate last-chance saloon (although hanging, being a bit inexact in those days, could occasionally be cured if you could get the hang-ee down and to a friendly doctor, dodging the vivisectionists on your way down Fleet Street). Mr Cotton could be read as that sign in the film Cat Balou - when Cat is about to be hanged - that says "Where will you spend eternity?" Which again is either terribly gloating, or a last desperate attempt to snatch a brand from a fire.

The alternative, of course, is that Cotton was what Blackadder referred to as a "gloater". Far from caring about the soul of the soon-to-be-departed, he was actually enjoying their fate - and the extended punishment that lay ahead of them. He was, after all, told off for frightening condemned men. Which is some achievement. Not everyone can lower the mood at an execution.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Turtles all the Way Down

Gurdur has a rather whimsical piece on why Harry Potter's dragon is not a real new species (it's a young version of another dinosaur) while the prehistoric turtle named after the author of the DiscWorld Novels is a kosher species.

Everybody knew that Psephophorus terrypratchetti was the real thing when they dug it up, of course. Not least because of the four specimens of Elephas Maximus Giganticus that were excavated above it.

Science on Trial

"'Science doesn't know everything' - well science knows it doesn't know everything. Otherwise it'd stop." - Dara O'Briain.

I've been drawn to this article on the Italian scientists who have been found guilty of manslaughter for giving misleading advice prior to the L'Aquila earthquake.

Six years in pokey, plus costs. That seems a bit steep for getting your scientific predictions wrong, unless there is any evidence that the scientists were deliberately wrong in their predictions. One would presume they were giving the best advice they could, based on the evidence. It's what the vast majority of scientists do, after all.

Obviously, this all depends upon the precise details of the judgement (which I've not seen, clearly) and a knowledge of Italian law. Don't have that either. But it strikes me that any young Italian considering a career in the sciences should steer well clear of seismology - and probably meteorology, to be on the safe side. And to any who already have those careers, my advice would be this. Whatever the situation - completely safe as far as you can tell, to hideously unstable with seismic plates sliding all over the place - just go on TV screaming "run for your lives." If you're wrong, people will laugh at you. Well so what? But if you're right, you won't have to go on trial later. This trial verdict may make some grieving relatives feel avenged. But it isn't going to make the people of Italy's volcano and earthquake zones any safer. It's just going to stop people making forecasts.

Let's face it, in this country if we were going to start banging people up whenever they made bad scientific predictions, the Met Office would be constantly ringed with coppers awaiting the next long-range forecast. And there would be people who'd only just be getting out after 25 years.....

Monday, 22 October 2012

Constructive Comments on a Sermon

It's the thing all preachers dread. You've poured your heart and soul into a sermon. You consulted the best authorities; dredged the Internet for jokes that might be vaguely relevant; sifted through "The Text This Week".

Then afterwards you stand out by the door. And it's not that you are fishing for compliments, or seeking to fill the gap in your neediness. Obviously not - but you'd like some comment - positive or negative - to guide you, or help you. Even a complaint would be nice. And then you hear "Nice sermon, Archdruid". Or some such neutral comment. And you almost think the offer to break your legs would be more useful.

I always divide my responses up into "positive", "negative" and "neutral". Generally speaking, it's the "neutral" I try to avoid. Anything else is a bonus. At least you know someone was awake.

PositiveNeutralNegative
"You have radically changed my life""Nice sermon, Archdruid.""As a representative of the local Lodge, I can assure you that you'll never get your car out of the village un-breathalysed again."
"I shall go from this place knowing that, insignificant as I may feel sometimes, I have a special place in the Creator's heart.""Can't stop for a cup of tea. The second-cousin-in-law is coming round for Sunday brunch.""When you said Psalm 9.... did you really mean Psalm 8?
"It has made me see the story of Cain and Able in a completely different light"."Never could understand vegetarianism.""I've just remembered how much I dislike my brother"
"I was challenged.""I was cold.""I was outraged."
"Good illustration from Assyrian family life.""Good day.""Good grief."
"In a certain way, your exposition of Hebrews reminds me of that of Donald Guthrie.""In a certain light, your profile reminds me of that of Woody Guthrie.""You've as much idea about theology as Danny Guthrie". 
"Revelation is such a difficult book to preach on, don't you think? But you made it come alive.""Red is such a difficult colour to preach in, don't you think? Made you look like a giant tomato.""Revelation is such a difficult book to preach on, don't you think? Don't do it again."
"You'll find your reward in heaven.""You'll find the exit over there.""You'll find a horse's head in your bed tonight."

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Enforcing the Gospel in a Modern Age

Like St Paul, I have suffered with vociferous women.

I confess - it was my own fault. A few weeks ago I asked a not-quite rhetorical question - "Do we think God is like a pedantic judge, constantly looking for the smallest faults?

The answer, of course, is "yes". The benefits of freedom will never be outweighed by the need to keep on the straight path - narrow, overgrown, and covered in brambles as it may be. But it turned out my little flock of Funambulist Baptists are not yet onto solid food - they still crave after milk. And so some shouted "Yes", some murmured "no" and one commented, "if he's like the Bedford Magistrates we're all in trouble.

Obviously it is right that we should debate these important things. After all, each comes with a word, a song or the ability to make instant coffee. It gave me the chance to put them right. But - and this is the key point - some of those shouting were women. And even more importantly - I have not been able to stop them joining in since.

And so when I asked, "What can separate us from the love of God?" a fortnight ago, most of the congregation responded, "Nothing!" But one shouted out "bondage". It turned out she meant the spiritual variety, but it still distracted attention from the rest of the sermon. It was only afterwards we discovered what she meant.

I have repeatedly stressed to the womenfolk that they should keep quiet, asking questions of the their husbands afterwards. But the shouting-out continues. And my heart grew downcast at the thought of simply expelling them from the congregation. For they are merely being enthusiastic - and some of these pushy women who think they know important things are big earners in the City. And the rent on the Bogwulf Chapel is like unto the mustard tree which groweth every day.

And so I have come up with a godly, disciplined, and yet effective solution. From now on the women are to sit on the left of the church, with the girls and younger children. Down the right, are the men and the older boys. Around the women's pews I have had constructed a sound-proof glass wall. And the sound from the rest of the chapel is broadcast in to them through speakers. It is true, the hymn-singing is only half as loud as it used to be. But godly order has been restored.

