Thursday, 22 March 2018

Letting it Wash Over You

We were discussing the worship life of the church at the Mission & Outreach committee last night. Attendance at the Family Service, which peaked in 2015 when we were getting between 90 and 100 people consistently for several months, has juddered downwards and for quite a while there have been very few 'families', in the sense of groups with young children, present at all, thus rather invalidating the whole notion. We're not the only church locally to be experiencing this. 'We should have more hymns that the children sing at school', suggested Margaret.

The trouble is that the children don't sing that many hymns at school. They learn songs for specific occasions, including, perhaps, less than half-a-dozen actual hymns throughout the year. These tend to be from the Out of the Ark stable written by Mark and Helen Johnson, some of which I think are very good indeed. They're often profound as well as simple, and have good strong tunes, and when possible I do transfer them into the church repertoire ('Hosanna to King Jesus' has made an appearance on Palm Sunday and this Easter Day the 10am mass will culminate with another song). But the other music they're exposed to isn't easily transferable. The head teacher attends an evangelical Anglican church in the south of the county and as the children gather for assembly she commonly plays a worship song from Youtube. Sometimes these are very trad indeed - during Pirate Maths week I found myself listening to 'Eternal Father strong to save' and getting a lump in my throat - but most of the time they are modern and not all that helpful. The other morning it was this, 'This is Amazing Grace' by Paul Wickham:

That's quite nice, I thought, as I sat there, and the lyrics are OK, so I looked it up when I got home. I still thought it was nice, undemanding pop, but I realised I couldn't do anything with it. Not only does it really need a band that includes drums and keyboards and some enthusiastic singers up the front, but I can't imagine anyone really singing it apart from them. The children don't - the worship songs are on in the background, and that's all. Occasionally you can see them swaying or bopping gently in time to the music, whether it's modern or trad, but that's all.

On the occasions I've been to full-scale band-led worship in evangelical churches, it's struck me that the congregation doesn't really sing in the way a traditional one does. What they do is vaguely join in with what the band is doing. They put their hands in the air and follow the words on the screen. They pick up the tune (which is often quite hard to pick up), lose it for a couple of bars, and then pick it up again. They waver around the notes, up and down. However, it doesn't really matter what the congregation does, because the band is leading the liturgy anyway. It's the way you behave at a pop concert, and it's a markedly different experience from singing traditional hymns. The music is really just the framework for your own devotional thoughts. It is - I suggest perhaps provocatively - not very different from the old Mass where the schola sang the plainchant settings and the congregation knelt and counted their beads and let them get on with it. In both cases, the music is a sort of pious miasma that flows around you and shapes your own prayers, rather than you engaging with it very directly. This model of worship works by releasing the attention so that the worshipper can lose themselves in their own thoughts.

In a standard Anglican service, however, everyone is really concentrated on the words. They follow the service in their booklets and the hymns in their hymnbooks. The concentration is part of the meditative process of practising the presence of God. It works, in so far as it does, by focusing attention; it's quite an intellectual business. 

I don't think people appreciate this enough, and I didn't until I took part in a bit of evangelical worship a few years ago. This is why thinking that you can simply transplant modern worship songs into trad worship patterns doesn't work, even though there are certainly modern hymns by evangelical musicians which are traditional in form and much easier to incorporate (Stuart Townsend writes a number of these). They're designed for a different sort of experience, an experience not just distinct in form, but in nature.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Breaking Faith

'I am now at a point where I no longer feel any guilt about my loss of faith’, wrote Victor the widower to me, ‘and indeed I feel a great deal happier than I have for five or six years, my depression having lifted at long last’. Victor had had much to put up with, nursing his wife through dementia for a couple of years before her death, and suffering a series of health setbacks himself as well as the sort of spiritual torpor he described to me. Non-Christians so often typify guilt as the mainspring of belief: guilt about losing that belief is a further level of contortion and you can see how relinquishing that could come as a relief – and perhaps, I might hope in Victor’s case, that might open the way to something more healthy and joyful.

