Sunday 31 July 2016

For Tomorrow We Die

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God. (Luke 12:13-21)
So the crowds are after Jesus. And they're pressing forwards with all sorts of stuff. People needing healing. People needing healing for their family members. People who want to hear his words. People who want to argue with him - maybe opponents. And one bloke who - completely randomly - wants to talk to him about an inheritance issue.

And Jesus stops off and spends time with him. But he doesn't answer his problem, doesn't give him a judgement. Instead he tells him a story.

And it's a story about someone who puts his trust in things that don't last. In this case, a barn full of grain. Because the biggest barn full of grain in the world is worth nothing when you die. When you're alive it's lovely to have lots ready to eat - plenty of security. But when you're dead it's as much use to you as a barn full of sand.

There's nothing wrong with money itself. It does good things. Nothing wrong with having a nice meal, with contributing to keep the church going, with catching a train to see a friend. Nothing wrong with a thing that you can use to buy a malaria net to protect someone, or sponsor a child in the two-thirds world. Nothing wrong with having a well paid job. Nothing wrong with having a farm that produces a terrific crop.

But - as we all know in these Brexit days - it's all about the exchange rate, innit? What is money - or a barn full of grain - worth compared to the love of God? To a human relationship? Answer - it's worth nothing. And so God says to the rich fool - this day when your life will be lost - where's your heart? Is it with the things you have saved up? Bad luck - they're going to other people. So what do you have to bring with you into eternity? Where's the Faith, Hope and Love that are the things that will last through fire and death? Oh - you had a big barn and hope that you could take it easy.

Last week Fr Jacques Hamel died while in the sanctuary of his church, at the hands of somebody who thought that hatred and a loser's frustration with the world were worth more than love, or life. I don't suppose he left much. But it wouldn't matter if it did. Because he has been rich to God - gave up his time, cared for God's people, praised God's name and - at the end - gave up his life to the love of God and his Church. His priorities, it seems to me, were right.

Meanwhile in the latest in a long stream of prophecies of the end of the world, some people were predicting that the world would end as a result of the magnetic poles flipping.

In one of the better headlines I have ever read, the Independent said "End of the world will happen today when magnetic poles flip, say people who are almost certainly incorrect." Don't know why the Independent used that "almost certainly", to be honest. Because if the End Times Prophecies people had been right and the world had split open, nobody would have been around to laugh at the Independent.

Jesus, it seems to me, puts us into a place between those two - the man who trusted in his own riches was a fool, because he had no control over when his life would end. Those who spend all their time worrying about the future - whether their future here on earth or one day when all comes to an end - they are wasting their time. Isaac Newton spent more time on apocalyptic predictions than he did on physics. Just imagine if he'd spent more time on physics...

But the one who accepts with gladness and humility what God gives. Who takes what they need and shares the rest. Who loves God, and sees God in their neighbour, and then treats their neighbour accordingly. Who loves the things that this world offers - but holds onto them lightly. They're the ones who, on the night God says their life is required, will find their treasure in the right place

Saturday 30 July 2016

Of Corbyn and Williams (again)

Because I was trying to talk about the difference between their believers' views and reality in my last post, dear God-lovers, it appears I came across as very unfair to Rowan Williams. Which I regret. I think he is a decent man who was doing a terribly hard job for which he was unsuited.

Perhaps instead I should consider the difference between Rowan Williams and Jeremy Corbyn.

In short, one of them believes, without any evidence, in an imaginary future state where everybody is happy, and we are all looked after by an omnipotent yet benevolent disembodied force.

And the other used to be Archbishop of Canterbury.

Friday 29 July 2016

Of Jeremy Corbyn and Rowan Williams

Another reflection from "That was the Church, That Was". 

Some of the text spins me off into my own reflection - I started wondering about the similarities between Rowan Williams and that other scruffy beard wearer, not mentioned in the book as far as I recall, Jeremy Corbyn. The popularity of both among their followers is unaccountable to me. I've never understood a single sentence of Williams's writing. I can cope with the individual words. I understand the meaning of nearly every individual word. But put them together into a six-page sentence and I 'm lost. Yet the people who like him, love him. You can't say a word against him. The word I used was "incomprehensible." People didn't like it. 

Likewise Corbyn. His cycling, I like. A solid workhorse, that bike. Good for the planet, good for the health, good for keeping plenty of space on the road. His bike is a winner. But ignoring the bike. His followers are convinced he's a genius who can save the UK. The rest of us consider him an utter liability to his party. 

Williams's letting down of Jeffrey John is investigated at great length in the book - and used as a mirror to his saintly, otherworldly image. Likewise Corbyn's followers see him as a great idealist. Yet the rest of us wonder about his dealings with Iran and the IRA. How can a man who is the leader of a great "progressive" party make broadcasts for a country where women are oppressed, dissent is stifled, prisoners are raped and tortured? (I'm going to say that I think Rowan was pushed into a corner on this whereas Corbyn, free from responsibility at the time, has no excuse). 

 So both our bearded heroes are responsible for leading their respective organisations into irrelevance and obscurity, while their followers think they're great. 