The Trumpet Major

On Trafalgar Day, we like to remember the Thomas Hardy book, The Trumpet Major. Just a minor place in his canon - very little in the way of pitiless Providence, no grinning Fate playing with his pawns in the same kind of way that, for example, Hardy himself does.

Nope, instead tales of young and middle-aged love, press-gangs, the other Thomas Hardy (of "Kiss me" fame), Trafalgar and later Napoleonic campaigns. Where greater love has no man than that he gives us his girlfriend for his brother, and goes off to idea on the battlefield. I recommend it. A story that tells us, while romantic love is great, it's not the only virtue in this world.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

"Is there Room for God?"

So asks the BBC  a propos a meeting between scientists and religious types.

Where would you find room for God? Finding room for God would imply that God only gets involved in the mysterious bits like the Big Bang or consciousness. That when there's nothing too interesting going on, God's not about. That God is more interested in Quantum Mechanics, say, or the first moments of the Universe, than in directing the traffic on the Westway. That's not a belief in God - that's not having the intellectual curiosity to want to push behind the latest known thing to the next unknown thing. I don't want to find a gap we can't fill. I want every gap to be filled and then the gaps that are left behind that. In him we live and move and have our being. We don't just fill the gaps in our life with him - however God-shaped.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning...
TS Eliot: "Little Gidding"

Litany of Vanity

Archdruid:  Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?  I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.

All: Didn't get nominated for Christian New Media again, Eileen?

Archdruid: If anyone wants me, they can forget it. The Archdruid is out.

Friday, 19 October 2012

The Train Commuter's Psalm

Oh Lord, how heavy are my eyelids,
how tedious the hour that stretches before me.

This train is seven minutes late
due to the inevitable signal problems.

And as a result it's packed to the gunwhales:
the inspector can't get through to inspect the tickets.

The bloke standing in the aisle has his elbow in my ear
And the stockbroker sitting next to me could lose a few pounds, frankly.

O Lord, how wonderful are the works of anti-perspirants
I wish this stockbroker knew of them also.

The youth opposite has earplugs that leak sound throughout the carriage
and even across the region formerly known as Network South-East.

I cannot rest my Tablet on the table
As I've spilt coffee all over it

And no-one offers me a napkin to mop it up
Not even one.

My body screams for sleep
My mind is in a half-world between wakefulness and dozing.

And so I am poured into the midsts of despair
And my heart dries up within me.

But you O Lord lift me up
and remind me there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Just sixty short minutes and I shall be breathing London air
And striding in the morning light to the office.

So help me get forty winks, I pray
And, should I sleep, keep me from dribbling on the stockbroker's shoulder.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

The Need to Believe

I'm pondering over the story of the young man who's been rejected for the Scouts because he doesn't believe in God.

It's a real irony, isn't it? If the definition of Church membership is baptism, you can be a member of the Church without believing in God - without, indeed, believing in anything at all. Somebody else can make your promises when you're little and that's it - you're in. But the Scouts - which I'm pretty sure isn't a kind of inner sanctum, like the Jesuits or the Knights Templar - that's another matter.

I can't help thinking the Scouts, as a kind of Church-lite organisation, are missing a trick here. The young man concerned seems just the kind of intelligent, earnest chap the Scouts should be looking out for - indeed, scouting for. And once inside, by the provision of suitable religious-based activities and occasional Church parades, there's a possibility his position might change.

Part of me wants to suggest that Scouts should be allowed to make just the parts of the Promise they agree with, and skip the rest. But on reflection, maybe there would be unforeseen circumstances. Sure, some republican, atheist Scouts would just say "I promise I will do my best." But in other walks of life, if the same principle were adopted, the Nicene Creed might become a Three Minutes' Silence in some Anglican churches. And the song "Trust and Obey", if we only sang what we agreed with, would be just those three words.

Maybe best left as it is.

(Thanks to @robinsons on The Twitter for the tip-off).

Climate Change Lunch

Looking forward to 1pm. I do so enjoy our Climate Change Lunches.

We recognise that attitudes to Climate Change are not binary. There are people in  total denial, sure. And then there are the people who prod the tarmac on the drive suspiciously every morning, convinced that it may have melted in the night. But there is a whole spectrum in between, from "there's still hope" through to "feels a bit parky to me." And then there's the people who go for the totally counter-intuitive, and believe a new Ice Age is coming.

At a Climate Change Lunch, we project a series of scary statistics on the wall. The Believers greet each slide with groans and wails - while the Deniers argue the time scale is wrong, the measurement stations are in the wrong place, the graph is upside down, it's all a giant plot to install Al Gore and Polly Toynbee as a New World Government etc etc.

We have a guest speaker to tell us how doomed we are, we say the Global Warming Prayer ("Dear God, help us all") and then have lunch.

The meal is always something special. Today, for instance, we've asparagus, mange-tout, baby corn and birds-eye chillis flown in from Asia, Africa and South-America to ensure their freshness. But don't worry about the air-miles - we've planted a rose-bush in the cottage garden to offset it.

Our dessert has no air-miles at all. No, the lychees and bananas were grown in our very own electrically-powered hot-houses. I've got some daylight bulbs from the local "specialist" garden suppliers as well. I hate the middle of winter when you can't get a fresh, locally-grown pineapple.

And then afterwards, we'll be driving down to Luton Airport in the 4x4 motorcade to wave goodbye to our guest preacher, as she flies back to the States. The whole thing's very expensive, but I reckon it's worth it to save the planet.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

St Etheldreda the Virgin

Hnaef in one of his Book of Common Prayer modes. He tells me that it's the Feast of St Etheldreda the Virgin.

Apparently she died c.678, and was translated in 695, 1106, 1252. That would be into Anglo-Saxon, Middle and Modern English, I guess?

Dear Religion...

The following tweet has been doing the rounds. I've no idea who the original came from, but here's one possible source:

"Dear Religion, This week I safely dropped a man from space while you shot a child in the head for wanting to go to school. Yours, Science."

In many ways, of course, the perfect tweet. Quite witty, very topical and fits in 140 characters.

