Thursday, 23 November 2017

Pro Ceciliae

The feast day of my patron saint is approaching fast, but this period of November furnishes the festivals of a number of others. There is Edmund on the 20th, brave King of East Anglia who ended pincushioned with arrows by the wicked Danes, and gentle Pope Clement on the 23rd, drowned late in the 1st century with an anchor dragging him to the bottom of the Black Sea. And then, yesterday, the 22nd marks the entry into eternity of blessed St Cecilia.

Like Catherine of the Wheel, Cecilia was usually listed as one of the medieval Fourteen Holy Helpers, and appears luminously in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century rood screens in Norfolk. Like Catherine, too, and several other members of the Fourteen - Barbara, George, Christopher, and Margaret of Antioch - notwithstanding her popularity, her cult was suppressed by the Vatican in 1969 and she was expunged from the calendar, at the peak of the Roman Church's embarrassment at the credulous and picturesque pieties of its past. 

This was a shame, not just because it meant losing a branch off the great tree of the Church's devotional heritage but because Cecilia was very useful. In the 16th century she'd become the patron saint of musicians, mainly because of the line from her Acts which became part of the liturgy for her feast day: 'as the organs at her wedding feast were playing, Cecilia sang in her heart to the Lord, saying: May my heart remain unsullied, so that I be not confounded'. Musicians need a saint to pray for them, no matter what her history may or may not have been. Chris, our late organist at Lamford, when the new edition of the Guildford Diocesan Directory arrived in the church office, would never fail to flick through it and fulminate that organists and directors of music weren't included alongside all the pastoral assistants and youth workers and the like. Since then I've always prayed for our church musicians. 

Cecilia is still there in the Anglican calendar, but only as a minor observance, which means she doesn't get a collect of her own. If you observe her feast day you have to use the Common of Martyrs and stick her name in it, which strikes me as a bit stingy. There are collects for Cecilia online, but they seem to have been written by people who don't know the strict haiku-like conventions that govern the structure of collects. So here is mine, compiled from 'other sources'.

Gracious God,
whose blessed martyr Cecilia sang in her heart
to strengthen her witness to you:
grant that we may join with her in Creation's canticle of praise until the last,
and share in the song of those redeemed
by our Saviour Jesus Christ,
who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns,
one God, in glory everlasting. Amen. 

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Infidelity Rules

Polling company IPSOS Mori have recently published the results of a global survey into religious attitudes, which I learned about through the Christian information blog Word On The Streets (I'm not sure how I ended up on their mailing list). 'Britain is one of the least religious countries in the world', was how WOTS reported the story. This is indeed the case: in the survey, for all the statements about belief and attitudes towards it, towards people with other or no religious traditions, and towards the relationship between religion and wider society, the aggregate results from UK residents were further along the secular end of the spectrum than the global average. Most Britons feel that religion doesn't play a role in defining them or their country; that religion doesn't make people better citizens; that they don't care what religion people have, or whether they have one or not. They also agree, substantially, that religion is a harmful force in human affairs. Looking at the fuller data, though, you discover that only puts the British in line with most of the rest of Europe: in this respect, if no other, the UK is impeccably European. 

There are some peculiar combinations of opinion. The people of Belgium are those most likely to agree that 'Religion has done more harm than good in the world', but they are also the least enthusiastic about being around people who profess a different religion from them. The most tolerant country in that respect is South Africa, but South Africans are the most likely to agree that religion is important for moral life and that their faith defines them as a person. The Japanese are least likely to think that, but also furnish the lowest proportion of people who think that religion is harmful. Although you can see how all of these bundles of attitudes have emerged, there's no clear proportional relationship between tolerance and lack of faith. 

The question it would, at least in faithless western Europe, have been most interesting to ask isn't here; not 'do you lose respect for people if you discover they are not religious', but rather 'do you lose respect for them if you discover that they are'. 

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Breeding Pairs ...