There are those who believe that the Labour party - or its grassroots supporters - are no longer a party. It has become a religious cult - investing its hopes in a bloke with a gray beard who can miraculously restore it to purity, regardless of what the real world thinks of it. If that's the case, maybe that gives us the clue to the Church of England. It's not meant to run society, or even align with society. It will break up into groups of increasing purity, increasing isolation. While the liberals will pat people's hands until they all die.And they'll read Rowan's poetry, obviously. He's a saint.

That Was the Church, That Was

And so, after the rumours and rumours of rumours, the book that didn't get published last time gets published this time.

What to say? It's a light read. Hilarious in places, sobering throughout. It has some scathing comments about the structure of the Church of England, about its leaders, about hypocrisy. It puts its finger accurately on a lot of things. 

But I'm left wondering. In a book this slim there's no room to investigate some of the real complexities of Anglicanism - the distinction, for instance, between theological and  social conservatism. The (socially) liberal angle from which it comes implies that, if only the C of E had adopted women's ministry and been open to gay people and their ministry earlier. it might not be in the state it is today - but, social science being an oxymoron, we simply don't know that. There is no scientific control - no alternative England where things were very different. To use the Scandinavian Lutheran churches as a control begs the question - so how come the US Episcopalians are in such decline? Or is the lesson we should learn that we should introduce a church tax so that people who never actually go to church at least think they belong? (Answer: No.) It may have been the right thing to do (although social conservatives would think it was the wrong thing) but would it have stopped the Church of England losing the English people (the subtitle of the book) - I doubt it.

There was one particularly jarring moment for me where a flippant comment about David Watson's test comes across as very crass and unfair.

But overall? Well worth a read. Excellently written, in a journalistic style, by Linda Woodhead and Andrew Brown. Challenging to the "evangelicalism a success, liberalism a failure" narrative. Challenging to the Church of England structures - where a democratic structure is prevailed over by a self-appointing elite, and where the ghosts of old initiatives still haunt the organisational machinery.  

Thursday 28 July 2016

"Scented tea lights and Pebbles": the Punk Version

(To the tune and accent of "Sex and drugs and Rock and Roll")

Scented tea lights and pebbles
Is all my brain and body need
Scented tea lights and pebbles
Are very good indeed

Take your Daily Office and throw it out the window
Focus on your breathing , I've been there and I know
Hold hands in a circle, where did all the fun go?
If all you ever do is worship you don't like

Scented tea lights and pebbles
Is all my brain and body need
Scented tea lights and pebbles
Are very good indeed

Every act of worship ought to make you happy
Thinking about sad things makes you feel quite crappy
Sing an 80s chorus, they're quite happy-clappy
See my bodhran, its called Simon, I don't know how to play it.

Here's a little piece of advice
You're quite welcome it is free
Why not light yourself a candle?
Don't do "doing" if you can "be".

Wednesday 27 July 2016

Charles Rennie Mackintosh

People used to be very rude about Charles Rennie Mackintosh. But it never got him down.

It was just like water off a..... oh, never mind.

A Prayer for Those Who Have Spilt Coffee Grounds Upon a Worksurface

O, how many are my woes!

For the grounds of coffee have poured out like a river
and are like the grains of sand upon the sea shore.

If I reach down to the floor, they are there.
And if I reach up unto the highest cupboard they are there also.

If I had wings like an eagle or the strength of mighty Leviathan, I could not find them all.

If the sheets of kitchen roll were like unto the size of the Bayeux Tapestry and the absorbency of a giant nappy
even then could I not mop them all up.

So I will give up and go to work.

Maybe the Coffee Dregs Fairy will sort it while I'm out.

Tuesday 26 July 2016

A True Martyr

Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.

Fr Jacques Hamel pray for us. 

Monday 25 July 2016

Discerning Spiritual Animals

OK the results of this year's "Discerning Spiritual Animals" session are in.

4 meerkats
12 lemmings
1 red herring
3 lame ducks
6 ostriches
2 cockroaches
6 dingbats
1 pikachu
4 colly birds
3 french hens
2 turtle doves
1 partridge
1 wombat
1 raw prawn
1 steam locomotive

I'll admit, I'm disappointed. You hope people will have wild geese, dolphins, tigers and eagles. This is not such a good selection. But we'll work at it. And when I say work at it, I mean pretend we never did this pointless, pagan, hippy-dippy exercise. And never mention it again..

Sunday 24 July 2016

A Concert for Debbie

For Northern friends of the Beaker Folk.

Debbie Hughes (later Peatman) was the Bible Scholar when I was at Brasenose College, Oxford. A woman who seemed to smile more, as a percentage of her life than, frankly, anyone else I ever saw. A woman who, when somebody caught fire at an Advent Carol service due to balancing too many books, candles and collection plates, ran after and comforted the person who set her hair on fire, rather than worrying about the mess all those candles, books, plates and coins made on the floor. She was that type of person.

In short, a wonderful woman and one who is very missed.

There's a concert in her memory - in support of St John's Hospice - on 13 September. Details are here. It's a good cause, she was a wonderful woman. I can only recommend. So that's what I will do.

(Debbie is top left in this picture. She is smiling, of course.)

