Wednesday 23 July 2014

Going Back To Basics - Vicar Style

This is not a post about the style of Vicars, because even as Jesus himself did, we should all wear black and with tonsure collars. Images of Jesus in beige dresses was purely to appease the folk festival lot!

No, this is a post about us vicars revisiting some of those oft abandoned territories, those places left well behind in the wake of the Ordinal and the swap from the baggy Watts cassock that smelled of old men, to the viscose version with all the buttons that smell of younger men. I speak of that tectonic progression from honourable Altar Server to Clerk in Holy Orders. If you are a non-liturgical Christian (unlike Jesus, who said the Angelus thrice daily, and that's a fact), look away now - for you will have no idea what I am about to write about. 

It is a factor in parish life that when some people absent themselves from parish life, they leave little less than a whisper of a breath of a breeze and you would hardly discern their departure. Then there are others, who after turning and ankle in an (allegedly) drunken brawl, cease to be able to function in parish life and leave a chasm such as would hold even the ego of the Whitton Vicar. People come and people go. One such someone turned their ankle in an (allegedly) drunken brawl, leaving us short of one Altar Server this Sunday past. For those of my ecclesiastical tradition, we are talking about Taperers or Acolytes (like Jesus was when he turned eleven and hadn't fully learned to wield his plane).

There was ne'er a replacement server to be found. Ankle turn-ed lady was not able to heave the weight of her candle, and there was thereby a vacancy. So I stepped in. I'm the Vicar, I thought. I wrote the ceremonial, I reasoned. I have been a server for years, I ruminated. So it was that I donned a cassock-alb, wore my stole deacon-wyse, set aside my little skull cap and wandered into church the left-hand of two Altar Servers. 

The simple fact is that I cocked it up from beginning to end. I have a liturgical awareness that is fashioned by decades doing the very thing that I failed to accomplish this very day. I kicked the candle during the Gospel Procession and now have a viscose-smelling-of-me cassock covered in candle-wax. I moved the altar rail across for the distribution of the Holy Communion while I was on the outside of it, not the inside. Afore the aforementioned Gospel Procession, I had noticed that I had forgotten to label the short hymn "x2" so we verily sang it once and it was done before we even started to move off. 

Many lessons were learned - many reinforced home numerous times by my beloved Sacristan (who is, for the record, older that Solomon). If Sunday presented the Vicar-as-Server Gravestone, my Sacristan exhausted himself dancing on it! But what a fabulous insight into the worshipping life it presented. How quickly I had set aside so many of the simpler lessons of serving, and how quickly I have acquired habits of unpredictability so as to enliven the worship here. It is now clear to me how much of a pain in the arse I must be to serve for, and indeed how blessed I am by the team of servers that I have here. 

Indeed, this is my recommendation to ordained men and women, particularly those of a liturgical bent - serve once a year at least to remind yourself of where you came from, the skills you had already forgotten, what life is like in your ceremonial wake. In so-doing, be open to making a total pratt of yourself, because humility is no bad ally in parish life. 

To my own worthy team of Altar Servers - thank you, thank you and thank you. You are bloody marvellous!

Friday 16 May 2014

Biblical Miracles in the Twenty-First Century

Just over seven years ago, the Lord blessed me and the fragrant Mrs Acular with the calling of parenthood and the blessing of not just one tiny life, but two. Two bundles of curly red-headed joy, a journey as yet unfolded, the future resting prone before us. Yes, they were a challenge of some intensity in the beginning - sleepless nights and fraught uncertain days. The handbook of parenting is yet to be written, (if we disregard Gina Ford, which is a good start) yet its blueprint is embedded within each and every new parent. We have the instinct hitherto unseen to know how to fix the problems that presented themselves. It was a small seam of knowing that accompanied the life-stage of the girls, only to vanish from our grasp once we had passed its needs by. 