A few thoughts strike me. One is that dragging poor Malala into this argument is a bit rotten.

Another is, of course, that it sets up one of those false dichotomies so beloved of fundies on both sides of every argument. Science or Religion? I have to choose? Who decided that? Was it the same person that decided that the use of a gun isn't "Science" but jumping out of the edge of space is? I was planning both to carry out X-ray crystallography on my cake, and eat it. As the great man said, I want it all and I want it now (and I do want to live forever, since you asked).*

Finally, if we're in a world of false dichotomies for satirical intent, we can all play that game. Can I suggest:

"Dear Science, while you whinged about your cut grants I dropped a man out of space for publicity. In your face! Love Corporate Sponsorship"

* Before anyone tells me there's no point in carrying out crystallography on a cake - I know. It's NMR for cakes. Crystallography for crackers.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Complementarian Inquisition

The scene: the Hnaefs' apartment. As told to me by Hnaef.

Hnaef: Nice day welding the rivets onto ocean-going liners, Daph?

Daphne: Not so bad, Hnaef. Some of the little beggars were a bit tricky, and I had to use quantum entanglement technology to get them into place. But then we had to work out a way of getting the boat out to sea.

Hnaef: Isn't that tricky? I don't know much about geography, but I'm sure it must be 10 or 11 miles from Husborne Crawley to the sea...

Daphne:  Rather more than that, Hnaef. I'd draw you a map if you could understand it. But the good news was that I whipped up a giant diffraction grating and used Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle to transmit the boat straight out to the coast off Lowestoft. But enough about my day. How's the knitting coming on?

Hnaef: I've finished the cardie for Little Hnaef #1, but then I had to break off before doing anything else, because Eileen's car wouldn't start. Thankfully I just had to change a plug lead and...

Daphne: Oh, Hnaef - you've been getting your hands oily? How are your nails?

Hnaef: Let's not worry about the nails. I am able to deal with minor car-related issues. I wasn't expecting a kind of Complementarian Inquisition....

Three men in badly-fitting cheap suits enter the room, followed by a woman with a tea-trolley.

Drayton Parslow (for it is he): NO BIDDY expects the Complementarian Inquisition!

Hnaef: Shouldn't that be "no body"?

Drayton: Probably. But I was just being gratuitously offensive. Our four chief weapons are fear, surprise, a slavish devotion to the writings of Mark Driscoll, and rigid literalism.

Daphne: Erm.. aren't you supposed to have five things in your list?

Drayton: No. One of our weapons is rigid literalism.

Hnaef: Fair enough. So what's the charge?

Drayton: That you have been doing WOMEN'S WORK!

Deacon Fang: Ooooh.

Elder Rodney: Aaah - women's work.

Mrs Doyle: So will you have a cup of tea?

Hnaef: I accept that it would normally be Daphne doing the motor mechanics...

Deacon Fang: Ooooh.

Hnaef: But I had just finished the cardie. And Eileen is such a numpty around cars. Last time her car wouldn't start it was all we could do to stop her laying hands on it. And I didn't want her hanging round the place all afternoon.

Drayton: It was the cardie that was women's work, not the car. As it says in the Good Book, "man that is born of a woman - thou shalt not knit, for that is work for those of soft hands."

Daphne: Where does it say that, then?

Drayton: Well, it definitely doesn't list welding and quantum mechanics in Proverbs 31.

Daphne: It wouldn't, would it? They hadn't invented one or discovered the other.

Drayton: I must consult with my cardinals. I mean, Elder and Deacon.

Mrs Doyle: Now, will you have a cup of tea?

Drayton: We have consulted. And we must ask one question. And that question is.... Was the knitting manly?

Hnaef: Well, it was knitting. You know. For Little Hnaef #1, who is a girl., after all.

Elder Rodney: So it was a pink cardigan? You have committed the sin of effeminate knitting?

Deacon Fang: Heretic! Heretic!

Hnaef: No. It was a camouflage cardie. Not that we approve of violence, but we wouldn't like to stereotype.

Drayton: Can we see the item, to ascertain its sufficiently manliness of construction?

Hnaef: Yes, it's here. We gave the cardie to Little Hnaef #1 this evening, along with one that Daphne made last week and also this one that my great-aunt Ruby knitted for her.

Drayton: You gave her three cardigans?

Daphne: Yes. You see, Aunt Ruby and I have always been very competitive. Whenever Hnaef does any knitting, we make the same items and we see which one the recipient thinks is best. It's just a bit of fun...

Drayton: And since your great-aunt is an old woman - I presume - naturally her knitwear is better?

Hnaef: Far from it. In fact Daphne won. You could say my wife's was prized above Ruby's...


Pastoral Ministry by Project Management

I believe it was Justin Lewis-Anthony in If you meet George Herbert - and if it wasn't it may have been Oscar Wilde or somebody else - who drew my attention to this idea. The contention is that local pastoral and worship-leading ministry is essentially endless, and uncontrollable. Which is why so many religious fellowship leaders get into building projects - where you have a deliverable, and a close.

People who are ill, for example. I know it's not their fault, but as their spiritual helper it would be handy if I had some way of managing the time they are ill for - frankly, if they let their illnesses just drag on there's no real closure for any of us.

Then take the word "cycle". It is often used as in "The Pastoral Cycle", "The 2 great liturgical cycles" or "there's that Revd Warnock, off for a cycle." For every funeral, there is a baptism. The great stretch of Sundays After Trinity give way, every year, to Christ the King and then Advent. Here in Husborne Crawley, as Imbolc ends we look to the Equinox. As spring greens in, Beltane succeeds Equinox, to be followed by Midsummer. Frankly, it never ends.

Whereas all the great Biblical stories are, fundamentally, accounts of great project management. Moses leading the People of Israel out to the Promised Land, for example. OK, it was 40 years over schedule, and they had to replace the Project Manager to "land" it. But the deliverables were clear. Mark's Gospel is a good example of a clear Project Brief being delivered. The Acts of the Apostles is about a project to take the Gospel from Jerusalem to Rome. And Solomon's Temple and its pilot, the Tabernacle? Speak for themselves.  The Epistles and the Law and Prophets, on this reading, can best be described as "Governance".

