Thursday 28 February 2013

Sede Vacanta

Some people have been suggesting that, in an unprecedented era for ecclesiastical retirement, I might take the lead from the ex-Pontiff and go into quiet seclusion, perhaps taking the title "Archdruid Emeritus". In fact, someone has taken to sending me typewritten notes on chamomile-scented paper to that effect, signed "A Holy-Well-Wisher".

I would like to point out to whoever the author is that I have no desire to become the power behind the throne, as long as I'm the power on the throne. I wish His Holiness many years, and all the time for prayer, rest and peace that he may have sacrificed during his active ministry. But I'm not off to the Dower House just yet, whatever Young Keith and Charlii may think.

Lamenting the Liturgy of Lentils

I dunno. Thanks to Sorghum for being so creative with this, but I just don't think the Liturgy of Lentils worked.

I mean - meditating on a pebble, sure. A pebble has some weight and solidity.

But a lentil - it's not even the size of a hazelnut. If it's being used as a metaphor for the smallness of the earth in God's hands, fine. I just don't like illustrations where the earth is quite that easy to drop down the grille over the drain.

And then, including the Little Pebbles. Full marks for the creativity and inclusivity. Minus 1000 out of 10 for Health and Safety.  Until we got little Anjii out of the A&E, I'd never realised how many lentils a small child can get in her ears.

So if anyone wants to use lentils in worship again, I suggest a nice curry instead next time.

Making Myths About Hebrew Bad News

It's strange, the way we can make the mythď we want to comfort us in our positions.

I'm particularly thinking about the idea, popular with some, that the Jewish people up to the time of Jesus were labouring under the yoke of an oppressive law. To quote one of Drayton Parslow's interminable sermons, which he kindly emailed to me:

"They foundered in the seas of unbearable sin, that they somehow knew that they could never drag themselves from: kill they ever so many sheep, goats and bulls. A stain of sin that could not be washed by an ocean of sacrificial blood poured over the altar.

"The shining light of the Gospel then burst in, casting bright rays on those benighted Jews, struggling through their valley of the deathly shades, and they had two choices - to recognise the true Sun of Righteousness, or to scuttle into the comfort of the deeper darkness of Hades."

There's a few problems with this approach. And I guess the main one is that, reading the Bible, I'm not sure there's any evidence of it. The Hebrew folk of the Old Testament seem mostly to have been a merry enough bunch. Psalm 119 does not suggest somebody struggling under the weight of unkeepable laws - rather, this is someone rejoicing in the wonders that God's law reveals to him.

Likewise the New Testament Jews seem to have many problems. But, at least among those who flocked to Jesus, the questions they seem to have been asking were "Who can heal me / my child / my servant" and "Please can you kick out the Romans?"

Not quite true, I guess. There was one man who asked the sort of question that the "Jews labouring under a shadow" theology might want to address. "What must I do to be saved?" But even this young man wasn't suffering with the Law - he'd been perfectly obedient since he was a child.

And the answer Jesus gave him wasn't "lay down your sins on me, and rejoice that you've thrown off the yoke of the Law." No, it was "give everything you have to the poor, and come follow me."

That wasn't identifying the Jewish Law as the problem. The man's problem was where his heart was - with his money, not with God. The Law had been a good guide to him - but the Law was meant to keep him on the road to a place where he didn't want to go.

And then there's the statement that "The Old Testament ends with a curse, the New Testament ends with a blessing." Well, it's true in modern Protestant Bibles. Malachi does end with a curse - or, at least, a threat. But maybe it actually ends with a promise? The promise that Messiah will come, which is answered in the (thoroughly Jewish) Jesus of the next book in the Protestant Bible, Matthew's Gospel. But the books are in that order because that's how Christians have arranged them.

But the bible of the Jews doesn't end with that threat in Malachi. Because the Hebrew Bible isn't in the same order. Now I can't confirm this with my own copy of the Hebrew Bible - because I can't read Hebrew. I only bought it as an affectation. But I believe on relatively good authority that it doesn't finish with Malachi.

The Hebrew Bible of Jesus' day was a set of scrolls, in any case. In one sense, it didn't "end" with anything, as a set of scrolls can't. And they hadn't even got round to deciding, once and for all, what the Bible actually was. The Sadducees, after all, rejected a whole load of the Pharisee Bible. The Septuagint had a few books that never made it into the Hebrew canon. So how could it finish with a curse?

So my conclusion, this bright shiny Lenten morning, is that the Jews weren't, and aren't, anything like as weighed down by their Law as some Christians would have us believe. Jesus is Good News - but the "Bad News" of Judaism ain't the reason why.

Wednesday 27 February 2013

Winners have Better Stories

How could you not like Paul Dirac?

It was he who understood that the laws of science are beautiful. The logical conclusion being that, the more elegant a law is, the likely it is to be true. The universe runs on good stories.

But there's a historical example I wanted to cite. One that is particularly relevant to those of us who live round here.

1500 years ago, the Husborne Crawley area was part of the kingdom of the Middle Angles. Not the East Angles (i.e. East Anglians) - nor the West Angles (the Mercians). Not the Angles from north of the Humber (the Northumbrians). No, we were the Middle Angles - the folk of a territory stretching through Leicestershire, Northants, and down through Bedfordshire towards St Albans.

You, historically-aware readers, are scratching your heads. You were taught at school that there was a Heptarchy in Anglo-Saxon England - a collection of seven kingdoms. And you are, I suspect, quietly confident that Middle Anglia wasn't one of them. You probably don't remember them all - you may have a cringing feeling that you laughed at school that so many at school ended in "-sex". But we folk of the Middle Angles weren't one of them.

And you're right.  The kingdom of the Middle Angles has been forgotten. And here's why.

The Mercians were ruled by a royal family (most famous of whom is Offa) who claimed their descent from the god Woden. In fact, all but two of the kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England had royal families descended from Woden. The Essex kings claimed descent not from Woden, nor even from an ancient Essex god called Wayne, but from Saxnôt - a god who subsequently became Woden's son.

Only one kingdom didn't have a god as the ancestor of their royal family. The Middle Angles. We were bigger than the Mercians, but their king was a son of Woden and our king wasn't. So we were taken over, and within 300 years, Offa (of dyke fame) had a palace in deepest Middle-Anglia, in Irthlingborough. We had been wiped off the map as a political entity, and wiped off the face of history. And why?

Because the Mercians had a better story.                

The Power of a True Story

This morning, I find myself much taken by a tweet from John the Lutheran (who blogs at Curlew River).

The real reason people are atheists is not that they're "persuaded by the evidence", but that they find atheism's narrative more compelling.

I wouldn't presume to understand all atheists' (or all people's) reasons for believing or not. But I do appreciate John's main thrust, that for most people it's the power of the story they're taken by - not necessarily a logical presentation of evidence.

It's a matter of the stories we tell. And stories aren't exclusive of one another. The Creationists fall into the trap when they're somehow persuaded that either the story of a 6-day Creation is true, or the story of Evolution is. And the problem they've got is that the Evolution story is so compellingly told, by a bloke with an academic manner and good hair. Whereas stories of talking snakes presented by hayseed fundamentalists just ain't... well, let's put it this way. I'd be more inclined to join the Amish on the basis of the film "The Witness" than I would join a Fundamentalist Baptist church on the basis of their presentation of the Creation.

But I digress. Stories aren't exclusive of one another. Just because Michelle is having a baby in Eastenders, doesn't mean that Curly can't run the supermarket on Coronation Street. (I've not watched soaps in a while  - can someone let me know how the Ogdens are getting on?) But it's the power of the story that deems who follows it - not some rigorous proof.

Take another story. The narrative "God loved you so much that he tortured his Son to death for you" has its place. I suspect that place may be the 16th Century. But narratives about forlorn and apparently failed rescue attempts - that turn out to be glorious successes - they're rather popular. "Lord of the Rings",  Braveheart", all the "Toy Story" series - that story of moral / actual victories when all seems rather lost and pointless. Obviously, being English I don't actually watch Mel Gibson films, as they always seem to be blaming my race. I suspect that, if you translated the "Passion of the Christ" correctly, Pontius Pilate would turn out to be the British Consul.

So there you have it. Let's stop playing around constructing narratives from the Epistle to the Romans - or let's not construct them from 500 years of accretion on top of it - there's a great story in there, and it's there to check our stories against. Let's tell our stories out of the Gospels - tell about a God who loves the daft, rotten, beautiful people he created so much that he comes to look for them. Let's tell stories about the change that the God who came to do that for all of us, made when coming to look specifically for you and me. And let's put those alongside the story of Evolution on our Bookshelf of Truth. Because it's true and it's beautiful and it tells us something - though something frankly terrifying - about us too.

Tuesday 26 February 2013

In the Ecumenical Spirit

Quite an afternoon's Ecumenical Bowling.

It was all so friendly in theory. A 10-pin bowling game between our Women's Bible Study group and six of the women from the Extremely Primitive Methodists of the Manshead Hundred. A bar snack, maybe a half of lager or a glass of wine, and the peaceful reconciliation of a couple of disagreements the two groups have held about the position of men in the church.