... was Il Rettore's not-entirely-complimentary term for husband-and-wife clergy couples. I never cease to be grateful that Ms Formerly Aldgate isn’t involved in Church life to any great extent. She strives to make it to church for Christmas and Easter and comes to the occasional lunch or other event, but doesn’t claim to be anything other than a well-disposed agnostic. It’s useful to have someone around who is an outsider, both in terms of what the Church does and in terms of parish life.

I’d find other forms of clerical domestic arrangements a little bit confining. Of course, allowing clergy to marry and then opening the priesthood to both sexes inevitably means that you will eventually have priests marrying each other, or a priest marrying someone else who later themselves decides that they have a vocation to the ordained life. I’m starting to feel, I confess, a little itchy about this. My edition of the Guildford Diocesan Directory is out of date by two years, but with its assistance I can count eight parishes in this small diocese which now have married couples of priests on their staff. The arrangements vary: in one parish the incumbent’s wife was ordained deacon this year, in another the couple were appointed as a unit and are designated ‘Joint Vicar’ in a job-share. Both our bishops are married to other clergy: our suffragan’s husband is a leading incumbent in London, while our diocesan Andrew’s wife was found a parish in the diocese after he moved in. She is by all accounts doing a perfectly good job there, but I wasn't the only one whose eyes widened at the news. There are other clergy couples outside the parish level: one may be an incumbent, for instance, while the other works for the diocese.

What happens when you have bishops who are in a relationship with each other? Everyone rather expected our suffragan’s husband to get a pointy hat before she did, and he still might. How would that affect relationships within the College of Bishops? Married relationships are at least overt, but you can’t just suddenly marry someone, so relationships happen, or might happen, before they become public. In the senior management of a business, you’d expect such relationships to be declared to the HR people to avoid conflicts of interest, but we don’t seem to have thought of that. Typically, the Church of England absorbs more and more of the World’s way of doing things, without adopting the safeguards and standards that, in the World, make those habits tolerable.

Then, of course, there’s the Gay Thing. Homosexual clergy can’t marry, but they can contract civil partnerships; there’s at least one parish priest in the diocese of Guildford who is in one. How is the Church going to cope with two priests in a civil partnership who want to look after a parish together? It will, I think, have no choice but to accommodate them, and one part of Anglicanism will go through the roof as a result. Perhaps this has already happened somewhere, I don’t know.

Now, to be sure, this situation reveals something which was masked in the older way of doing things. In many traditional parishes, it was expected that the vicar’s wife would be in charge of something or other, usually to do with specifically female experience – chairing the local branch of the Mothers’ Union, for instance. At the big conservative-evangelical church of St Aldate’s in Oxford, where Dr Bones used to take me on free Sunday evenings while I was at St Stephen’s House, Rector Charlie Cleverly shares the leadership with his wife Anita, who is designated ‘Staff Pastor’; this reflects traditionalist approaches to gender roles, in which women do the cuddly peopley stuff while a man runs the show (although they do have one ordained woman on the staff now). Some of the parish set-ups headed by a husband-and-wife clergy couple round here, especially in evangelical churches, may work like that.

I never thought the St Aldates model was completely healthy, quite apart from the gendered division of labour it sets up – and quite apart from conflicts of interest and the issues of accountability it raises. The Church of Jesus Christ is supposed to represent the irruption of the values of the Kingdom into the fleshly world, and once it becomes penetrated by the World’s habits, something of that otherness, that radicalism, is lost. ‘He who does not hate his father and mother, brothers and sisters, cannot be my disciple’, warns Jesus hyperbolically; where is that troubling, dramatic, outsider-edge in a Church where husbands and wives (or same-sex partners, potentially), run church communities? Is it not turning into something else, something more conventional and everyday? It’s instructive, if odd, that non-Church people often expect this is how the Church is organised. I once came across someone in Swanvale Halt parish who clearly assumed I would be married to the then curate, and in Lamford I and Dr Bones met a man whose first thought was that we were Il Rettore’s children: it was weird, but you can see where he was coming from - a kind of childlike attempt to conform an unfamiliar structure to a familial model. The expectation is sort of natural, and natural, in any simple sense, is not what we are called to be. I wonder whether the outcome of all this cozification, if the Church of England survives at all, will be to conclude that there was a point to clerical celibacy after all. 

