Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Cornflakes, Taizé and 'Back To Church'

Not so many years ago, Kelloggs, the makers of the true proper Cornflakes, had the wisdom, humility and insight to build an advertising campaign around our behaviour as consumers. It is this behaviour that, for me, unites Cornflakes and all things Taizé

I know you are wondering, and wonder you may - but do not forget that I am the only cleric in the history of the world to bring the Blessed Virgin Mary and the iPad 2 together on a single blog post. 

Well, the thing is, that when I once heard that a service is of the Taizé variety, my innards slumped and part of my brain powered down. In other words, I went into liturgical hibernation. For years I have gently mocked Taizé stuff as being the sandwich filler if you want to neither offend Carflicks or Jellies - a service of the Middle-Ground. "If in doubt, get Taizé out"

And so it was with Cornflakes. No - don't be silly, not in a liturgical way. What I mean is, there were years when the look, smell, prospect or fact of a bowl of Cornflakes caused my synapses to calcify and eyes to cross in a rather comical "I'd sooner chew toenails that this stuff" kind of way. On no, missus, pass me the Shreddies and that bag of sugar over here; Cloakey has an appetite to satisfy! 

The Kelloggs campaign addressed that very behaviour - that is, that we had all convinced ourselves that Cornflakes were as much fun as un-anaesthetised  eyeball surgery and had moved to other brands of breakfast cereal. I was one such oik, and was guilty as a guilty person's guilty bits. So I bought me a box of Cornflakes and promptly enjoyed every single golden crunchy flake of sunshine. No, really, I have never looked back and regard the humble Cornflakes as the cereal of choice for the elitist of elite people like me. and it is the same with all things Taizé. When I actually sit down and actually engage with a Taizé act of worship, it is stunning. I love singing the repetitive meditative lines, and find the whole experience to be nothing short of heavenly. I had just got out of the habit, and had wrapped that in a bunch of undeserved prejudices that it didn't earn or warrant. 

There must be something of this in what stops people going to church. I know many people who would far sooner grate their own nose than enter a church - people who once were faithful and devoted practicing Christians. Perhaps it was a fall-out over the flower rota, a distaste for that hymn the organist always plays too fast, someone sat in their seat - or myriad other reasons, but those people drifted away and are now a little like ex-smokers on the subject of smoking. 'Back To Church' Sunday is a funny old thing. I am not sure how far this concept has gone beyond Britain or the Church of England even, but it is now an annual fixture. I rarely hear of it done well, if I am honest - but there has to be something to the idea that people just need to be encouraged to re-try an old habit. I am not sure that sending cards to people to invite them into the main Sunday service is the way, but a personal invite to someone for a coffee in the building is surely a good start. 

So, the message of this post, is this: if I can eat Cornflakes then the Church stands a chance. you heard it here first, ladies and gentlemen. 

Sunday, 29 May 2011

We Will Rock You

I have just enjoyed a wonderful documentary about the group Queen, a group that means a considerable amount to me, and whose music is a significant part of who I am, in many ways. It was a programme that told the first half of the story of a remarkable band whose music found such considerable success in the latter part of the last millennium. It is unlikely that you will have no idea to whom I refer, but if you are one such person, they are group who wrote and recorded Bohemian Rhapsody

I place a considerable value on the place of music. I am, perhaps, set in my ways as regards the things I enjoy - and my family might testify that I always was. Just listening to an hour of telly devoted to the musicians who underscored perhaps all of my teens and twenties has proved to be haunting and wonderful, all at the same time. 

My taste in music favours those groups or choirs or orchestras that demonstrate commitment and what I regard to be technical musical excellence. I cannot abide flaccid disposable pap, and this probably why most modern throw-away garbage is a source of irritation to me. It is perhaps why on one hand I can enjoy very heavy rock music while on the other taking delight in Spem in Alium. Music is for the soul, in my estimation, not for a light snack. I take pleasure in gifted musicians crafting their art, be that acoustically, electrically, chorally or any other ally you can think of. My foray into the synthesised began and ended with Jean Michel Jarre. He got in because he was a prodigious pianist. I just like my music to be good and not flim-flam. I can even warm to a gifted rapper, as my parish community may have noted had they been to the right parties! (OK, perhaps not gifted, but very amusing). 

I cannot imagine a world without music. I am never (literally) more than two or three feet away from my own source of music, and I have long resolved that, if I were to be cast to the proverbial desert island, or indeed if I was granted a day left to live - that my iPod would be among those things involved in the arrangements. Music is such a pure and evocative force, when done right (a subjective thing, of course). It is who I am, and the way markers in the journey from who I was. My daughters already have a repertoire of the stuff they like (which has a little too much Abba in it for me, but we are all different). I have even discovered some (I lean on 'some') worship music that, under duress, I could say I like. 

I once pondered long and very hard on an issue of sensory deprivation, and I am absolutely sure that I would sooner lose my sight than my hearing. This is perhaps a naive comment from one who has the nominal choice, but my thought was that I would far sooner lose the ability to see a wonderful view or even the faces of my babies than lose the ability to hear them sing. Music is such a wonderful sacrament - a gift from and of God, that no less sustains me than the blessed Body and Blood.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Vicar's Wives

I am writing this post in the light of Vic the Vic's tribute to the Mr(s) Vicarages that support us priestly types in our lives. I promised him that I would take up the cause of his call for Sunday to be declared Mr(s) Vicarage Sunday - though I have broadened this to include the testicular-enabled vicar's wives, those chaps who support their lady vicars too. 

Because my gorgeous wife hates me using her picture on this thing, I am afraid you are going to have to cope with this image, which is as close as I can get. It is a poor substitute, of course, but I just have to have a picture. 

Public ministry is a funny old thing. For us who do it, it is often the very best of lives. We gad here, we gad there, we gad everywhere. We work funny hours and almost certainly more than we have to. We live in 'the office' which is to say that to all intents and purposes, our front door is that of the business address. The telephone rings at odd times, day or night, and rarely for our spouses (who have wisely arranged that all their incoming calls go to their mobile phones). When we have a fit of hospitality, it is on her settee that it takes place, with her cups and drinking her coffee, and without her say-so. Yes, she smiles and yes, she is gracious, but she would have preferred to have got dressed first. 

