Sunday, 15 January 2017

St Michael's stove pipe

The top picture is Claude Natte’s 1795 picture of St Michael’s, part of an extensive collection of drawings of Lincolnshire churches in particular commissioned by Sir Joseph Banks and completed in a few years.  I don’t think I’ve posted it before, although I have posted his picture of St Nicolas'.

The bottom picture has kindly just been sent to me by the local person who bought it on eBay, where I find at least two other local people who take an interest in such things have also seen it; it is a good thing that the four of us were not bidding against each other.

The photograph shows what a really good quality drawing it was.  For example, the squared gable end drawn in 1795 is exactly as photographed here, and a close look at the building today shows that what is now a pointed top stone is weathered and lichen covered in such a way as to show it is indeed more recent.

It can be dated to 1911 or 1912, give or take a few months, because the inscription on the east face of the white monument is clearly there and this commemorates someone who died in 1910, but by 1913 building work would have begun to remodel and substantially extend the church.

The stove pipe is a particularly striking feature and the stove is shown in the relevant position in a diagram of the layout of the church as it was when work began in 1913, but even slightly earlier pictures (including a painting in church said to date 1890) gives a different chimney on the north side of the chancel instead.

The eastern of the two south windows did not match the western of the two in 1795 but had been replaced by a replica which does by 1911-12 (and again it is clear when you look on the ground that the stonework of the eastern of the two is less worn and thus more modern).

The east window of the south aisle has been blocked up since 1795, something I’ve never seen before as this corner has a big bush in it in the painting and in other photos I have; this was clearly unblocked either in 1913-15 or later because there is a Gothic style window there now.

The east window of the chancel in 1795 had been replaced by a larger Gothic style window by the time of the 1890 painting and this later photograph (and it is clear inside the building that a mediaeval beam had to be cut to make room for  this window of greater height).  I can’t see whether the window has stained glass in it or not but I presume it does as this was unveiled in October 1910.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

The rise of the nones 2

Three further thoughts growing from puzzling away at Linda Woodhead’s article.

The first, and longest, is about what she writes.

The main thrust of her conclusion, not mentioned in my previous post, is ‘it is not just that Britain has become less religious but that religion has become more so; not just that people moved away from churches but that churches moved away from them’.

In her sociological terms she sees churches since the 1980s becoming less ‘societal’ (perhaps, inclusive places which express the spiritual aspirations and values of a majority) and more ‘sectarian’ (perhaps, exclusive places which express the religious commitment and values of a minority).

It is true that a significant shift has happened.  An example would be the virtual disappearance of Confirmation as an adolescent rite of passage (and I’m fascinated that she notes the rapid rise in school Proms as ‘in effect ritual celebrations of each child’) and is used mainly instead as an expression of individual adult religious commitment.

And it is true that a major gap now exists.  Her example is the way majority opinion on issues such as abortion, contraception, divorces, euthanasia and homosexuality (on some of which some churches have often even led on issues of liberalisation in the past) differ from the conservative public positions of many churches today.

But I just wonder how much ‘chicken and egg’ there is here.  My reading of everything from George Herbert’s instructions about ministry in the seventeenth century to Christian Youth Work manuals in the first half of the twentieth century doesn’t seem to indicate a Church of England which held its place in the past by agreeing with the (particularly sexual) moral norms around it.

The second is about my own simplistic mapping of some of this onto the trio of diversity and pluralism, democracy and individual choice, and establishment and shared tradition, and the difficulties of holding any two of these together with the third.

I simply notice that one of the things which is going on is that those who express a democratic rejection of diversity also express loyalty to (or at least nostalgia for) an imagined shared tradition.

This is there from the notorious British National Party’s claim that it was more genuinely Christian than the churches, to the key phrases ‘taking back control’ and ‘making America great again’ (separate out the words and you get a wish to be in control and to be part of a great nation alongside the dynamic of ‘taking back’ and ‘making again’).

Third, only the briefest of hints, what do we do now?

There is no going back.  Her article notes ‘the ‘self-reinforcing success’ of the new ‘norm’, for example, the tipping point we’ve noticed when the choice of a secular funeral becomes the option people simply assume is normal when a Funeral Director calls. 

