Thursday, 22 June 2017


On Sunday the priest in charge of St Clement’s, North Kensington, was interviewed on the radio, describing the lack of contact his church, and other places of worship, had from the local authority while caring for those affected by the fire at Grenfell Tower over the previous few days. When a disastrous event occurs, places of worship have an assumed place in helping to deal with the aftermath. They provide space, shelter, and ready-to-hand networks of people to channel effort. What they lack is strategic oversight of whatever the event is: that needs to come from elsewhere, from a statutory body.

In 1968 we had floods in this part of Surrey. The then new-ish incumbent of Swanvale Halt church, Father Barlow, took to a dinghy to pluck residents out of their homes and take them to safety, and this did public perception of him no harm at all – he’d previously been viewed as a slightly dangerous Anglo-Catholic extremist who wanted to make the services at the church invisible with incense-smoke. People remembered it for a long time: I wish there’d been photographs taken. When we had (somewhat less serious) floods a few years ago, as a church we had no direct involvement, although one of our pastoral assistants worked very closely with groups of local residents campaigning about the painfully slow refurbishment of their flooded homes. Nevertheless we recalled the story of Fr Barlow and wondered what we should do as a church to respond more directly to any such event in the future. We discovered that almost every public space in the vicinity is registered with the local Council as a ‘designated place of assembly’ and there are also emergency generators round about too, so that puts any effort we might provide into perspective.

The point is that the local authority has, as it’s supposed to have, a plan to manage emergencies and in this part of Surrey that certainly includes interaction with the voluntary bodies in the area, such as churches. It happens here: why not in a western district of central London?

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Getting Together

There’s a new cherry tree in the church garden, with a new brass plaque next to it, provided by one of our local firms of undertakers. In years to come, I wonder whether people will think that Jo Cox, who the plaque mentions, was our MP. Will anyone long remember what happened to her in the summer of 2016, in the hot days before the UK voted to leave the European Union?

The series of events in commemoration of Ms Cox went under the title of the Great Get Together and the branding was a work of genius. The Gill Sans lettering subconsciously recalls Keep Calm and Carry On and any number of wartime propaganda posters, and is laid out against a red-and-white chequer tablecloth. You can find endless photographs online from the weekend of communities up and down the land taking part in the event, usually with a lady or two in a hijab to make the point that this includes everyone: the whole of England, united by what else but tea and cake, that alchemical universal solvent that takes different races, cultures and background and makes a nation of them. I strike a slightly ironic tone, but don’t mean to inject any note of cynicism: I know it’s about aspiration, about saying (as Jo Cox did, blandly but unchallengeably) ‘Far more unites us than divides us’; even when what divides us is actually very important indeed.

We are not quite so multicultural in Swanvale Halt. The event here was driven by a couple of members of the congregation with a long involvement in local politics from the liberal-leftward direction, so I didn’t have much to do with its planning. We had tea, dedicated the tree (for which I had to devise a tiny liturgy as there doesn’t seem to be anything available even in the Rituale Romanum), and went into the church for some apposite readings and hymns. The local choral society sang FaurĂ©’s ‘Cantique de Jean Racine’. A church member in his early 90s talked about why he’d chosen ‘Father I give into your hands’ as his hymn: ‘I thought, We all have to rely on someone else, and this hymn is about that, in a way’.

It is of course true, all the community-togetherness stuff, and true too that ‘more unites us than divides us’. But I thought about the business round the corner, run by a young mum whose children go to the infants school, that recently had to close down after getting going with such aspiration and optimism, because the landlord lost patience with not receiving the full rent – and had a better offer for the site from a property developer. The landlord also lives in the area, is part of exactly the same ‘community’ as the people involved in the business. Sometimes what unites us only goes so far when you’re up against the facts of economics and of power.

It’s not that such conflicts of interest illegitimate events like the Great Get Together: they are liturgies of what we want to be. It’s just that it isn’t that simple: community needs hard work, if only the hard work of mutual interaction and listening; it needs people, structures, and sometimes sacrifice. It needs the diligent, careful cultivation of hope and trust. We all have to look after the cherry trees.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Father's Day

We never went in much for Father's Day in our family: my dad dismissed it as American nonsense (which it isn't really). I didn't think anyone much did but now I find people mentioning it more and more.

Outside church times (of which there have been a lot), my dad has come into my mind more than usual. This is his old sovereign ring, which I can't wear, not that I like rings a lot anyway: if it were to slip over the weir of the knuckle of my ring finger it probably wouldn't go back. But it's the object that reminds me most of him.

Even five years after he died, my feelings about my dad remain ambiguous. I never talked to him as much as I should have, and by the time I felt I really wanted to, Alzheimer's disease was taking its hold on him and there was little he could say. He appears in my dreams now and again, and he is never ill in those, but that restoration seems to bring with it no sense of pleasure - instead there's a vague apprehension, a subterranean awareness that something isn't right. Even in my waking recollection, there's a distance which isn't just the separation of memory, but something which I find hard to fathom. I was too different from him, probably. For the most part, I keep coming back to the unkindness of his death and the life he led for some time before it. He was a good man who should have got better for it. 