Thursday, 16 November 2017

On the Wrong Tracks

Trevor's computer has packed up, so when he downloaded a 'relaxation meditation' he had no means of putting it on a CD to play on his stereo. Could I do it, he asked me. Well, that was a fairly easy, self-contained task. He sent me the email, I popped the audio track onto a blank CD and dropped it round to his flat. How was it? I asked him a couple of days later. 'It's got some funny music on it, I don't think it's right,' he said. 

I am initially sceptical at anything Trevor tells me so when I was nearby I asked whether I could call round, and listened to the CD. Somehow I'd copied an existing playlist onto it so what Trevor got began with Amanda Palmer hollering her head off. Admittedly, not everyone would find that as relaxing as waves breaking on a tropical island.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

The Widening Circles of PJ Harvey's Reach

In retrospect, PJ Harvey’s 6th album – if you count her first collaboration with John Parish, Dance Hall at Louse Point – 2004’s Uh Huh Her, marked a pivot in her work, at least so far. She signalled this in several ways that created a sense of valediction. Firstly, there were the self-portraits in the record sleeve booklet, documenting the masks and guises she had worn up till then; secondly, taking the album on the road, she wore dresses printed with press images of herself taken in earlier years. It was more like a farewell tour than anything else. The music itself, while far from standing still creatively, nevertheless echoed places she’d been before: later on she would admit it was ‘the closest I’ve ever got to plagiarising myself’. She took the opportunity to release several old tracks as ‘b-sides’ (if you can use that archaic language) to singles: ‘Liverpool Tide’ seemed to date from a couple of years before, while the raucous ‘Angel’ and ‘Dance’ came from the early 1990s. Uh Huh Her was the end of a number of lines. It was a mopping-up exercise, and by the time the album actually emerged, Ms H seemed absolutely clearsighted about what was going on. After the tour concluded, when she next appeared on stage, at three relatively small venues in the middle of 2006, she would seem virtually a different performer. She was alone; she wore plain black; she played the piano. And the next album, White Chalk, would be a total, lurching contrast, not just an evolution but a boggling abandonment of everything that had gone before it.

Remembrance Sunday made me want to write about this. I realised how, setting the second Parish-Harvey collaboration A Woman A Man Walked By to one side, Polly’s three solo albums since that great mid-2000s about-face have made me reformulate central aspects of my identity in a way that, however wonderful it may have been, her earlier work never did. Poppies and the Last Post, of course, reverberate with echoes of Let England Shake, that titanic achievement from 2011. But it’s more than LES. As PJH turned deliberately away from delving into her own imagination and reactions and instead has begun stitching together her compositions from other materials, she has reached further and further, redefining successively broader aspects of what it means to be human (what it means to be her, ultimately). I want to say more about the effect this has on me, as I understand it more deeply.