Saturday 23 July 2016

The Sin of Sodom

The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre and said, ‘How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.’ (Genesis 18:20-21)
And so one of the more violent episodes in the Old Testament kicks off. By the time the narrative is over, four cities are destroyed, and Lot's had children with his daughters, having had his wife turned to salt.

"How very grave their sin!" says God. And of course we all know what the sin of Sodom was. The Bible is very clear about it. In fact, it's Ezekiel who tells the people of Jerusalem exactly what Sodom's sins were:
'Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. (Eze 16:49-50)
Bit of a shocker that. The Genesis text itself doesn't say the towns were destroyed because of gay people. It does say that the men of Sodom wanted to rape the angels that Lot had in his house. But that's not because they were gay. It's because they wanted to humiliate and violate a bunch of foreigners.

But if the sin of the Cities of the Plain was being arrogant and overfed - not helping the poor and needy - that needs to give us pause for thought. In the USA we have a presidential candidate who wants to build a massive wall to keep Mexicans out. In Europe we use subsidies and trade tariffs - you know, the ones we're worried about in the UK at the moment - but we use them to keep African agriculture poor and dependent upon us - to bias markets in the way we want.

Which is all a heck of a way to make it feel like we have no chance of making individual impacts but of course we can. We may well be overfed in the West, but individually we can make it our jobs not to be arrogant or unconcerned. We can get ourselves educated in where there is need in the world - and we can ensure we get involved with or support the agencies that can make a difference.

Let's jump on and consider the nature of the Lord in this passage. This isn't God as some sweet granddad. This is a God who gets really angry about injustice. God is going to judge the people of Sodom and the other cities. God is going to do something about it.

This is the God we worship - one who expects us to be concerned for the poor, To be open to their need. God wants justice, and therefore we should work for justice. Doesn't mean we have to be political. Does mean we need to be generous.

But there's another side of God's nature here - the mercy.
Then he said, ‘Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten [righteous people]  are found there.’ The Lord answered, ‘For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.’ (Gen 18:32)
Abraham bargains the Lord all the way down in terms of how many people it would take to save the city. Down from fifty to ten. He never pushes it once more - never asks the question we would want him to ask - what about if there's just one just person in the city? Then would you save it?

Well, in the event the place is worse than ten righteous people. The only righteous people escape from the destruction. But an aspect of God's nature has been revealed that will be more explored as the Bible's tales weave across the centuries, from myth to history. The promise of a "remnant" - that a faithful few will be preserved. That even in the middle of terror a thread of hope will remain. Until it culminates in a story where God takes all the injustice upon the shoulders of Jesus. And where, through just one righteous man, the whole world can be saved.

Friday 22 July 2016

Responding Graciously to Criticism Course

Thanks to all who filled in feedback forms for our "Responding Graciously to Criticism" course.

If that's how you felt we won't be running any more.

Thursday 21 July 2016

Objection to the Consecration of Female Bishops: A Liturgy

"Last month in Canterbury it became clear that such objections were, it seemed, not only being enabled but were becoming a part of the liturgy" - Women and the Church (WATCH) Press Release

Hymn: "Will you Come and Follow Me?"

Dean of the Cathedral:Does anyone have any formal objection to this woman being consecrated as a bishop in the Church of England?  Especially remembering she's not exactly the first and we've been through this rigmarole several times now.
Objector: I do.
Dean of the Cathedral: Oh deep joy. Go on then. Let's hear it.
Objector:Not in the Bible.
Archbishop: Not in the Bible? Listen, matey. My funny hat's not in the Bible. Having Archdeacons ain't in the Bible. Calling people "Father" is explicitly banned in the Bible. Cathedrals aren't in the Bible. Singing "I the Lord of Sea and Sky" at every ordination, consecration, licensing and every service in every Training Scheme since 2004 ain't in the Bible. This is the Church of England. If we only did the stuff in the Bible we'd sing a couple of psalms, give our money to the poor, and go home to do good works. Of course it's not in the Bible. 
Objector:Just saying. If I'd known you would get so touchy I wouldn't have brought it up.
Dean of the Cathedral: Does anyone have any sensible objection to this woman being consecrated in the Church of England? 
Congregation who have really had enough by now, and haven't seen a sight of a gin and tonic for anything up to an hour:No. Can we just crack on? This isn't rocket science. We've done it all before now.

Hymn: "I the Lord of Sea and Sky" 

Wednesday 20 July 2016

"I Have a Dream" Sermon Accused of Plagiarism

Honestly. Try to set out a positive religious viewpoint in a sermon, and all the nit-pickers and nay-sayers are out nit-picking and nay-saying. If not nay-picking and nit-saying.

Some have said my sermon last night, "I have a Dream", was plagiarism. That I have stolen one of the greatest passages of religious sentiment in the English language and passed it of as my own. That if you lay my sermon alongside the original it is practically word for word.

Well, I will not be abashed or abowed. If people would rather criticise a few minor similarities than grasp the uplifting vision, that is up to them. I will stand by my words, whether they are mine or - purely accidentally and without any plagiarist intent - also someone else's. My defence is that my thoughts were noble and accidentally intertextual.