This issue of men in church is quite important. At the Beaker Folk the only reason we can see for letting them be at the front at all is so you can see what they're up to. Whereas the Manshead Methodists have come to the conclusion that they can do without men in church completely. The last male in the congregation died 10 years ago, and their view is they've managed without him perfectly
well ever since.

So as I say, we settled down to some friendly rivalry. There were some complaints from the Methodists about Charlii's victory dance when she bowled a strike.  Apparently all that break-dancing on the shiny part of the lane was putting them off.

So they retaliated - all shouting "look out" in unison as Marchwold ran in to bowl. She turned round to see what the fuss was - without stopping running - went over the foul line and her feet went straight up in the air.

Not best pleased, Marchwold decided she would get some revenge, once she'd worked out which way was up. That was a lovely strike she bowled, as well. I'd like to say that was because she channelled all her anger into the speed and direction of the ball. But in fact it was because she bowled old Mildred from the Methodists down the lane. I was impressed she managed to get her fingers up Mildred's nostrils.

So now the people running the bowling alley were grumpy. It's really hard extracting a Methodist from the machinery of those lanes. And Mildred came out fighting, and hit a mechanic with a skittle.

The management enforced a truce, to a degree. But it really went downhill after Jazmin from the Methodists got that turkey. I don't mean she scored three strikes on the trot. It was a ready-basted turkey. Leaves a nasty bruise, does 15lb of deep-frozen poultry.

So the whole thing completely broke down. Godly women throwing turkeys and bowling balls at each other. Heads being whomped with handbags. Charlii got a bump to the head after being hit at long range with a copy of Wesley's Sermons. It was a bloodpath.

So, in the event, it was just as well we had the "Service of Reconciliation and Healing" afterwards. Although the handshakes of peace were rather guarded. Still, if we'd not had that fight, we'd have nothing to be healed or reconciled, would we?

30 years ago

Ah me, as the days lengthen, the old Alma Mater sends me the annual yellow book, telling me news of the Dreaming Spires and implicitly wondering if I've got a few quid. I normally send mine on to George Monbiot, in the hope that he may be able to recycle it. Or maybe the environmental game pays better than archdruiding, and he can help keep the old place standing better than I can.

The great dilemma, on receiving a college yearbook, is where to start reading it. The last year's sporting reports, full of how Bradshaw-Anketel-Jones twisted his ankle awkwardly in Cuppers and similar, with in-jokes about how the footie team only had a right wing, are never good. Likewise the Finals results. That Jezebel Watkins got a 2:1 in Greats and won the Marsley-Yaksworth Trophy is all very well. But unless you know Jezebel personally, you don't necessarily get the joke. Of course, it's nice that PK Purviss got a First in Theology, but you suspect he may have had a list of the Kings of Judah written on his arm.

And so I turn to the Obits, and scan down the "matriculated" column looking for 1983. I've the Matriculation photo to this day. The youthful, slightly baffled faces look down from my wall. Just 30 years ago, looking young, vulnerable, yet unmissably bright. Some are now controversial authors and journalists, many are company directors, some are the heads of minor statelets - and yet some have already passed beyond the bourne from which there is no return.

There's a mathematical harshness about Life Expectancy. And that's the truth of normal-iish distribution. Let's suppose the life expectancy of a Brasenose graduate is 80 - their good nutrition balancing out the dangers of Ivy Ale consumption, swimming the Isis after Athletics Cuppers and drinking port of purified lab alcohol, according to choice. That expectancy is an average.

Some, eschewing port and living off distilled water and lentils, may live to 100. But even for them, some luck will be required and, reaching 100 and looking back at a life full of lentils and short on port, they may wonder why they bothered.

But others will be cut short far earlier. Being, many of them, members of the Upper Classes, they will be disproportionately inclined to walking across polar wastelands. Some will simply never give up drinking a quart of port for breakfast.

And others will simply be terribly unlucky. Struck down in their 20s, 30s or 40s with something they never dreamed would get them.

The passing of one of those who matriculated in '83 will, in 2053, arouse among his/her old comrades a slight chuckle and the remembrance of the annual "Streak around the Deer Park", or the day the Robert Solway-Firth Dining Club processed around Old Quad in dressing gowns and sub fusc before solemnly circling the Radcliffe Camera and calling down judgement on that grumpy librarian. But the same passing in 2013 will invoke a shocked reaction. A passing wonder as to what got them. And then a sad feeling for the next few days. Somebody got unlucky.

People, we are all somewhere on that Life Expectancy continuum. Every one of us is a point on a normal distribution, not an average. We may break the silver thread in our 90s, or it might be tomorrow. Whichever it is, let's take it as a gift and make the most of it. Do something good, do something unselfish, do something inspired - do something stupid, if you must. We only do this once - whatever comes next - so let's grab it.

Monday 25 February 2013

Tear Fund Bloggers

Quick note to say - you can follow Dave Walker and the #tfbloggers (Tear Fund Bloggers) on the Cartoon Church Blog. Go read it there. I don't have to do all your work for you, do I?

Swedes and Meatballs

Bad news from Ikea, who've had to withdraw meatballs from their restaurants.

Thought it was odd when I saw them on the menu over on what I still think of as "Denbigh" last week. Just something about calling dishes "Døbbin" and "Shergär".

A Simile of God as a Hen, not a Penguin

The beauty of one of Jesus' illustrations was brought to me this morning when I contrasted one of the Gospel passages with an episode of the BBC series, "Spy in the Huddle" yesterday.

It is always important that the BBC balance public edutainment with inforatings, and therefore what could be more BBC than a programme about wild penguins?

Penguins are an interesting bunch. It is the male of the species that sits there, with an egg balanced on its feet, through the Antarctic winter - the male that protects the young chick. So why, one might wonder, did Jesus not compare himself to a male Rockhopper - instead describing himself as being akin to the mother-hen who gathers together her chicks under her wing?

A clue to the answer, it seems to me, is in the way the rock-hoppers deal with the vultures. Initially they're directly protective of the offspring - keeping them tucked in under their bellies. But as the encounter goes on, some of them revert to masculine type - chasing off the vultures, and in the process leaving their chicks vulnerable to other vultures. Testosterone, once again, rules over common sense.

The chicken, on other hand, gathers her chicks together and faces off the fox - in the process making herself vulnerable . Laying down her life, if necessary, for her brood.

Thus we have an example where the analogy of God is feminine, and would be more accurate than a masculine one. Our enclosed order of rock hoppers, the Little Sisters of the Holy Herring, would be looking sheepish this morning, if they weren't so utterly penguinish. They are saying that we shouldn't be blaming them as they're the bread winners, and it's the useless men that get it wrong. But I tell them the whole species is to blame, and they're Humboldt-ing the door after the horse is eaten.

And I am left reflecting that if, as some claim, the earliest manuscripts of the New Testament were given the once-over to remove female leaders and active female roles, then we are blessed that the Early Church had no idea of the existence of Rockhopper penguins. For if they did, and the theory of this masculinisation of the text is right, then that mother hen would have been turned into a father penguin. And our image of God from Matt 23 would be very different.

Sunday 24 February 2013

Knocking Glum on the Head

That's the trouble with a religious movement that keeps making things up as it goes along. We have no way of measuring things against "normal".

So we've got it with the whole "Lent" thing. Not really understanding the concept of spiritual discipline, people have just been giving up random stuff. I was really worried about Lempster when he said he was giving up water for Lent. And not much less worried when he explained that he didn't count beer as water. We've ordered him not to consider tea as water either, in the hope of scaling down the more irrational behaviour he's been exhibiting this last fortnight.

And then Gorblum is giving up "everything that makes me happy". Which, in Gorblum's case, isn't all bad, to be honest, considering some of the hobbies he pursues that I'd rather not mention. Or, indeed, know about. But his determination simply to be glum every day - and listing all the things he's missing - just seems to be turning into a state of what I can only call wallowing in misery. Lest anyone should think I'm hopelessly wrong in all this, I should stress that Gorblum is quite evidently not in a state of depression. Far from it. I've never know anyone so absolutely delighted to be miserable. I'm thinking it's the grumpiness he spreads in everyone else that makes him so keen to share.

So I'm implementing a "Code 45". As Folk familiar with the Beaker Code will know, a Code 45 is the regulation that demands that all Beaker People adopt shiny, happy faces and a far-away look in their eyes. Everyone is under strict instructions, at all possible opportunities, to count their blessings. They can continue to give stuff up, especially if they're giving the savings to the Community, but from now on they've got to be happy about it - as it it's doing them the spiritual good it's supposed to. Everybody has to look like they've been burning lavender oil while listening to Enya's Shepherd Moons.

Glum has had its day. And if anybody tries to bring it back, I'm gonna give them something to be glum about.

Saturday 23 February 2013

West Bay Cliffs

The sea is wild this evening.
The moon is swept with cloud.
Below our feet, the life of forgotten ages
gloats at our transient nature, frozen in its stony night.
And the waves crash down to the stubborn jetty.

Come walk the cliffs with me, in the twilight loud!
Only, from the long line of spray
where the sea frets at the resisting land,
listen! you hear the grating roar
of pebbles which the waves draw back, and grind
them, stirring the certainties of form and order,
crash, stir up, throw, make mock of human structures
and settle down, with note of doom,
to eat away at England.

