Friday, 24 February 2017

Looking At the End

I have a very bad habit of skipping to the end of books to see how they conclude. This is particularly reprehensible when the book in question is a biography of a person no longer living, as you know perfectly well how it's going to end. One of the volumes I have on the go at the moment is Owen Chadwick's 1990 biography of Archbishop Michael Ramsey, one of my 'minor patrons' and once a mentor of my spiritual director. However I'm not talking today about Ramsey as such: that can wait for another time. 

Nearly at the end of Chadwick's book, he tells how, less than a year from his own death, the retired Archbishop attended the funeral of his friend and former colleague on the teaching staff at Durham University, Reggie Cant, who became a Canon of York Minster. Ramsey was already frail and nearly blind, and was helped to his place in the Minster looking, a friend said, 'like a great ruined crag'. The order of service for the funeral included two paragraphs by Canon Cant himself:

"Death itself does not frighten me so much as the thought of a long and feeble old age. The litany in the Prayer Book prays that we may be delivered from sudden death, but it means sudden and unprepared, and we are not meant to linger ... More difficult is to learn to hand over to God one's willingness to be old and feeble, to enter a second childhood in which one loses all one's adult dignity, and is stripped of all one's painfully acquired knowledge, and has to begin all over again, at the mercy of other people. ...

"My bodily life will be finished, and it will be a relief if the body is worn out, and the purpose of my life will have been achieved, and I shall be with God ... I shall see him face to face. It will not be pleasant, for my sins will have spoiled my taste for him. But I believe he wills to cleanse me in the saving death of Jesus, and I know that I will to receive his cleansing love here, and there; now, and then. Through his mercy I believe that I shall achieve my true end for which I was born, and towards which all my prayer and daily life have been pointing, the enjoyment of God for ever in communion with the blessed company of all faithful people."

Google Reginald Cant and you will find his history of York Minster, written in conjunction with GE Aylmer; but of his spiritual writings you will find none. I ought to search some out, perhaps; because, reading those words, I think, who could say better?

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

How to Close a Cathedral

A couple of years ago I was on holiday in Norfolk and went to a village called North Elmham. In the eleventh century this was the seat of the Bishop of East Anglia, before the conquering Normans decided that it was a ridiculously small place to be the episcopal residence and moved the bishopric to Norwich, as they did elsewhere in England too. The Anglo-Saxon cathedral eventually vanished, to the extent that all that remains now are its footings. Nowadays, however, we invest rather more in the maintenance of cathedrals – financially, socially and emotionally as well as spiritually – and the idea of closing one boggles the mind a bit.
That, apparently, is what faces our diocesan cathedral at Guildford.

A few days ago the cathedral chapter’s application to Guildford Borough Council for planning permission to sell off a portion of the land around the building for housing was turned down, and turned down decisively – only three councillors voted in favour. Despite worries about increased pressure on local roads and facilities that might be caused by the 134-home development, the real issue lay with the balance between social housing and more commercially-priced property and housing density within the proposed estate – the ‘Cathedral Quarter’, as the chapter grandly refers to it – and the overall idea of developing the green if rather overgrown slopes of Stag Hill. This presents the cathedral with a problem: it runs at a loss each year which varies between £50K and £100K, and without the endowments that older cathedrals enjoy there’s only so long this can go on. Selling the land for development would provide a fund that might, given a favourable wind and stock market situation, make up the difference. Bishop Andrew told the planning committee meeting ‘the cathedral faces the real possibility, in fact probability, of financial failure, of closing its doors, if this planning permission is not granted’. 

Not many people are very sympathetic to the cathedral’s plight. There were allegations that the cathedral was being allowed to plead special treatment for a development which broke the provisions of Guildford Borough’s Local Plan: the word ‘blackmail’ was thrown around. The chairman of a local residents’ association said 'The Church of England has assets of almost £8bn, and in 2013 they made more money than McDonald’s. It is for them to bail out their own institutions'. Others doubted that the threat that the cathedral might close was a realistic one. ‘Are we really meant to believe that they are going to bolt the door and walk away?’