White Chalk reconfigures Dorset. It doesn’t appear to; only the title track refers to anything specific about that landscape, namechecking Lyme Regis, Cerne Abbas, the chalk hills themselves. The other tracks contain little in terms of physical setting – an oak grove, an old milestone, a mountainside (and Dorset doesn’t have those). Yet when she spoke to the authors of the 2006 book Dorset Women she said clearly ‘Really now for the first time on my new album, my new project, I’m singing about Dorset, which has never happened before … I’m embracing it more, the older I get.’ She would write around fifty songs in preparation for what became the baleful masterpiece of White Chalk, and possibly the title track was the only directly Dorset-related one that made it through; yet what survived the filtration was something less obvious – a feeling, an atmosphere. I’ve had a go at critics who were misled by the piano and Polly’s mutton-sleeve dress on the album cover into characterising the album as pastiche Victoriana, but although I don’t repent that intolerance, I can understand the error. There is something Hardyesque about White Chalk, to be sure. The sense of regret, of fate, of something happening in the next room, the fact that every track articulates a female experience (admittedly Harvey would probably deny that, if pressed): it’s as though a succession of Thomas Hardy’s heroines are drifting before us, white-clad and spectral. And somehow when I listen to the keening line ‘Come, come, on a night with no moon’ in ‘The Devil’ I can only picture it being sung beside a dead tree next to a rotten field gate on a hillside above Portesham, or mist-swathed Nine Barrow Down; while the insistent, almost discordant piano of ‘To Talk To You’, sounds to me like it’s being played on the seafront at Swanage, deserted in the rain in about 1905. White Chalk is notoriously comfortless listening, but from its ten songs Dorset emerges changed: an ectoplasmic thread now links its real landscape to its sideways, shadow counterpart, seen reflected in a rainy window pane, a place familiar and intimate, but haunted by human sorrow. I’m not sure I felt before it that ‘these chalk hills will rot my bones’, but I do now. I feel as though I see my county through these visions.

Let England Shake reconfigures England. Far from being narrowly an exploration of World War One, it decontextualises motifs from that symbolic conflict into an account of all war, and nails the identity of England to it, insisting that the inner meaning of Englishness is not only green fields and bucolic landscape, but blood and ambiguity, loss and regret. ‘The Last Living Rose’ begins with cartoonish nationalism and ends with a strange amalgam of love and anguish: England is always something that is passing away, a tide that’s just retreated. ‘The Glorious Land’ bolts together words from a Russian folk song and a lament for the West’s complicity in horror and exploitation with utterly simple words that could be mawkish if the music were not so strong: ‘O America. O England.’ (Eng-er-land, actually, to make it scan). What have you done? What have you been? the song asks. The deformed and orphaned children of the lyrics are the fruit of the war-scarred land, but also of the countries who bring war to it. Nothing is stated explicitly, leaving it to the listener to write specifics into the gaps. The starkly-titled ‘England’ is offered as a revisionist National Anthem. Out of 1932, the sampled voice of Kurdish singer Said-el-Kurdi, an anguished cry for a wrecked homeland, opens in a wail, around which Harvey curls her own, repeatedly and painfully not quite hitting the note until the two voices coincide, which is the spur for her to launch into her own lament, a series of broken, fragmentary statements that culminate in helplessness but also utter commitment: ‘I cannot go on as I am/I cannot leave … Undaunted, never-failing love for you, England/Is all to which I cling’. There are flutes – actually almost certainly electronic mimicry – in the background, referencing the flutes on that other great pop lovesong to England, Kate Bush’s ‘England My Lionheart’. And what has England to do with Iraq, you’re left to ask. I don’t even know what to call this. It isn’t patriotism. It isn’t Bush’s swooning Romanticism. Is it a sort of historicist nationalism, which recognises the vital nature of national identity, but looks steadily and unflinchingly at the truth of it? What I can tell you is that, as my country undergoes a collective nervous breakdown and enters an unreal realm filled with the narcotic fumes of imperialist fantasy, Let England Shake provides me with a means of remaining absolutely English while defying that madness. This flag I can stand and salute.