Friday, 16 June 2017

No Smooth Faith

Usually I go to visit my spiritual director in the afternoon, but our date yesterday was fixed for 11 so from Mattins I had to tear across the rail bridge from the church to catch the train, panting and gasping after my recent bug (on Wednesday I could barely drag myself out of bed, and Ms Formerly Aldgate has had three days off work this week - we share these things, you see). S.D. is fine and we actually discussed some vaguely spiritual matters as well as the discomfiture of the Government, the unsustainability of the Church's position on same-sex relationships, and the Grunewald Altarpiece, which he has just seen. We didn't touch on the Kensington fire and its aftermath, but the site is two bare miles from where we were sitting - even though London miles seem longer than miles anywhere else because they have so much crammed into them, I felt oddly aware of that smoking ruin.

On the train I'd been reading Dame Felicitas Corrigan's biography of Helen Waddell, someone I will be talking about here quite soon. Dame Felicitas deals with the generally ecstatic reception given to Waddell's 1933 novel Peter Abelard. One passage of the book, where Abelard the theologian finally learns the nature of the Atonement through a dying rabbit caught in a trap, has found its way into Christian spiritual writing. But that's by-the-by for now. One of the most perceptive critics of the book, says Dame Felicitas, was the German Catholic writer Ida Gorres, of whom I had never heard and whose work I'm now going to have to find out more about. Gorres had an extraordinary background: her father was an Austro-Hungarian count and her mother the daughter of an antiques dealer in Tokyo, and they met after Count Heinrich, then on the Austrian diplomatic mission in Japan, fell off his horse outside the shop and Mitsuko came to help him (Helen Waddell had grown up in Japan where her father was a missionary). 

In the 1950s Gorres was railing against the prevailing style of Catholic apologetics, which attempted at every point to tie all truth together, to pretend that everything was done and dusted, to deny all ambiguities, contradictions and lacunae:

The corpus of Catholic opinion mustn't be like a sack full of balls and glass marbles, all smoothly rounded, for these just roll away in all directions and get lost: it must rather consist of sharp-edged bits, which can be fitted together to form a mosaic ... [no art work need be] a compendium of every truth in the catechism. All the difference between false completeness and true wholeness.

Years ago, when I had to do my little personal profile for the LGMG, I said that 'the jagged edges of things' were what interested me most. God is perfect and whole, but as we are limited we can never comprehend all of him: instead, as far as we are concerned, we find him most in the jagged lines, the broken fragments, the sharp-edged bits of things. 

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Inconsistencies Here and There

There were a number of reasons why poor Tim Farron (sad that the phrase 'poor Tim Farron' trips so easily off the keyboard) should have resigned as leader of the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems' election strategy of trumpeting themselves as the Voice of the EU-Remainers got them nowhere, or next to nowhere. Mr Farron barely held on to his own constituency, and the former leader Mr Clegg was chucked out of his Sheffield seat. The resignation of a front-bench spokesman could have turned into a stream of similar events, explaining why the announcement was made when there were, well, other news stories ongoing. But Mr Farron himself put his decision to go down mainly to the difficulty he found combining leading a political party ('especially a progressive, liberal party') with his Christian faith.

Over the course of the last couple of years Mr Farron has been questioned repeatedly about his attitude to homosexuality and has never been able to come up with a clear enough answer to stop the question being asked again. 'A better, wiser person than me might have been able to deal with this more successfully', he admitted in his resignation statement, but humble though that is the rest of his announcement makes it clear that he thinks virtually any liberal-minded Christian faces an almost impossible task. He can't reconcile political leadership with 'holding faithfully to the Bible's teaching', and has found himself 'the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in'; from which, he concludes, 'we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society'. 

Sad though Tim Farron's statement is, I don't agree with him. What his experience perhaps shows is that, indeed, someone who aspires to be the Prime Minister of the UK can't believe that a whole segment of the population is morally repugnant when this is not what the country at large thinks. I'm not sure this is a sign of intolerance: a government and the person who (potentially) leads it should, to some degree, represent the way the polity conceives itself. It'd be a bit like arguing that it's OK to be a racist if you're not going to do anything about it. And in any case, not all Christians accept that 'the Bible's teaching' points inexorably in one direction, the direction that does indeed demonise a segment of the population. We do not all think this, and the calamitous aspect of Mr Farron's departure is that it reinforces the impression the general public already has that we do

Yesterday our Deanery Chapter met and the Area Dean related some of the matters that had come up in a recent meeting with the Bishop. Our Bishop is apparently scared that the decision of the Anglican Church in Scotland to endorse same-sex marriage will embolden his own clergy to bless same-sex relationships and he's made it clear that anyone who does so will be disciplined. We can, as has been stated before, 'say prayers with' same-sex couples, but not bless them. So what might be the tone of those prayers that we can say? 'Dear Lord, your servants Ellie and Isla come before you here today. We just bring them before you, Lord, and we just ask that you will draw them away from the vile and unnatural path that they have taken. We just hold them before you, Lord, we just, we just, we just ...' And if that's not what you pray, but your prayers are in some sense positive and generous, then how does that differ from 'pronouncing a blessing'? I have sworn an oath of canonical obedience to my Bishop, and so I have to do as I am told, but I don't have to like it, and I don't have to pretend otherwise.