It seems unlikely, but we live in an age of the monstrously unlikely coming true. The new Diocese of Leeds was created in 2014 out of the previous dioceses of Bradford, Ripon and Wakefield, essentially because the Diocese of Bradford was bankrupt; once upon a time the idea of an Anglican diocese actually ceasing to trade for lack of money would have had archdeacons and bishops blinking in disbelief, but those days are past. In Leeds, all the previous cathedrals were in fact retained, stripped of their chapters and administration, but then they are historic buildings: Guildford’s history goes back to the 1930s, and that’s it.*

One correspondent to the independent online newsletter The Guildford Dragon commented: 'So what was the plan to fund the continuing maintenance and running costs of the building as a place of worship [when it was built]? It’s inconceivable that there wasn’t such a plan.' Well, in fact it’s completely conceivable. The Church of England in the 1930s was on the rise, confident, embedded in the establishment and national life. Guildford Cathedral was started then and completed and consecrated in 1966, just as the great 1960s collapse in organised religion which changed the spiritual face of Britain began. The idea of not enough money coming in to support the place just wouldn’t have occurred to the people who built it. Nobody would have imagined that £1.5M per year would be needed to run it; nobody would have thought it would need to be stripped of asbestos and re-plastered inside within fifty years.

It must have looked like such a coup, the Earl of Onslow giving Stag Hill as the striking location for the new and last cathedral the Church of England would ever build. It dominates the landscape for miles, even if its redbrick exterior is hard to love; architecturally it’s the very last flower of the Gothic Revival. When the foundations were first laid, and half the building completed before the outbreak of the War, it stood in isolation on the hilltop. But, after 1945, the tide of building began to lap closer and closer, leaving it an island in a sea of houses. To the north, the 1960s blocks of the University of Surrey occupied acres more. It’s actually an awkward position to be in, however grand it looks.

Couldn’t the cathedral charge its 90,000 annual visitors a fee of say £2 a head like other cathedrals do, asked one correspondent to the Dragon? But I doubt that figure: it’s the kind of thing institutions claim when they want to emphasise their importance to the local community, but Guildford Cathedral isn’t the greatest tourist draw in the country. Its interior is striking, but Il Rettore once astutely described it as looking ‘like a set for Wagner’s Ring’- matching the somewhat Wagnerian politics of its architect, Sir Edward Maufe – and it has none of the warmth and detail of its older peers. A lot of those 90,000 visitors attend as part of civic and other functions such as the University degree ceremonies the cathedral hosts each summer. Ask the staff, too, and they will tell you how many ‘visitors’ arrive in coach parties – who come, not to marvel at the architecture, but to break their journey down the A3 to the Isle of Wight, and who very commonly pile off the coach, have a wee in the restaurant toilets, pile back on again, and drive off without so much as darkening the door of the cathedral itself.

I’ve been told in the past that when the cathedral was built the original plan was, indeed, to set aside some of the site for housing; but it never happened, partly because it never needed to happen, and partly because the green land around the building seemed more useful to the town. Holy Trinity church in the town centre fulfilled the cathedral role before the cathedral itself was built, but it’s much too small to house many of the events which now take place on the top of Stag Hill; so here we have a cathedral which, realistically, can’t survive, but which must.

In the 1960s, the Church of England rationalised the income of its parishes. In each diocese the parishes agreed to pool their endowments and revenues and clergy were paid from that central pot, whereas before the income of different parishes had varied massively. Is it time to do that with cathedrals? Would the cathedral chapters – none of whom are exactly rolling in money – agree to it? Particularly, would the medieval cathedrals which cost so much to maintain be willing to bail out redbrick Guildford?

[*And, while it occurs to me, the three demoted Yorkshire cathedrals are in fact overgrown parish churches that were bumped up to cathedral status in the 19th century: they had an existence before they were cathedrals, and can potentially revert to that. Guildford was purpose-built.]

Monday, 20 February 2017

Well That's Nice

I'm still not confident that the schedule for our revived Junior Church has worked its way into popular consciousness (or any other kind, to be honest) so, as the third Sunday in each month approaches, I send out lots of emails and pop it on Facebook and the church website to make sure that as many people are reminded as possible. The old adage probably holds good, that people need to be told about something seven times in different forms before it finally registers. Six children turned up this Sunday, despite it being the end of half term, and that was fine. 'I think we've cracked this', said Erica, who helps out with Junior Church. 'Six children makes it worthwhile. It was - fulfilling.' I think this is one of the most encouraging things anyone has said to me in my seven-and-a-half years here. 

