Monday, 8 September 2008

Quotable quotes

After a funeral, from one of the mourners:
"Just what is butt dust?"

At a wedding rehearsal:
Me: "With my body I honour you..."
Groom: "With my body I'm onto you..."
Perhaps I should have let that one stand.

Friday, 22 August 2008


Back off holiday, and I've been catching up with the few episodes of Bonekickers which our V+ box actually managed to record.

The series is fascinating in its awfulness, and I hope the BBC commissions a second series, if only because it's funnier than most comedies.

But one thing stands out above all else - these archeologists shouldn't be allowed in the same room as an antique thimble, let alone seriously valuable artifacts. In the few episodes I've seen, they have managed to burn the True Cross, lose the bones of Joan of Arc, and smash Excalibur.

They ought to work for McVities, creating the fragments and crumbs which top and tail every packet of digestive biscuits.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

An atheist PM, Hurray!

In today's Guardian, AC Graying presents one of his occasional anti-religious pieces. Apparently David Milliband is an atheist (fair enough) and likely to become Prime Minister (really? the professor reads different papers from the rest of us).

This will be a good thing because he will then stop religions from being privileged. Apparently, one of the biggest privileges is that the Church of England "controls the primary school system - 80% of it...." This will come as a surprise to the CofE, which thinks that 25.3% are CofE schools - and that by no means all of them are aided (i.e. with a majority of church governors). We will not mention the historic fact that these schools were founded by the church and incorporated into the state system when the secular authorities finally got round to agreeing with the CofE that educating ordinary children was a good idea. This was in 1946, I believe.

But then, accuracy is not the aim of the piece. After all, he tells us that atheist leaders "will not cloak themselves in supernaturalistic justifications, as Blair came perilously close to doing when interviewed about the decision to invade Iraq. "Perilously close?" This would mean that he didn't actually say it? Indeed, if I remember correctly, he said that he would be judged by history and (he believed) God. Now, I think Blair was wrong and dishonest, but one thing he never did was claim divine authority. So what Grayling is actually saying is that atheist leaders will not claim supernatural mandates, just as Blair didn't. Big change, then.

The philosophy students of Birbeck College are obviously in safe hands, as long as they don't have to ask any difficult questions, such as "What is truth?"

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Too clever for B & Q?

One of my sons, currently between jobs, is spending his non too copious waking hours in applying for work. As part of this, he filled in the online personality profile questionnaire for B&Q, the mega-DIY outfit.

A couple of days later, he received a rejection letter, on the grounds of the said profile. Now, I have severe doubts about this sort of profiling (and yes, I know my enneagram number, and my Myers-Briggs code - I am an Anglican priest, after all). However, what struck me about this was the feedback given. Apparently, no.2 son is pretty average in all areas (all expressed positively!) except one, where he scored highly for "emotional stability". Apparently this suggests that he is an independant thinker who works well under stress and can use his initiative, is ambitious and enthusiastic.

Now, from my encounters with the staff at various branches of the emporium, I can't believe that they are desperately above average. So we know what B&Q are not looking for, don't we?

Friday, 25 April 2008

Does Size Matter?

No time to blog, as usual, so here's the latest parish mag article...

At a recent children's service, we were singing My God is so Big (with actions). It's meant to be a comforting and encouraging little ditty; God is big enough to help us cope with anything. Recently, though, two perennial questions have come my way again: if God is so big, why should he bother with us, and if God is so big, how can we possibly claim to know him?

Each one has the same starting point, and it's a good one - the realisation that God is not big, or even BIG, but unimaginably, literally infinitely, beyond any image of size. And of course, size is only an image. God has no size any more than she has a gender (but I'm old-fashioned and will stick with "he" henceforth), a body, an age and so on. But bigness is a useful image when we realise that we are thinking about whatever it is which underlies all existence. In Mother Julian of Norwich's famous vision, she saw God holding a nut-like object in his hand, which, he said was "all that is". Since her time we have learnt that "all that is" is unimaginably greater than she could have guessed.