And so I am introducing "Pastoral Ministry by Project Management." All pastoral or worship-related tasks will be given a Project Brief, setting out roles, responsibilities and an indicative timescale.

Instead of just making each day's liturgy up as we go along, I will be aiming at four worship book "releases" per year. These will fit into the four Great Beaker Quarter Days. And worship book releases being late will of course mean we have no liturgy for a quarter - or at least until we catch up.

Anyone being ill will be added onto our "sickness backlog", and assigned a severity and a planned "well again" date. Instead of visitors, they will be given a "workstream leader", responsible to me for all illness-related deliverables, and a budget for anointing oil, tea lights and cloths for mopping brows. Anyone being ill past a 10% tolerance will have to write an exception report, and the Project Board will have to approve the extension of their Project. If the Board doesn't, they'll just have to stop being ill. I know people will say this is draconian, but the Government's been piloting this process and I reckon it's gonna work.

And just in case the illness stuff gets us down, I'm gonna be launching a new, "Agile", building project every six weeks. The first one being a new Doily Shed.

This is gonna be a new, less-fluffy, more-focussed Beaker Folk. I feel more engaged and fulfilled already.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Seeing Double

In retrospect, I got a bit over-excited about new growth this morning, in sacking the leadership team. So after I'd calmed down, I instead restructured the Druidic Executive and gave them radically new - and yet excitingly similar - responsibilities to their old ones. So instead of being responsible for "Godly Order and Discipline", Hnaef's new responsibilities now comprise "Discipline and Godly Order". While Burton's ambit has moved from "Finance, IT Security and Governance" to "Governance, Finance and IT Security."

Trouble is, in my newly mollified state, I also gave them the right to appoint sub-committees to carry out specific trouble-shooting or process improvement tasks. And Hnaef and Burton both (correctly, as it turned out) identified an area where their responsibilities overlapped, and spotted the dangers that might lay therein of wasted time and energy. Naturally, they both decided to do something about it.

Cut a long story short, we now have two task-forces dedicated to eliminating the duplication of effort.

Sometimes I despair.

Sermon on the Anniversary of the Great Storm of 1987

Oh yes, we can learn a lot of lessons from the Great Storm.

I went into London on the bus, same as I always did. I'd wondered why the telly wasn't picking up any channels, but that sometimes happened in those days. And as the bus meandered around the bags of blown-around rubbish and the washed-up dolphins on the Finchley Road, I remember thinking, "London's even tattier than normal."

It was as I was stepping over the trees down the Marylebone Road that I realised this had been a truly different gale. Old crisp packets, dustbin liners, dead foxes and Michael Fish's reputation were blown towards the still-shaking Telecom tower. This had been a horrendous night, and thank the Lord it had happened at night. If this had struck in the daytime there could have been carnage.

And yet there were lessons to learn. The trees that had fallen were mighty specimens, to be sure. But some had grown too old. Their productivity had declined while they still blotted out the younger growth. Across southern England, the light filtered onto woodland floors and coaxed up a million new trees - trees that are now noble specimens in their own right. Truly there is a message there.

Which is why I'm disbanding the Druidic Council. I'm going to run things myself while I let the saplings of new, organic life grow through. Hnaef, Charlii, Keith, Burton - you're all sacked.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Sounding the All Clear

I'm really not happy with Hnaef.

He sounded the air-horn just after my extended digression into the parallels between Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh and the prophet Jeremiah. I asked him how many people had dropped off and he told me "all of them". Turns out that he'd agreed with everyone that he'd wake them all up once he judged that the sermon was all over bar the shouting.

Ecclesiastical SI Units

I sometimes find, Dear Reader, that people have terrible trouble understanding the SI system of measurements. And is it so surprising? When metric measures are defined in terms of wavelengths of light, how can anyone understand them?

And so I decided to translate the traditional scientific units into these more approachable ones for people of church-going habit. I hope this may prove helpful.


One centimetre The distance "up the candle" the average ordinand travels each month during training.
One  millimetre The distance "down the candle" the same person travels after ordination, unless the stewards / churchwardens are watching very carefully.
One hertz  What the people in the Chesham area say if they trap their fingers in the church door.
One Henry Half the Churchwardens.
One nanosecond The time between the minister saying the final blessing at a wedding, and the first cigarette being lit in the churchyard.
One tonne The weight of any piece of church furniture that needs moving.
100 decibels  The noise of a choir warming up. 
120 decibels The noise of a choir in full blast, when consisting of two old ladies and someone's nephew.
50 decibels The noise made by a non-Methodist congregation.
100 decibels That same congregation, after an ex-Methodist has just joined.
One Ohm  A measure of resistance equivalent to one ten-thousandth of that put up by the average PCC.
1 kilocandlepower Christmas Carol Service in a High Anglican church.
1 Newton The number of protected amphibians required to completely stop the building project.
1Kilolitre Quantity of tears shed at the average wedding.

Raising a Warning Flag

Just a note before this morning's Pouring-out of Beakers.

As usual for Sunday we will be having three readings - from The Return of the Native, The House at Pooh Corner and the poem "Excelsior!"

Now normally everybody would just assume my sermon would be based on the third reading, and have a bit of a nap during the other two. But this week I'm going to be flitting around between all three to build my argument. Clearly we can't expect everyone to stay awake that long, so Hnaef will stand next to me with a red flag, and raise the flag to ensure everyone knows a pertinent section is coming and they should pay attention.

Obviously if some-one has truly fallen asleep as opposed to being in a fitful doze, the flag's not gonna help much. That's why Hnaef is also going to have an air-horn...

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Jimmy Savile

Powerful post here from Fragmentz.

Jam Jars and Jerusalem

Kudos to Stuart a e-church blog for collating one of the sillier stories I've read in a while.

Buildings For the Future

It's just three sentences, and not the whole sentiment of the piece or the initiative. And in some instances it might make sense. But it still made me wonder. I refer, of course to the plans of five Welsh denominations to pool clergy and other resources. A fine example of the ecumenical spirit. Maybe 50 years too late and forced by circumstances, but you can't have everything. And if they work truly collaboratively, sacrificially, great things might happen.

So why does this sentence worry me?
"For example, in some towns you might have two churches and a chapel. They might have a vicar but no-one in the chapel. If the churches united, the vicar could also serve the chapel." 
Cuts to the scene in a vicarage, somewhere in Wales. The phone rings... 