Hardy long ago
heard it on these shores, and it brought
against his hope of Progress
the knowledge of futility
of science bringing false hopes
of human divinity.

The Western World
was once, too, at the full, and above and below the sky
tamed nature - placed men on the moon.
But now I only hear
its startled, sharp, withdrawing roar,
retreating, as the shadows return
the certainties fall, the skies darken like the snow-cloud
hanging over these perilous cliffs.

Ah, love, let us be strong
for one another! for the world, which seems
to lie before us like a land of nightmare,
so uncertain, so frightening, so broken,
has really neither form, nor sense, nor reason,
nor science, nor hope, nor light for our sight.
And we stand on this crumbling cliff,
losing our footing as we feel the earth slide,
and we crash towards that merciless tide.

As a Hen Gathers her Chicks

You know, no matter how much we fight it, Christianity is at its heart an apocalyptic faith.

It's tempting, as the years roll by, to think that the world is much as it always has been, and will carry on much as it is, forever. That we can tweak things up and down a bit, improve our lot maybe, keep everything under control.

It's the gentle, reasonable faith that says, we keep the cycle of festivals as they come round. We light the Christmas candles, eat our hot-cross buns, get up early on Easter morning (the day the clocks go forward, this year, as well), throw eggs over the Moot House roof (or is that just us?), spiritualise away Pentecost in such a way as to say it's very important but don't expect anything too spectacular, then bring in the Harvest Home.


And in the hands of a clever State, in years gone by, it was a powerful tool. The Orwellian state had a boot stamping on a human face forever. The Erastian, or maybe Constantinian equivalent, had a quietly happy placidity  - accepting life's humps and hollows, bimbling towards a peaceful death, and having no unquiet slumbers in that quiet earth.

But, even in the scientific view of things, it's not going to happen like that. As resources run out, the stable state of things will decay - even if that stable state were not just an illusion even today.

The environmental campaigner and the apocalyptist alike say "this isn't going to last." And of course they're right, however flawed their root-cause analysis.

Jerusalem, stoning its prophets and nailing up its Messiahs to try and keep stability - try and keep the Pax Romana.  Clinging to its unjust peace because the alternative was so much worse. 40 years after Jesus. That was all it managed before not one stone was left on another.

The Roman Empire - ever-expanding to keep the barbarians at bay, spreading night to keep the darkness out. Just 400 years it had left, in the West. A long time by human standards, of course - but a blink of the cosmic eyelid.

And when Jesus, with just days left, looked across at Jerusalem and cried out - when did he think he would gather it in? Did he think it was just round the corner - past the flogging post, the cross and the grave?

Or was he thinking across great sweeps of time - when all is done, the last great plan has failed, the last economy has collapsed and the last star has gone out?

But if that's the case, while we wait for all manner of things to be well, then we need little apocalypses. Days when things are turned upside down. Times when we have new visions. The expectation that the oppressors will be toppled and the weak be lifted up.

We've gotta expect a new world to arrive at any time - while we look for the small new things to happen all the time.

We've gotta get our heads round the idea - comforting and cosy as it might be for some, terrifying for others - that this moment of stability is normal, that this state of affairs will always be how it is today.

One day, the hen will gather together her chicks, things will be right and we will sing  ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’

One day. It might take till the end of time. Or it might be today.

Friday 22 February 2013

Christian Cheese

This, my faithful followers, is nothing to do with this morning's post about Make Whey. No, this is a completely different subject.

This definition of "Christian Cheese" is that phenomenon whereby Christian folk ask happy questions, or make happy noises, with a wide cheesy grin - but you kind of suspect, somewhere behind the happy, beatific mask, that they're just dying a bit inside. And you smile cheesily and make a cheesy reply - but behind the cheesy grin you're also quietly dying a bit inside. And it's not that you want to think they're dying inside, but you really want to say "look, I'm having a really bad time. And you've come over here smiling, and I strongly suspect that you're just as brittle inside as I am, but you're hiding it just like I am.

"So there's two options. Either you really are as bruised as me, and we should both admit it, and then we can do what Christians are supposed to do and prop up each other's burdens.


I'm sorry. I really don't know what happened there. Kind of hit a raw nerve, I guess.

Anyone want a cheese straw? We're all clutching at them round here.

The 50 List

Can I recommend you go and have a look at the book The 50 List? It's the story of how Nigel set out to inspire his daughter, who has inherited his own degenerative disease.

'Nuff said.

Make Whey

I'm pleased to announce that the new CD, "Make Whey", is available in the Beaker Bazaar.

I've long felt the need for appropriate songs for cheese-making. The Beaker Folk who work long hours in the dairy, churning milk to make our authentic Beaker Goat's Cheese, need some encouragement. So for just 11.99, they can now buy a CD to encourage them.

Songs include:

Do you know the whey to San Jose?
If I could churn back thyme-flavoured cheddar
Is this the whey to Amarillo?
Churn, churn, churn
Cheshire song at twilight
Heaven knows I'm lactose-intolerant now
In search of the lost curds
Thank Edam for Little curds
Danish Blue Monday
Curd Only Knows
Cheese, release me.

Thursday 21 February 2013

Tough Questions for God

Wonderful piece from Anita.

I guess my answer to the question "Why would God let you into his heaven" would be "Because every time God looks at me, I look like Jesus. No thanks to me, of course."

Also, of course, I'm English. So I hope God's first question would actually be "Lemon with that G&T?".

And my first question to God? Obvious.

"It's going to be, as Prof Brian Cox would say, a billion, billion years until the heat death of the Universe.  So do you think Northants will ever win the county championship?"

3,000 Strong

Catriona has been blogging for 3,000 posts. She's a Baptist Minister in Scotland, though she's been in warmer climes (and not even that far from Husborne Crawley at one point). She blogs her life, her ministry, all the stuff you'd expect a Christian blogger to talk about. She's great, and a happy blog-milestone to her.

Some Requests from Raughrie

Raughrie's been with us for a while now. But some people have been coming up to me and asking why Raughrie has been getting so grumpy of late. So, being I was feeling a bit pastoral, I went over to Raughrie, bent down to look into his little face while he sat in his wheelchair, patted him on the shoulder, and asked him  whether he was feeling "a bit sad about something".

Raughrie replied by running over my foot with his chair, and then handing me a list of requests. I've listed them below. He says he'd appreciate it if you could take them seriously.

1) Feel free to stand up and talk to me, or sit down and talk to me. That doesn't bother me. But please don't lean over and look straight into my face at a range of 6 inches. I sit in a wheelchair, not a pram. And you may well have bad breath.

2) You don't need to talk to me slowly, loudly or simply. My ears work perfectly well. If I were deaf then speaking loudly and slowly might help, but I'm not. Likewise the use of simple words. If I had learning difficulties then this might help. But I don't. You have confused my disability with completely different ones. 

3) Please do not pat or rub me on the shoulder, except in the same circumstances that you would do so if I were standing up.

4) When the Beaker People share the "hug of togetherness", bear in mind that I am at a level 2 feet lower than the rest of you. If you all mill round me, this is likely to bring on claustrophobia.

5) Should claustrophobia break out during the "hug of togetherness", I am extremely unlikely to want to exchange hugs or handshakes. Please allow me my personal space.

6) You will notice I am trying to preserve my personal space during the "hug of togetherness" by keeping my hands firmly in my lap and trying to avoid eye contact. Do not pull my hands off my lap to shake them. In the process, you will probably be rubbing my legs. If I did that to you, I would be arrested.

7) Be aware that I am a 14 stone man who uses a wheelchair with racing tyres. If you breach my very reasonable requests 1-6, bear in mind that the pressure exerted on one of your feet from my tyres should I "accidentally" run over you, is about the same as being trod on by an elephant in stilettos.  That would be a terrible thing, and I would feel dreadful about it afterwards. I'd hate to feel dreadful. I hope I have made myself clear.

Wednesday 20 February 2013

Preacher of Love Continues to Live Tax-Free in Judea

(From the Daily Mammon, AD 29)

"Give up all your belongings and live like the lilies of the field", says weirdo prophet.

One of Judea's most notorious "Preachers of Love" is still at large on the streets of Jerusalem.

Despite not having a paid job, Jesus of Nazareth is continuing to enjoy life in Judea, living off a group of wealthy women.

A local whom we've just made up said, "I blame the Roman Empire. Their policy of open borders and road-building means that this Galilean is free to come to Judah, spreading his message of toleration, love and forgiving other people."

Last week, a Daily Molech photographer captured Jesus on a mosaic, saying that the Temple would be torn down, and rebuilt in three days. But today, some of his disciples are quoted as saying that Jesus is talking about his own body, and not the real temple.
"Do good to those who hate you",
says so-called "Man of Sorrows"
The father-of-none takes home no money from the temple alms and is apparently homeless. However he is funded by a shadowy group of women known as "Cleopas's Wife", "Mary of Bethany" and "Mary Magdalene". When interviewed, his brother James was quoted as saying "He's completely mad. Don't get me wrong - I love him like a brother. What with him being my brother. But telling people to sell all their possessions, give their belongings to the poor and turn the other cheek - that's no way to build a modern, Western, democratic, capitalist society. Not that obeying the Temple authorities, propping-up the Romans and massacring slaves is, obviously. Frankly, we've got a long way to go. But that doesn't make Jesus right."