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Making It Real

Our Lay Reader Lillian has been co-ordinating a small group reorganising the entrance area to the church, where we display a variety of notices, on a more rational basis. We were clearing up some of the notices and discarded bits and pieces this week when we discovered a small magazine. Making It Real Part 6, it’s called, and consisted mainly of a cartoon version of part of the Gospel of St Luke and an article by Ben Griffin, a former SAS soldier who started the UK version of Veterans For Peace as a result of his experiences in the Afghanistan War. On investigation this publication turns out to have been produced by a very small collective of Christian anarchists based not at all far away in Guildford: thus Surrey continues its strange tradition of harbouring this way-out form of radicalism (shades of the Diggers at Weybridge nearly 400 years ago).

This group, it turns out, are freegans, guerrilla gardeners, supporters of whistleblowers and pacifist veterans, and altruistic organ donors, among other things. I don’t agree with a lot of their analysis. ‘We see the richest and most powerful people in the world killing for, consuming and then wasting most of the world’s resources, and destroying the planet in the process, why do we work for them in the vain hope to be more like them?’ Making It Real asks. I don’t see many people I know who are motivated in that way. They don’t want to be like the super-rich, they just want security and peace, more even for their children than for themselves. There is certainly a ratchet effect that escalates our expectations of what a good standard of living means; but basically most people are content with modest quantities of basic things – food, clothing, shelter, recreation, and self-realisation. But complaining about this group getting that wrong is a bit picky. Frankly they’ve got a lot of the big picture right.

Most of us are moderates, cavillers and compromisers; and without the occasional extremist I suspect nothing much would ever move forward. I’m not going to start foraging for food out of Swanvale Halt’s bins, but I’m not going to have a go at them for trying to live like that. I will even remember them in my prayers because that kind of extremism is what the world needs. 

Thursday, 16 February 2017

"Bishop Apologises for Accidentally Voting the Right Way"

The figures from the General Synod's vote on the bishops' report yesterday were as follows (just for those not versed in the ways of Anglican decision-making, the Synod votes by 'houses' - bishops, clergy, and laypeople):

House of Clergy: 93 for, 100 against, 2 abstentions.
House of Laity: 106 for, 83 against, 4 abstentions.
House of Bishops: 43 for, 1 against.

The one errant member of the episcopal bench was the very middle-of-the-road figure of the Bishop of Coventry. Now, it might not unfairly be commented that the Rt Revd Christopher Cocksworth not only is unaccustomed to rocking the boat, he may not be completely confident of where the boat is. It turned out that he'd pressed the wrong button when he was voting. It could happen to anyone, but let's hope a similar imprecision doesn't afflict President Trump regarding a different button which is never far away from him.

Again, for those not familiar with these things, even though the Houses of Bishops and Laity voted in favour of the report, it fails because the House of Clergy voted against it: all three have to be in agreement, on some matters with a two-thirds majority in each. I wonder whether ordained people in the Synod voted against the report more strongly because the existing practice, which it endorses, affects them more than the laity. The report justifies barring homosexual clergy from marrying (even though they do, and nothing happens to them) and prying into the sexual habits of ordinands on the grounds that clergy have an 'exemplary' role and therefore different standards of behaviour are expected of them than laypeople. I think this is ludicrous. The moral standards expected of laypeople and clergy are surely exactly the same. It makes no sense whatever to suggest that something which is right for a layperson to do is wrong for an ordained one. The difference is the sacramental nature of the ordained life: the ordained person has promised to try to live by certain standards, whereas the layperson hasn't.

The vote clearly shows how the Church of England - or at least those it elects as its representatives to Synod - is still divided about this, apparently roughly evenly. It may not be as simple as that, though. Some of those who voted to 'take note' of the report may not be opponents of further advances in the position of homosexual people in the Church, but rather supporters who felt that this was the best they could get at the moment (I might have felt like that). Some of those who voted not to 'take note' of it may not be supporters of greater rights for same-sex Christians, but rather those who are dissatisfied even with the limited concessions it makes. 

'We haven't coalesced around an end point', said the Bishop of Willesden after the vote, 'we haven't even begun to find a place where we can coalesce ... We don't know the next stage, nor when or whether we can bring another report to Synod.' Such indeterminacy will make the Bench of Bishops extremely uncomfortable, but at least this result shows them the direction they should be going in. 

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Sources of Wrong

When our diocesan bishop revealed that he had been one of the boys beaten by John Smyth at the Iwerne Camps in the 1970s, there was around the diocese first mild surprise and then sympathy. It seems all to the good that a Church leader can talk about horrible things of this kind openly, and a sign of how far we’ve come since the time when clergy were supposed to present themselves as impervious and distant, for the good of the flock.