And if God is personal - the ultimate Mind, then he apprehends and understands the whole show. So why should we have the arrogance to suppose that he is bothered with us? There's a bit in one of the Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy books which sums it up well. A scientist murders his nagging wife by making a machine which enables her to grasp her importance in the universe. Faced with such insignificance, she kills herself. We need, suggests Douglas Adams, the author, to believe we are more important than we are. But he, and our starting question, miss the point.

Given what we know about the immensity of creation, it seems reasonable nowadays to suppose that the existence of the human race may not be the only purpose of creation. There may well be other intelligent species, and the universe itself may well be something in which God delights as his own work of art. But that doesn't relegate us to insignificance. The reason is simply our ability to feel insignificant - to feel awe and wonder.

The universe just is. It's there, and that's that. If it has any significance, it's because someone sees it as significant, is able to wonder at it and to appreciate its beauty, danger, horror and joy. In being able to do that, for all our small size and limited abilities, we are closer to God than a nebula, for, like him, we can appreciate it. It doesn't seem to me all that far-fetched to suppose that God might value such creatures that share some of his own characteristics; what the Bible calls the "image of God", perhaps. And if huge size is not necessarily all that important in itself then neither is small size. God can value us for our ability to respond to creation - and to its creator.

Which takes us to the second question. If God can understand, and keep in existence the whole universe, how can we claim to know him? The obvious and simple answer is that we can't. There's a whole way of doing theology and mysticism based on this - all we can say of God is, "He's not really like that." (It's called apophatic theology if you want to know.)

But that doesn't mean we can't make some reasonable assumptions; he's creative, for a start. More than that, if it seems reasonable to assume that God might value creatures who share to some degree his own appreciation of creation, and have the capacity to enter into relationships, then it seems fair to suppose that he might reveal something of himself to them. And indeed relate to them.

We can't say that the God we apprehend and relate to is all that there is of God. That would be silly. But we can say that it reflects what we are able to understand of the truth of God. Of course, that understanding is always open to change, as we learn more, experience more and reflect more. But it remains based on what we believe God has revealed of himself, and is therefore something we can accept as true as far as it goes.

Christians, of course, believe that God has given us the best possible picture of himself. If you could distill the essence of the infinite creator Mind into a human being, what sort of person would he be? Answer: Jesus of Nazareth.

It is as we relate to the God revealed in Christ that we discover more about him, find limits to what we can reasonably say about him, and discover our own significance to be pretty high, because he cares about us.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

The Lent Project

Last October, a group of clergy to which I belong had a session on creativity with the Manchester artist Stephen Raw. He got us creating banners and suchlike, which made me wonder whether it might be possible to build a "Lent course" around creative activities. After all, we spend lots of time reading and discussing. Surely we ought to be able to engage with our faith in other ways?

So, in conjunction with the local Methodist church, we embarked on five weekly sessions on discipleship, working in the church building. (The Methodists made their own smaller scale version of the project to take back to their own church. Hopefully, I'll put up some pictures of their project when I can get some.)

The sessions were broadly on:
1) Barriers to discipleship
2) Helps along the way
3) Walking together (the church)
4) The cross transforms
5) Christ is risen

The main idea was to produce something pretty impressive in scale which would turn the church into a statement about the call to discipleship.

Each session began with a short discussion in groups, sharing personal experiences and how best to express that within the constraints of each session:-

1) Barriers - we made a "flower arrangement" of dead and thorny things, with the container decorated with designs which expressed some hindrance to following Christ.

The start of the session had the church looking like a builders' yard; sand, branches, containers, and art material. What I hadn't really considered was the sheer amount of time and effort needed to gather material, set out the church for working, and tidying up afterwards.

The finished product was set up in the front pews - there was no chance of missing it, which was an important aspect of the project.

2) Helps - the second session had the participants working in groups to make painted banners which expressed something of what helped them along the way.

The finished products ranged from the deeply personal to more general statements to traditional Christian symbols. Try to spot the one by an art historian!

3) Together in the church - for this one, we decided to make a mobile. I'll confess at the outset that the finished product was slightly miscalculated, so its components do collide from time to time. Our excuse was that most people start with paper clips and drinking straws, while ours is about three metres across.