The Hope Six Demolition Project reconfigures global humanity. Here, Harvey uses the same technique of mingling close focus on human experience with decontextualisation, so the images become universal ones, owned by a common humanity. For instance, the bluesy musical setting of ‘The Ministry of Social Affairs’, incorporating scraps of Jerry McCain’s ‘That’s What They Want’, might make you assume the original inspiration for the track came from the Washington stage of PJ’s journeyings; but the original poem in The Hollow of the Hand is clearly set in Afghanistan. The songs are not arranged in geographical sections as would have been obvious, and as the book is: so, slamming together disparate vignettes suggests connections and resemblances. Poverty is not just something that exists elsewhere; destruction is not merely a foreign experience. Episodes here and there are connected: there are networks of action and inaction which produce them and in which we are all implicated. The singer moves through them all, but what results is not some empyrean account, delivered from an all-seeing, detached vantage point, but a babel of voices, confusion, incoherence. There is no answer. All that remains is the insistence that this matters, that this side of the world and that are linked by feeling and by causation, that we should open our eyes and look. And I have been looking: not that I didn’t before, but the glowing web of global interconnection is clearer now than it was. Thinking through the imagery of Hope Six, I find myself a world citizen, though not via anything as simple and rationally-apprehensible as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Instead my citizenship is in disjuncture and disruption, in hope and grimy reality. Of that, I see more. The album has sharpened my sight and honed my sensitivity. I am more alert.

Polly didn’t aim at this redefinition of ever-widening identities: the achievement resulted naturally from the more modest interests she wanted to run to ground. It wouldn’t have worked if she had set out to do it, and in fact would have been disastrously vainglorious. I am filled with wonder at how this slight woman from a West Dorset village has managed, without trying, to reshape the entire globe around her own vision, and yet remain herself. She’s been preserved from catastrophic egotism by always remaining in the service of something else, and by her original, quarter-century-old determination to eschew everything that goes with the business of stardom. Fans sometimes complain about her lack of interaction with them, but it is exactly that which protects her from the spiritual dangers of her ambitions, keeping her rooted in relationships which have nothing to do with her public persona. This has shielded her and kept her work uncontaminated by any expectations except her own; and it’s this that’s made her the Voice of the Resistance, raising a hand and saying No, this is not how things really are, this is not how people really are, and the truth lies elsewhere than in your partial and skewed narratives.

At least, that’s how it seems to me, and why I become so misty-eyed at what she’s done. I find that much of my conception of what is most humane, most generous and good, is filtered through ten years of her work. Of course I know that the woman herself is a different matter, separate, sometimes – as she herself admits – as startled as anyone else by what emerges from the recording studio; but that’s where she is. And where next? Where to go once you’ve conquered the world? All you can predict is that she won’t think about it like that. It will be some small thought, some feeling in the air, that will lead her to an unexpected vista, a new and unclaimed territory.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Au Secours!

Coming down the hill to say Morning Prayer yesterday I spied a figure on the other side of the road which resembled the curate. And so it turned out to be. I wondered what she might be doing standing on the driveway of no.16.

What Marion was doing was looking upwards to a first-floor window, conversing with an older lady who was holding a baby. Further investigation revealed that this was because said lady and baby had managed to lock themselves in an upstairs bedroom and the child’s parents were out. What to do? Call the parents? She didn’t have their numbers. Call the fire brigade?

Eventually it was decided that I should go home and retrieve a screwdriver so the handle of the bedroom door could be removed. How to get it to the incarcerated lady? A Colditz-like arrangement of a knotted bedsheet lowered from the window didn’t achieve the desired result. I thought I could aim the implement through the window, although Marion voiced some scepticism.

Now, you probably expect this story to conclude in some calamity, a smashed window or worse still small child. But no: at the third attempt the screwdriver found its way safely onto the bedroom floor and although removing the door handle didn’t effect escape, while I was away fetching my ladder to try and get over the side gate and into the house at the back, the lady managed to use it to trip the catch and get out. We all had a friendly conversation at the door. ‘God bless,’ I said to her on parting: ‘I think he already has,’ she responded.

Marion said she would inform her husband, who runs several sports teams at his school, about my throwing skills which she thought might warrant inclusion on the cricket team. I was less sure, not only because my success was flukey but because lobbing a screwdriver in at a window is more akin to darts than cricket, and I don’t think darts is a suitable pastime for a clergyman. 