The other day I looked up the Naval Military and Air Force Bible Society's Cadets Prayer Book to see whether it might be of any help to me with the ATC. In its pages it includes 'a prayer for accepting my sexuality' which is a non-committal enough bit of text but whose mere existence indicates the ambiguous position in which Christian clergy find themselves. Anyone who works with secular organisations of any kind now finds themselves in a world which is absolutely and unshakeably committed to equality between different forms of sexual expression and, if they are so inclined, has to go through hoops and convolutions in order to toe the party line against it. The whole exercise disgusts me, and I hope to God that sooner rather than later the bishops will damn well get over themselves. 

Monday, 12 June 2017

Pastorates New

Debbie our ordinand was not produced by the congregation at Swanvale Halt: she was sent to us by the diocese to experience a different sort of church from her own. It seems absolutely impossible that it’s been three years since she and I had our initial conversations about it, but it is so, and as her training draws to a close the time came this Trinity Sunday for her to move on, to go to the diocese of Bury St Edmunds where she will (barring any exceptionally unusual event) be ordained at the end of this month.

You will remember that there have been certain ups and downs in Debbie’s journey so far – family and health issues, and the questionable behaviour of the powers-that-be that resulted in Debbie’s having to uproot herself and her loved ones from this area and cart her life to East Anglia. She’s certainly a subtly different character from what she was when she started: there’s a little bit of steel in her now, a greater knowledge of the less ideal aspects of the life of the Body of Christ. I’ve seen that happen in others, sometimes before they get ordained, sometimes over the course of their curacy.

The hope, perhaps, is that that awareness, that determination in the face of the rubbish Church life can throw at you, doesn’t harden into cynicism but can develop further into a sort of serenity. At my very best moments I can manage something like that, looking beyond the circumstances of the event and their frustrations and place a foot in eternity which is where, I tell myself, our true home is. ‘Moments’ is all they are, though, for now.

As we are all Church of England, Debbie bought cake and cards and good wishes were exchanged. ‘Thank you for being you!’ she told me, generously, which reminds me that I’ve been very little practical help to her indeed and that when we met for supervision meetings I would flail around to find some illustrative anecdote which she would welcome as some kind of pearl of wisdom. ‘Well’, I said, ‘the trouble is that I can’t really be anyone else’. ‘Yes, but you’re always you with gusto’ she added. I found myself saying ‘I suppose over the years I’ve sort of grown into the part’. 

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Foot Note

For several years I’ve suffered from periodic foot pain, which I partly put down to a slipped disc I had about ten years ago and the attendant nerve damage resulting in numbness on the left side of my left foot. I’ve had a couple of bouts of plantar fasciitis but mercifully they’ve been short – they can go on for months so I’ve got off lightly. More of a problem is a pain that curls around my left little toe, pulsing irritatingly every few seconds. When that arrives, it can keep me awake at night and nothing seems to stop it. Eventually this summer I decided to ask the doctor about it. It turned out there’s nothing structurally wrong, and the musculo-skeletal lady at the hospital thought it was due not to any nerve disruption as such, but to a very longstanding irregularity in my gait which pushed the little toe out of alignment and irritates the nerves in between that and the next one. I also have some calcification in the Achilles tendon, which sounds dreadful but can be helped by manipulation and exercise.

The point of mentioning it is not the medical issue itself, but the effort the NHS has put into dealing with it. In addition to the original GP appointment, I had:

A scan
An x-ray
Two sessions with the musculo-skeletal specialist
Two sessions to measure for and then fit therapeutic insoles
Two sessions with a physiotherapist

The insoles were a bit of a disaster: it was like having new shoes which couldn't be broken in. Even when I only wore them for a little while each day, I developed such large and painful blisters that in the end I gave up, hoping they might have done their work. However working with the physiotherapist was interesting. He informed me that my toes 'lacked muscle tone', which I would have thought might have been an issue for monkeys rather than human beings, but there you go. I have a range of exercises to do now. 

That all this activity is devoted to a tiny, modest twinge in my little toe is very impressive. God alone knows how much it costs - literally, because I doubt the system itself does. I have had my quarrels with the NHS in the past, bits of which arguably killed my father and had a good go at killing other relatives over the years, but I can’t quibble at the attention my toe’s received. Mind you, it may be that like me the medics are tempted to devote more effort than perhaps they should to simple things they know they can probably sort out rather than complex matters they can’t.