Revd Myfanwy: "Hallo? Llantisiliog Vicarage?"

Bishop: Good afternoon, Myfanwy. It's the Bishop here.

RevM: Hello, Bishop. Hope you're well.

Bp: Radiant, Myfanwy, radiant. Now, you've been looking after a lot of parishes for us. Llantisiliog, Llantisiliog Brevi, St Hugh's Well, Llanmorwenna, Llannectan and Mudd.

RevM: That's right, Bishop. It's been hard work, but worth it. That Easter Sunday when everyone wanted communion in their own churches and a foot of snow fell - it was a 20-hour day, and I had a week off with flu straight after, but it was so rewarding, sharing the day will all twenty-seven worshippers across the benefice...

Bp: Quite. But things are going to change now. We're working with the Presbyerians and the Methodists. 

RevM: What - you mean I'll be able to share the load with Revd Lewis at Mudd Baptists? Maybe our congregation could merge with theirs? 

Bp: Something like that... 

RevM: Or we could close Llanmorwenna and they could join the Presbyterians? That would be great news. They can't afford to fix the roof. When it rains they're ankle-deep in water... 

Bp: A bit like that. It's a real opportunity for service.

RevM: Sounds exciting! What is it?

Bp: How do you feel about taking on the Methodist Circuit as well?

Friday, 12 October 2012

Quick Thought

Just because something is counter-intuitive, doesn't necessarily mean it's true.

Home Matters More than School

A report in the Telegraph tells us that it's the home environment makes all the difference to children's academic success.

Its a shock to me. When I went to BNC the place was full of Old Etonians, Wykehamists and Stoics. I used to think it was because the schools they went to were better than the comprehensives of the land.

Now I discover that wasn't the case. It turns out they actually had better parents. Who'd have thought it? It's the same the whole world over, it's the poor what gets the blame etc etc.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Hunting George Herbert

I'm afraid old George Herbert has gone out for a wander on his own again. Should anyone see him can you please bring him home? He's not safe near roads.

Above Rubies

Just pondering the "above rubies" matter again.
Here it is from the American King James (because why not) though I've corrected a couple of spellings.
"Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies.  
The heart of her husband does safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil. 
She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life. She seeks wool, and flax, and works willingly with her hands. 
She is like the merchants' ships; she brings her food from afar. 
She rises also while it is yet night, and gives meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens. 
She considers a field, and buys it: with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. 
She girds her loins with strength, and strengthens her arms. She perceives that her merchandise is good: her candle goes not out by night.
She lays her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff. 
She stretches out her hand to the poor; yes, she reaches forth her hands to the needy. 
She is not afraid of the snow for her household: for all her household are clothed with scarlet. She makes herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple. 
Her husband is known in the gates, when he sits among the elders of the land. She makes fine linen, and sells it; and delivers girdles to the merchant. Strength and honour are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come.  
 She opens her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness. She looks well to the ways of her household, and eats not the bread of idleness. 
Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her. Many daughters have done virtuously, but you excel them all. 
Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that fears the LORD, she shall be praised. Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates."
Now the thing is - there's nothing wrong with any of this. It's no good complaining about the passage, because it's describing a working mother - somebody who, these days, would have to do her shopping from her iPad on the train because it's only then that she has time. The only real problem with the description is that she is in fact such a hero that it gives a pretty-well unachievable example - and yet one so many people get close to.

Somebody on Facebook remarked that she had heard this reading at a wedding, and it made her want to walk out. But I think she's missing the point. Apart from the problem of over-expectation and the danger of burnout, it's actually singing the praises of a capable woman. What the selection of this reading for a wedding says is "Look at this woman - she's a real star. I wonder what she sees in that muffin? It's all very well him sitting in the gates with the elders - but she's busy bringing the food from afar. He wants to get off his aris, get himself back home and do the bloody washing up."

Food-fight Service

I reckon we've just about cleared up the mess now.

It is a fundamental human need to share a meal. It's the thing that distinguishes us from the animals. Apart from jackals and hyenas, obviously. So I really thought last night's "Roast Dinner Service" was a great idea. Everybody sat in the Moot House together, in a big open circle rather than the serried ranks of the Great House dining room. And after I authorised Burton to loosen the purse-strings, Bernie had promised to cook something that wasn't recovered from the hard shoulder of the M1.

So we were sat there, the low-alcohol wine-effect grape juice was flowing, and I was eating something that looked like it might well have once lived on a farm rather than skipped across the motorway - I mean, wallaby? How did he get a wallaby the other week? As Bertie Wooster would put it, reason and soul flowed. And then we moved into the "creative" part of the ceremony. Each was to bring a song, a juggling act, or a favourite reading.

And then the Yorkshire pudding landed on Marston's head. I suspect that Young Keith flung it. Marston had, at that very point, just reached a particularly rural and evocative place in whatever drivel from Wordsworth he was reading out loud. He'd been conjuring up the very essense of rustic yokels viewing the sukebind in the stolid hedgerow, or some such. And it being one of those giant yorkshire puddings, it just sat there on top of his head like a hat - gravy dripping down his neck.

It is fair  to say that Marston's a man of hasty responses. He has a habit of acting first and not thinking later. So it was the Young Keith's area of the table received a handful of Brussels sprouts in return. Since the majority of those sat there were innocent, they returned fire with a volley of parsnips - again impacting on a bunch of people who'd just been sitting there, admiring one of those pictures that look like an old woman or a young girl, depending on how you look at them. Burton, meanwhile, had been trying to work out a "magic eye" - until somebody pointed out it was just the pattern on the carpet.

It is true that in war, the innocent suffer. Edith Weston, the right side of her face smeared with horse-radish source, declared she would turn the other cheek. Somebody threw a pork chop at it. Dreadful, dreadful. Everybody know's it's horseradish source with beef.

So as the Moot House dissolved into a blizzard of mashed potato, I stuck Thomas Hardy's Collected Poems up the archdruidical blouse for protection, and headed for the exit. This morning's reading will be "Better enough with love, than a banquet with a bunch of idiots."