But these are my thoughts, this is my spirit, this is my story, this is my song. Here I stand, I can do no other. As I said, in the most criticised part of my sermon:

"If you see the wonder of a fairy tale
You can take the future even if you fail
I believe in angels
Something good in everything I see."

Holy Pokeballs

Just discovered our Thin Place is now a Pokestop. Really odd. Hyper kids and (mostly) adults go tearing down to the Holy Well, lift their phones and see.... a vision of St Bogwulf.

It's quite a shock all round. Pokeballs are completely useless on Angle saints.

Tuesday 19 July 2016

Creation v Evolution Debate Cancelled Due to Pokemon

Apologies for the late cancellation of tonight's "Creation v Evolution" debate in the Fretting Room.

The speaker for Creation, Revd APW Twoflower, author of the best-seller "Darwin, Dawkins and the Devil", has unexpectedly evolved into a Charmander. He didn't see that coming.

Still, we expect Revd Twoflower to continue his evangelistic mission. As he said to Charlii on the phone, "Gotta Catch Them All."

Monday 18 July 2016

That About Wraps it up for Postmodern Theology

Mieke Bal in her essay, "Postmodern Theology as Cultural Analysis", writes the following: "A postmodern theology, then, need not decide whether God exists or not, and which one God has privileges over which other Gods in a multiple society."

I checked Wiki and the good news is that Mieke Bal is still with us and apparently still flourishing. I had a panic that she might have been run over while deconstructing the semiotics of a zebra crossing.

A Distant God and a Domestic Religion

I was thinking about the Five Knolls, those Beaker burial mounds up above Dunstable, looking across the Vale of Aylesbury.

Today they're the sort of heritage site the Beaker Folk like - rustic, quiet, decayed and - of course - largely raided by the archaeologists of a previous generation.

And they're kind of eerie in the setting sun of a summer evening. Much as the Rollright Stones combine the domestic with the awe-ful. All the stories of the old days come back to you, and the faerie folk gather round,  near yet as insubstantial as moths.

But imagine what round barrows looked like when they were new. Not covered in gentle Bedfordshire turf and orchids. But shining brilliant white against the green of the Downs. If you were walking towards them from Tring way along the Icknield Way in the evening, they would have glowed pink like the statues of the Kim family. Must have been uncanny.

I was considering after last night's "Strictly non-threatening Seekers' Service." We held it in the Big Shed, in barn-dance style. There was country music played by 'Howling Hank Hnaef and the Sidewinders." There was Hnaef himself calling the moves. There was modelling clay and tea lights and AV of lovely starling formations and cutting out paper shapes.

To keep the atmosphere light and welcoming, there were a few things we missed out. You know, things that could have made things tricky. Like prayer. Or mentioning God, or sin or death or hope - because if anything kills a lightly religious atmosphere like hope does, I'd like to know what it is.

Still, everyone seemed to enjoy it. And the regulars said could we do that rather than our normal Beaker Occasions.

I sometimes think about that Creator Who underpins the universe, Who planned and watches the destruction of star systems - shredded by the mathematics laid out before the beginning of Time. I wonder about the One that calls from beyond the heavens. That holds multiple universes in one hand; yet a baby looks at you shining with God's image.

I think we'll have a labyrinth next Seekers' Barn Dance. People like labyrinths.

Sunday 17 July 2016

Situations Vacant: Celebrity Priest

The parish of Giggling St Nicholas with Rolling-in-the-Isles is looking for a new Celebrity Vicar.

Set in a picturesque location featuring a number of offshore bird sanctuaries and two rustic villages, where pink sandstone cottages tumble down to sandy bays, and occasionally tumble enigmatically straight off the cliffs, we are acutely aware that we aren't getting the kind of tourist trade we ought. So we've driven the old, boring priest to a nervous breakdown, and now we're looking for a more telly-friendly model to attract the emmets.

The Celebrity Priest will ideally be young and single. They could be torn by a terrible loneliness, and photogenic when filmed in a boat heading to the little Chapel of St Aggie's Isle  (Electoral Role zero). That'd work quite well.

Alternatively they could be one of those jolly ones that we could get on Pointless, who get famous by cracking jokes constantly in the pulpit then going on the stand up circuit. Though, again, a sense of deep sadness would help for the 12-part documentary which features wonderful shots of honeysuckle-covered walls and the sun setting over St Bogwulf Island, as the rooks cry amidst the immemorial oaks (the immemorial elms having all died in the 70s).

Duties will include school assembly visits, where the children will come up with unexpected wisdom and outrageous doubles-entendres. There is a weekly service at the nursing home overlooking the golden sands of St Bloke's Bay. The residents of Giggling Residential Home are spritely, loveable and inclined to tell the sorts of heart warming yet racy stories that should go down well in the 8pm slot.

We have a surgery where the doctor is brilliant, erratic, grumpy but wracked by some terrible heartbreak in the past. So ideally he and the vicar could have an on-off, bittersweet relationship where each occasionally declares they'll have to leave the parish but can't quite do it, and the parishioners have to tell them how much we love them both. Ideally at some point one of them will propose, so we get a cliffhanger to set up another series.