Our relationship with God is a lot like our relationships with anyone else we might find ourselves loving. There are times when it’s sustained by will, by the conscious decision to keep going, even though we might not feel anything very much. Gradually that decision of will and its consequences affects the heart, the bundle of affections, habits, conceptions and perceptions which comprise our person, until it becomes impossible to imagine our own lives separate from that relationship, and out of that emerges a deep peace and serenity.

There have to be two things that make this act of sustained will reasonable, though. The first is that there is sentiment, and therefore the practised memory of sentiment, of our first encounter with God or the initial emotions that surrounded the person we love: that sustains our decision of will, waters its soil, as it were. Secondly, the object of our love has at least to be trying to love us in the same way, or the whole business becomes pathological, and not the act of a reasonable being. You have to get something back from them; they have to want to give something to you.

What, then, do we get back from God? The difference between the relationship of faith and other sorts is that faith requires that first we decide that God is there at all; and often that assertion seems to fly in the face of everything we experience. We only get something back from him once we’ve decided that he exists, and no such ambiguity is present in our other affections. The collapse of belief folds up the relationship because we can no longer see that we are receiving anything from him, and if we can’t see that we’ll be unable to sustain our belief. The two motions reinforce each other. In either case, the memory of the sentiment from which our faith grew, if there was any in first place, will wither and disappear.

There is certainly no point feeling guilt about it: like losing your love for a person, it’s just a fact. For it to change, for the stump of faith to sprout again, all those elements will have to be present afresh – the sentiment, the awareness of receiving, the possibility that God might be there. It’s such a fragile and uncertain business.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Toe in the Water

A day of snow wasn't the time I would choose to venture back to church again after my enforced absence, but when I got up this morning that was what I found - not quite what was expected, but not a very severe fall, and already going slushy on the roads. I didn't have to head out early, as a visiting priest was managing the 8am.

In fact I was in church yesterday, but acting in a supervisory capacity as the preparations were made for the beginning of Passiontide - veiling the images, and putting up the Stations of the Cross. I also had a couple of baptism bookings to make.

We were going to have a baptism this morning, too, but the godparents couldn't make it from far-flung parts along the snowy roads. The young baptizand's family still turned up - they're fairly regular attenders and only live around the corner - bearing his cake which they shared around after the service was over. It was an odd morning. I expected to preach and in fact Lillian the lay reader was down to do it, and then when she started the Gospel reading it turned out to be the wrong one. The best bit was Junior Church making 'prayer pretzels'. I didn't get one. 

I get the impression that the older members of the congregation (that is, the majority) have rather enjoyed me being poorly, in the nicest possible way. They get a chance to comiserate with me rather than me with them, and they now know that I have a better idea what they're talking about, given that so many pastoral or parochial conversations revolve, one way or another, around operations. 

Friday, 16 March 2018


My friend Cylene let it be known on another social media platform with some force and eloquence that Mothering Sunday is not her favourite time of the year. ‘If you have a bad mother, please don’t feel bad if today you didn’t celebrate it, you didn’t choose whom to come out of and anyone would understand if you didn’t feel like putting one of the people who inflicted suffering on you on a pedestal. So ignore the propaganda because it doesn’t apply to us. Birthing accomplishment doesn’t grant you automatic goddess status if you’re actually a monster.’

At Swanvale Halt, Mothering Sunday, the middle Sunday of Lent, is always marked with a Family Service rather than a eucharist, a title I find awful but which we use because none of the alternatives are any clearly better. The children from the infants school come and sing, usually a song about Spring and one about mums, and posies of flowers are blessed, and distributed by the children present not just to mums but – in theory – whoever they think may want them. They go wider than the congregation, and find their way into homes, and care homes, around the parish. The service always attracts a big gate, though of course this year I was absent, laid up on my bed of pain (or my desk chair of moderate discomfort).