You know what I think of my little girls if you read this blog, so I won't burden you with a plethora of superlatives. However, I wish to share with you, dear reader, the very real evidence brought into my life of a biblical miracle as granted us by our young ladies. 

Last weekend, it happened very simply - within the context of the celebrations that marked their shared birthday. Amid the balloons, the party food, the gleeful faces of the guests as they watched the magician work his magic before them. Their eyes were wide, rictus grins painted across their innocent faces. Life for them was bounded up the very moment that they existed in - a sufficiency and satisfaction so easily and readily lost in the wilderness years of adulthood. But happen it did and like this.

You will be familiar with the account of the feeding of the five thousand onlookers, the provision from what appeared be a lack to what proved to be a plenty - a ministry of hospitality and refreshment, food for the journey of faith. You know that story, and I can tell you here and now that by the gracious gift of my perfect little girls, I saw a latter-day equivalent of this miracle, and it unfolded before my eyes and in the power of God's Holy Spirit.

The thing is this, you invite 32 ankle-biters to your daughters' birthday party, you will be blessed by an outpouring of generosity in the form of gift-giving to mark the joyous occasion. In this case, that outpouring filled a table top that is 5' long by 3' wide. A neat pile. An exciting and promising pile of gifts wrapped largely in bright papers of pink and fuchsia. When the party drew to its climax and its inevitable end, we carried that little pile of gifts back to the house, during which time something miraculous happened, almost at a cellular level. 

But the gifts from the party, all 5' x 3' of them, all wrapped beautifully, became the manna from heaven that we read about in the scriptures, and it happened when those gifts were opened. 

Blow me if that little pile of gifts didn't expand at an exponential rate. What sat neatly on a table top soon became sufficient in volume to eclipse even the sun and moon - paper everywhere. Boxes hither and plastic yon. Indeed, the wife and I could hardly see the kids for detritus, and it spread from room to room, basket full by alarming basketful, up the stairs, along that landing, into at least four of the bedrooms, all overt the lounge floor, the Hallway, the kitchen table, the garden, on top of the dog and under the cat. Stuff everywhere I tell you. All that was visible of yours truly was the spiky tips of his grey hair emerging from a self propelled shifting mountain of wrapping paper. To the left, one kid's gifts, and to the right the other's. Never in my whole life have I seen physical matter expand in volume at the rate that this modest gift pile did. Like the magic porridge pot, the immanence of our certain drowning fast approached as we lamented our early departure and sought the comfort of Last Rites. Batteries were needed, and that right quick. So, therefore, did we need the little screwdriver - and that even quicker. Bawling and screaming accompanied the determined affront to our physical well-being by this every expanding Leviathan of gift stuff. 

The moral of the story is this. If you are ever wandering through the Gallilean countryside, all bucolic and that, and you bump into five-thousand groupies looking for a free feed, this is what to do. Put on a birthday party for two seven year old girls and ask that their only gifts we in food and fluid. Mark my words - once you start faffing with them, they will feed a small continent of free-food foraging groupies. 

Monday 12 May 2014

Just So You Know

I am among you as one who serves ... so passing on a prophecy is for me to do!

Picture courtesy of HTB

Thursday 8 May 2014


Brothers and sisters, and you in the cheap seats, it is time that I came out of the closet and 'fess up here and now. I believe in washing my dirty laundry in public, which is why I have a blog, innit, and today is the day for me.

Those of you who know me well will know that I have a bad case of arachnophobia, which put another way, means I petrified of araks. Such a phobia is no good for those of us gainfully 'employed' in buildings that are old dark and a little dusty in places, and to be honest, some of the araks that I have seen have not only had tattoos, but were of a dimension to warrant widened seating on an aeroplane. But it is not my irrational fear of araks that I have come here to discuss. No. 

I am deeply, irrationally, and annoyingly fearful of telephones. I am not referring to the actual article, as a Nokia handset doesn't in fact send me into paroxysms of hysteria or an effervescence of self-flagellation. No, it is the activity of the telephone that does it for me, and let me tell you why.

