Wednesday, September 29, 2004

St Michael and All Angels?

Writing in the Aff Cath magazine (I'm deliberately not posting a link to their website, as it is woefully out of date at the moment :-( ) Perran Gay says
"I'm not sure what I believe about angels...but I'm always grateful that they form a part of the whole Christian understanding of things. Their mysterious being and presence remind us that there is much more to God's nature and God's providence than we can ever fully understand, and that we may draw closer to understanding that mystery throught the language of poetry and music than through the rigours of theological analysis"
I liked that. Though I sometimes get terribly fraught and frustrated when I simply cannot tie up loose theological ends (I guess all those years of studying English lit and trying to determine why a particular arrangement of words works better than another one could be to blame there) I have to acknowledge that it was the way that poetry and music conveyed the inexpressible that initially brought me to worship. What happened during daily Evensong in King's Chapel was, for example, somehow more real than most of the other activities of a busy student life...My Bishop, Michael Perham, says in his
New Handbook of Pastoral Liturgy that worship is designed to help us to "grasp the heel of heaven": it is terrifying how rarely that expectation goes with us into our churches,- but when it does, the angels are back again.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004


This evening, Luci and Giles came home from a week's tour with the school orchestra in Italy. It was rather unnerving, how very absent they seemed to be, knowing they were both out of the country...I'm quite used to their being away, often for a week or more, often simultaneously, but this time felt much harder than in the past...Can't honestly make any sense of that, but wanted to record for the benefit of blogdom how utterly blissful it is to have them both home. They had clearly had a ball, are full of traveller's tales and laden with invitations to go back to their host families...but right now, what matters is that they are in hugging range. A week can be a very long time, somehow: better get in training, I guess, with university ahead.


Spent this morning at staff meeting trying to dream up a title for the service we are planning for All Souls' tide. The idea is the far from revolutionary one of providing a service to which we invite all those with whom we've been in contact via funerals this year. The format, still under construction, will involve the almost-obligatory opportunity to light a candle, a chance to remember with thanksgiving and, we hope, a stepping-stone on the route to recovery. In a parish where it just isnt manageable for the clergy to remain in close touch with all the bereaved relatives we encounter, it is also a way of saying that they and their losses have not been forgotten. I think it's important,- but I'm stumped for a title, I really am...One suggestion was "A time to remember..." - which is lovely on one level, specially with the implications of re-building that lie at the root of the word...but then, it's just a week before the "Remembrance Sunday" stuff, and we don't want people to come expecting poppy wreaths and two minute silences,- and being deeply disappointed..With invitations and publicity needed soon, this is becoming rather perturbing, so I would love some thoughts from any of you still reading.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Kennington Revisited

Twenty years ago I sang for a couple of years with a church choir in S London. I loved that church so was my first experience of a world beyond the confines of my privileged childhood and the rarefied air of Cambridge, and I was totally overwhelmed and entranced by the way in which the mess and muddle of life on the Kennington/Brixton borders was taken and offered in the Eucharist, day by day, week by week, and made whole. I suspect that the faint but insistent whisper which finally brought me to ordination first began at this period too, and I know that S John the Divine, Kennington, has probably influenced me more than almost anything else on my journey (give or take Greenbelt and the Chronicles of Narnia...there's eclecticism for you!) Maybe one day I'll have a church like that of my very own....
Meanwhile, the SJDK choristers grew up, some married, some divorced, some left London, and as is the way of things, we rather drifted apart, though never losing touch altogether. Until yesterday...Yesterday, thanks to a friend whose organisational abilities deserve a wider theatre, we gathered from all corners at S Andrew's, Holborn, where the former vicar of SJDK now hangs out in his new persona as Archdeacon of Hackney. We ate, drank, talked and then sang. They don't do Choral Evensong at S Andrew's,- indeed its one of those city churches which doesn't do anything very much on a Sunday, as there's a distinct shortage of worshippers around,- but that didn't deter us. On one level it was probably slightly ludicrous, - a full choir singing the Office with a handful of non-singing family rattling around in that large and beautiful space. On another level it was totally and utterly right to be there, involved in that sort of total prayer which unites you with your neighbours and, as Lyle reminded us, with the whole company of heaven. I hope we sing together again before we finally join in their perfect worship, and I thank God for some very special people with whom it was so easy to pick up the pieces of suspended friendships. Oh...and the final Amen of the Smith responses has to be one of the most perfect sequences ever written :-)

Friday, September 24, 2004

By way of contrast....