Then we vicars have a bad day. Only then does the real work begin for our Vicar's Wives, as it is then that they become personal counsellors, motivational therapists, family liaison workers, personal secretaries, firewalls, bouncers, door-keepers - and so much more. We vicars can up-sticks and toddle off to some monastery or other after a bad day and reflect, while our Vicar's Wives become baby-sitter and single-handed child-entertainers. 

Then we go out somewhere, for a nice evening out as a couple - like the old days. Not a moment after we have taken our seats does the procession of goodly local folk who know the vicar start, a queue forms, and an extended form of pastoral ministry is meted out at the table while the spuds go cold. Their vicarly husbands or wives are public property, always working. Or their Vicar partners take them to a nice party, and promptly abandon them while they work the room. 

So, it is with all this in mind that I second Vic the Vic's proposal that this Sunday be known as Mr(s) Vicarage Sunday, and that we in Holy Orders should put aside our absorption of glory and acknowledge that most amazing person who sustains and supports us every moment of every day and tolerates our mini-Messiah Complexes with much grace. Lest we forget, without them we are nothing and as vocations go, that to our spouses trumps all others save for vocations to parenthood. 

And to my beloved Jo, the eminent and faithful Mrs Acular - thank you for just about everything! 

The Judgement of Genocides

It is only a few months ago when I sat in a room with Professor Yehuda Bauer and twenty other British clergy as he addressed European scholars by weblink. The topic of his talk was genocide, a subject he is well qualified to discuss. He is the Director of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and probably the single most significant authority on the subject of the Shoah (Holocaust / Heb: 'calamity' ). A tiny frail old man was helped into the tiny room where we were all crammed, but a man far younger than his considerable years emerged as he talked on the subject of genocide. 

He talked of the distinctiveness of the Shoah compared with, as it were, generic genocide, though this is not a matter for this post. What is a matter for this post is that he was quite clear how genocide-immune we seem to have become in Western civilization. Instinct would surely cause any right minded soul to react abruptly and angrily to such a damning claim, but we must not forget that even in my 38 years on this planet we call home Pol Pot ordered the murder of 1.7 million souls in Cambodia, Menghistu his 1.6 million in Ethiopia, Kambanda's near million in Rwanda, Saddam's count in Kurdistan and Iraq, Mullah Omar's in Afghanistan, the million murders orchestrated by Gowon in Biafra, Brezhnev's efforts also in Afghanistan - and those at the hands of the man featured here, Ratko Mladic. I sit here as a man of, hopefully, compassion and love, a crusader against injustice and inhuman crimes - yet I had to look all these genocides up to be able to write them here. Yes, I am only too aware of the Shoah, but that is more to do with it being a topic in my former history classes.

The very knowledge of these calamities, these grotesque mass-murders, is crushing. That they happen unchecked (or so it seems at times) in apparently enlightened, 'information overload' times adds to a growing sense of despondency that I could very quickly acquire at this realisation. Yet today's news gives me a little hope in global justice. It comes hot on the heels of a similar event fairly recently when 'the littlest of the little fishes', John Demjanjuk, was finally reeled in for his part in the  murder of 28,060 Jews in Sobibór during the Shoah. A frail old man, maybe, but a murderer who faced justice. And so we hear about the arrest of Ratko Mladic a 'mere' fifteen years after the Srebrenica massacre of Muslim men and boys in the former Yugoslavia. Another frail old man of failing health has finally been dragged in. In and of itself, this is good, but it is altogether more important for another reason. It is a sure sign that genocide always faces justice in the end. Often it takes many decades, and often its perpetrators have died gentle and private deaths in comfy homes surrounded by loved ones. But judgement always seems to come. 

I am left to ponder why events that, to me, represent the worst of humanity's criminal capability, only become clearly visible in considerable retrospect. Why does it appear to take decades for civilised compassionate and educated societies to find the ability to formally judge these catastrophes. Perhaps the murder of millions of people we do not know is too big or distant to fully comprehend - unlike the murder of individuals in our own country where we can sense national outrage. There is a clear difference between how we react and yet that seems quite wrong. Perhaps such behaviour mitigates (though never full excuses) the apparent blindness so many of the 'bystanders' during the genocides that were unfolding in their midsts over ages.  

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Filthy Lies and Our Unwillingness to be Saved

parking-ticket picture 3

This is a post that will surely apply to every single human animal who has ever driven a car.

You know you have done it – pitched up in your fancy Aston Martin, turned off the engine, hopped out for a oily burger and a flat warm beer, only to return to your automotive dreamboat to find it assailed, nay abused, by the very presence of a yellow plastic bag. You know what it means; you know what will be asked of you; you know how you should react, being a normal sane reasonable human animal.

Yet we don’t react like that. Despite parking our beautiful vehicle on the double yellow decorative adornments on the edge of the road, and convincing ourselves that it won’t matter because we are only stopping for a moment and a parking revenue gatherer isn’t evident within miles, we react in a strange way.

We regress into spoilt brats and have a road-side paddy. Our proverbial toys are cast some distance from our proverbial perambulator and we stomp our Pierre Cardin loafers into the pavement. How dare they place this yellow baggy on my car? How very dare they? ‘Nazis’ you will claim; commission earners you will venture; lower than a snake’s belly you will label. How dare they place a parking ticket on our perfectly illegally parked motor. The indignity. The presumption.  Given a moment or two more and we are quite convinced that it is personal and the warden in question was just waiting for you to park your car right there, illegally. In a little van, like a light-deprived Gollum. The bastards.

And, dear reader, it does not end there. Consider how easily 408.23 tonnes of tin, cables and kerosene would fall out of the sky given half a chance – if, say, its means of forward propulsion, the means by which its lift and drag ratios are expedited, failed to expedite one sunny afternoon. I speak of course about a hapless Boeing 747 flying into an ash cloud that could well choke its engines and the resultant crash causing its occupants to hit the ground like a dart. Those silly old sausages who are ‘in charge’  thought for a moment that it might be better not to fly the gravity defying monsters and that you might just have to wait to fly. How unreasonable; how bureaucratic; how petty; health and safety gone mad – those are our calls. Because, of course, we know better don’t we. When we did our Times Tables and Socatoas at school all those years ago, we suddenly and by osmosis became experts in aeronautical risk and the critical mass weight of ash intake into the air intake or yer standard Pratt & Whitney JT9D high by-pass Turbofan before it conks out and causes its concomitant humanity to be rendered into passata.