We have services at both our churches, but to be honest not many people go. Though that will give the vicar the chance to agonize over the decline of Western Christianity, while filmed against the beautiful stained-glass of the martyrdom of St Sebastian. Or else crack jokes about everyone having to sit closer together to keep warm.

Belief in God is optional. A good profile is not.

NB - bloggers need not apply. They're not really famous, and they're all pasty and white.

Saturday 16 July 2016

Liturgy of Recognition of a New Prime Minister

Archdruid: And so, in the circling circle of years, the cycle has circled and so we, like th'encircling circles of a circuitous circle...

All: Can you cut the poetry and pseudo-Celtic drivel? We want to start the barbecue.

Archdruid: And so, as Shiny-Face Dave was the future once, now he is the past. He retires to be an elder statesperson.

All: To speak from above politics, like Major.

Archdruid: Or to sulk cowering in a bunker, like Brown.

All: To loathe his successor and all her works, like Heath.

Archdruid: Or to loathed and reviled by all, like Blair.

All: History will be his judge.

Archdruid: And so, the moving finger writes, and having writ moves on.

All: PMs come and PMs go. But PM's never Gove.

Archdruid: And so...

All: Will you, in the name of Kirsty MacColl, stop saying "And so...?"

Archdruid: Let Dave be gone and Theresa rule.

All: For Winter is Coming.

Archdruid: Not that we're saying she's Jadis the Witch-Queen.

All: Though she'd get the part if she auditioned.

The ritual Wicker PM is taken out and burned.

Archdruid: Let us dance on the ashes of failure.

All: Bring in the Queen of the May!

The ritual New Wicker PM is installed and garlanded with mayflower.

Archdruid: OK. I'll give civilisation 5 years. Let's get the barbie started.

Hymn: Light up the Fire

Friday 15 July 2016

Now is the Month of May-In

"What should we call the followers of Theresa May?" asks honorary Beaker Person, Laura Sykes.



Wednesday 13 July 2016

Liturgy of Broken Things

Britain's relationship to the EU

David Cameron's career

Boris Johnson's image

The Labour Party


The link between London and England

Michael Gove's dreams




The Schengen agreement

Tony Blair's legacy

The climate.

We are all broken.

But one is broken for the others.

Monday 11 July 2016

The Plaques on the Church Wall

Church of England Debate on Ministerial Dress Combines Tragically With Pokemon Go Craze

Rumour has it that, during Saturday's debate about the dress of Church of England clergy, somebody tuned out and accidentally uploaded the apk of Pokemon Go into the electronic voting system.

Nobody expected this.

Saturday 9 July 2016

Disturbing the Dead

A dig is going on in Lancashire at what appears to be a Bronze Age burial mound.

"The artefacts so far are remarkably well preserved and lead experts to wonder if the mound contains an undisturbed burial."

Well, it did up till now.

Clergy Dress

The Church of England Synod is addressing the question of what clergy should wear, while the Mail warns we could be on the verge of mankinis in the pulpit. What on earth is happening?

Here at the Beaker Folk of Husborne Crawley we're quite clear that all worshippers are expected to
The Budgie-Smuggling Bishop of Bath and Wells
wear hi viz and steel toe-capped boots for health and safety reasons: there's always the danger, when you're a radical alt.liturgical community, of being run over by a unicyclist, or hit by a flying pigeon. The Druids are distinguished by wearing Druid hats. And as Archdruid I get to wear a particularly pointy hat.

But the Church of England has always been clear that the clergy must be dressed distinctively. For instance, many clergy of the evangelical wing wear lounge suits and ties, or tweed jackets with chinos. You don't get much more distinctive than looking like everybody else did in the 90s.

In a typical C of E service, you may find that the vicar is wearing a cassock. Not a cossack. If the vicar's got a cossack on him you're in a very different kind of church. Above the cassock (long black tunic jobbie) they will wear a surplice (lacey white nightie) and normally a stole or, if it's not a communion service, a scarf.
Not a mime

Be aware! If the person leading the service is wearing a blue scarf, they're a Reader. They're not a priest so don't call them "Father". Unless it's your dad, obviously. They're not "impostors" and accusing them of impersonating a vicar is a good way to lose friends. It turns out.

Also be aware that just because somebody is not wearing a dog collar they may still be a clergy. Take Giles Fraser, for instance. He prefers to wear black T-shirts so people think he's a mime artist. But he's not. He's a bona fide clergy and Guardian columnist.

The Corpus Christi Procession wasn't what it was
I'm confused by the comment that clergy dress should not be "sexy"
however. Surely sexy is in the eye of the beholder? I mean, I bet some people really get quite excited over a nice little gold chasuble. So what do you do? Should the clergy be made to wear oil drums so nobody could possibly start feeling a bit frisky during the service?

No, let's get this straight. People go to the C of E and expect to see the vicar in a dog collar and a cassock, At the Methodists, you wanna see a tidy suit. Baptists, something drip-dry. If you're a Beaker person, make sure you wear something flame retardant. There's a lot of tea lights about.

"Man in a mankini": By Gpqs - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, 
Giles Fraser image from the Guardian
Last of the Summer Wine: Pinterest

The Church Visitor's Guide to Sermons

In my previous entries in this series, gentle pilgrims, I have instructed you in the art of finding a church (looking out of the window being a good method), and also how to behave in order to visit a service without ending up on a rota.