I know that despite the cute contribution of small children singing, there are regular members of the congregation who absent themselves for Mothering Sunday. Not everyone has had positive relationships with their families, and the unquestioned imagery of family togetherness which tends to characterise most modern forms of Christianity can really stick in the throat if that wasn’t your experience, and yet have a faith. It wasn’t really there before the 19th century, and sits strangely with a Saviour who once said, albeit rhetorically, that unless someone hated their parents and siblings they couldn’t be his disciple. Every year at the liturgical planning group we debate how we can signal inclusion on this day to people who aren’t part of families, or who’ve lost their mothers or their children, or have reasons not to think fondly of them.

If you check the Wikipedia article on Mothering Sunday the sources it quotes for the festival’s history range from something someone read on the BBC to Cross & Livingstone’s 1974 Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church – but no further. We know about Mid-Lent Sunday, of course, the day when the severity of the Lenten fast is lifted, the liturgical colour changes from violet to pink, and the Introit at the start of the old Mass began 'Laetare Ierusalem', ‘Rejoice, O Jerusalem, and gather round, all you who love her’. It is supposed that this was traditionally the day when people who had moved away from the place of their baptism returned to that church, and took the opportunity to visit such of their relatives (often parents) who might remain there; servants might be given the day off for this purpose. So far from Cross & Livingstone, who quote no sources either.

As you will find very readily, the modern observance of Mothering Sunday derives solely from the work of Constance Adelaide Smith, an Anglican priest’s daughter from Coddington in Nottinghamshire, who in 1913 read about the parallel campaign of Anna Jarvis in the USA to have a day dedicated to the remembrance and celebration of the nation’s mothers, and decided to begin her own efforts in the same direction. But, as she was a High Church Anglican (so described), she wanted the British version to be a religious rather than a secular occasion, and the pamphlet she wrote about the subject – The Revival of Mothering Sunday – promoted this. Miss Smith took the very clearly attested folklore surrounding Mid-Lent Sunday, its Simnel Cakes and customs, and the Church liturgy, and argued that this made it the ideal moment to celebrate motherhood. Even the Epistle set for the Communion that day, which Archbishop Cranmer had taken across from the old Mass when compiling the Prayer Book liturgy, was from Galatians 4, and included the line ‘Jerusalem which is above is free: which is the mother of us all’ (though in that text Blessed St Paul also goes on to say, ambiguously, ‘the desolate hath many more children than she which hath an husband’). It all seemed to make perfect sense. Queen Mary and the Mothers’ Union took up the cudgels and by 1938 it was stated that ‘Mothering Sunday was celebrated in every parish in Britain and every country in the Empire’.

I haven’t read Miss Smith’s original pamphlet, but I smell a High Church rat. You’d’ve thought that, as a daughter of the manse, she’d’ve been in a position to know what domestic servants got up to, and that picture she paints of girls in service going back to see their old mums on Mothering Sunday and picking posies of flowers along the country lanes to give them is terribly romantic and compelling. That doesn’t mean it’s true, as my encounters with High Church romancers writing about the world of folklore around exactly the same time have taught me. Why does no actual folklorist ever quote any example of this happening? Why does it never crop up in diaries or oral history? I quickly scanned relevant bits of Parson Woodforde’s Diary the other day, as that late 18th-century cleric regularly mentions the doings of the servants as well as folk customs such as the village children turning up on his doorstep every St Valentine’s Day to beg for coppers. James Woodforde never hints that there’s anything unusual about the middle Sunday of Lent, still less that the servants got the day off. Who would have cooked his dinner? The story goes back, apparently, no further than Constance Smith herself. Clearly she was no liar; but she may well have blown up some stray remark from a parlourmaid about what she planned to do on Mid-Lent Sunday into an entire social custom which never in fact existed.