Bottom line – we hate to be wrong, corrected, caught out, have our plans altered or anything that shifts the horizon an iota. Not only do we not like it, but we become petulant and daft about it too. No wonder the gospel message suffers in the modern world. ‘Nuff said.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

That Which Costs Nothing Has No Value

Tax-Day-2010-Freebies-List
 Lord Jeremy Clarkson of Chipping Norton was writing about such things as photographs and the like in his book “How Hard Can it Be” (2006), and reflected on the advent of digital photography and how value-less our photographs seem to have become. I must sympathise with his prophetic words, in this regard and in others that I too have commented upon. In a recent post, I spoke of the way we spend so little time on things that demand so little time (see the post here). He muses on the times when we would go on holiday with our one roll of 24 exposure camera film, carefully pay the dividend for them to be developed and posted back, then to be enjoyed and filed in an album. Nowadays, he continues, we shoot thousands of images, keep them all and rarely look at them a second time (and, he continues, bore the rest of the world by putting them on Facebook before abandoning them for an eternity).

He assigns a simple cause: “And without a cost it has no value”. Now, even a cynic like me would have to draw a line. Some things in life are free and become of exceptional value. I was sat with some lovely clergy this morning talking about baptism (or ‘christening’, if you thought there was a difference) and having only read Lord Clarkson last night, pondered on why it is that so many people present little Johnny or Janine for a dunking only for them to vanish like the snow in summer afterwards. In fact, the invisibility cloak of baptism and confirmation was once the meat of a opening joke in one of my boss’s sermon – and he is right in so many cases. Perhaps a christening is one of those ‘must do’ things, like the conferring of an amulet to prolong life and health, I don’t know. The thing is, churches do not (quite rightly) charge for baptisms, and neither do we demand a cost in other things such as behaviour.  Easy come, easy go?

There is probably something of this in every stewardship campaign too. It is funny how the collecting plate has an amplifying effect on our cash. I remember a man once explain how ‘small’ a fiver was in a supermarket when we pop in for a bottle of wine, and how ‘big’ it becomes when being dangled over a collecting plate. I remember preaching on a number of occasions on the biblical phrase ‘where your treasure is your heart is also’, and I wonder how much motivation towards the church in question would ascend if its life and needs became a substantial call on the spare cash (rather than the present time when many use the collecting plate as an opportunity to rid themselves of brass pocket-wrecking shrapnel). There has to be a direct correlation between cost and worth. Indeed, in the former life, I would note that when certain things became too cheap, they would stop selling, believe it or not.
This not a post with an answer, but I ponder this a lot. Church feels at times like a disposable habit, demanding less per hour than a cheap cinema but offering so much more than the latest CGI.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Concerning the Other Type of Messy Church

This post will appeal to my boss, because on this issue we are probably of a like mind. This post is also rooted in the issue about which I may even venture to write a book.

This is not a post about Lucy Moore and her work. This concerns our church buildings in their rather unique place in our world. They are, in many ways, a cross between our homes and retail outlets. You will all be amply qualified to assess your home for its accessibility and welcome to your guests. I am amply qualified to comment on accessibility and welcome offered by retail outlets.

Neil Pugmire wrote a book called '100 Ways to Get Your Church Noticed', a tome that does well what it says on the tin. In my former life, the marketting men had much to say on how to get people to the front doors of our emporia, and in all our present lives, we will have views about how he like our homes to look to the eye of a passer-by or a visitor. However, getting people to the door is half the battle. In commercial terms, not a thread of carpet was ever sold to a person who never entered the building.

Churches, of all breeds age and churchmanship, seem to disregard the fact that they are places that provide something. It may be a place, an act of worship, a venue for an experience with God, a meeting place, a place to learn about churches, a concert, passing curiosity - all of these things represent, to forgive the terminology, the 'product' of a church. Frankly, the more of that 'product' that is taken up, the higher the footfall, and in the end, the greater the conversion rate (commercial and spiritual meanings intended). 

Let me illustrate my point from the perspective of a shop. How many carpets would be sold from a unit that closed its doors all day? How many would be sold from a shop that didn't put on its lights or kept the place warm? How many rugs would be transacted in a store that was a mess and behind whose doors was a pile of detritus that customers would be caused to climb over before they could get to what they came in for? How long would people remain in a store if the ambiance were a cross between the funereal and grumpy possessive? This is before I ask the same questions about your homes and how your visitors would experience them!

There are so many questions like this. The answer, of course, is not many. In Britain, many of us are blessed with some stunning churches that are half empty and rarely visited. We have a mandate to make disciples of people, yet one of the finest vehicles to that is the place from which we minister. Sadly I have lost count of churches that are in every way possible 'closed for business'. Ranging from damp cold, to mouldy smell, to piles of discarded pew sheets on the messy desk that I have seen inside the front door. Our visitors will judge our love for Our Lord by how we hove His house. Our visitors will recognise, quick as a flash, what is important to us. Does the church look like a dishevelled recording studio? Does it look like a faded museum of ancient artifacts? If it were your home, would you dream of having dinner guests sit at a table already cluttered with the dirty pots from breakfast or the innards of a knackered toaster? 

I urge every one of you reading this, who has an interest in their church building, to step outside the door and re-enter it with a camera. Take a picture of the first impression you get. Print it A3 in colour and be honest about what you see. Of course, this assumes that the doors aren't locked in the first place, which is more of the case these days. Evangelism is about 'going out', of course. But why, when we spend hard-earned shekels chasing them do we consistently neglect those who have felt called to visit us? There is a business statistic that I heard once: that only 1 in 14 customers enter a shop without ever having been affected by it in some way beforehand (recommendation, prior visit, advertising etc). Those are the ones who have more to do with the remaining 13 than any other. I wonder if a correlation can't be made in those who visit our churches for the first time. 