Staying off Rotas

I can't stress too much how important it is to keep off rotas. If you let yourself onto a rota, or show any sign of skills that might make you useful either in building maintenance or on the church committee, you are doomed to spend years helping out in your spare time. Even if you lose all faith, or convert to Zoroastrianism, you will be locked into the endless routine of keeping things running. Skills to deny having include, in my opinion, the following: Masonry, carpentry, nursing, accountancy, IT, playing the piano, plumbing, the maintenance of 18th century stoves, or reading. Above all else do not admit to being a teacher. A teacher is a person of multi talents in a church setting - used to public speaking, they can be pressed into being a worship leader, a preacher, or - and this is where you really have to keep quiet - a children's worker. Nothing like teaching five days a week, marking on the sixth, and on the seventh day resting by leading the Sunday Club.

But I digress. At some point in the course of going to church services, you will probably have to listen to a sermon. You can do your best to avoid them - go midweek, or at 8 am on Sunday. But you need to be careful about the 8 am. Sometimes the minister will cunningly use it as a kind of pre-season friendly for the sermon they're going to preach at 9.30. Not only will you get a sermon, but it will be the version before they realise that all that stuff about early Assyrian family life can usefully be removed without affecting the main point, whatever that may be.

The sermon will sometimes be on one of the texts of the day. Be careful. If this was the first reading, you probably won't remember what it was about. If you're lucky the church has the readings printed out for you to look up. Alternatively, the sermon can be a seemingly random series of loosely-connected thoughts. Be aware that the preacher may have intended this to be a sermon on one of the readings, but you just can't tell which one. Or else if you're in a Methodist circuit, this sermon will be the only one that the preacher possesses, preaching it at every engagement in the hope that nobody will remember they heard it last time the preacher came round, three years ago.

The sermon will always contain a number of elements in different categories. These are either mandatory or optional.

Mandatory elements

An opening joke. Sermons always have an opening joke. Some might argue that a joke is better in the middle or the end, but the preacher will be aware that, if they leave the joke till later, people may be asleep and will miss it.

Optional elements

An anecdote about the preacher's life that will throw them in the light of wit, social justice warrior, or fearsome fighter of wrongs.

A quote from a famous Christian speaker whom nobody will recognise.

An anecdote about the preacher's life that will tell you how low they fell at some point, but don't worry there's a happy ending. After all, they're preaching now. This may well segue into reading part of the famous tea towel, Footprints.

Some kind of mention of God or Jesus.

What the preacher did on pilgrimage in the Holy Land.

A reference to a book that only the preacher has read, but they will assume is universal. Thomas A Kempis or Julian of Norwich or Fifty Shades of Grey or something.

A reference to a pop lyric from the 70s.

A dodgy explanation of the "real" meaning of a Greek word in the New Testament, which proves that Jesus / Paul / John is saying exactly the opposite of what people think it means if they just read the Bible and didn't read some obscure commentary or even did the translation for themselves.

If you're really lucky - a dodgy explanation of a Hebrew word in the Old Testament, based on a mistranslation of the Greek equivalent or - even worse - the origin of one of the English word that equates to it.

"In a very real sense" - which normally means "I don't believe this and I suspect neither do any of you. But we're all in church aren't we, so we'd all better pretend."

"Amen". Now this is an interesting one. Many preachers end their sermons with "Amen". What are they doing that for? Maybe it's tradition. Maybe they think it's compulsory. Maybe they think a sermon is a prayer. My personal experience is, I always say "Amen" when I don't think the conclusion of the sermon was as uplifting or challenging as I wanted it to be, and I suddenly don't think it's that obvious that the sermon is finished at all and I've added on all the extra bits I just thought of in the hope of rounding it off and if I keep doing that I'm going completely off track. Also "Amen" is a trigger word that will awaken half the congregation as they know it's time to do something else. Or is that just me?

Money: Most preachers avoid mentioning money and giving like the plague, "in case it upsets people". Rochester diocese have mentioned money once, and I don't think they're getting away with it.

A prayer - much like "Amen" and conveniently ending with "Amen" - this tells everybody the sermon's over while giving the preacher the chance to re-state the entire sermon in shortened form.

If you're very lucky, and you're in a more informal / spontaneous church, somebody other than the preacher may stand up and pray a prayer in response to the sermon. Often you will find what the prayer is actually doing, is explaining why the sermon was actually wrong about the Bible reading it was based on.


There is a chance you will fall asleep or just terminally lose concentration. This is not such a problem as you might think. Firstly, you probably needed the sleep. Secondly, you will get the chance to give the right response as you're going out the door.....

Responses as you're going out the door

The classic thing to say as you're going out the door is "nice sermon / service." The preacher will take this as an indication that you didn't listen to a word, and not press the case. If they respond by saying "which bit did you like best?" the only response is to leave the church and never come back.

Explaining to the preacher why what they said was heretical, historically incorrect or scientifically wrong is considered bad form. This is a Post-Truth society. As Brexit and the Trump presidential campaign have shown, being right is no longer necessary.