Once upon a time, I didn't mind the 'phone ringing. It would be my nan or a friend (the former who would batter on for two hours without taking a breath), and as such a source of joy. Then retail happened. And not only retail, but retail management. At that point I acquired my new fear for a new generation. 

In retail, and in particular in a sales environment, the telephone ringing was rarely the harbinger of joy. Indeed, if your sport of choice was a heady and masochistic desire for aural abuse, then a shop telephone was the place to be, and you would be oft pleased. In flooring (my former retail environment), we were paid to advise and then relieve the punter of sums of money which, in my case, peaked once at £17k per order. In flooring, such sums are paid for goods that have been untested, of varying shades to the colour swatch, fitted by human hands which are not always perfect, and with expectations at levels that would trouble the Vatican Army. At the least level, the telephone ringing would be a hapless soul demanding the whereabouts of their order, either in terms of the large lorry crossing the English Channel or else in the back of a battered white Tranny when the stuff is to be fitted. The answer, with every step of best preparation and expectation management, was insufficient and lacking for Mr & Mrs Customer, and so it began - the tirade. The abuse. The name calling. 

Then it would turn eight-thirty and the day would begin in earnest.

Once, some chap was chasing a cheap mattress that he had bought a week prior and that was on a fortnight lead time. When reminded that the nasty foam sprung object was still a week away, his retort was, I kid you not, that it would have been better if I had been in one of those two Towers (for this call took place on September 12th of that notable year). For retailers, such abuse is commonplace and much lamented, but it also stops us loving the fruit of the telephone.

Evidently, it is akin to some social-phobias and anxieties that can emerge - and telephobia is not an irrational fear of a voice in the ear (after all, I have several in my head), but of ridicule and abuse. It is closely related to glossophobia which I don't have (thankfully, in my trade). 

The upshot of years of retail 'phone abuse (often perpetuated by the upper ranks within the organisation too, I might add, and who would ever like being called 'crap' and 'shit' before the doors are even opened), is that I really truly struggle to take or make a telephone call to or from anyone. I would rather insert, slowly, white-hot copper wire into my pupil than take a call - which is inconvenient in this mobile-age and in my line of work. I have to know who it is before I answer it (and the cost of Caller Display was a non-negotiable, even before food). I hate 'phones. Simple. Where telephone calls are required I am the procrastinator extraordinare, risking (and probably achieving) the reputation of one who doesn't care enough to call, or else that I am disorganised and forgot. 

Well this is my confession. It is altogether worse.

...and Oxford customers were the worst by a country-mile, by the way (from a range of thirteen stores that I managed across much of the south of Britain)

Tuesday 6 May 2014

Why We Must Ban the Future

Whitney Houston (may she rest in peace) once recorded a very nice song that largely echoes the sentiments of many adults in the parish life of our church. They are, to be sure, very nice words and tune isn't wholly barf-making either! 
I believe the children are our futureTeach them well and let them lead the way
Show them all the beauty they possess inside
 Give them a sense of pride to make it easier
Let the children's laughter remind us how we used to be
This is from the first verse of a song called "The Greatest Love of All" and it is a song with much merit that doesn't set your teeth on edge when it is played. Only it is precisely wrong

Oft have I heard that children are the 'church of tomorrow', that we should steep them in a heady mix of baybee Jesus and high liturgy so that people like me have altar servers and PCC secretaries in the hinterlands of the future. We might even sling them the odd shekel so that a neat little youth club with ping-pong might thrive, allowing us the means by which we can miss a God-given opportunity. 

Mark's Gospel gives us the proper approach to children, and they are words known to many of us God botherers. So well are they known to us that it is our default position to frown and tut when the under-fives maraud around the church between epicleses. We are told (well, to be sure, the disciples were told) to let the children come forward, and not frown and tut for fear of the wrath of a displeased God of volcanoes and dinosaurs and all that. 