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Nativity of Kirsty MacColl (1959)

I'm an autumn girl, flying over London
With the trees on fire it looks like home
I'm an autumn girl on the endless search for summer
Cause I need some love to heat my frozen bones


Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Official Disciplinary Procedures for Wives

Drayton Parslow has been recommending me this blog. I am still debating whether to add it to the blogroll, but I was most interested in this post.

Especially, in the question of how to improve one's wife's performance. (By the way, I think we can assume, in the context, that this is referring to men who will be wanting to get their wives to behave better.)
"Remember that your wife and family cannot be viewed as you would your office and workers over which you have charge. You cannot fire your wife and family if they do not measure up."
I'm guessing that this is an American site. You can't just fire your office and workers over here if they do not measure up. (Well, maybe your office. Being it's just a room in a building, it doesn't have any real employment rights).

No, over here if a man has an under-performing spouse, there are a number of prescribed steps he must take to ensure he can, ultimately, fire her without the danger that she will take him to a marital tribunal:

1) The "verbal warning".

This is exactly what it says. The Head of the House sits down and explains to the offending wife the specific area or areas in which she is failing. These should be specific - is she falling down in the area of cookery, cleanliness, a holy and sunny demeanour before other members of the church - or, ahem... you know.... Within a week, the husband gets his HR department to issue her with a memo giving the details of the verbal warning, which both parties must sign.

2) The "written warning"

If the wife's behaviour does not improve, the next stage is the written warning. The wife should be given a week's notice of the meeting. She may bring with her a representative of the wives' and mothers' union. Again, she will be presented with a memo detailing the offences for which she has been disciplined. She will have six months to improve, or the process moves to...

3) Final Warning

Again, the wife will be allowed representation from her union. The outcome of the Final Warning meeting will either be a final written warning or, if there is no sign of improvement in her behaviour, a dismissal. Dismissal will normally be with one months' notice, extended to three months after five years' service.

4) Appeals

All of the above processes are subject to appeal. But the woman will always lose.

The Wonga Effect

I'm intrigued by Newcastle United's deal with Wonga.com. A company that goes to a lot of trouble to explain that its 4000% or more representative APR is unfair because it never lends money for that long. But a company that will charge you roughly a quarter of what you borrowed in interest and fees, over a one-month period. Which is quite staggering.

Still, I can understand Newcastle dealing with a company that manages eye-watering rates of change in monetary values. After all, Andy Carroll was worth - what - about 8 million? And then suddenly he was worth £35M. Quite a jump over a transfer window. Of course, it's in the long term you really see these things  have an impact. He's worth about £8M again now, I reckon.

That All-Purpose Tory Party Speech

"I hereby pledge that this Conservative party will:

  • allow home-owners to defend themselves against burglars
  • deport foreign criminals as quickly as they have recovered from being attacked by home-owners
  • allow victims of crime a say in the perpetrators' punishments. Within reason - obviously we don't want people being broken on the wheel, or flayed alive. Or let off.
  • reduce the red tape on business
  • give people a choice over which schools their children go to - especially if they pay for it
  • restrict the power of Europe over the way we do things in Britain
  • crack down on late-night public disorder
  • crack down on people who pretend to be disabled to claim benefits
  • crack down on people who pretend not to have jobs to claim benefits
  • crack down on people who live on the streets to pretend they're homeless to claim benefits
  • reduce the deficit.

"And I further promise that next year, when we have done none of these, we will promise to do exactly the same things. That is what being Conservative means - we stick by our promises."

On the Eve of St Kirsty

There have been some dissenters to my plan to spend the entire evening playing the music of Kirsty MacColl at loud volume.

Fundamentally their complaints can be summarised as, "All her songs say men are double-dealing, lying creeps". To which I would respond that this is not true. "There's a guy works down the chip shop" implies that some of them are fantasists as well.

The point about Kirsty MacColl, for me, is the wit, the defiance, the razor-sharp mind she brings to the subject. "What do Pretty Girls Do", to take one example, brings a feeling of crushing sadness to the story it tells. "Soho Square" combines melancholy with a defiant optimism. And "Big Boy on a Saturday Night" is just sheer fair comment.

You're all gonna get Kirsty at full volume, all night. And that's that.

The Indeterminate Future Tense

I really think I've got this cracked now. So I think I can share this linguistic discovery with you.

I call it the "Indeterminate Future" tense. It's a bit like the normal "Future" tense, but less certain.

The simple Future tense uses expressions like "I shall be in London tomorrow", or "you'll be Tory leader one day, Boris". All future tenses have in them that hidden tension that the future is conditional - somebody might dig up the Bedpan line overnight, or David Cameron might suddenly discover the Philosopher's Stone. But the expectation is there that the thing will happen.

Whereas the Indeterminate Future is a tense used where the expectation - almost, if you will, the determination - is that it won't happen. They generally use the "ironic imperative" through words such as "must" and "really should". These are words that express conviction, but achieve little.

Here are some examples to consider:

"Liturgical Dance every Sunday, Osric? We really must set up a meeting to discuss that."

"I know you're wanting someone with whom to share your concerns about your love-life, Burton. Unfortunately, I'm busy now. Can I let you know when I have some time free?"

"We must resolve the issue of Women Bishops in a way that is acceptable to all."

"I hope some day you'll join us, and the world will live as one."

"We really must set out, at a future meeting, how this fellowship will embrace diversity of worship practice. In the meantime, however, it's still gonna be stones and tea lights."

"We must have lunch together some time."

"The meeting agreed that the church needed to be more active in Mission."

You can see the potential of these expressions. The simple future leaves the power in the hands of others - the person to whom the future event will bring good or otherwise, or the sheer grinding inevitability of time itself.  Actually book that meeting with Burton, or set yourself a deadline to bring in oil-lamps or accordions in worship, and you are a slave to the calendar. You will be resorting to management techniques such as "forgetting" or "old war-wound".