Monday, 23 May 2011

Retrospection and Introspection

Anais Nin once said: "We write to taste life twice; in the moment and in retrospect". I had never thought about blogging in these terms, but now that I have, it feels like a clear statement of the obvious! 

When a sane human sits for the first time behind a computer screen, seeing that it is but a blank box, wondering what on earth to write in that box, they can never begin to predict the effect that those soon-to-be-born words will ever have. After a year and a half, a public minister of religion who blogs is, if I may be direct, a fool if they have no notion of the effect of their words. We write into a world that, for good or ill, takes our words with a certain valency simply because we are vicars, curates, bishops or archdeacons. 

For me, this is a two edged thingy. I look back to see 'me' in my words. Largely, and as I have said before, the words I write are composed mere seconds before I write them down. The idea for a post will never be more than an hour old when it is written (even if published later), so I can only see 'me' in retrospect. I can see when I was having a bad or good week, a tough or easy month, and so on - but only by looking back. I have also learned more about my personal prejudices by reading my own words. I must confess, too, that I actually do enjoy reading my own work. Is that bad?

To assess the effect of our blogs is helpful. When we write posts, we flip little pebbles into the pool of ether in which we and our readers live. To not note where the ripples cast out to is to miss a rare opportunity to note the appetite of the blog-reading world, who are (quite possibly) a representative cross-section of the world we claim to minister to. What I am not about to do is do The Vernacular Curate's Cool Top Ten of My Best Effects - partly because I haven't the time, partly because it isn't important, partly because it is poor blogging in and of itself, and partly because if you were interested, you'd look (and you have the nearest to it in the sidebar to the right of this box)! 

I regularly Google myself as The Vernacular Curate. I do this not to look in a mirror, but to see where my particular ripples have reached - and the results rarely fail to surprise me. If you write a blog and don't do this, I advocate it as a pass time that teaches (sometimes some very hard lessons). In so doing, I have discovered that antisemitism sites have referred to my writing across the world; that I am a regular feature in a recreational website that follows certain blogs (and discusses them in forums I have since discovered); that my post mentioning man-boobs makes me an expert and a cited source; that my appreciation for Lord Jeremy of Clarkson is appreciated elsewhere; that the BBC features my website a few times on its own website (and gives me about a quarter of my traffic now); that I am, apparently, an intellectual liberal; that I have a Wikio ranking; that I am a fixture on a fair selection of health websites; that I have been translated into other languages; that my blog is advertised in places where ladies have their boobs on show; and that for the love of God I am still seeing references after forty-odd Google search pages (when I stopped trawling). This is before any of the kind references made by fellow-bloggers and the ripples that those recommendations cause. Am I glad that my words are in all of those places? No. Did I intend them to be in any of those places? No. 

The overwhelming thing that I have noticed, and of which I am rather proud, is how frequently the words of this daft priest have been published in non-Christian and non-faith websites. I write about just about anything, but as a priest. No apology is ever made for that, or my work, or how I live my life - yet I seem to emerge in the oddest places. To borrow +Alan's notion - with the tens of thousands of hits I have had, it would take me several lifetimes to enter that many people's front-rooms in person, in as many countries. What we priests would give to be able to touch people's life on that scale. And this is only a piffling little venture (as my Wikio raking will tell you). This is where the value of blogging rests - in its effect through the weeks and months (and well-beyond).

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Sensory Impairment

I may be at risk of becoming the blogger equivalent of a stalker, but I feel inclined to comment upon yet another episode of my favourite 'Giblets Drama'!

This evening was sufficiently complicated that I had to watch intently to keep up. The reason was, I think, the fact that a couple of substantial story-lines were converging, one for this evening, and one that will carry on into future episodes.

My comments concern the story-line of a deaf teenager. I write this with a particular care and concern for the deaf community in my part of world, and as one who represents them in some small part in my local diocese. Representations or portrayals of deaf/deafened/hard of hearing people is a matter of interest to me, and the episode of Casualty that we were treated to tonight approached this particular sensory impairment with considerable skill and insight. 

Experience has taught me that deaf people are represented in television drama as elderly more often than not. Those representations have often been fairly patronising affairs with a 'there-there' sub-text. Not tonight. The character tonight was a lad of mid to upper teenage years. He wasn't played as a tank-top wearing nerdy type (I seen that elsewhere), but as a fairly typical surly youth with all the requisite attitude and front. He signed as teenagers speak, with all the vernacular and creativity one would expect. That was the first bit of good news. He was a normal kid but had an issue with hearing - as opposed to a deaf person who happened to be younger than sixty. 

We were also given some insight to the experience of the profoundly deaf in the filming of his perspective. Shots with the noise of the hearing world were skillfully interspersed with the silence of this lad's own world. It was done in such a way as brought to life the very likely bewilderment that a deaf teenager, in clear danger of imminent abuse, may experience of the world. The camera work was, to my untrained eyes, brilliant in its evocation of that bewilderment. 

In general terms, it was the portrayal of this young man as all-but-normal (as all-but-normal as any of us) that was most positive. It avoided stereotypes, judgement and his deafness didn't feel spurious or gratuitous. In a world that still largely fails to understand deaf culture, the experience of deaf people in a hearing society, or the very simple fact that - aside from a sensory impairment - deaf people are normal and subject to the same difficulties and tragedies as the rest of us. 

I will watch with interest the unfolding story-line that appears to be wanting to wrestle with Muslim culture. I hope that the makers of this programme approach that with the same sense and balance as they did the issue of deafness tonight. 

Friday, 20 May 2011

Where Civic and Church Come Together

I have just enjoyed another wonderful evening in the company of the civic community of Aylesbury, the town where I minister. It was the annual 'Mayor-Making' ceremony, where one Mayor stepped aside for another. 

Last year, I shared the chaplaincy to the Mayor, and you will be aware of some of the exploits that the Mayor and I shared during 2011. The first was a tandem bike-ride, the other a tandem sky-dive. They were both examples of the civic and ecclesiastical working together well, and in a reciprocal and warm way - in my modest opinion. My time as a chaplain to the out-going mayor has been a remarkable time for me, and I think for him too. Both of us have done things we would never have thought possible a year ago, and as such we come away from such experiences better. That we got on so well to start with was a great help.