I am here, dear Reader, to tell you that children are not the church of tomorrow. They are not our future. They are their own future and they are the church of right now. In the great unspoken hierarchy of Parish Life (largely a matriarchy for anyone labouring still under the misapprehension that the blokes are in charge), we have the Choir in their own appointed seats, the wardens in their stalls, the 'old guard' who occupy their life-right given seats of the last five decades, the adult visitors who get what is left (if they dare) with the small messy space at the back reserved for the nasty noisy ankle-biters to play. Should they feel inclined to cry because that is what small children do from time to time, then they are loving escorted out to stand outside in the rain with the mortified mother and the frustrated father (who will never be seen in the building ever again, ever). 

It is my modest opinion that treating children as the 'church of tomorrow' is among the single biggest cancers in God's Church today. We bolt their derrieres to the spot, enforce silence upon them and expect them to carry on and build a personal and meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ. They are the church of now. Tomorrow, they say, never comes - and it is entirely right. Scripture would even guide us in this, too: This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. At no point do we learn about tomorrow being a sacrament or the week after next being the grace filled moment. We are taught vigilance in the here and now, to watch and wait and not sit back and fritter the moment. 

In my church, the children are the honoured guests. They are treated as such (even to the extent of concelebrating with me [sort of]). It is their church building, their aisle to walk up and down along. Why is this so important? The answer to that is simple: children get the whole God thing at an instinctive level and the adult are, I truly believe, placed among the children to learn about faith. 

I wonder if the greatest love of all is to let children enjoy the day that they have been given, and not filed away until they start full-time employment. 

Friday 2 May 2014

This Wonderful Whitton

It has, for some time, been my 'day-off' custom to accompany the fragrant Mrs Vicarage to an establishment nearby for a weekly fix of pig-meat and baby chickens-in-waiting, served with a mug of coffee whose temperature would melt titanium and a plate of fresh bread and butter to really seal the cholesterol deal. That I am now the shape of a modest beach ball is besides the point - and I blame the medication anyway. But, dear reader, it is not the art of breaking the fast that I have deigned to appear and write this grey day.

The establishment in question is situated in close proximity to the Lesser Whitton Jolly's Gyratory and a hastily claimed window seat provides the perfect vantage point for that greatest of all priestly pastimes - people-watching. Yes, you could claim that I ought to be talking to my ever tolerant wife, but gawping out of the window is such a worthy priestly activity. Why? Because at 9am on a normal weekday morning, I am once again reminded what a splendid place I live in with my family.

Last weekend, the goodly folk of Whitton and its environs turned out to celebrate one of the many St. George's that crop up from time to time, with a focal procession mit dragon and Knight-a-Slaying. The streets are lines with families and well-wishers, but rather than the slightly xenophobic undertones that can beleaguer a good "Let's Celebrate Being English", it provided a very real celebration of Whitton. 

So, back to my cafe pew. I watch the parents returning from the school run in their 4x4s (because speed humps are very steep these days). I observe the first-shift gamblers entering one portion of the great miasma of betting-establishments that have spawned up the High Street. Yes, I see the lady with her 9am Special Brew and I wonder what her story is. The preschoolers are taken to Costa for a baby-cinno with (on the whole) their mothers who take root until the noontime. The deliveries are made to the shops that punctuate the street and the staff arrive for their days in retail. Some faces are lost in thought, others burdened with the stresses and strains of existence. Some faces are concealing the joys of digital music being piped into the head that follows it. Some faces betray the simple fact that they will miss the train that they hurry towards, while others tell the story of a day of arduous labour in the many industries of London Town. 

Each face is a story often untold. Each face represents an account of joys balanced against sorrow, and to sit in my Greasy Spoon of choice is, frankly, one of the best ways to pray for these wonderful people who have had me inflicted upon their spiritual welfare. 