In some moods I would like to jettison the whole thing, and the more I find out about the true Imperialist background to it the more I am inclined to argue we do so. But among the people with whom it’s popular, it’s terribly popular, and there’s no doubt that it brings into the church and exposes to the Gospel souls who would otherwise avoid it. Would abandoning Mothering Sunday stand more starkly for truth and love than maintaining it?

Wednesday, 14 March 2018


By far the post on this blog which has aroused the most public interest is nothing to do with the blessed PJH or anything about Swanvale Halt parish (unsurprisingly), but my delving into the murky world of oddball Christian movements entitled 'Beyond the Fringe'. I managed to blunder into this world, or something close to it, again a few months ago via what might appear the most orthodox of routes. Someone sent me a little booklet by the well-known evangelist John Ioannou, who goes by the name of J John, and idly I decided to find out more about him, being well-acquainted with his name but little more. Among the many honours and recognitions granted Mr John, says Wikipedia, is that he was ‘ordained presbyter and Canon Missioner by Bishop David Carr OSL’. By who, what? I thought, and off I went, round the corner if not quite the bend.

Once upon a time there was an evangelical church leader in Solihull called David Carr. He started the Renewal Church in 1972 with four people and lo, the Lord blessed the work and eventually the congregation numbered some 2000 divided among a group of church centres. Mr Carr moved from the Elim Pentecostal network, in which he was ordained in 1979, into the Free Methodist connexion. He received a good deal of support from the local authorities for the church’s good work in the community, culminating in an OBE in 2016. But he'd received something else a few years before, too.

Renewal had already been working for several years with Wroxall Abbey, the site of the medieval Priory of Wroxall and since 2001 a hotel, spa, wedding venue and conference centre: it had taken on running the ancient church of St Leonard which stood in the grounds of the Victorian mansion. Mr Carr began to see ‘many parallels between the life of St Leonard and the modern day work that Renewal was engaged in’. What he received in 2009 was a word from the Lord relating to the bit from Genesis chapter 26 where Isaac reopens the wells his father Abraham had and which had been stopped up by the wicked Philistines, and calls them by their former names. Mr Carr began to perceive his mission as relating not just to the evangelisation of the local area and reopening an old church the Anglicans had relinquished, but something bigger, a mission to do with Christian unity and ecumenism.

In July 2009, Mr Carr emerged as ‘Bishop Abbot of the Order of St Leonard and Bishop of Wroxall Abbey’. I’m not sure who consecrated him a bishop, but it may have been Archbishop Charles Travis, Chancellor of Logos Christian College in Jacksonville, Florida, which in 2004 awarded Mr Carr a doctorate (as it did to his brother Anthony, who is now also a bishop based at Wroxall Abbey). I don’t know whence Abp Travis derives his orders – you can waste too much time trying to chase down these scrawny and unsatisfying hares – but he’s part of a broader network of bishops who seem to have graduated from running their own charismatic and evangelical churches to popping mitres on their heads and wearing copes, some in the US, some in Europe, some in Africa. They call themselves the Communion of Evangelical Episcopal Churches, and claim to be broadly Anglican while not part of the Anglican Communion itself.

At the same time, the church of St Leonard was consecrated a cathedral, colloquially known as ‘Wren’s Cathedral’ (pace St Paul’s, London), as the family of Wren the architect owned the estate at one time and his wife is buried there. The Order of St Leonard is dedicated to ‘to bring together all Christians, regardless of differing denominations and streams, without leaving their distinctive groupings, in to a unified fellowship for prayer, mission and to help the disadvantaged’, which cannot be a bad thing, can it? Dr Carr, and the other members of the Order, promote connections between Christian denominations and the crossover of ideas (he’s met the Pope).


And what of J John, with whom we started? He’s there on the OSL website right enough, so he must be happy enough to be identified with them, orthodox fellow as he is.