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Walke of St Hilary

During my Autumn holiday in Cornwall in 2013 I visited St Hilary near St Michael’s Mount. In 1932 this tiny village became the focus of national attention after a group of Protestant activists gained access to the church, acting, they averred, under the authority of a court order, to lever, break, and remove a number of disputed fittings which had been introduced into the building by its vicar, Fr Bernard Walke. It was the last great cause célèbre of the Anglo-Catholic movement, occurring at a time when nobody apart from the hardline protestors really cared, when it was clear that the Anglo-Catholics were not engaged in a sulphurous conspiracy to drag freeborn Englishmen bodily into the thrall of Rome, but were (mainly) hardworking priests trying their best to bring the light and colour of Catholic Christianity to what were often among the most difficult parts of the land for the Anglican Church.

Walke had arrived at St Hilary in 1913, upper-class but erratically-educated, firmly Anglo-Catholic but socialistic and pacifistic in his politics and married in his personal life. He and his wife Annie never had children, though they were very fond of them and adopted a collection of Austrian refugees as well as taking village children under their wing from time to time, including Joan Manning-Sanders, whose artistic ability (the Walkes were friends with lots of artists) led Bernard to encourage her to paint part of the Life of St Endelienta on the screen in the church; as Michael Yelton writes in Anglican Papalism, probably no other Anglican priest at that time, Anglo-Catholic or otherwise, would have thought of allowing a twelve-year-old to decorate his church.

All these enthusiasms led me to enrol Fr Walke as one of my Minor Patrons, but it was only recently that I read his autobiographical Twenty Years at St Hilary, written when he was recovering from TB in a sanatorium at Trehidy. This once well-known book confirms everything I thought about him. Walke’s humility, endless generosity of heart, and love of the people and land he cared for all those years shines from every page. There is not a trace of waspishness or sarcasm, even when he describes so prickly and difficult a character as the perpetually maddening Fr Sandys Wason, ex-vicar of Cury, depicting him, rather than an idiot, as a wanderer from another sort of world. He always puts the most gentle and generous interpretation possible on the actions and character of other people, from the tramps who call at the vicarage door and spin a yarn to gain his charity to a City magistrate dealing with children from slum homes. He has a chapter about ‘Donkeys’ (he kept a number and rode several around the parish over the years), and quotes William Blake.

How Fr Walke managed to fit in all his many activities and projects, from writing Nativity plays to trying to establish a children’s home in the village to an ambitious venture to run the Cornish mining industry on Christian-Socialist lines (called, in strangely Tolkeinesque fashion, the Communion of the Ring), when he seems to have spent much of his time in and around the vicarage garden, quietly observing, I can’t imagine. My years spin by and I have less and less idea where they have gone and how they have been spent.

It’s a little while since I read Twenty Years now, and though I remember getting awfully weepy at various points I’m not sure I can now find them. Perhaps there aren’t any passages which, on their own, are especially moving: it’s more the effect of a gradual rising tide of faith and faithfulness revealed in the pages which overtops the vessel of the reader’s awareness every now and again. Bernard Walke saw heaven in his parish, the clouds of human weakness and muddiness parting surprisingly often to let the glory of God shine through, and everything which was less than glorious he managed to offer to God for him to deal with. The human beings he met were of the same company as the saints of old Cornwall, or the global Church, depicted in the paintings and statues of St Hilary’s, even if very few of his parishioners quite shared his vision of Catholic Christianity. He knew that the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood bound them all together, made possible this fiery gentleness that saw fallen human beings as Jesus sees them, and it didn’t matter that not many others knew it.

One day I must go to see Bernard Walke’s grave at St Erth. For the time being, I ask for his prayers that some of the qualities of his ministry might be present in mine, and, as a truly and not falsely humble person who from his heavenly vantage point now knows his true qualities, he will not refuse.