Though we are far from overwhelmed with young families in our congregation, this is no reflection of the local area, which has more children out and about than anywhere I’ve ever been….Inevitably, the parents of some of them come to us requesting Baptism, and though both M and I agree on the need for an open policy, we nonetheless want to do all we can to help families realise the potential of this Sacrament to completely change everything…
I guess that, even before M arrived, ours has always been a pretty “co-operative” parish, and a few months ago I would have thought that was a Good Thing.
This, however, was before I attended a recent private Baptism. The odds were stacked against it before we started, as the parents, who had been married here, no longer lived in the parish at all, and the grandparents (who do) are not regular worshippers. Moreover, they had asked if the clerical friend who had married the couple (during our interregnum) could conduct the Baptism too. So, we have a family with no connection with our worshipping congregation, arriving from all points of the compass, to meet with a priest who is also unconnected with the local church…Between them, they have to claim the space and create a worshipful context from a standing start. The visiting priest is jovial, and succeeds in creating a party atmosphere…in which the promises seem oddly out of place. Godparents absently crunch on the carrot sticks they have brought to pacify their toddler…One or two guys wander outside for a fag,- clearly this church bit is hindering the family festivities more than they had imagined. The crunch comes for me when they reach the reading…a chapter from…wait for it “Alice in Wonderland”…
No Gospel. No suggestion that what is happening today actually MATTERS in any lasting way at all. Nothing.
The wrapt and reverent attention is reserved for the rite of photography which concludes the proceedings, then, without a backward glance they are gone, off to continue their party in more congenial surroundings.
I’m left apologising to God for what feels to me like an abuse of His hospitality….but perhaps I’m just being starchy or defensive?
Anyway, all this fuelled a growing sense that we ought to do SOMETHING to help parents engage meaningfully with the Sacrament….so I’ve been on the lookout for helpful resources, round which to build a social/discussion evening which we’re planning in October. There seems rather a dearth of helpful videos, but Tony responded to my plea for help with the following….

I've thought about your request, and guess I would say you need to start
with the question:
WHY do you want baptism preparation?
If there is time, and space on your examination paper, you may like to tackle
some of the subsidiaries:
What is the desired outcome?
If you were a parent wanting your child baptised what would you want from
preparation, and what would you feel about what was being offered or
How would it make you think/feel about God and what God is towards us?
Who is baptism preparation FOR? (If the answer is, the conscience of the
clergy, does that affect our other answers?)

Assuming that I’ve answered question 1 (why I want some sort of Baptism preparation) I guess we need to move on to consider the whole thing from the parents’ viewpoint. Any thoughts, anyone?

I accept that the clerical conscience is a very real player in this one, but I would still defend the need to help Baptismal families to seriously engage with the promises they are making, and to facilitate, as far as we ever can, a real encounter with God through the Baptism of their child. It DOES matter, doesn’t it?

No weddings, but 3 funerals...

"They" told me before ordination that I would "enjoy" funerals, even be good at them, and at the risk of emerging as totally predictable, I have to say "they" may have been right, at least in terms of my personal satisfaction. Being "good at them" is a very different matter, and I'm not sure I even know how you could determine this...except perhaps in terms of how the bereaved are enabled to move on through their journey,- and that, surely, depends far more on the months ahead than on the 20 minute slot at the crem.
Nothing prepared me for the huge variety of situations, even in this thorougly middle-class, white Anglican suburb. In the past 10 days I've encountered one family who had been bullied by the departed for years, and who consequently felt both relieved and guilty; one old man who had deliberately severed all connection with friends and family when he went into a care home 14 years ago, and whose service was attended only by a handful of staff from the home;and, yesterday, a guy who seemed to have the gift of staying friends with everyone whom he had ever encountered.
The only common factor was a lack of any overt Christian committment and a desire, on the part of the mourners, for me to say something to "make things better"...It's kind of heartening, given the widespread secularism, that they are even prepared to hope that I might...on our ordination retreat, we were reassured that we would be given words of power to speak into such situations, and yesterday it truly felt that way.
What an unbelievable privilege!