Perhaps instead there can only be speaking and acting authentic possibilities: the way the series The Monastery a decade ago got under some people’s skin is something which showed the way; our picking up that many people think we are onto something when we explore forgiveness may be one hint; the chord struck by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s focus on Wonga may be another significant example.

The ‘becoming more religious’ needs to be ‘here are unexpected insights and depths in the tradition (which we are in danger losing contact)’ rather than ‘here is why you are wrong (about sex in particular)’; a project to clear up a local grot spot on Maundy Thursday rather than a 'walk of witness' on Good Friday.

The Christmas decorations at St George's, Bradley are actually the striking ones those from 2015 rather than the ones which have just been taken down.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

The rise of the nones

Prof Linda Woodhead may be the best known of the sociologists who have been trying to understand the phenomenon of religious commitment in England today, including, recently in particular, the rise in the number of ‘nones’, that is those who say they have no such commitment.  She does not see a straight forward growth in hostility, secularism or atheism but rather a process of indifference, perceived irrelevance and invisibility.

I’ve been working through the last part of a newly published article of hers on this ‘emergence of a new cultural majority’.  She focuses first on the ‘usual suspects’ of pluralism and individualism in the society of which we are part.

Pluralism can mean ‘it becomes harder and harder for religion to be an unquestioned part of the culture, handed down from generation to generation’.  For many, it also ‘involves an embrace of the ideal of tolerance’ so that ‘a multicultural value set is normative for young people’.  So there is both the decline in one cultural assumption (the Christian default setting – albeit still influential in many ways) and the growth of another (an increasing sense that absolute religious claims are not possible – quite apart from sometimes clearly being dangerous and destructive).

Individualism is not primarily about being self-centred but about both equality as an absolute value and a wish not to defer to what presents as a limiting higher authority.  Her observation is that for much of our society ‘contrary to the view that there is pervasive moral fragmentation... there is actually a massive moral consensus about the importance of individual’s freedom of choice’.

As an aside, the picture clearly isn’t uniform.  For some, individual choice in a pluralistic setting means taking strong personal ownership of an intolerant and/or religious position: I was struck by her footnote that ‘Olivier Roy argues in relation to many second-generation and third-generation Muslims in Europe, it leads to a rejection of the ‘cultural’ Islam of their parents in favour of a purified, scriptural ‘religious’ version of faith’; we are all also aware that ‘having enough of experts’ can mean ‘we don’t want to make room for a multi-cultural reality’.

Anyway, leaving the aside aside, I’ve been plotting her analysis in my own mind on top of an earlier piece of thinking which identified the problem for any society of attempting to be diverse, democratic and have an established religion; the suggestion was one of the three simply has to give way. 

So perhaps it is simply that pluralism, individualism and the insights of a dominant tradition cannot play out together, and the present strength of the first two make it particular difficult at the moment for those of us who feel that the third has a lot to offer.  

The photograph is again one from last year’s trip to Arizona, and is one I considered for making a Christmas card (except that many things, including a huge glut of Funerals in the ten days before Christmas, means I didn’t actually send any for the first time in ten years - and perhaps now need to get on with a circular letter for those who sent one to me).

Monday, 26 December 2016

Elephants at home

My wife has digitised some old slides of my mother's, and we were able to include discs of them as Christmas presents for my brothers.

For a few months in 1964, between returning to England and finding our own permanent home here, we let a flat at the top of a large house at Burwash in Sussex.  It belonged to a diplomat who had recently retired from successive stints as Governor of the Falkland Island and then of the Bahamas.  His wife’s father had also been a diplomat, our Ambassador in the USA at the time of the First World War where he wrote the poem I vow to thee my country

She is supposed to have referred to my brothers and I (aged 5, 4 and 3) as ‘the three little elephants from Africa’, presumably the only reasonable explanation for the thudding sounds above her.

So here is my mother waving from the flat window, and here are my brothers and I in the grounds and (the clues to the exact location are substantial) at Rushlake Green nearby; the two pictures appear to have been taken on the same day.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Seeds of hope

I’m engaged in first steps towards bringing order to eleven years worth of not quite sorting out or throwing away things in my study.  I now have boxes marked ‘throw’, ‘shred’ and ‘keep’ (the volume of paper going into these is in this order) and even a pile marked ‘these things belong to St Michael’s'.

From near the bottom of the oldest pile, I’ve just excavated a sheet I appeared to have used for groups in Advent 2007.