The best thing to say to the preacher, in my experience, is "great sermon - how would you sum the message up in one sentence?" Firstly this saves you having listened to it. Secondly, if they manage to do it - you'll know enough about what it was about. If they don't manage it, you were probably right to be reading the Song of Solomon throughout the sermon all along. Much more interesting.

Friday 8 July 2016

Rend Your Terracotta Hearts

And I will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and will give you a heart of flesh. (Eze 36:26)

Ezekiel had a lovely turn of phrase, of course. But he wasn't a 21st Century Prophet. What does he know about our 21st Century hearts?

Whereas Damon Albarn and chums know exactly what so many of our hearts are like in these brittle days. This is possibly the only bromance pop song that's worth listening to.

Our Social Media is full of it .We shout and stomp and sign our petitions - endlessly sign our petitions. Mostly put on the impression that we're tough as hell. We have our principles and we'll go to any lengths to live up to them, as long as it involves a retweet or a bit of a pile-onto someone we didn't agree with.

But all the time, our hearts aren't the stone that Ezekiel warned against. But then it's not like they're the flesh that may be soft, yet yields and beats on. Our hearts are terracotta: hard, but brittle. Thump them too hard, and they'll break. Porous, so the emotions can leak in and out - but susceptible to a hard frost, when the lost of a friendship can cause a nasty crack that widens as the winter draws on.

Or is that just me?

Thursday 7 July 2016

After the Gove Has Gone



Hi - Boris!  Bozza! Bojo! It's Michael. Mikey. Mikey Gove - you know, Govey? The Govester?

I've not got a lot on this evening all of a sudden - wondered whether you fancied going out? Couple of beers?  Talk about what a great victory we had in getting the "Leave" victory? What a blinder you played. You were awesome and - I'd like to think - so was I. Me with the brains, vision and strategy and you with the..... hair......

Boris? Whaddya say? Night out - just the two lads? The rebel boys of the London Tory Massive? What do you reckon?

Boris? Boris?

Pioneer Minister: The First Service

So our Pioneer Minister, Brad, has conducted his first service - "Tex-Mex Church". In which he handed out spicy tacos and declared that he would never forget the Alamo.

This is going to be a long training attachment.

Exploring Pioneer Ministry

It is with much joy that I welcome Brad, who is joining as Assistant Druid, with a pioneer ministry.

Brad is easily recognisable as he has a raccoon skin hat and, instead of a car, drives a covered waggon which he puts into a very small circle when he thinks Apaches are about.

We had a nasty moment yesterday when he joined the wood splitting team and thought Harborough's hatchet was a tomahawk. Still, the surgeon thinks the wrist should heal in 12 weeks or so, so no lasting damage done.

Anyone wanting to talk to Brad about his ministry is invited to sit round the camp fire and enjoy some beans. But be careful when you approach the waggon. Some of those animal traps are ferocious.

Wednesday 6 July 2016

Chilcot Report - Sneak Preview

When the highly trained philosopher-politicians open the Chilcot report it will just contain the number "42".

At which point we will realize we never really knew what the question was.

We are going to need to build a new, and bigger, Chilcot.

Tuesday 5 July 2016

God Created the Earth

I was thinking about a creationist friend of mine today, and reflecting upon creation and meaning.

"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." With this short sentence the author who would be called "Moses" pierces the pretensions of Babylonian religion, and co-opts a victorious empire into the praise of the God of a defeated people.

There is no method ascribed to God in the verses that follow - no recipe that we could understand. God just says, and it happens. No fine detail, no instructions.

I think there's power here. Sure, the story of Genesis is compatible with the Big Bang Theory  (dreamt up by a priest) but in the great scheme of things it's compatible with any scientific model of the origin of the Universe.

Even steady state theory. Because even if the Universe has existed forever this is not incompatible with a God beyond time and space creating it.

Because the Creation story is not about science. It's about meaning. A bold statement that, in the midst of chaos, we believe in the God of logic. That we believe in a God who makes in a sensible order. We don't believe in Tiamat the chaos dragon, killed and ripped apart so the universe might exist. We believe in a God so powerful that ripping the fabric of reality would be no problem. So logical and rational that doing so would be out of the question. So like us that God says the stars thrown across the carpet of space are 'good" - so longing for company that humans are made in God's image.

We don't really believe in any particular model of how God created the world.

We just believe the world is how God reveals meaning to us.

Monday 4 July 2016

Farage / Evans: A Nation Mourns

Where now are the leaders?

Who are the prophets who can guide us?

To whom can we look to insult a foreignor 

Or to shout "brum brum" excitedly?

It's Blokerdammerung

The twilight of the Blokes.


Sunday 3 July 2016

Things as Yellow as Boris Johnson

2. A Coldplay song.

EU-sing our Religion

A piece in the Guardian tells us that everybody in Europe thought they were our best friends until the Referendum vote.

I dunno. Over the years we've exported Thatcherism, football hooliganism and drunken lads on stag nights to Riga. The people on the Continent who count the money might have liked us - but I don't know if anyone else did.

I know. I've got stats. Hard stats.

I've seen the scoring on the Eurovision Song Contest.

No-one likes us, we don't care

"Scooch" from Wikipedia.