I am now firmly of the view that the church has a place in civic life. We are all in our jobs to the same end - to serve the people among whom we live. We do it, I think, less with a spirit of self than with a spirit of service. Of course we all have our passions, and it was clear that Cllr Webster's passion was for the betterment of the young people of this amazing town. It is a thing that I share with him. 

Part of the 'arrangement' is liturgical, of course - with a number of large civic services required during a normal year. The greater benefit is to be found in the constancy of the relationship. We the priests seem to have been known by almost everyone this evening - and in good ways. We had a place there, official or supportive. In either case, we were legitimate guests at the figurative and literal table. A lot of this is about being public figures with other people on our hearts. A clear acknowledgement of that shared aspiration makes for a potent and very mutual end result. I don't think that this is simply limited to Christian circles either. Part of the arrangement sees me and my Rector as members of a Council that negotiated and advocates for ethnic and credal minorities. That we are Christians is less important than the fact that we are people of faith. The events surrounding the demonstrations of fascist and racist groups in our town a year ago is further proof, if any were needed, of the great good that people of faith can do in the right circumstances. 

On a personal level, this evening represented the beginning of a long ending in Aylesbury. My assistance to the mayoral chaplaincy is now ended and a few goodbyes made, even now. As a curate, a priest in training, my time as Graham's co-chaplain will form a treasured memory among so many of working alongside those men and women who devote so much of themselves and their time to champion a town and its people. Sadly, the community in its zeal to react to wider political circumstances, did not re-elect Graham to its council this year, which is a considerable pity and a significant loss to the town. For me, there are just wonderful memories of some whacky times, but times that will always prove to me that the church and faith have a voice and place at the table of civic life. 

Rapture! The End is Nigh

It is my sad duty, much-loved readers, to report that tomorrow sees the Rapture. Put another way - tomorrow is Judgement Day. By means of a complex arrangement of numbers, in association with Daniel (of Bible fame, ladies and gentlemen), a little Paul of Tarsus, some other biblical geezers and all rooted, I am led to believe in the birthday of Noah, we know with absolute certainty that tomorrow is the day. I would try to explain it, but frankly I don't have the time. 

Oh, and the end of the world is October 21st 2011. End of. Splat (unless you are one of the 144,000 spiritualised Jews who will be on the bus outta here). 

It seems that we are just dying to have the end in our lifetime. I am only a mere 38 years old and I have lost count of the amount of times that the world was going to end during the moments that have formed my brief yet short life. By rights, I should be an angelic creature by now, harp in hand. Added to this is a conversation I had with my very lovely Jehovah's Witnesses who supply me with good conversation and reading material regularly. Interestingly, they share my view on this Rapture thing, but have another slightly peculiar notion regarding eras, and in the vein that so many seem to have that we are in the End Times. Apparently, we are experiencing the Seventh World Power, and following previous 'powers' such as the Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greek and Roman, we are now in an age of the British and US Power. It would seem that we Westerners are going to be the sign of the end - perhaps those who will bugger it all up for the rest of you. To me, it just seems to be that we humans just love a tragedy and that we would just love it if it all bent 'belly-up' while we were taking tea! Yes, we have had a few wonky winters and a couple of warm summers (though the last three Augusts have poured drizzle upon my Vernacular bonce), but a little warm precipitation the End Times make? No. Nor the fact that there are scallywags nicking one another's smartphones. We are just desperate for it all to go Pete Tong while we are watching.

The great Christian apologist and Godly favour-doer Prof Richard Dawkins must be loving this. To me, and to him, and indeed to my Witness friends, this is silly. I have not cancelled my milk, my move to Whitton, my old age and dotage, my next funky hair-cut or any jolly thing. I expect to see Christmas. I expect to see Christmas and celebrate the birth of a King of Love, the solution, the answer. I expect to celebrate the Incarnation of the God who loves and who blessed my wife and I with children that they may live and live in relative freedom, the same way as he will bless parents with newborn children this day and tomorrow. Does my God of Love expect to squash me like a proverbial fly before the London Olympics? Nope. Why? Because God is, I am delighted to say, altogether more sensible and balanced than humankind! 


(Thanks to Bp Alan for bringing this to my attention a little after I wrote this piece: http://youtu.be/hmX-lZOYcVA )

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Spurious 'Of' and Other Pet Peeves

Have you ever wondered who Dewi T. Ronommie is? Ever thought for a second who Stavros and Demetrios were?

No?

Well you jolly well should. They are writ large in our church life if only but you knew it. There are others, of that you can be sure - but I will focus for now on Dewi and his friends. 

Their claim to fame is their place in the Canon of the Bible as currently received by Anglicans and all other true Christian brothers and sisters [other denominations are available]. Their place is well earned and frankly, often overlooked, save for the efforts of a growing band of witnesses. To start with, I received them as interlopers, stowaways in the annals of biblical history, but I was being unfair. It is a great delight to know that Moses, Paul and MMLnJ weren't the only key players in the witness of Our Lord in the written word.  For the scholars out there, add to your J, E, D and P [and K if you are flash] sources the Dewist. You read it here first. He was Welsh, you know. 

I know that you are on the edge of your seat now. I know that those of you who read this eyewash will be keenly informed scholars of the texts, affirmed of your view that you had it just about wrapped up in you mind. Then here steps the soon to be Vernacular Vicar of Wonderful Whitton and shakes your world. But don't blame  me, dear friend. I am only reporting what I have discovered from the work of other contemporary literary minds. 

Or so you would think.

How many of us would call out, when reading the Blessed Scriptures, the reference Deuteronomy 9.1-21: "A reading from the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter nine, beginning at the first verse"? Guilty. The same can be said for the Book of Genesis, apparently. But for this is to correct, there must be a Deuteronomy to which this book belongs. Spurious 'of' - right there, unless Dewi T. Ronommie really was a geezer from the olden days. 

And what about our two friends Stavros and Demetrios? Well, they are often overlooked in favour of the convert Saul of Tarsus. But not for long. They are starting to get their proper ascription, finally: "A reading from two Corinthians". It seems that the two Thessalonians, the other Peter, the other two Johns, and number of Esdrases, the the clan McAbee, the additional Kings and Chronicles, not to mention the bonus Samuel - all are finding their way back from the harsh centralisation of the editors. 