The charges against Jesus of Nazareth include:
  • Having costly nard poured over his feet by a loose woman.
  • Raising a foreign child to life. When there are dead Jewish people.
  • Pushing a camel through the eye of a needle.
  • Getting out of the Temple Tax by finding money in a fish. Which is no doubt part of the quota imposed by the Roman Empire.
  • Saying there are more important things in life than life.
  • Multiplying enough bread to feed 5,000 people. When there are people starving in Rome.
In a recent hieroglyph, Jesus is recorded as telling his followers that if you are without sin, you should throw stones. Yet still the authorities allow him to spread his message of tolerance and kindness. For now, he is free to spread his radical brand of loving on our streets. When will the authorities finally act?

Litany of Un-giving Up for Lent

We have erred from our ways like lost horse-meat
We have failed after just a week
We have fallen off the waggon with a bang
And there is no spiritual fibre in us.

We have done those things we ought not to have done
And we have undone those biscuit packets we ought not to have undone
And we declared that Carling wasn't really strong enough to count as proper beer
And that spare ribs really are a vegetable.

And so we look at the five weeks to come
And wonder - should we maybe take something up instead?
You can't fall off taking something up
Because as long as you do it once - you've taken it up.

And so we resolve to become evangelicals
And take up more Bible-reading than we're used to
Which, to be frank, isn't hard,
So we're just off to read a bit of Mark's Gospel. That should do it.

Tuesday 19 February 2013

"Preach the Gospel. If necessary, use words"

The quote above is normally attributed to St Francis. Certainly that attribution is strongly disputed.

And I've always wondered whether that's an excuse for a form of "keep your nose clean" Christianity. It's probably true, in most circumstances, that if you keep your trap shut and just do good, then you won't get people throwing stones at you. It's the opening your mouth part of the preaching the Gospel that more often than not gets people in trouble. But it has inspired me, to a degree. Because if you are to preach the Gospel but not use words, then what is your best course of action?

Without using words
Obvious, really. We are all called to be Mimes.

We've started an emergency training course for our Mimes. I'm not saying that it's easy, getting them to preach the Gospel, but we're working hard at it. So far they can do "St Paul walking against the wind" and "St James finding his way around a transparent box". Unfortunately they seem to be the only routines mimes ever do. But on the bright side, that means that "St John the Divine finding his way around a transparent box" and "St Jude walking across the wind" are fairly easy extensions of the techniques. I'm hoping, if we keep working at it, that "St Peter sinking into the Sea of Galilee" will eventually be a real winner.

Of course, the trouble with the Gospel according to mimes is that the communication opportunities are limited. After all, what can you do with just sad faces and finding your way around a transparent box? Still, I've just finished translating the Gospel to the Romans into Mime, which means I've rendered it into a number of facial expressions. I reproduce it below, in emoticon format, as I don't have a mime to hand:

>:o    >:(    :-*    :'(    :o) 

The Universe Walks a Tightrope

And so, according to scientists, the days of the Universe may be numbered. Although we can't "number its days", as the Psalmist said, because we don't know when it will end. Just some time, which is hopefully not soon. Or, at least, is Aslan-soon.

I don't know why "according to scientists" is any kind of assurance of fact, mind you. "According to scientists", the only reason women aren't attracted to men who smell of complex aromatic hydrocarbons is because their minds are blinded from the charm, wit and consideration that lurk behind those thick-lensed spectacles. Instead they prefer men who are more obviously ape-descendents - i.e. possessed of thick hair on their heads and physical strength. Although preferably without the grooming habits of their forebears.

I'm pretty sure it was Douglas Adams, or if it wasn't it was somebody equally tall, who told us the exact circumstances in which the end of the world would come to pass:

"....many philosophers theorize that if both the Ultimate Question and the Ultimate Answer were ever to be found at the same time then the Universe would disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable."

All I'm saying is, if anyone asks, the answer's 53. OK?

Dos and Don'ts of Church Welcoming

I hope everybody enjoyed the "Welcoming" course the other day. We've boilled the gist of the course down to the attached advice. So I hope this all helps.

When Welcoming, DO......

1) Shake visitors' hands firmly and in a friendly manner. Not aggressively - we can't afford any more visitors from "Lawyers R Us".

2) Offer all available paper-based materials. This will normally consist of hymn book, supplementary song sheet, service book, supplementary liturgy sheet, notices, last-minute notices, slightly-later-notices, welcome sheet, gift-aid envelope and "why we're running out of money" leaflet. Oh yeah - and "recycling" leaflet.

3) Be understanding when, after you've handed out 19 sheets of paper, you're told "thanks, but I can't read". It really does happen.

4) Try to give the impression you're glad to see them.

5) Remember that the other Beaker People are also, in their own ways, "Welcomers".  It doesn't all depend on you.

6) Just be nice.

7) Point out people that are worth identifying early on in a faith journey - eg Hnaef, who has overall "new people" welcoming responsibility. Or Colwyn, who has the key to the loos.

8) Make eye contact. NOT THAT MUCH!!!!

9) Be there to help. But don't follow people around. That's weird.

10 Remember why we're here. Not to encounter God. To keep the roof on.

11) Indicate seats that haven't been reserved for regular worshippers. If these exist. The seats, that is, not the regular worshippers.


1) Do any evil laughs.

2) Diss the Archdruid. You can do that later, in private, if the welcomer sticks around and I don't find out.

3) Try to get a date with attractive visitors. Especially if they're attending with their family.

4) Suggest they stay at home, and download the podcast later.

5) Offer a backstage tour.

6) Grin uncontrollably.

7) Explain that children are banned.

8) Try and explain the Athanasian Creed. Unless you're qualiified.

9) Ask visitors whether they have attractive brothers/sisters.

10) Sigh loudly, and say "I'm very sorry".

11) Give any suggestion that you know where they live. Especially if you have a notebook on your person.

Monday 18 February 2013

Finding George Herbert

The Herbert Family, tired of going the rounds of the parishes, are taking a well-earned break at the seaside (and away from any roads). But can you spot the 10 George Herberts in the picture?

More Anoraks than a Chemists' Convention

Nightmare for Burton Dasset this evening. Of an occasional Monday evening, he and the train-spotters' posse like to hit a local hostelry for a wild evening of a couple of real ales and some serious number-exchanging. Not phone numbers - train numbers.

But fancy picking the same night that the Beaker Secularists decided to hold their monthly get-together. It must have been mayhem, all those anoraks in one place at the same time. Trainspotters are a free-and-easy bunch - you always know you'll be meeting people just like you - so Burton sat down with a couple of other be-anoraked types for a chat.  It was when they were halfway through discussing Gary Numan's "Telekon" album that one of the secularists remarked that the clean bleakness of "Remember I was Vapour"  reminded him of the purity of a godless universe. For Burton, the penny dropped.

For a moment, says Burton, he was worried that he might end up discussing how lovely Richard Dawkins is, instead of reminiscing blissfully about how he once went over the Harrington viaduct in a train pulled by the Mallard. Thankfully, there's an easy way to tell the train-spotters and secularists apart. The train-spotters had all brought their Thermoses, for the journey home.

Past its Prime

I notice that in a trailer on its website, the BBC has described Blandings as "comedy". I'm shocked at this kind of passing-off. Selling us Plum which is clearly 100% ham.

Sunday 17 February 2013

Of the Making of Models

I was thinking about models in science and theology, the other day, as you do.

The concept of models in science is generally pretty well understood, I guess. We use them in situations where only analogies will do, or where an approximate model will do to estimate the real thing. These models could be the ball-on-stick models that we use to understand the structure of molecules, or the "solid ball" way of expressing the structure of an atom. Or it could, stretching the definition of "science" a bit, be the sorts of mathematical models that the Treasury use to try and predict how the economy will work. The point about models is that they give you insights into the truth, but they're not the real thing. They're normally either rough approximations to the impossibly complicated real world, or they only show half a truth - as when you fire electrons at a diffraction grating and realise the hard-ball model doesn't work on this occasion.

Maybe some of the things we deal with in church are much the same? I was chatting to some Christians this morning who hold the full fundamentalist view on these things. To them, the story of salvation goes like this:

God created a perfect world.
"Man" disobeyed. (I use their terminology, because it's their salvation story). 
It got sharply worse from there on in. The "sin" of the first munched forbidden fruit spread like a virus into all the resultant branches and twigs of the human family tree. 
God was so angry that someone had to pay for all the sins that the humans were now coming up with. 
It was Jesus who died, to make that payment. 
God's wrath was satisfied, he wasn't angry any more, and now we are one big happy family. 
Or, at least, all the conservative evangelicals and God are one big happy family. The rest of us will have to make other arrangements.

As I say, I may be approximating. But that's my model of their story. If any fundamentalists or more conservative evangelicals are reading this, and I've got it wrong, I apologise and will correct it.