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

A very good friend who is currently enjoying life with infant hamsters suggested that it was time I updated this...but the question is, what would anyone really want to hear about? This is my day naturally it began with an assembly at the infants' school just over the road from the church...A new head arrived this term, and is very busy building bridges with us, which is truly wonderful, as it's not a church school and her predecessor kept us firmly at arm's length. Since my regular day in the village school was a highlight of my pre-ordination life, it's excellent to be really welcome in a similar happy and purposeful environment, and I'm spending an hour a week being totally un-churchy and throwing paint around with assorted reception children.Today I heard one of the staff, not part of the regular Sunday congregation, say to a parent "That's our curate..." and was so chuffed by that "our"...Lovely to feel an accepted part of things :-) The Assembly went OK ; an interactive narration of Noah, with the children providing sound effects for ark-building and rain falling...They even stopped when I needed them to, bless them :-)

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Quite helpless

Oh dear. Did anyone imagine that I might grow up after ordination? I think I did kind of entertain the hope myself, but clearly that's not part of the deal...spent most of tonight's Evening Prayer speechless with laughter, and I'm not even sure why!
It was my turn to read rather than lead, and the Old Testament was a chunk of Jeremiah, one of those passages with a dozen impossible names in far fewer verses. I was doing fine till I fell over Gemariah, and then, for some reason, all was lost. Instead of carrying on, I heard myself apologising to the guy concerned "Oh, I am so sorry....but you do have a really stupid name" and there followed one of those periods of total hysteria during which every attempt to compose yourself is in itself screamingly, breath catchingly, overwhelmingly funny...I would pull myself together to get another couple of words out, only to corpse again...and again...Michael didn't help, mind you, as he said with an air of gentle puzzlement "I'd never seen Jeremiah as such a comic".
Quite what anyone coming into church at that point would have made of us I dread to think....two middle-aged clergy giggling away like a couple of school children. I was quite unable to complete the reading, and there was a prolonged pause before either of us felt able to finish the Office.
Thank you, God, for the sort of boss who enjoys the ridiculous, and thank you even more for the gift of laughter.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Diaries and their ways...

I'm very excited today, on 2 counts...1)I have lost my ebay virginity
2) I have managed to buy (on the recommendation of a please don't tell me I'm wrong now ;-) ) a Psion 5 pda to replace the filofax that has been part of my life for far longer than is reasonable....
I really was beginning to lose control of all the bits of paper bursting out of it, so am hoping this may be the start of a revolution. An organised Kathryn would, of course, be another first...but no mentions of leopards and spots, I beg you.
However, having spent what seems an inordinate amount on said electronic diary (though substantially less than others were bidding...I went for a Buy It Now option, which was well within my notional reserve), I then found Curate's Dregs here considering the clerical timetable, and proposed antipodean revisions to it. I posted a reply along the lines of my current sense that my training incumbent, God bless him, is so concerned that my family should not be deprived unduly of their newly ordained mother that he allows me almost too much time off. As well as my official Wednesday, I'm also currently free most Saturdays (give or take sermon prep, of course) and am also encouraged to see his day off, Monday, as mainly a study day...This is wonderful and generous, but tends to leave me feeling guilty, that the parish is not getting all the curating they are entitled to. It's a real struggle, after years of secular work, and a diary groaning with the effort of reconciling the children's timetables with my own, to accept that it really can be OK to leave a day blank; to be offered an escape route from the tyranny of the diary, and believe that it's actually not a problem if every day isn't fully booked.
Perhaps with my new toy, the fact that gaps in the schedule aren't obvious to the world may improve my attitude. I seem to remember alot of talk at college about the need to be rather than do...

Friday, September 10, 2004

Faith or doctrine??