For those of you who fear this development, there is only one true course of action - stop being lazy and call the books of the Bible by their correct name (unless claiming that the letter is the second of Paul to the Corinthians will take far too much time or effort). For sure, you will be telling me that that settee costs five-nine-nine next! Grrr. 

Taxi for Rev David 'Lynne Truss' Cloake

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Ecclesial Anxieties

falling_priest
 What I am about to write is nobody’s fault (I think). It is probably part of the warp and weft of church life and also the fact that tides ebb and flow over decades. It is also because of some events in recent years and recent weeks, and I hope it is not a thing that will calcify into something permanent.

The brand of priest and Christian that I am is in the decline and under serious threat. I speak, of course, as a liberal Anglo-Catholic (as distinct from one who would apply the word ‘traditionalist’ to himself these days). I am a dog-collar wearing, black clad, sacramental, open-minded, priest, and I must report, dear readers, that I am nearly the last in a nearly extinct breed of Christian. I can offer a couple of examples from my present circumstance.

1. Deanery Chapter – this is a gathering of the local Anglican clergy in the town. They are lovely warm and wonderful people, but in their company, I am very much the odd-one-out, ecclesially. Not their fault, nor mine. I am the only one in that gathering (normally) who would be referred to as ‘Father …’ and there is actually a considerable distance between where I am where they are. Not their fault, nor mine.

2. My curate peer-group – this is a gathering of those of us who were ordained in the same academic year. Here, I really am the last of a dying breed. Very often I would be the only one in a collar (and would be gently ribbed for so doing), and very often the only one in the room not to know the words to the song in question, for example. Not their fault, nor mine.

The fact of it is, it’s hard. It is hard being different, the odd-one out. Not only that, but now those of us who are this way are incorrectly labelled as the next coach-load to be leaving for the Ordinariat. We are not. We support the ordination and consecration of women. We always did; we just love our ceremony ritual and focus on the sacraments. We delight in the priesthood of all ordained people – be they male female gay or straight. The thing is that when stood alone in a large gathering feeling a little like the one who rolled up in fancy-dress, it starts to gnaw away at one’s confidence. When I worship among those for whom the Eucharistic is out-moded and passé (and frankly wholly unfamiliar) it causes me to wonder if I somehow missed a bus in my mid-twenties and that I have been left behind.  It is hard at times. I also feel that I have to be on the defensive all the time, to try and justify who and what I am.

I write this post after a gathering of a good proportion of the diocese curates and in which we enjoyed a wonderful act of worship, among other things. That act of worship was a fusion of the traditional (meant in the traditional sense) with the very contemporary, with ‘old’ words and ‘new’ music. For me (and I believe others) it was a wonderful time, holy and Spirit-filled, and I have no aversion at all to it. Yet what an effort to bring us to a point of commonality (speaking as the one who ‘designed’ the liturgy). As I commented at one point – how did we ever become so polarised?

I am not sure how I want to end this post, except to say that at times I feel sad, and at times I feel under siege. I don’t want to feel or be irrelevant, and I want to be or feel like a vestige of something long forgotten and wholly irrelevant. I didn’t like having fun poked at me by other priests because of the uniform I wear, but I put up with it.

So I will fight for my survival and that of my breed of Christian, for that is all I can do.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Spiritual Warfare

William Hogarth - 'Satan, Sin and Death' c.1735
Someone said something out loud yesterday on a matter that normally I suffix with an inner-monologue comment that is normally in the vein of "Flippin' Whacko". They spoke of spiritual warfare, which is to say, on the matter of the battle that exists between the forces of good and the forces of evil courtesy of one Mr Satan D'Evil. Others have spoken about spiritual warfare in the past, and I have cast it aside unkindly as I have just suggested.

Please don't think me uncharitable, but I am not given to this stuff. It feels a little voodoo-esque to me and it might simply be that I have discarded that with which I cannot contend. I am a man who preaches a God of love, err towards a Universalistic theology of heaven, have little concept of Hell as a fiery pit or that my God of love would allow me to smoke for eternity in some timeless incinerator. The Prince of Wishful Thinking I might be, but that is how it is. 

However, my irrational and often unconditional rejection of such things does not mean that I don't then ponder on them. And this I did, after the luminary theological educator before me yesterday was next in line for the label 'Whacko". I remember the process by which I came to ordination. For those not in the know, it is a process of meetings and deep-and-meaningfuls that that tend to end up in myriad forms and written statements. This body of gathered knowledge then forms an application to selection before a panel who white-ball or black-ball us. The bishop of the diocese in which we are testing your vocation takes that recommendation and generally acts on it, and we are either sent off for training, or not! Trained, ordained, ministry (hopefully long and fruitful) and then a gentle death to the soundtrack of an angelic Magnificat. Badaboom. That's how it happens, or at least should. 

Only as I pondered the process by which I came to Orders did I remember something that struck me those years ago. There times when silly little events conspired either to stop me getting to meetings, posting forms, thinking stuff through. Normally, I overcame those things (one being finding not a single shop in the centre of Oxford that had stocks of stamps so that I could post my forms, and then when I did, ne'er a postbox could be found; or another being a car failing me a day after a servicing when I needed to get to a meeting with someone crucial to the process). There were times when I was convinced that something was at play designed to prevent me becoming a priest. I almost became paranoid about it. At one point, I clearly articulated that someone somewhere really didn't want me to be a priest. 

In recent times, I can offer accounts of times when my normally well-oiled extrovert thinking brain would fail to finds words for prayer. I never 'dry up' in prayer normally, but for a couple of occasions. Every once in a while, I have sensed an ill-wind - although I have immediately cast it aside as silly. You may also be familiar with that tendency at times when things go so wonderfully well, only then for something to go really rather badly. The good times are never un-fettered it seems, and that good actions seem to be haunted with the very occasional and easily-missed bad counter-action. 