To my mind, there's a few things I have problems with here. The main one being the idea of Adam and Eve. Put quite simply, I don't believe they existed. There, I've said it. I don't believe Adam and Eve lived in a garden called Eden before there were any other people about, and then after all that fuss with the snake and the apple, Cain went off and married some of the other people that weren't about. And I don't not believe it just because what I wrote pointed out one of the more obvious problems with the literalist view. I more don't believe it because if Genesis 2ff were literally true, then  a vast body of science isn't true. And my experience of the scientific method is that it works - which is why I'm writing this blog on a netbook and not scrawling it in charcoal on a cave wall under a picture of a buffalo.

But the story in Genesis 2 does work for me whether it's literally true or not. A man, a woman, a temptation, a right and wrong decision, and the wrong one made - that works for me. Tells me a ton of stuff about human beings. And that story about sin spreading - as it were - genetically or virally, and everyone being affected and God getting angry and sending a cure - well, it doesn't make much sense to me. But maybe that's because, for me, it's not a very good model.

The thing is, faced with something awesome, incredible and - at a very deep level - inexplicable in straightforward terms, we head for models. The early Christians knew something marvellous had happened, and came up with some explanations - payments, punishments, baptismal imagery. There's dozens of models of salvation at different times through history - I like Christ the Victor - punching the Dark One on the nose and smashing the gates of hell down. Or Christ the Upholder - dragging a universe upwards towards the Father, but having to get underneath it - deep in the depths - himself first. It just seems a shame to have to lump all the richness of the story of people and God into one model - rather as if we are allowed to believe that electrons are waves, or that they're little balls, but not both.

In fact, you could say there's loads of models of Jesus in the New Testament as well, as the early Church ransacked their vocabulary - cornerstone, Messiah, Son of David, King of the Jews, priest-king like Melchizedek... each with its own nuances, its own language, its own insights.

So I'd like to be able to refer to "Adam and Eve" without anyone thinking I believe that these people existed, except figuratively. I am aware that their power to explain is just as great whether they existed or not - in the same way that talking about electron "orbitals" makes sense, even though I know electrons don't literally orbit round the nucleus the same way that the earth orbits the sun. I know sin is an unmeasurable thing - and an old concept. Maybe that model of sin as a virus or genetic failure doesn't work any more - we need a different model. Or maybe it just doesn't work for me. Maybe we need to think of Jesus as paying a debt, not an enormous fine. Maybe we need to look at him as being in solidarity with our state, rather than taking our punishment. Or maybe we can use all of those models, when they make sense, while remembering that, when we're approaching a situation where the model doesn't work, we can lay it down and pick up another one.

Those stick-and-ball molecules served their purpose. But, no matter how strong your microscope, you'll never see a little black carbon ball connected to another one by a pipe-cleaner stick. 

Know Your Congregation

Once again the all-important question has to be asked. Should we RF-ID the Beaker Folk?

It was originally Burton's idea, with his suggestion that chipping the worshippers would make them easier to count, without having to go to all that trouble with indelible ink. At the time I had my doubts - not least because of the threat of tracking my own movements using GPS - but now I'm becoming convinced of the benefits.

It was putting in the RF-operated electronic cat flap for Grendel, the Community Cat, that put the idea in my head again. We formerly left the window open for him, but I was starting to get tired of the prey that he left laying around after a night's hunting. I mean, who enjoys finding a dead fox on the kitchen floor in the morning? Not to mention the danger that Bernie might decide to serve it up for breakfast. And we thought we'd go for the electronic cat flap to stop the local badgers wandering in, terrifying the Beaker Folk when they go shuffling through the bins. The badgers, that is, snuffling - not the Beaker Folk.

You see, the Beaker People have a habit of getting themselves locked out at night. Whether it's been a "session" at the White Horse, or a particular late-night moon-related Occasion, or just plain dimness. And then there's all the usual trouble with them phoning up mates to let them in, wandering around in the dark, falling into the brook or just howling outside in the cold.

So my theory is, if we chip them all, we can fit a revolving door. Nobody else will be able to get in, but Beaker People will have free ingress and egress at all times. Also, I'll be able to control access, so anyone that requires expulsion from the Community can be made extra-mural at one swipe of an Android tablet. By fitting scanning tunnels to the Moot House doors, I will be able to check up on attendance at Pouring-out of Beakers and Filling-up of Beakers when I'm away. Which will save a fortune on listening devices, CCTV and bandwidth.

And I will be able to achieve my ultimate ambition, of pay-per-worship tithing. Obviously, most events will still be free. But "premium" Occasions, such as Yule, Samhain and the Nativity of Kirsty MacColl, will carry a top-up charge, which I'll be able to take directly from the Folk as they enter the Worship "space". It's simple but effective.

So now all I need is a computer programmer, a card payments expert, a network engineer and a vet. Although, in these financially restricted times, maybe I can get Young Keith to do the lot.

Saturday 16 February 2013

A Warm Welcomer

All this talk of welcoming has reminded me of a welcomer I once met in a church in Milton Keynes.

Let us call him "Norm". Norm was the man given the job of meeting people at the door, identifying visitors, catching up with them and making sure they knew who was who and what was what.

My remembrance of Norm was that he handed me the hymn book before the service, in relative peace and quiet. But afterwards he sidled up, in a confidential but friendly manner.

"Did you enjoy the service?" he asked me.

"Oh yes. Very nice," I responded.

"I hate it," he spat out. "Absolutely hate it."

It was true. Norm hated the services. A stern traditionalist, he liked formal liturgy, proper hymns, a robed choir. In a newish Milton Keynes church, as with most of those ecumenical experiments of the late 80s, he got borderline charismatic tendencies, Graham Kendrick songs and a couple of guitars. He hated it.

He lived for another 20 or so years after I first met him. He never moved church. He never went off saying he got nothing out of it; never decided God was calling him to Fenny Stratford or one of the village churches. Never went off to somewhere where he felt affirmed, or comfortable, or where things were done the right way. Right or wrong, whether he liked it or not, that church was his local church, and he wasn't going to leave it. However his lot had fallen, that was where he was to be.

I'd like to think that when he heard the words, "Well done, good and faithful servant," the next words weren't, "and now Gabriel is going to lead us in "Shine Jesus Shine"". If heaven really is heaven, he'll have got something decent by Newman.

50 Shades of Magnolia

It's so awful when it it happens to one of your own. Burton just staggered in, sprayed in a lovely shade of apricot.

We've been trying to get the police to take these drive-by paintings taken seriously. But they just gloss over them. Now it's happened again, I'm going to demand an inquiry. But I expect it'll only be a white-wash.

Myers-Briggs Church Welcoming Types

ISTJ: "Welcome. The hymn books are in shelf "A". The service sheets are piled on table  "B". The three seats next to the memorial to Parson Maybold are available, and have a 75% view of the High Altar, 89% view of the font and good auditory characteristics during the sermon."

ESTJ: "I'm sure you'll have a great time with Houghton Methodists. It's a great place to relax. Which is why I love it. I'm door steward, circuit steward, treasurer and Local Preacher here. What rotas can I put you on? We've grass-cutting, gardening, evangelism, cleaning, coffee, cake stall, jumble sale...."

ISFJ: "It's lovely to see you. Here's a hymn book, and a service sheet. And should you get a cough during the service I'll make sure you get a cup of water, don't you worry. There's some spaces over there... no, don't walk. Let me carry you over."

ESFJ: "Hello! And who are you? Where do you live? So you must know old Doris? Yes - she is wonderful, isn't she? Are these all your children? And do you have a husband? Lovely. And are all these his children? You really must bring him along. No, I've nothing at all against militant atheists. I'm sure he'll soften up once he's sung a few hymns."

ISTP: "Good morning. All the stuff's just there - just take one of everything. Sorry I'm not much help, only the heating's broken down, and I'm trying to reconstruct the thermostat using a champagne cork and a length of fuse wire."

ESTP: "It's brilliant to meet you! And it's brilliant to meet me, too, of course. This is such a lovely church. The pastor's really nice, and the choir are lovely singers. Old Esme over there is wonderful - and much happier since she had that op  on the old "Farmer Giles". Have a hymn book. The hymns are smashing. And God's great, too."

ESFP: Well hello! I'm Judy, and it's lovely to be able to share with you. Can I give you this stuff? I'm in a bit of a hurry, as I've got to tune up my guitar, check I've got the right reading, put on the chasuble, check I've got the prayers with me and put my sermon in the pulpit."

ISFP: "Oh! Sorry, I was miles away. It was the smell of last week's incense, still just noticeable in the air. And it took me back to that snowy Epiphany when the first snowdrops were just poking through, the walk to church through the frosted wood and the warm light glowing in the crib scene, contrasting with the brittle coldness of the church."

ENTJ: "Welcome to St Agatha's. If your child continues to sniff, my assistant welcomer will provide her with a tissue. Please could your family sit up straight? It makes the liturgy look so much neater if the congregation make an effort."

INTJ: "Welcome to St John's, on this 3rd Sunday after Trinity (or fourth after Pentecost). I'm chief welcomer, Barry is on the hymn-book-handing-out rota, Jeffrey is responsible for handing out the service sheets, Molly will give you a welcome pack and Brian will lead you to your seat. Try to pick one by an aisle, please. It just makes it more efficient to get up for communion."