In 1986, three years before he became President of the Republic of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel was asked ‘Do you see a grain of hope anywhere in the 1980s?’.  He replied

“Hope is a state of mind, not of the world.  Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul, and it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation.

Hope is not prognostication.  It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond the horizons.

Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed...

Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism.  It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.”

The seedpod pictures were taken in Arizona a few weeks ago now.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Instruments of peace

A member of one of our congregations was embraced so enthusiastically during the exchange of the Peace at a recent Sunday service that she had a rib broken.  She suffers from osteoporosis (literally ‘bone porousness’, medically ‘reduction in bone density’) and apparently the snap was audible.

A recent tripping accident at this church got into its ‘accident book’ and thus on to the agenda of its District Church Council for a ‘lessons learnt review’ which has resulted in the marking of a dangerous edge and the provision of a torch by the south door so that those entering in the dark have light by which to find their way to where the light switches are located.  All simply following good practice guidelines. So I ought to make sure we don’t allow the implications of this incident to slip and follow a similar procedure again. 

I’m not sure where that will take us as it means engaging with an odd situation the Church of England has found itself in – a habit embedded over perhaps forty years of treating the exchange of the Peace as an assertion of human fellowship (often represented by a determination to greet everyone present and to engage some of them in extensive conversation) rather than a symbolic passing of the touch of the peace coming from God.

What I do feel (much later in the year than usual) is a Christmas sermon coming on.  The Prince of Peace did not embrace our fragility with force but comes almost imperceptibly alongside it.  It is the ‘wise’ men who blunder in thinking they’ve discovered an alternative seat of power and human strength thus unknowingly provoking the slaughter of the innocent and flight into Egypt.

Perhaps it is having joined the members of the local Hope for Justice group for their Christmas meal last night – six people from five Anglican, Catholic and Methodist churches and from the Harbour Place Day Centre who have raised significant money for projects tackling human trafficking and modern slavery and quietly engage those able to keep this a priority in local policing.

Perhaps it is being reminded that Harbour Place’s Mission Statement says it ‘aims to serve those who may be considered vulnerable or socially excluded within the community through actions which promote positive choices in people’s lives’ which is probably as good a greeting of Peace as one could get and certainly one which doesn’t propose hugging so tightly that damage might be done.

The ship on the rough sea is on the Churchwardens’ staves in St Nicolas’ (and reflect St Nicolas’ role among the patron saints of seafarers and perhaps of those being trafficked).

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Vital things

I’ve been remembering Fr Ken O’Riordan a lot over the last few days.

It was almost exactly seven years ago that I posted:

I’d encountered Ken’s creative opening up of the Bible before I came here ten years ago, and he was the Catholic parish priest here when I arrived; he read one of the lessons at my licensing service. Everything from the creation of the North East Lincolnshire Credit Union as Churches Together’s Jubilee Millennium project to the striking reordering of St Pius’ church seemed to be down to him.

He had moved on to a final role coordinating adult education for the Catholic diocese, something for which he was especially suited, and I guess there are people today who will still benefit from catechists whose imagination he caught as he trained them how to teach and enable others.

He retired the following year and succumbed to a sudden aggressive cancer only two years later.

Now, within a few days of each other, it has been announced that the Credit Union has failed and that St Pius’ is to close.
The Credit Union was the product of a millennium project for our local churches and grew from an awareness of the principle of Jubilee.  The reordering of St Pius’ was the product of application of the principles in Vatican II documents. 

How we cry out for renewing creative application of first-principles in the social and worshipping life of our churches.  How sad that these parts of this legacy of his are being lost.

It isn’t public why the Credit Union has failed, although it is clear that the 600 or so members will not lose their money.  To state the obvious, it is not a helpful symbolic development at a time when the church seeks to promote the idea that pay-day lenders and loan sharks need undermining.

It is public that the Catholics in North East Lincolnshire will be served by just one priest in a few weeks time and that he can only say Mass in three churches over a weekend.  So two of the present five churches will become unused, which I know to be a traumatic outcome for some of those who have invested so much creativity, emotion, money, prayer and time in them.

Meanwhile, the pictures are of a sculpture by the Swiss artist who genuinely has the name Not Vital among many things which we enjoyed discovering during a return visit to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park recently.