I am not given to the spiritual warfare being about red demons. I regard satanism to be a strange whimsy (why would anyone adulate evil and death?). I am not given to taking this stuff with a bucket-load of emotion or a paranoid sense that there are spiritual trip-wires and bounding mines set by Satan and his imps - but I do acknowledge that there is more that I do not understand than I do. This will include forces that can or should be labelled 'evil'. 

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Missing the Point [Completely]

What is happening
The event of my daughters' birthday over the last couple of days has brought me back to a thought I had over the Festive Season, but which I didn't consign to the great Blogosphere - mostly 'cos of Jesus and his shenanigans. 

For those of you blessed with children (or the prospect of them): a proposition. What if, on the day you found out that you would be parents for the first or a successive occasion, I sidled up to you and said, "Sorry mate, but the thing is this - your curse is that the highlights of your children's lives will only be visible to you on your television or computer. The fact is, my old  son, you will never see them do wonderful things with your own eyes"

Quelle dommage! You might think think me a modern day Maleficent or any of those nasty green women witches from fairy tales (excluding Almira Gulch, she is not nice at all). You would be right to, given that I would be broadly suggesting that in those moments of the greatest achievements of your children, you will be rendered blind until such time as those events can be re-enlivened by way of the latest Dell or Sony. You might even smite me, quite rightly. 

What we are doing while it is happening
The thing is, it is already happening. At the last couple of nativity plays (and other such like events) that I was lucky enough to see, the little children performed their hearts out. They remembered entire tracts of text, numerous songs, verbatim. Not a syllable was dropped or queered. Perfection. The hall was full of their adoring parents all drooling happily, and rightly so. They were climbing over one another, re-arranging the furniture, dangling from climbing-frames just to get the best view...

...so that they could stare through the view-finder of a fancy-pants digital all-bells and whistles camera while they recorded the happy event. I have no doubt that, once the tea-towel has been removed from the tousled bonce of the heir to the family wealth, that the memory cards were hastily rammed into hard-drives so that the whole family could pour wine, gather round and share the moment with pride. "There, see him? That's him just there! Third sheep from the right". This is, brothers and sisters, modern-day life. So set are we on hoarding life's moments that we actually miss those moments in their entirety. 

Think Royal Wedding or Wimbledon finals. Think Football World Cup Finals or the final test in the Ashes. Seats at the front, at the venue - or settee and telly. Surely every one of you would cut off an appendage to be there and not relegated to the lounge and its peripherals. So why do we do it for the really important stuff, like our childrens' rites of passage?

What we see of what is happening 

Friday, 13 May 2011

God's Way with Bloggers

Across the whole wide world everywhere, pulses have been racing like mad. Because it is Friday 13th? Nope. Because they have discovered that they only got Osama's looky-likey? Nope. 

The reason why the entire civilised world has collapsed into melt-down is because Blogger died this very day (for those of you wondering what this 'Blogger' thing is, you are using it now. It is the things that eejits like me use to write loving prose to philistines like you). Anyway, it went and died. 

Then it rose again after 20.5 hours. Let me tell you that Twitter (when it was working) was alive and ablaze with the fact that Homo Bloggo could not writo, and even I received an anxious email from a fellow blogatoid wondering what was up. Big news! Bloggers could not blog. I can't talk though, because I have been like a thirsty person without a drink and with a tap that will not pour. Try it once? Try it a hundred times; Blogger would not work. Pulses raced, sweat-beads formed. Panic-attacks set in, heart-beats raced. Tensions mounted, moods fractured. A world without Blogger is, it seems, a bleak place; an inhospitable place. What of all the lovely Comments, the juicy Stats? They were gone like gossamer on a breeze. Bye then!

Then Blogger returned and blogatoids around the world sighed the heavy sigh of relief, before noticing that posts were missing, at which point, anxieties raced once more. This is a blogger's life. And not only that, but when Blogger became the second Holy Resurrection of 2011, Twitter went all Good Friday. Palpitations are in danger of triggering another tsunami even now. 

What are we like, ladies and gentlemen? Why am I asking you? You read this stuff, I only write it. Of one thing I am absolutely sure - this was surely God's humourous way of telling us blogatoids to get a life!!

No cats were properly harmed in the making of this Blog Post.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Delete

That is not an order, incidentally. Just the title of a blog post, ya hear!

So, the news is out, dates are being carved into the tablets of time, and there is now work to be done. Sadly, I must have been ill when theological college did the 'Buggering Awf' class, because n'ere a book rests within my copious personal library that attends to the 'The Great Scarper'. 

Actually, the truth is that the prospect of dis-entangling myself from so many things is a sad one to me. Leaving a ministry is tough I think (if it has gone well). I doubt I will get away with: "Well, that's me. I've left the files in the study. Speak soon and thanks for all the gin". It might be easier that way, I just don't know.

The funny thing is that stopping one ministry still involves moving forward. I am still engaging in new pastoral encounters with people, organising this and that, thinking ahead. No brown archive box with the picture of the kids and the pot plant for me! Oh no sir-ee. Public ministry means (I believe) involving oneself to a very deep level with the people with whom we engage. That means laughing with them and crying with them (with any luck at the same time that they are doing said things - bad ministry otherwise). It means pouring love into those chance encounters; prayer too. When those engagements conclude, we don't just turn off either. For me, I ponder those whom I have passed along the way and how they may be faring. 

Priests are nomadic. The tied accommodation is something of a paradox, because although vicars are often associated with vicarages, we are always nomads. Our stops might be prolonged, but stops they be, and move on eventually we do. When the time comes to make the next long walk, there is (I am now discovering) an odd period of stasis. We know we are called to leave, but not just yet. It requires some considerable effort not to lose interest and cast eyes forward. I haven't fallen into that trap to date, partly because it will be so hard leaving this place. In a very very small way, this must be how it feels to succeed to a throne. Becoming the next monarch demands (normally) that one's parent has died. A good thing under-written by a very painful thing. The prospect of a new ministry is wildly exciting for me, all the while underpinned by the sure and sad knowledge that I will have to say goodbye to Aylesbury.

Friday, 6 May 2011

The Other Royal Wedding

The Day Nursery Royal Wedding (image with permission)

I can disclose this very day that it is remarkably good fun being a priest. You may think that it is all laborious funeralising, PCCing, collar-starching, lace-choosing, sacrament elevating stuff (and for those priests who have no idea what I have just said, I shall be running a course in the autumn - 'Anglo-Catholicism for the Uninterested'). On no - we priests have fun too.