Towards the end of his statement, Bp Andrew pleads that those who went through John Smyth’s abusive behaviour should not be ‘used as pawns in some political or religious game’. He surely has in mind articles like this one from the ever-reliably-outraged Fr Giles Fraser connecting Smyth’s violence to a toxic Imperial vision of masculinity underpinned by Evangelical Christianity, a visceral reaction against the poofiness of Victorian Anglo-Catholicism. Fr Fraser (as usual) paints a compelling picture, and there is no doubt that Smyth made sure his victims voluntarily submitted themselves to his ‘discipline’ by using the standard Evangelical theology of the camps. Bp Andrew’s claim that abusers operate within all religious frameworks and none is of course true, but it glosses over the extent to which religious language and ideas facilitate abuse in these cases and is even used very effectively to make the victims collaborate in their own suffering. The common elements include removing children and young people (and in other versions of this kind of thing, adults too) from contexts of normality into an abnormal one in which their normal relationships don’t count, creating circumstances in which authority is not questioned, and rearing them in an ideology which works to removal critical thinking.

In this case, more specifically, I think there is some meat to the allegation that the Imperial cult of ‘manliness’ and Christianity were connected, even long after the Empire ceased to be relevant. You can see this again and again in the biographies of public-school chaps from the late Victorian era onwards. But that was just one facet of a wider culture in which the beating of children was accepted and expected, which Christianity didn’t produce, however much it may have collaborated with it.

Our curate Marion told me that her husband (an Old Wykehamist) came from exactly the same social and educational echelon that would under normal conditions have taken him to the Iwerne Camps. ‘I don’t think he’s ever been as grateful for being brought up a Roman Catholic’. Because nothing like that ever happened in the Catholic Church, of course …

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Swanvale Halt Film Club: Fall of an Empire (AKA Katherine of Alexandria) (2014)

Oh dearie, dearie me. Apart from a lapse regarding The Turin Horse, I usually operate on the principle that if you can’t say anything nice you shouldn’t say anything at all. It is very, very hard to say anything nice about this film, which comes across like an extended episode of Xena the Warrior Princess without the laughs. You do get to see some extremely elderly ‘name’ actors like Edward Fox, Joss Ackland and Peter O’Toole who were presumably very cheap due to age, and Steven Berkoff who is just cheap anyway, while beautiful Nicole Keniheart as Katherine (Katarina? they can’t decide what to call her) fascinates by her sheer impassivity. It’s as though the director’s told her, ‘You’re a saint, you’re supposed to be serene’, and as a result she delivers her often gnomically incomprehensible lines with barely a flicker in facial expression throughout the whole 106 minutes. Actually, no, she does have two expressions: alive and dead. She really does look the part, but if only that was enough. And there, so far as criticism goes, we will leave matters.

Of course I watched Fall of an Empire because of the treatment of St Catherine, and, if ambition is in itself laudable, the film is to be lauded for that, anyway. It’s an attempt to take the Catherine story out of pseudo-history and insert it into the realities of the early fourth century. Here, Katherine, a strangely and precociously intellectual Egyptian peasant girl, is seized by loopy Emperor Maxentius and grows up in his palace in Alexandria. In adulthood she sends apparently innocent but in fact incendiary poetry out across the Empire inciting the barbarian peoples to throw off the Roman yoke, a sort of Katniss Everdeen of the mind. Tangled with her protest against imperial power is her rebellion against the Roman gods and the decision of insurgent Emperor Constantine – confusingly her childhood friend and anxiously searching for her – to abandon the old ways too. Of course it’s just as much pseudo-history as the legend it’s re-imagining, but you can see how this actually makes for rather a powerful story: it just all goes wrong in the telling in ways it would be hard to enumerate.

But there is one point where the film achieves a genuinely iconic image; and it’s not the execution on the wheel. Katherine sits before a group of senators dragged in to debate with her, the narrative’s parallel for the legend of her converting the fifty pagan philosophers, propped against a crutch after her ankles have been smashed, a crutch which echoes the cross. Battered, filthy and yet luminous, she calls the gods of Rome ‘mists and fallacies’, lies and liars: that was no more than Homer had said, after all, and with its gods goes all the authority of Rome. Here is a glimpse of what might have been, something genuinely radical and grand. All martyrs, in the end, are rebels against power in the name of a power that is deeper, greater, and more ultimate, and that idea is never less than compelling.