But the Indeterminate Future can pile events and decisions blythely into the forseeable - each one sat there, preserved as in aspic, in a see-through box made out of "we really must" or "nearer the time." It may actually be the true meaning of eternal life. All those empty promises and half-intentions will be lived out in a parallel universe of tied-up ends, where we have telephone conversations with great-aunts and have lunch with those friends we wish we'd never met. Or Burton finally gets some advice on his love-life. Imagine there's no heaven? Nah, I reckon that must be more like the other place.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Non-Toxic Nitrogen

The story about the young woman from Lancashire who had her stomach removed after drinking a cocktail frozen with liquid nitrogen is terrible. Let us pray that she recovers well. A stomach is something that can be lived without, although not without some inconvenience. But an innocent night out has ended with a dreadful ordeal.

And it's generated a certain amount of excitement in the media. The director of public health for Cumbria is quoted as saying, ""This girl is the victim of an irresponsible alcohol industry that's now competing on gimmicks. "Alcohol itself is a very dangerous thing if improperly handled and liquid nitrogen is a toxic chemical. It destroys human tissue."

Well....

Liquid nitrogen is not "toxic". Nitrogen forms the majority of the air we breathe. In effect, it's no more dangerous than anything else cooled to around -200C. Which is, admittedly, quite dangerous. The catering industry has also got into the use of liquid nitrogen. The slightly disturbing Heston Blumenthal uses the stuff. It's quirky, it's gimmicky. But he's not described as being part of "an irresponsible posh-nosh industry."

Of course, you don't want to put anything that cold inside yourself. The "Chemistry World Blog" puts it well. You wouldn't go into a lab after a few drinks; you shouldn't use effectively lab ingredients in the same state. If the safe consumption of a drink depends on you knowing how long to give it, you probably shouldn't be served it if you've had a few.

And that might go for flaming sambucas as well. And more prosaic fiery treats. To put it into perspective - there were more than 4,600 people injured in one year recently through chip pan fires. There was pretty well a death a week. And 30% of those in the middle of the night. If you've had a few, liquid nitrogen probably is a bad idea. But cooking chips is worse.

On the Street WhereYou Live

I love nothing so much, on a gloomy Monday morning, as to take a prayer-walk around the streets of Husborne Crawley, Aspley Guise or similarly unsaved local settlements. Brothers and sisters, who can dream of the sins going on in just a few villages in Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire? Today, for example, I prayed my way round the streets of an estate in Milton Keynes. I will not tell you which - there is One who knows, and "what is whispered in the closet shall be shouted from the rooftops."

I considered first of all those people who were driving to work. Who knows what abominations they were dreaming up in their hearts - what adulteries, what enormities? I spent a while imagining the sorts of things they might have been considering, and praying against them. Then I returned home for a swift cold shower before continuing.

I went into the newspaper shop. What flirtatious chemistry did the assistant employ on the dumb, unsuspecting men she was serving? When I bought a copy of the Daily Telegraph (owned by Catholics, I concede, but consider the ghastliness of the alternatives such as the Guardian or the Independent), she put my change in my hand, rather than putting the money demurely on the counter for me to retrieve myself.

Then there was the house where the blinds were clearly down at 9am. What was going on? Was it an illicit early-morning assignation - possibly of a single-sex nature? Were they watching recorded episodes of "Family Guy"? Was somebody - even by 9am - still so in thrall to a hangover after a late-night pub quiz that they were still scared of daylight? Were the people of that house engaged in benefits-scrounging? Or was it two "innocent" pensioners, ensuring they keep their new "pot plant" hidden?

So distraught was I by the obviously rampant sin taking place in this house that I stood outside, praying for the redemption - or suitable eternal punishment - of the inhabitants. Until the Thames Valley Police asked me to move on or accompany them. And, as I explained, I am a very poor accompanist - I can pump a mean harmonium, or manage a bit of fiddling. That, replied one of the constables, was just the kind of thing they were worried about. So I moved on, rejoicing that this is how they treated the prophets before me.

Milton Keynes always leaves me low in spirits. I put this down to it being a City on a Plain. That is why I always leave Marjory at home when I go there. I would not like her to be tempted to look back at John Lewis.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

The Proverbial Shoe Repair Boutique

Tomorrow we're opening our new Proverbial Shoe Repair Boutique.

If you drop your worn-out shoes with us tomorrow, we'll close up for a month, do no work and then re-open.

You may not think this such a good idea. But time's a great heeler.

On Unsubstantiated Divine Guidance

Of course, it was very easy for Jazmine. Just strolled over, informed me that she's leaving the Beaker Folk. She tells me that God's will is for her to find a less liberal, more Biblical group. And naturally, I've respected her views and God's will. Although, in keeping with the Beaker tradition, I'm keeping the deposit. It's a bit sad, but there you go.

But when you inhabit the less institutionally-minded fringes of nonconformity as we do here in the Beaker Folk, it's hard to remember how wrenching the considerations of leaving a church and joining another are to some people. When we hear the words "swimming the Tiber", we are inclined to think of a relaxed dip on a sunny Mediterranean afternoon. We forget the tricky nature of Tiberial natation, what with all the bodies of Roman Emperors and their enemies that have ended up in those waters down the ages. People going to or from Rome have often agonised over their decisions - after all, the See of St Peter makes some fairly expansive claims, and some churches make some fairly strong claims about it in their turn. One needs to consider the Church's (or churches') claims, and the witness of tradition, reason and Scripture.

For people of Drayton Parslow's ilk, on the other hand, things are different. With a multitude of more-or-less equivalent  religious groups making similar claims and with comparable governance, the threat of defections and schism hangs constantly in the air like a dyspeptic pigeon. The merest slip of the tongue - rendering "Jonah" instead of "Noah", or confusing the kings of Israel with those of Judah - is enough for people to wonder whether the pastor is truly biblical enough. Knives are sharpened by ambitious deacons, and people consider their positions. Those trotting off from the Elim Pentecostal Baptists to the Salem Baptist Pentecostals will explain the nuances of their understanding of the charismatic gifts; a subtle difference in interpretation of the book of Job. Or the ultimate explanation is trotted out, as today - "God told me to leave".

The thing is, "I believe God is telling us to join the Eighth-Day Arameans" is a difficult statement to counter. Your options are either "no he isn't", or "you're deluded" or "I think God may be wrong on this one." All of which are tricky messages. The message you're really getting from them is that they're unhappy, for unspecified reasons. It may be deep doctrinal considerations (as with those Baptists in Westoning who had a schism over whether or not to have an organ). It may be personal taste - maybe they're fed up with your choice in clerical wear. It could be that your belief in the four persons of the Trinity, and the possibility of becoming a new Buddha, are irking their Calvinist sensibilities.