Saturday 2 July 2016

First Find Your Church

On Thursday I gave you some advice on how to find a church. Now, here are a few tips to help you out when actually in a church service.

First up you will be offered some kind of paperwork - some combination of notice sheets, psalms, hymn books, service books. If it is a leaflet calling you to support Jeremy Corbyn, you have either accidentally joined a political march, or you are in a church in South London. It's easy to confuse English Christianity and the Labour Party. Both ascribe unlikely powers to an old bloke with a beard. And both should care more about the poor.

Having established that you are in fact in a church service, do not be fooled into small talk with the welcomer. Anything they can wring from you in the way of personal information will have been converted, by coffee time, into a series of invitations to ring bells, trim gardens, lead the Sunday School or do something incredibly dangerous involving roof maintenance. Give only your first name, and concede that you live "locally". As Paul Merton once pointed out, we all live locally. Wherever we live, that's local.

Hang around near the back. This gives you a wide view of the congregation. DO NOT SIT DOWN. Wherever you sit will be somebody's pew, in which they have prayed ever since a close friend was involved at Dunkirk. Give it until after the first hymn - then sit down. STAY AT THE BACK. Then you can see what everyone else is doing, and not look like a complete raw prawn for everybody else to laugh at for the next week.

If the rest of the congregation stands up, stand up. If they sit down, sit down. If they kneel - sit down. Your knees ain't what they were. On your first trip to church you don't want to have two people have to lift you back to a sitting position. If they all start hopping, sit down and look wise. They're just trying to fool the newbie.

If at any point a child runs around, or a baby screams, look very hard at the parent/s and tutt loudly. In this way, the congregation will know that you're fitting in already.

If you are in a modern Charismatic church, you will be forced to sing songs in the kind of musical style that were popular 30 years ago. Church ministers who are into Grime are far and few. But everybody loves an 80s revival, don't they? Grief, people go to Butlins for special weekends of this kind of stuff.

If in the Church of England or the Catholics, you will likely be at a Communion service. If the priest says "Peace be with you" to the congregation before Communion and everyone gets up and runs around shaking hands with each other...  DO NOT PANIC. You may be an extrovert, and happy to go around saying hello to everyone. If not, then here's the drill. Don't just stand there looking like a drip with your hands by your sides. Someone will run up and shake your hand. Don't sit in a wheelchair with your hands in your lap - someone will pat you on the head. Or stick their hands into your lap to grab your hands. If you are someone with reasonable agility, the best bet is to crawl under a pew and lay there screaming "Leave me alone! You're all weird." In these circumstances most people will leave you alone. Most of them.  If you are a wheelchair user, get the heck out of there as fast as you can. If necessary, run over people's feet.

Some churches will announce that everyone is welcome to receive communion. If  you don't know what any of it is about - I'd just stay where you are and observe. If you go forward "for a blessing" because you're not baptised / confirmed, and you've not learnt the precise local bodily posture that means "I'm coming here for a prayer not to receive communion" then the priest might assume you're just holding your hands at an odd angle and.... oh, well, all sorts could happen. Just watch for a week or two.

After the service, you may be offered a cup of instant coffee in a green cup. If I were you I'd just take the cup on its own. Woodsware "Beryl" is a mystical form of earthenware that has the ability to transport you through time and space into a Methodist Church Hall in the 1960s. Or that may just be me. The coffee, on the other hand, is a reminder of the things that await us if we do not repent and follow the narrow path. Instant coffee is the only beverage on offer in the Smoky Place.
Mystical vessels containing an infernal substance

If all of the above makes no sense at all to you, don't worry. Just follow the instructions above. You should get out OK. And if you liked it, found something peaceful or uplifting or somebody was friendly - maybe go again. One day it will make sense. One day.

Friday 1 July 2016

The Somme: Elegy for a Great-Uncle

I could have known my great-uncle Ernie, had he lived. Tough types, those North Londoners - against all the odds, given their poverty, they all made it into their eighties. That's if they didn't die under enemy fire.

In 1916, he was just in his twenties. I have no idea what he looked like. Short, I expect. They were all short, that side of the family. Probably the result of being working-class, in the days when London overspilled all its boundaries, pouring out from the centre and washing over Kentish Town, Holloway and all points north.

His name is on the "Cromwell Road" memorial now to be found in Whittington Park, Archway - where his parents and his sister and his nephews and nieces lived, before it was flattened for improvements.

He died because an overstretched empire fought a frustrated one. Because rich men and politicians always want more.

He died because war was now mechanised. Men mere pawns to be pushed together in the centre of the board, swapped off until one side could gain an advantage - or ranged in defensive positions across the board, preventing progress.

He died because he joined a regiment from a long way from his home, and went to a battle field even further than that. Dying in a country whose language he couldn't speak, for an empire from which he had never benefited.

His was just one story - just one North London mother receiving the feared letter. One footnote, one corporal, one more laid to rest, unidentified, in a grave that nobody now knows. Remembered in Thiepval, and in a scruffy park in North London, where the kids smoke dope and the tough guys work out,

There is a corner of a foreign field which is forever Holloway. At the rising of the sun, and its going down, I will remember him.