I am encouraged by the closed shop units that are starting to fill up, and I worry intensely about the implicit judgement upon this community that so many gambling firms can invest in so many shops in such a small space - I fear for the gambling problem that must overwhelm so many people in an asset-rich-cash-poor place like ours. I delight in the sense of self that Whitton enjoys and projects, the stability of its resident population, so many of whom have graced these streets for decades. It is a matter of considerable reassurance that I have brought my children to a community that suffers very little violence and where that due sense of neighbourliness is not completely eclipsed by the ever present need of self-preservation. Everyone seems to know everyone else, and as a lad from oopt'North, I find that a compelling thing. 

As I ruminate behind my bacon and eggs, it is my considered view that as a priest and as a vicar, I landed squarely on my feet with this gig. In all its shades of light and dark, this Whitton is a place that I would struggle to leave. 

Thursday 24 April 2014

Lessons from The Catholic

Picture with thanks to the Telegraph
Many in my parish would think me a Roman Catholic, and for a number of reasons. First I am known as Father; secondly, I wear some semblance of clerical uniform and only in the colour black; thirdly I know what a cassock is and make use of one from time to time; fourthly, I know when it is better to wear a cotta and not a surplice; fifthly, I can tell my amice from my pumice; and lastly, I wear a small courgette upon my head at odd times during the week (if courgette = zucchetto). Indeed, when I pitched up at church last year wearing a black skull-call there were those who thought I was about to swim the Tiber, drag the parish with me, or else do that strangest of things, and become a member of the Ordinariate! 

No, brothers and sisters, I am a catholic, not a Catholic! 

That all said, what a time to be Roman. I have to say, out and loud, that I am a fan of Pope Francis I, Bishop of Rome - known to himself as Father Bergoglio. He strikes me as a man from whom we could all learn a great deal on a whole number of fronts.

As I cast my world-weary eye across Christianty, I see evidence of much in the way of admonition. There is much that we shouldn't do, mustn't do, ought not do, must never do, or else can't do. In the press today, Christians are telling off atheists for having a view of their own that is not supportive of us. As a result of our Scriptures we have lots of rules (let's call a collection of rules a law, shall we) and we will work tooth and nail to apply those rules to the societies of which we are part. Our Christian Lore is now applied behind the smiling facade of caffe latte, but nonetheless with convicted vitriol. If you don't claim a full personal relationship with Jesus Christ, you are somehow delinquent. 

So back to Pope Francis. I would go so far as to say that among the 'famous' Christians of our time, he is by far and away the most Christ-like. I even think he would shudder to read such words, which is sign yet further of the truth of them. He seems, in his early ministry as Pope, to have moved away from the Christian appetite for admonition - setting aside Christian Lore for what Jesus called us all to do first - and to love our neighbours as ourselves. 

An article in the press today tells of the Pope ringing up an Argentinian woman to tell her, in person, that she may receive Holy Communion. Yes, this is a story subject to validation and has a myriad theological questions at the heart of it, but what struck me was not so much the article itself (which was wonderful, if it is true), but the Lore-makers in the Comments section below. They will have knotted their digits trying to pontificate as urgently as they seemed to want to. Instead of preaching grace and love in their comments, they belched dogma! On one hand, you have this smiling grandfather figure allowing a faithful woman into the sacrament of God - and on the other, some pinch-lipped poe-faced theological types in their birettas stomping their sanctuary slippers in a temper. 

Which would bring you to faith?

Yes, Jesus set out guidelines for us to follow, but the first is this - that we love. The Pope, a man who takes a bus, washes the feet of Muslim prisoners, telephones parishioners, owned a Harley and does so with a beguiling smile is, I believe, doing more good for Christendom than
so many Lore-types. I doubt that he would stomp up to me and check my passport for entry in the borderlands of personal-relationships with Jesus, but rather exhibits a joy in his relationship that would convert me to faith in a breath, were I not already there. Put another way, Pope Francis has taken upon him that quality of Jesus Christ that was the greatest gift to humanity, his own humanity. 


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