Fascinating visit this afternoon to one of the congregation...retired English teacher, who started off by telling me, with a edge of challenge in her voice, that she had "more or less no Christian faith". Since she then went on to talk fluently about moments of epiphany, when God had been very real to her, and to affirm the value of both Christian ethics and (amazingly) the church community in her life, I probed a bit and we finally came to the conclusion that she has no problems with faith at all, but found some parts of doctrine a bit sticky. I discovered that she shares my passion for the 17th century metaphysical poets, and agrees that they offer a window onto a reality which the Creeds can only hint at. We also agreed that, when all else failed, the B Minor Mass was clearly a vote for God in a messy world. It was a good encounter...I learned so much from her, and think I may have been able to suggest ways in which she could escape the theological straightjacket which she had been sure she "ought" to be wearing.
Heading home, I was excited by the way minds can meet and visions be exchanged, but also saddened by the way in which the church through the ages has provided stumbling blocks in our very attempts to present our limited understanding of the Truth that is God...Dave Tomlinson, in his GB talk, refers to the way in which words act as icons, leading us into the deeper truths beyond...but, oh dear, how very good we are at insisting that people stick with the superficials.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

An Equal Music...

Rather a week for funerals, this...My first solo on Monday went fine, the family helpfully providing the address and only leaving me to do the "God-stuff"..which they were kind enough to declare "helpful and appropriate", despite earlier assertions of apathy all round.

More cataclysmically, Lucinda came home on Monday shell-shocked by the news that a guy from the year above, who'd just left school after a good set of A levels, was killed in a car accident on Sunday afternoon. The car was being driven by his friend, whom Luci also knows...Thus far, there is nothing to suggest that this guy was in any way to blame...but somehow, I suspect that this will not be easy for him to accept. He was driving. The car crashed. His friend is dead. Shit. 18 feels way too young to have to deal with that.
The 6th form are poleaxed. G. had been head boy, so was well known and loved about the place. The kids who left with him last term have been drifting in to school all week, needing to be together, and feeling lost, as their old world has ended, but the new one of university or work has not properly begun...I wonder if I should go in and loiter with intent, but am wary of "poaching" (the school, unhelpfully, lies within a rather hard line parish, so it is unlikely that the vicar will be a welcome visitor as the mourning time continues). In the end I compromise by telling Luci to make sure that those might need to talk know I'm around.
By Wednesday, it's clear the kids are doing a wonderful job in caring for each I just concentrate on praying for all of them as best I can. Funeral is on be a celebration, followed by rave and sleep- over. The courage of those parents breaks my heart...

Meanwhile, back at the ranch,today was the funeral of a former NSM we had wall-to-wall clergy in church and hall all afternoon...This being until very recently a trad. Anglo Catholic parish, the attempts of some of the Fathers to be charming to me personally while telling me how deeply they disapproved of my being there were verging on the comical. I was given the prayers to "do" and finished up with the prayer based on Donne
"Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven, to enter into that gate and dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity; in the habitations of thy glory and dominion, world without end."

I'm very fond of this, but was taken to task afterwards by one of the former curates (actually a real sweetheart, whom I know of old) because he felt that the version of heaven it presented was exceeding bland...My retort was that we could only judge from the perspective of time, in which the absence of extremes might indeed seem dull, but that we would presumably be beyond this by then....Made me think, though...Are those deeply bored Renaissance cherubs who figure on Christmas cards indicative of a deep truth with which we've not got to grips? Will the diet of wonder, love and praise lose its attraction as eternity goes by? Or should I just tell my left brain to go take a running jump and cease pointless speculation forthwith??
In any case, that Donne prayer stays. It's on the list for my funeral, when the time comes...

Monday, September 06, 2004

Him or me?

Rhys suggested here that my flight into "prophecy" yesterday evening might have been no more than an exercise in airing my frustrations with the tried and trusteds of the parish...and of course, he's right.My suspicion is that I tend to expect so little of God on a day to day basis that whenever an idea seems particularly compelling in its refusal to lie down and be quiet, I attribute it to Him...specially if it involves putting myself outside my normal "Let's make everybody happy" comfort zone.
So, does feeling decidedly ouch about it afterwards mean that I was indeed cantering off over the horizon on a hobby horse of my own, and God is now reminding me that I ought to listen a little harder,- or is it rather the result of going (obediently?) against my normal placatory tendencies?
I don't expect any definitive answers (though of course it would be extremely exciting if God had told anyone reading this what was really going on) but I guess after 10 years of Reader ministry (in which the congregation simply sat there and purred, bless them, because they were so proud of having "produced" me) I'm aware that this is a new context in which people take my preaching more seriously than ever before. That makes me a bit edgy, really...the scope for disaster is so proportion to the opportunity, of course. Please, someone remind me that this whole ordination thing was God's idea...It was, wasn't it?