ENTP: "Hello! And what a sunny Trinity Sunday it is! And the good news is, Reverend Lucy is going to be preaching on The Trinity! What a theme! What a challenge! What an inspiration! Oh, feel free to pick up some service stuff, won't you?"

INTP: "Have a sheet. It's all correct apart from, in my opinion, the Sanctus. You know, where it says 'Holy, holy, holy Lord - God of power and might'? I reckon it should be 'Holy, holy, holy - Lord God of power and might.' And obviously, I worry about the Filioque. Oh... they've gone. Never mind..."

 ENFJ: "Oh I'm so pleased to see you. I was starting to think nobody apart from the 75 of us already here were coming. It's great that you're here. You've got the handouts? Do you need the big-print version of the hymn book? If you need a glass of water, all the drinks stuff is at the back of the church. If your children need the toilet, afraid we've not got one so you'll have to go home. Why don't I take you to your seats? Do you mind if I sit with you? It's lonely over there by the door on my own."

INFJ: "Hello, you must be Sandra? Just a lucky guess... Now here's a hymn book. You'll probably want to sit over there - just far enough from the choir that they won't bring on your tinnitis, but not too far to walk on that awkward ankle. DON'T SIT THERE! One row back will be just right."

ENFP: "Welcome to Barnet Open Baptists. We're always open, and we're always Baptists! Have a hymn book. And a free leaflet - I love this one. It's all about GOD! Isn't that fantastic? Let's hope we finish on time, because afterwards I'm managing the under-11 football team, who are brilliant. And then it's a faith lunch, which is at our house, which is fantastic. And then we've a praise session this afternoon, which will be great, then a faith tea at our house, and then a Bible Study. My wife's having the morning off. Yes, she's a bit tired, she says. Oh look! Someone else to welcome..... "

INFP: "Sorry there's nobody here to welcome you. I'm in the churchyard looking at the crocuses."

Friday 15 February 2013

The Martian Chronicles

*erxquizit: "That's funny, !veg'l. All the communications from Earth have ceased."

!veg'l  "That is odd, *erxquizit. And it makes me feel slightly saddened, oh warty friend, as I was looking forward to the League Cup Final."

*erxquizit: "I wonder what has happened, oh tentacular companion. Were there any clues as to their fate?"

!veg'l  "Have you examined the last communications that the terrestrial evolved ape-offspring sent, oh seven-eyed buddy?"

*erxquizit: "I am just calling it up now, oh hermaphroditic fellow-Martian. It is a Tweet."

!veg'l  "And what does it say, oh iron-based lifeform of my heart?"

*erxquizit: "Very strange, my two-thirds double cousin twice over. It just says 'Asteroid strike? The Mayans never saw that coming. May as well have that Findus lasagne lol.'"

!veg'l  "They were a strange race, oh my red-dusted friend. But I will miss them. I wonder what God will inflict on that poor planet next?"

The Limitations of Herbal Healing

Odd conversation with Drayton this morning. Apparently he's got some mate called Hugh Briss, who had a bit of a fall. As I said to Drayton, I could come round and burn a feverfew-scented tea light (good for inflammation) but if there's anything genuinely wrong with him, he probably ought to see a doctor. Whatever the benefits of aromatherapy might be (and increased sales for Holland and Barrett are probably the main one), it's rubbish for broken bones.

Drayton, needless to say, did his usual thing where his face goes from pompous piety to broken confusion. I wonder what was the matter with him?

Hubris Caps

The so-called "Archdruid" in charge of the neo-pagans across the park is full of herself this morning. Apparently she wrote something which has been endlessly "retweeted", and much noted on Facepalm.

I have pointed out to her the danger of too much pride. I was at one stage a great Internet sensation, linked to by that devout American website, "Stuff Fundies Like", which I believe is an outlet for large-size King James Bibles and chunky knitwear. But after I made that unfortunate mistake - confusing two species of deer while preaching on "as pants the hart", they dropped me like a stone and nobody ever linked to me again. Truly I was as one who has gone down to the pit.

And so I have warned Eileen - hubris caps your ambitions. One day she may be the doyenne of Interneterati - but the liberal-fresh-expressions-pseudo-pagan pool is a shallow one, which will dry out in the heat of summer.

Eileen merely points to the overflowing duck pond, running as it is into Burton's Accountancy Hovel, and tells me the drought is a long time coming. Truly haughty eyes and a proud manner will receive their due reward, come it early or late.

Thursday 14 February 2013

The Perfect Church Welcome Leaflet

Welcome to St Daphne's!

A 13th century church, still with some of the original features and worshippers. Obviously you don't want a welcome leaflet to be obsessed with a load of architectural information, so we'll just point out the 14th century font, Perpendicular chancel, the original oak door, the Gothic revival Lady Chapel with an interesting collection of misericords, and the twelve "green men" scattered around the place. Looking for the "green men" can be great fun. That's why we've stuck big arrows up around the place to make it easy to find them.

Here at St Daphne's, we are a friendly church. Try not to be too scared by the smiles on our faces as we greet you. We're just a bit unused to visitors, and some of our members are not as socially-adept as we might be. So they are inclined to look a bit alarming when they try to break into a grin.

Please be aware when choosing your seat that certain pews are designated to their regular occupants. You will have no way of knowing which these are, but be assured that they're definitely the ones you're thinking of sitting in. But although a bit set in our ways, we are a group of very welcoming people.

Especially the vicar. She's the one you can see talking at the front during the service. Unfortunately she will have rushed into the church without really greeting you (because she was on her way in from St Ambrose's church, where she took the 8 o'clock) and she won't get much chance to talk to you on the way out, either - she's got to get over to St Swithin's for the 10.30. She has a fairly fixed expression, we know. This is because she is now so used to "showing her face" for short periods of time at so many events. Her face is more-or-less stuck in that expression where she looks vaguely friendly, but too busy actually to stop and talk. And her eyebrows don't move at all from that kind of alarmed look any more, as a result.

And steer clear of Gilbert. If he latches onto you, you may never get away. You can recognise Gilbert quite easily, as he's the person who gave you this leaflet. You may think there is a flaw in this warning, and you're probably right. Next week, why not bring a friend or two along so Gilbert can bother them instead?

St Daphne's is dedicated to being a welcoming place. That's why we won't rush up to you on your first day, asking if you're any good at DIY or bell-ringing, or interested in singing in the choir. Oh no. But we will do so next week, of course. And see the checklist on the back of this leaflet, which you can use to indicate the various skills you may be able to offer. Especially roofers. We really do need someone who's good at roof maintenance.

Try not to be too put off by the high-pitched whistling noise. The hearing aid loop isn't working on the PA, and old Esme now has her aid turned up so high she's in a total state of feedback. The good news is that she can't hear it. The bad news is, we all can.

Do you have small children? If so, why don't you come back when they've grown up? They drive us up the wall. Running around the place, giggling and squealing and knocking stuff over. Ghastly.

You may find some parts of the service quite confusing. Don't be surprised if everyone suddenly shakes hands with each other. If you go forward when everyone else does to receive communion, but you don't have a confirmation certificate with you, then don't bother trying to receive. If Revd Sheila doesn't know you, you'll just be stood there looking like a 'nana.

If you need spiritual advice or a listening ear, you can phone Revd Sheila at any time. You'll get her answer-phone message, and she'll be busy to get back to you for a week or so. But she will be able to in the end. She's very keen to talk to new people. She's just too tired sometimes to make conversation.

If you have a computer, you might like to sign up for our monthly electronic newsletter, or even "like" our Facebook page. You might like to, but I wouldn't waste your time looking.

But it's always great to see new blood! Not that we keep ourselves alive by feasting on our visitors. Oh no, I wouldn't like you to get that idea.

St Daphne's is a fair-trade church. Just as soon as we've got some power and running water, we're even hoping to buy some coffee.

And don't forget - the thing we need above all is money. That's why the envelope this leaflet came in contains a gift-aid form, a standing order form, the text of the Rich Young Ruler and a comedy picture of a sad vicar looking at a church with no roof on.


1st Sunday: 10.15 (except June-August, when it is 3.15pm)

2nd Sunday: 8.45 (HC); 12.05 (Songs of Praise)

3rd Sunday: 11.07 (except between Septuagesima and Mothering Sunday, when it is 10.45)

4th Sunday: Family service (no children)

5th Sunday: United Benefice Service. On months that are even-numbered, at St Agnes, Little Mithering, 8.45. On months that are primes (except 2), at St Ambroses's, Great Mithering at 10am. On odd-numbered months except primes, here at St Daphne's at 12.15pm. Except if the fifth Sunday is on the 31st of the month, in which case it's at St Swithin's, Rayneigh.

No Special Valentine's Day

It was with a certain trepidation, my brothers (but not sisters as is of matters to do with the love that is more physical than charity that I speak). Or, at least, that once was more physical. Marjory and I seem to have been successful in dampening down the unnecessary excesses of ardour of late.