There are many echoes here of other fringe churches, though curiously not the ones I’ve dealt with before. Abps Sean Manchester, Jonathan Blake et al have ended up where they are via a variety of eccentric routes and function more-or-less on their own, heading churches for the most part without laypeople or structures. No, the echoes I hear in the OSL come from longer ago. There are the Irvingites, that very peculiar outburst of Victorian piety in which the evangelical church leader Henry Irving found himself at Mass in Rouen Cathedral and heard an angel telling him ‘these are the vestments in which the Lord desires his priests to serve him’ – a visionary experience out of which came one of the weirdest Christian denominations in history, which I know is quite a claim to make (there’s an Irvingite church not far away from me, though no Irvingites to worship in it). Then there’s Hugh George de Wilmott Newman, who came from an Irvingite background but by the 1940s had decided God wanted him to reunite all the quarrelling factions of episcopi vagantes in his own person, had himself reconsecrated by whatever Archbishops he could find and eventually restyled himself ‘Mar Georgius’, thus paving the way for the British Orthodox Church under his cousin, Mar Seraphim, Archbishop of Glastonbury, which flourishes (sort of) today. It was Mar Georgius’s lifelong regret that Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher of Canterbury so disdained his sincere offer to reconsecrate him and thus bring ‘legitimate’ orders into the Church of England.

There are similarities here, but Bp Carr and the OSL don’t seem really to be bothered by such technicalities as who consecrates who. I do not want to mock them, either, because what it seems we have here is a sudden – you might even say miraculous – irruption of a Catholic sensibility within evangelical church forms. The fact of taking over that old church in the middle of Warwickshire and doing things that have been done there for centuries appears to have had a very genuine and profound effect on Renewal and on Dr David Carr, and I can’t gainsay that. The past reaches forward to the present, and the present back to the past: I view this as a true movement of the Spirit. But then I think Catholicism is the inner dynamic of Christianity, its shape continually re-emerging over time, so I would view it like that.

The cover of Dr Carr's autobiography arguably shows at least some degree of self-aware humour.

Monday, 12 March 2018

Post Op

As I was wheeled through the corridors of the hospital on Saturday wondering whether the lights in the ceiling would be among the last earthly things I ever saw, I realised that the experience I could most closely relate it to was setting off on various terrifying rides at Thorpe Park with Cylene: there was the same sense of abandonment to something I didn't really want to happen. I'd known, in theory, that this was coming since I was diagnosed with a hernia in October, but in the event it all happened rather more quickly than I thought it would. 

Of course it's a pretty minor sort of procedure and the surgeon seemed almost bored when he did the rounds of the bays in the short-stay ward. 'I've done thousands of these,' he assured me, prompting a feeling of sympathy as much as confidence. However, I'd never had a general anaesthetic before, and didn't know how it was going to play out: you can never quite be sure you don't have a hidden heart or brain complaint which is suddenly going to become apparent, and it had seemed as though bits and pieces of my life had been gathering to see me off over the last few days, a very strange sensation. I told myself that in fact drifting into unconsciousness and not emerging is a fairly gentle and unobjectionable way of passing out of this mortal life, although in the end I was nothing more than a bit sick.

And so here I am at home, having passed a Sunday with no church activity for the first time since I was a new Christian in Chatham twenty-five years ago. I've managed to clear my diary for this week, the church has flowed around the gaps I have left and filled them, and Ms Formerly Aldgate is doing most of the cooking. My biggest and most distracting problem is horrible indigestion which I trust will dissipate before long - it's early yet. It's taking more time to pass through than the beneficent sense of gratitude for being alive at all which I felt on first emerging, which swiftly, and sadly, becomes swamped by other things. I'll have to work at maintaining it!

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Spring Sign

The camellias are late blooming this year. The curate's garden at Lamford also had a camellia bush, and one year I was there it began flowering before January was over; this year, the first blooms are out by the end of the first week in March. I'm not a big flower fan, so these are almost the only ones in my garden - I can't even seem to cultivate wild flowers where I might want them for the sake of the bees! The camellias' brilliant pink heralds a new season making its way into being.