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Out on a limb....

OK folks. I guess the honeymoon between congregation and new curate has just been brought to an untimely end by this evening's sermon....Fresh home from Greenbelt, and having thought about little else than questions of emerging church for much of the past months (even my vicar thought it important that I weigh up the parish in the light of Mission Shaped Church), today I set to and preached it.
The Evensong readings included Isaiah 43..."I am doing a new thing. Now it springs up. Do you not see it?"
I found myself telling the congregation things that none of you will be remotely surprised by.....that the church is always only one generation away from extinction...that to be catholic means to be inclusive, and not just of People Like Us....that it would matter not a jot or tittle if the C of E was dead within a decade, so long as the church continued to act as the agent of God's mission on earth.
None of it revolutionary, really. None of it rocket science, or indeed D.Theol....but also none of it stuff that they had been made to consider before.
Truly, when I was preparing the thing I couldn't help myself....and if it comes to a contest between upsetting the congregation and ignoring pretty firm direction from God, I know which I would rather do
But as many of you will know, I tend to go 50 miles to avoid confrontation, so finding myself out on an even mildy prophetic limb was scary,scary, scary.
I had one unexpected ally, in the shape of an elderly ex Warden, who greeted the idea that church might look totally different and still fulfill its purpose....My sweetheart of a vicar was fine too....but otherwise the silence was deafening. Even my good friend in the congregation said she felt I'd not been there long enough to preach that sort of stuff. She said it with a smile, but I suspect that's the general reaction.
Does anyone have a bunker available for reluctant prophets to lurk in till the storm has passed?

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Open Day

Well, the last time I was involved in something that called itself that, I was at junior school, and tbh I was far from convinced that holding such an event to improve the community's perception of their parish church (after a period when the barricades had been firmly in place due to various unhappy situations within) would be helpful in any way.
However, when I arrived here, the date, Bank Holiday Monday...(in Cheltenham...I ask you?!?!) was already firmly fixed (with minimal consultation, such is the power of a determined "Events Committee") and assorted noble souls were co-ordinating an amazing range of displays and activities designed to convey the idea that the church was something worth belonging to.
As August went on, I became increasingly anxious that no-one at all would turn now the publicity machine was working overtime, and not a shop window or library display had escaped its quota of flyers....the drama group were rehearsing at any and every opportunity and the flower ladies were planning arrangements to rival Chelsea....The effect of failure on congregational morale would be devestating.
Given the task of producing a simple but engaging act of worship to conclude the day, I began to invest in its success myself, though still not happy that it would demand my return from Greenbelt, highspot of the year....How adventurous dare I be, with a congregation that feels firmly anchored in the past ? Though it does use modern language, it somehow manages to invest it with an archaic flavour, so that I fully expect the imposing Fathers of my Anglo Catholic childhood to rise, fully coped, through the floor during parish Eucharist....but I felt very certain that a modified Evensong was unlikely to be the best way to convince a dubious neighbourhood that we were friendly and accessible.
In the event, I didn't exactly push the boat out, adapting some of Dorothy McRae McMahon's material and using hymns whose tunes at least were likely to be familiar. However, I did draw the line at robing....and the vicar and I both forsook our usual stalls (on the wrong side of the rood screen) for chairs at the head of the nave.... all felt OK.
People did come.
A church that is usually tense and anxious relaxed amid the buzz of happy visitors...children climbed where no child has climbed before (and lighting refused to strike)....Fair Trade coffee was slurped by the gallon....groups that compete rather than complement found themselves working side by side and getting on splendidly....and a representative selection of our pew-bound congregation even managed to emerge to light candles as symbols of their committment to act as salt and light in the community.
What's more, as I admit I mentioned before, some of them even smiled.
I know I did. I'm not used to being surprised there, but it's great when it does happen.