But this is, to those that mark the times and the seasons, Valentine's Day. Among the so-called Beaker Community next door, it is rarely mentioned. Flowers and cards have to be snuck into the building under cover of darkness, lest Eileen should notice and get annoyed that she has no sweetheart of her own.

But this year Marjory demanded a mark of love on this day. Not the sort left by the activities in a popular book I shall not mention, and which Marjory assured me she had burnt after I saw it. But a proper token.

But how could I square my conscience? To give a card on the feast day of a reputed priest of Rome - that renascent Babylon? But I worked out a compromise. I produced an card on my Gospel Preacher's Publisher package, with an heart from a responsible Christian clip-art web site. And I wrote in it a Biblical motto, combining a reasonable modicum of fleshy love with spiritually refined devotion.

Roses of Sharon aren't red
Lilies of the Valley aren't blue
But your breasts are like towers
And a pair of goats too.

There has been an icy atmosphere around the Manse so far this morning. Marjory gave me some very hard looks during our morning prayer time. And now she has driven off to Milton Keynes. She left early, she said, because she wanted to spend plenty of tine getting "a proper present for myself." I suppose it can take a long while, to browse round the Christian bookshop.

Wednesday 13 February 2013

And to Mud Thou Shalt Return

Interesting ceremony of "rolling in dust and ashes" this evening. We weren't going to hold it in the Moot House - not after all those sneezing fits last time. So we held it outside.

Of course, in all that sleet and snow it was not as much fun as it should have been. In fact it was more of a "rolling in sludge and alkaline paste". If we boil up some of that Value Beef we bought the other day which nobody will eat, and skin the fat off, we should be able to produce human-shaped soap. The only problem then being how we'd get the Beaker Folk without ruining the shape of the soap.

Food Intolerance

It's a bad Lent already.

 I must admit, I didn't realise I'd fail at giving up being grumpy in the mornings quite so quickly.

I have also failed at trying to read some Karl Barth every day. I mean - one sentence? I was sure I'd be able to manage one sentence a day without sobbing.

I suppose, given I've not yet had breakfast, that I could give vegetarianism a try for six weeks. But in a sense I feel that I've already bolted that horse.

 Still, Bernie the cook is going to help me with simplifying the Beaker People's food faddiness over the season. Obviously we respect people's ethical and health needs. So we have no problems with vegetarianism, veganism (which is vegetarianism for people who understand the dairy and egg industries), or genuine food allergies. We offer dairy-free, celery-free, nut-free, gluten-free and, where we can, horse-free.

 But we're putting a limit on it now. Those people who are "vegetarian but can eat fish" will be given two options. They can either be properly vegetarian, or they can agree to eat any species that is, on average, less intelligent than they are. I realise that, with some of our Beaker folk, these two options amount to the same thing. And, to be honest, even some of the brighter brassicas will probably be feeling fairly safe.

 So it's gonna be a more consistent Lent. I will ignore anyone who claims they are green food intolerant. And there will be no more leeway for Dymphna, who is vegetarian but eats lamb because a sheep looked at her in a funny way once.

The faffing is over. Lent is here.

Tuesday 12 February 2013

Last Pope In

I was at a loss where to go with the story about the retirement of Pope Benedict, I'll be honest. Obviously I wish him a peaceful, blessed and long retirement. I feel his Papacy has had successes and failures, but of course until they elect a woman to the job nobody's ever going to be an unmitigated success. St Peter himself did a pretty good job, but then he had a wife to keep him on the straight and narrow. So prayers for Benedict, and certainly for his successor. He - it is almost certainly going to be "he", so I hope I'm not giving any secrets away there - will be accountable before God for more souls than any other Christian. It is a terrifying calling.

But now Dwight Longenecker has given me the sort of angle a Beaker Person can really appreciate. For according to the prophet Malachy, it turns out that this will be the Last Pope.

It's such a God-send. After Harold Camping and 2012, we were starting to wonder when the world was going to end next. And, to be fair to St Malachy, he gave himself a real career in this end of the world business. Unlike Harold Camping, who twice last year had to watch an unexpected sunset, Malachy forecast the End way out into the future. Like the philosophers in Hitch-hiker's Guide, he made sure he was on the gravy-train for life.

There's just one thing that worries me. I hope he'll forgive me if I'm wrong, but there's something about the name "Dwight Longenecker" that suggests to me he may be an American. If so he may not have noticed the awful implication in the next successor to St Peter being the 111th (or, as the Shire-folk might put it, eleventy-first) Pope of Malachy's vision. All cricket people would have spotted it.

That's right. Nelson.

I've got a funny feeling that, at the Nursery End in some celestial Lords, as Marshall runs in to bowl at Grace, there's a chubby angel called Shepherd standing on one leg.

Monday 11 February 2013

Pagan Origins of Lent

As the nights get shorter and the days get - well, colder, to be honest - I sense that it's time for me to delve into the Beaker annals to let you know some more fine details on the pre-Christian origins of a Church festival.

What people don't realise is that Lent actually pre-dates the arrival of St Augustine on these shores. The Ancient Beaker Folk would not eat eggs during "Lent" (a Beaker word meaning "Lent"). This was because they needed them to use in their ancient Egg-throwing Rituals.

The Egg-throwing took place at stone circles around the British aisles throughout February and March. Basically, it was a game like a cross between "catch", "Chuckie Egg" and Quidditch, whereby Beaker men would sling eggs over the circles at each other. The first person to catch one intact would be the winner, and ritually crowned "the Lentman". The Beaker women, of course, would not be involved in such stupidity - instead they would sit in their yurts and roundhouses, complaining that it would be six weeks until they could make cakes.

The winner of each local event would progress to the final, which would be held at the national stadium at the end of Lent. Today we know this purpose-built egg-throwing arena, with its original circular format, as "Stonhenge". There the Lentmen would throw eggs at each other in elimination competitions of egg-throwing, until only one Lentman would remain standing. He would officially be crowned the "Good Egg", and revered as the spirit - albeit covered in yolk and bits of shell - of the Spring.

Of course, by the time the feast of Oeoeoestre (traditional Beaker spelling) arrived for the final, many of the eggs would have been pretty smelly, being they'd been collected up for six weeks. Since baths not invent yet, the Lentmen would be smelling pretty rank as they returned to their home villages. The villagers would avoid them for months afterwards, until the smell went away. It is thus, by a minor consonantal shift, that this whole tradition is still remembered among working-class British folk today. Even now, they will switch off all the lights and turn off the telly when the "Rentman" comes round.

Of course, the Beaker Folk preserve another aspect of these origins, when every Easter Sunday we take part in the Egg-throwing over the Moot House. We remember that we throw the eggs as a folk memory of the goddess Eoeoeostre (original made-up-by-folklorists spelling) who was never heard of before Bede. To us, the balanced parabola of the rising of the egg and its falling over the Moot House is a reminder that the Sun is half-way through its journey to midsummer. But we have little time to reflect, as we run screaming for cover. With very soft hands, you can actually catch the eggs without them breaking. But who's gonna take that chance?

Hanging on in Quiet Desperation

It's always been one of my favourite lines - mediated via Pink Floyd from its original source. A phrase so good they actually said it twice.

It was the little preachy bit Prof Cox did at the end of his show last night that made me think about this. For the life of me I can't remember what it was that he said. It may have been "I think to myself, what a wonderful world" - but that was more likely the end of the TV version of "Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy", now I think about it.

It was a truly preachy moment, anyway. A shiny purple-clad Gospel choir would have set it off a treat. And then there was David Attenborough's claim in the first showing of his prog that parts of Africa had warmed by 3.5C over the last 20 years. The BBC edited it out of the repeat, and I'm sure Sir David was just reading the script. But it did just remind me of an Elderly Methodist preacher, warning the younger me and my associates in the 80s that hedonistic excess and rampant immorality were reigning unchecked in Husborne Crawley. We went out and checked, of course, but we couldn't find any. Maybe he just had a more interesting social life than we did.

OK, I'm stretching the point a bit with Sir David. But I guess it's interesting to pick up on when religious methodology is picked up for non-religious methods. It reminds me of the pompous over-done music of Disney's EPCOT centre, ushering us into a future Utopia that, as the name Utopia first reminded us, never happens - spirits lifted to an empty sky, encouraging us to indulge in great endeavours for the future of all life-kind, even though, as Max Quordlepleen reminded us "it hasn't got one." Or, if you're an old hippy, remember John and Yoko wafting about in white like two hairy, pretentious angels, Imagining that if religion were abolished,  we'd all be happy. Even the Champions League music does it - a great hymn to 22 overpaid young men hoofing a pig's bladder around a field.

Here in Husborne Crawley, of course, we use these sorts of tactics all the time. We know how important the right kind of music is to instilling moods of calmness, awe or fear as appropriate. We use the threat of apocalyptic climate change to tell people it's good news when we turn the heating off. And the lights. And the water.

But still, behind all sort kind of thing, we kind of expect God to be there. If preaching lifts our spirits, we suspect it's because we have spirits, and somewhere to lift them to. If music makes our souls sing, we'd like to think that's because we have souls that can sing. And if we can terrify people with stories about how much we're going to damage the earth - we will continue to believe that damaging an earth that will one day be a deep-fried cinder, with all water, all animals, all vegetation burned off, has a significance that somehow extends past the medium-term horizon.