So often, the reasons given for someone leaving a situation are so different from reality. When our last Beaker Quire fell apart, they blamed it on "musical differences". Which meant Arfur, who could play three chords (and a fourth, but the strings buzzed) had got sick to the back teeth with Wodney, who knew only two, different chords. And they were both diminished. Obviously what was really needed was an openness to learn. And that whole "banjos at dawn" affair was quite needless, in retrospect. Or, alternatively, Arfur could just have said "God told me to seek new musical directions".

Like what happened a friend of mine who was woken up by his girlfriend, to be told she was leaving him because "God told me you're the wrong man." God, in these circumstances, being only one step down in the irrefutability stakes from her mother.

The whole "God told me" thing is a flaw in the whole idea, at the start of a church meeting, of praying for guidance. Because once you've asked God to put his or her oar (and awe) in, you're more or less bound to listen to everybody who suddenly wakes up and decides they're the divine mouthpiece. They could be subconsciously aware they've got a weak argument, and therefore the Divine Guidance aspect helps to bolster their flimsy case. They may be unsure of their rhetorical skills and needing a bit of backup. They could have delusions of prophecy, or indeed grandeur - being convinced that every word they say is inspired.  They could be facing the old "it never happened in Archdruid Ivan's day" gambit, or the "unspecified people feel very strongly that..." move, and needing a stronger card to play.

Or maybe God told them. It's always a possibility. But then what happens when somebody else announces God has told them the opposite? It's only when God starts disagreeing with Godself that the chance to reintroduce logic and consensus returns.

Lest anyone think this only applies to the foot-soldiers of the religious community, I should point out, with the backing of Keith Thomas,  that a member of the laity claiming God's backing is often merely making up for a lack of perceived authority. Whereas, I would suggest, a church-leader doing the same thing is just plain dangerous.

For reference, I always employ the following prayer before our Moots:

"O eternal and wise God, we pray for your guidance on all our decisions today. But we'd like to add the caveat that, should you deign to bless us with a glimpse of your perfect will, whoever hears your words may back them up with sound Scriptural and logical reasoning. Frankly, just taking their word for it is asking for trouble. Amen."

It sometimes works.

Harvest

As we used to sing at my old school, St Frideswide's Co-educational for the Daughters of Country Gentlefolk, "We Torch the Fields and Scarper, the Farmer's got a Gun." They were happy days, shining in those long-ago summers, ringing with the sound of broken glass.  When rioting just got you a clip on the ear from the local bobby, and racists were not discriminated against the way they are today.

At home, we would celebrate the old country rituals - witch-ducking, droit de seigneur, tar-and-feathering. And Harvest, of course. I remember my maiden aunts - Drusilla, Drosophila, Deidre and Dolores - how every first Sunday in October they would cycle through the early-morning mists to church, each with a pumpkin on their handlebars. Made them terribly unstable, of course. Pumpkin soup and a trip to the Luton and Dunstable was pretty well guaranteed most first Sundays in October. Indeed, we attributed their being maiden aunts mostly to the way they smelt of pumpkin pretty well all year round.

Here at the Beaker Folk, we like to think we are very close to Mother Earth. Let's face it, we walk around on her enough. But we keep up all the traditional pursuits at Harvest. The Produce Table is piled high with windfall apples, manky onions and giant Pumpkins. The King of the Corn was declared last night, with the usual whimpering from Burton. In Beaker Times, the King of the Corn was put in the Wicker Man to give thanks for the current year's harvest, and as a sacrifice for next. In a similarly sacrificial way, we send him down to the Gary Cooper in Dunstable, there to spread the Good News and offer flowers to anyone with tattoos.

So all is safely gathered in. Tesco's bags are full of the produce of Indonesia, New Zealand and the myco-laboratories where they grow Quorn.  We view the fields and wonder, whether that really was a genetically-modified Barley crop there this year. And, considering it went down to the pub and demanded they release all the beer because "that's my cousins you're drinking there, you barbarians", we reckon maybe it was.

Happy Harvest!

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Quantum Apples, Cider and the Creation of the Universe

In the beginning, there was a finely-balanced quantum world. It was a tiny, micro-nuanced bubble, just one garden wide, one garden wide and one garden high. In the garden there was a man, a woman, his ex-wife Lilith, a snake, a lot of trees with nutritious and non-universe-transforming properties... and an apple.

The moment Adam chewed that apple was the significant one. Up to then, the singularity that would cause an anthropomorphically-principalled universe to spring into existence from the fluctuations in the background quantum field had not been enacted. The Pauli exclusion principle, that among other things predicts that you never see the comedian Jo Brand and the journalist Jon Sargent in the room at the same time, stood on tip-toes waiting to see when the thing that was, and never should be - the munching of that apple by Adam - would take place.

As it did, the quantum field shifted and, in an entirely scientifically plausible way, the wave-form ripped out of the garden, spewing energy and matter out across the now-forming universe which propagated in front of the quantum tidal wave. In its natural lowest-energy search for stability, it went back into the farthest reaches of space-time to a new, more coherent point of singularity - the Big Bang - and forward through unimaginable aeons of time to the Universes's eventually demise, as a heat-death blancmange.

At that one singular moment, all the history of the birth of the Universe, the condensation of suns and planets, the explosions of dying stars that created the heavy elements and the evolution, rise and demise of the dinosaurs came together in a story that is, if nothing else, is a bit more plausible than the normal narrative about how cosmology and science are totally wrong. All those creatures and people up to 4,004 BC had now lived their lives, loved, eaten each other and died.

The new Universe was vast, scary, and laden with a new menace - death. Where till now there had been no "outside" to be thrown into, Adam and Eve could now be shown a door that actually led somewhere, and told to sling their hooks. Out there, East of Eden, their sons found their wives from the people that the moment with the accident had so excitingly back-formed.

These days, we've got past blaming Adam or Eve. We are all, after all, all victims. So we blame the apple. It looked all attractive and rosy - of course it was luring them in. So, to teach the whole of apple-kind a lesson, at this time of year we smash all the apples up and make cider. Revenge truly is sweet.