It seems that in my three years here in Aylesbury I have built for myself a reputation for being an idiot relaxed and accessible in my faith and work. It meant that in the run up to the  practice Royal Wedding, I was asked to preside at the real thing. An archbishop I may not be, but preside over a whole Royal Wedding I did, and not just bits of it. At my local day-nursery, that excellent establishment that largely raises my daughters and teaches them manners, we had a proper Royal Wedding with a prince and princess, flower-girls, Royal car, rings, a congregation, vows and declarations (and a blessing too, after a fashion). Being me, I agreed whole-heartedly to help out and acceded to their requests that I wear all my finery. Cassock, lacy cotta, gold/red cope - the works. Their efforts on the day, it must be noted, far exceeded mine and they all looked beautiful. And a wonderful event it was, though more due to the delightful kids than the barmy vicar!

I have posted on numerous occasions on the predisposition to the dour and self-flagellating on the part of many Christians. I have never understood this tendency to take faith and religion so heavily and with such little light-heartedness and fun. I have always regarded it as vital to enjoy worshipping God, and to show that enjoyment to a world where enjoyment is so elusive. Would I join a crowd of the Poe-faced if I didn't have to? Of course not. I have always devoted many hours to my religion and God, so always wanted it to be uplifting time, happy time (even in penitential moments). This stuff can be fun and serious all at the same time, and to have a chance to show that to the under-fours is a gift to me. I am now known, by thirty-odd kiddies as 'The Funny Man Vicar'. 

Is that not evangelism? I hope it is, because it is what I do. 

Thursday, 5 May 2011

AV and Being Bothered

We the British people, the lovely United Kingdomites, the extended family of none other than the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, will be called to make a choice today.

AV it or Not AV it, mate!

For those of you in the further flung places of our wonderful world, we have a choice about our voting system. Currently we elect our politicians, like horses, in a 'First past the post' system where the chap or chappess with the greater number of Xs wins. The Alternative Vote is the choice that is on offer in this referendum, and in simple terms, is a process by which election candidates are ordered by preference. The winning condition is to receive more than 50% of the votes cast. Failure to achieve that means that the poor poppet who secured the least number of votes have the alternative choices on their ballot papers considered and re-distributed. In other words, if your No. 1 doesn't win, your No. 2 etc may gain from your vote. To me it is simple, though many are confusticated by the whole thing. 

Me, I am for the Alternative Vote. It favours a three-party system whereas the 'first donkey past the post' favours a two-party system. AV also means that, in the end, the winner of a given election has secured the greatest volume of support. The other system allows a government to be formed that may well not have the physical majority of the total of votes cast. The answer seems simple to me. It also means that my vote matters, unlike now when voting for anyone other that Tory in this area is a waste of pencil-lead. 

But my views are not why I have written this post. There is a societal cancer that lingers in the bones of our great nation. Apathy. In recent elections, the turn-out has been poor. People just don't seem to want to engage with the process. I am not sure if this apathy is born of laziness, not caring, or having too many other burdens already, but the problem is right there. AV or No AV - it is almost moot-point when the V is a minority sport. To gain half of the votes cast when only 36% of voters voted means that you can only claim 18% of popular support, and frankly, it makes little difference how we get there. However, a viable government 18% does not make, in my modest opinion.

As a Christian, I believe I have a duty to vote in this and all elections that effect me and my area. My reason for this is that the least in our society are affected by the outcome (and perhaps it is true to say that all of us are, and my ministry is to all people, not just the least by whatever measure we are working with). If I have a care for a just society I have to play my part in its formation and governance. If I have a love for neighbour, what affects my neighbour must be important to me too. Say 'Fair Trade', and you will bring every living-breathing Christians out in the goose-bumps of justice-for-all. Say 'referendum' and I fear that you will struggle to bring many out of the house. 

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Humuhumunukunukuapua'a

You are now going to be wondering what the devil the mad curate is going to say that is remotely pertinent to the Trigger Reef-fish, or by its proper name, the Humuhumunukunukuapua'a

Keep wondering, friends. 

I spent five or six whole minutes trying to master the pronunciation of this word this morning, after it appeared in an episode of Octonauts (that the kiddies watch). For your edification, you say it like this:

humu-humu-nuka-nuka-apua-a

Five or six minutes.

I was going to write on a topic today, which is now placed into perfect relief by this remarkable name, and more especially the time that I took to learn its pronunciation. I had been thinking about the way that a lot of us sustain our lives technologically. For me, as stated previously in other posts, I am a gadget freak. The world of David Cloake is largely worked out by the workings of an Apple device. Wanna read da Bible? Got an App for that. Wanna read da newspaper? Got an App for that. Wanna confess my sins to the Lord? Gotnapfudat. Want to squander imaginary millions? Gotnapfudat. Wanna listen to heavy metal or polyphonic choral splendour? Gonafudat. 

Some of us will remember the noble Commodore 64, or the Vic 20, the ZX Spectrum, or even the little PacMan hand-held games of the Eighties. With those PCs, it would take five or six minutes to load up a game while watching dancing horizontal ribbons of colour on our portable TV set up in the dining room. Then we would spend the entire afternoon mastering Level 6 of Nonterraqueous. This tendency to persist with things for a long time was normal in all other spheres of life. If something was worth doing, it was worth devoting time to. 

These days, we can load applications in a split second. We can converse with people the other side of the planet in real-time, from our hand-held devices. We can get much of what we want, when we want it. But then we spend hardly anytime doing it. If I play a game on a computer now, it is opened started attempted and closed in less time than it took to master 'Humuhumunukunukuapua'a'. I also think that this is a characteristic of so much more of our lives than perhaps we might be happy to admit. We eat faster, drive faster, wait less, patience mostly eroded. Applied to our spiritual life, we all know well that this is the case. Priests will all tell you (in their more candid moments) how rare prayer time or even silence truly is. We live in an on-tap on-demand 'Got An App For That' world, where we save all this time just to have less than we ever had before. 

What I need is an hour a day more. Got an App for That?

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