I'm not saying you can't do all these things without believing there's some more Sense behind the Universe than the cold beauty of the Laws of Physics. And I'm aware that the inefficient harshness of the Theory of Evolution implies that if there is One behind it, it will be a wilder, more terrifying One than we normally give the Divine credit for. But that's OK. Personally I'm going to hang on in quiet desperation, whatever bad things I see in life, believing that there is a Sense behind the randomness, a Logic behind the chaos, and Personality behind a universe that could produce people. I'm gonna assume that the other hairy bloke who wafted about in white (not John Lennon, I mean the one who advocated no possesssions and actually had none) was the key component in making that clear. That as music lifts us up, so he lifted us up. That as preaching (religious or scientific) challenges us and expands our minds, so he challenges us. That the nowhere-place he promises, where wrong is made right and the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, which makes rubble of all of life's struggles and a mockery of all earthly ambition, turns out to be God's way of reminding us that we're not gods, is in fact the nowhere-place where he lives, where all makes sense, and where our spirits will be lifted up forever.

Have a good week. And may whatever you use to make sense of the senseless go with you.

Sunday 10 February 2013

The Tweet of Life

Rev Bosco Peters over at Liturgy reflects that if Jesus were physically with us today, he'd be on Twitter.

Makes sense to me. Not least because we know that, every now and then, he'd say something that would lose him a lot of followers.

A Litany of Regret for Eating Horses

Have mercy on us, we pray, O Lord
For we have eaten things we ought not to have done
And not eaten things we thought we had done
And there is no beef in us.

Shield us from the neigh-sayers
And from those who stamp their hooves at us.

Surely we should blame ourselves
For when we bought those bargain packs of burgers at the supermarket,

We thought 99p for six was entirely reasonable
Little wondering what was in them.

But now we discover our food had more donkey content
than a pub-full of English centre-backs.

We have eaten horse dressed in cows' seasoning
and our stomachs rise up against us.

We have saddled ourselves with worry
and wondered whether we will get the trots.

How long, O Lord,
will we continue to divorce our lust for cheap food
from their logical implications on our supply chain?

We cast stones at the Romanians, the Poles and the French
But you look into our hearts and Findus to blame.
Sorry, find us to blame, we mean.

Surely better traceability will follow me all the days of my life
And I will trust in the power of the EAN-128 barcode to protect me
At least until such time as the next food scare involves cut-price vegetables
And I roll in the ashes once more
(the ashes of repentance, that is - not the ashes of Bernie's cooking, although they're pretty similar).

Saturday 9 February 2013

10 Questions to Ask When Writing Sermons

It's commonly thought that the art of sermonising is the ability to set out a set of logical propositions. The preacher may stand 6 feet above contradiction, or these days just wander round the place in that informal, free-wheeling manner that makes it look like they're "down with the kids". But either way, the assumption is that the preacher is giving us the facts. Sometimes the preacher will try to persuade us that they are asking questions. But we know that they're not really. If they were asking questions, they would be admitting they didn't know the answers.

But the creation of a good sermon does in fact involve asking questions. About this time of a Saturday evening, all round the country, the good (if slightly tardy) preachers are asking big questions. And it's the questions that make the difference. For those who are considering becoming preachers, or wondering how to improve their performance - these are the questions you may well be asking while writing your sermon.

1.  Am I sure this is the right reading? A very important question. If you've distilled your thoughts on the Book of Job into a pure essence of practical theology and homespun wisdom on facing adversity, you're gonna be as sick as a bloke with boils if you discover the reading - which has been printed on the service sheet, and issued to the reader (who goes into a murderous rage when given last-minute changes) is actually Acts 2.

2.  Why on earth do I put myself through this? A question that preachers ask all the time. Check the answer you come up with carefully. If it's something to do with "sharing the wonder I find in the word of God", carry on. If it's more like "Issuing my thoughts to a group of people who aren't allowed to answer back gives me a sense of thoroughly deserved power", you'd probably better carry on with this week's homily, but maybe give some careful thought to the future.

3.  Who wrote this passage? If you come up with the answer "God did", that's fine - but you may want to think a bit harder about the more proximate source. Surely there's got to be something about the person of the author to think about - particularly if it's a letter with an introduction like "Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Saviour and of Christ Jesus our hope, To Timothy my true son in the faith". You've got to think that Paul's own angle might matter somewhere in there. If, of course, you don't think Paul wrote it, you'd probably be best not mentioning it in the sermon. You'll only spend twenty minutes trying to explain your reasoning, and no time at all drawing any truth out of the passage.

4.  Who was the author writing to? In the example in number 4, the answer is presumably "Timothy". This matters. (Unless you don't believe Paul wrote it, in which case it's unlikely to have been to the real Timothy. Unless it was written by somebody trying to fool Timothy that he is Paul, and hoping to knock the whole "women priests" business on the head before it takes off too much). If it's written to a specific person, in a specific place, at a certain time - that's not to say we can't draw some conclusions from it, but we need to be careful. Otherwise we'll find we are resolutely staying in Ephesus, drinking endless wine on the grounds that it's good for our stomach, and accusing any passing Cretans of being liars.

5.  Just what is a pericope? It's a slightly shortened periscope.

6.   What is it makes me think my own interpretation of the Greek is more valid than that in all the Bible translations I possess? Probably it's over-enthusiasm. Or the fact you're a Professor of Greek at Cambridge University.

7.   Should I try to say "shibboleth"? The answer to this question depends on a couple of things. One is whether anyone knows what it means. Then there's the question of whether you'll be running the risk of spraying the first couple of rows of the congregation. Finally, are there many Gileadites in your fellowship? If so, you might want to be very careful in your pronunciation.

8.  What is God trying to say to me through this passage? It's very important that you own the message - it's a message to you, as well as your victims. Sorry, congregation. But don't own it too much. Do not explain at great length that you've realised from reading today's text that since "Vanity - all is vanity" they shouldn't listen to what you're saying - that even your very words are as the wind. If they try to take you seriously, that will leave them in an semantic loop. Which is a bit like a Möbius loop, except that it doesn't go all cleverly intertwined if you cut it in half lengthways.

9.  What situation was the author writing out of? If the answer you give to this is "The Biblical Situation", have a bit more of a think.

10. Have I done enough? No, how could you? Remember what you've been entrusted with here. But it's 4 in the morning, you're starting to see odd things dancing in the corners of your eyes, and you really ought to knock it on the head if you're gonna be up for the 8am. Just remember you're not going to be doing it on your own.

Mountain top experiences

I suppose a mountain's always a good place to see new things.

From the top of a decent sized hill or mountain you can see miles. Even here in Husborne Crawley, getting to the high ground is a new experience. Most of the local hills are wooded, but you get a decent view in two directions from the churchyard, as you can see from the picture at the top of this page.

The view looking south-ish, down School Lane, takes us over the brook, past the White Horse (soon to be renamed the Findus Lasagne) and down to the imposing red-brick wall and luxuriant aboreal growth of the Abbey. Turning 90° to the left we see the flatter lands running out over open fields towards the motorway, and the distribution park at Marston Gate. It's an area of remarkably few houses - Husborne is, like Hardy's Mellstock, a village of scattered hamlets, albeit with much better transport links.
Looking East

 Up where the air is clear, uninterrupted even tomorrow by nearby noise - the church is shut for the month - you find yourself reflecting. Even in this piece of landscape, you are vanishingly small. The yew in the churchyard was probably standing when Richard III was first buried in that car park - and will still be here long after I am an archdruidical cinder further down the slope of the churchyard. The Abbey has seen Dukes and Marquises come and go, Duchesses and Marchionesses each in their turn do the "Downtown Abbey" act on the staff, feed the tigers, and then pass into the gray void for which all are destined. The churchyard already holds numerous of the parsons who, down the centuries, have had the peasantry bowing, nodding or cursing according to ecclesiastical and social preference as they pass up the aisle. And, even now it is merged with Aspley Guise, it will no doubt hold more in the future.

 The Church itself - shining with the green interlaced in its sandstone as it does - gorgeous on a sunny day - was new once. It has seen a first construction - right on top of the hill, in the best practice of ley theogeography - probably wooden, and then in this beautiful greensand. It has known reordering, extension - as each generation has rejoiced in the new thing they have done, before joining their forebears in the churchyard. Even the sandstone was new once - pressed from the bed of a primeval sea. And of course, one day not one of those glorious, ancient, sandy blocks will stand on another.
It's greener in real life
Time falls away slowly, like sand trickling from the church-hatch wall to the ground. The sun rises and sets, and little seems to have changed. But as days lengthen to seasons, and those to years, and years to ages - one day the church-hatch wall has melted, McArthur-Park-like, in the rain. Shame, when it took so long to make it. But when the whole world is scheduled to melt in the warm embrace of an expanding sun, what is a woman, a building a landscape or even silicon oxide to worry about? Though I take comfort in this - that there is One who counts every grain of silica in this landscape, and will not let one be lost.
Very small things that are each counted
 Ah me, I really must stop reading Ecclesiastes in the morning.