Groups discussed what they valued about the church, and made an element of the final sculpture which expressed that.

The end result was hung from one of the church's roof tie rods at the front of the nave, and is rather spectacular.

4) The cross transforms - a fairly obvious piece of symbolism, perhaps, but still effective.

We made a large cross and used bits of household rubbish to make decorations and artwork, which were then nailed to it.

The decorations ranged in size and complexity from modified advertising slogans to the most impressive - a discarded keep net which one group filled with symbols to represent Jesus' call to his disciples to fish for people.

Placed at the front of the nave, the colourful cross is the culmination of the lenten journey, with its message of change through the sacrifice of Christ.

5) Christ is risen - the final session is pure Stephen Raw, who has done this a few times. The link takes you to a really big example.

Individuals made letters which were later assembled into a huge banner spelling out the Easter acclamation: "Alleluia Christ is risen He is risen indeed Alleluia."

The end result was hung over the balcony at the rear of the church for Easter.

The complete project has the feel of a liturgical procession. The journey down the nave to communion passes banners depicting the support that is available to us on our journey, and an indoor thicket of hindrance, takes us under the mobile representing the fellowship of our shared journey in the church, and past the transformed rubbish on the cross.

When we turn back from communion, we see, through the mobile, the acclamation that Christ is risen. We think it's pretty good.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Not funereal, please

Catching up on some group emails I encountered this: "Not a funeral service but a celebration of G's life." What is it with this? I hear it more and more - "We don't want a sad service, Vicar, he wouldn't have wanted that."

Well I bloody well would. What do I expect when I die? General celebrations? Carrying in the coffin to Ding Dong the Witch is Dead? I would want to think that when I go there might be the odd tear shed, and perhaps one or two people with at least a vague sense of emptiness and desolation.

Of course, it's the demise of faith that lies behind it all. Strip away hope for what lies ahead, and you're left with nothing to do but look back - and perhaps try somehow to deny the reality of death and sorrow. "Not a funeral service" means something very much less. The Anglican funeral rite contains these words:

we have come here today
to remember before God our brother/sister N;
to give thanks for his/her life;
to commend him/her to God our merciful redeemer and judge;
to commit his/her body to be buried/cremated,
and to comfort one another in our grief,

which is so much more than "celebrating the life" of the deceased. The Christian ceremony looks back, and celebrates what was, but it also looks ahead in hope to the resurrection, and to God's judgement. That last bit is important. It allows us to admit that the dead person was not perfect. We don't have to come over all dewy-eyed and suddenly transform them into plaster saints. I didn't know G, but if they were perfect I'll eat one of my hats. A "celebration of the life of" rather hits any sense of reality about the late beloved on the head.

Of course, nowadays lots of people are not believers, and their obsequies ought honestly to reflect that, but a streak of realism ought also to be present even in one of those depressing humanist gatherings. If all we have is a backward look, then at least take off the tinted lenses.

The jolly approach is also unfair to the bereaved. They do feel grief, and loss, and guilt and all kinds of awfulness. We are there to offer support and comfort, and should be able to do so without feeling that somehow it compromises the joy of the occasion.

So, in short, give me a traditional funeral any day. It's so much fuller and richer than those celebration thingies.

Friday, 4 January 2008

The Christmas letter

Dear Friends,

A year has sped by since the last Christmas missive, and while on the one hand it seems like only Yesterday that I was seated at the Steaming Keyboard in the white heat of Creativity, on the other hand, so much has happened that I must necessarily be selective. But what to select? I could, I suppose, produce a Good Bits version, and leave out all the Not So Good Stuff. But that would seem both uncharacteristic and somewhat dishonest. Yet I must also avoid the opposite Extreme, for I am frequently castigated (in certain family quarters) for pessimism.

So. to pick out salient events in the past Year:

Young Master James continues his career in Asbestos Removal and continues to drive a White Van. He has ambitions to move into the area of Land Reclamation, believing that while asbestos will eventually be Eradicated, land will remain in abundance - or at least, the Polluted variety will. He has also sufficiently mended his heart as to meet a new girlfriend, called Rebecca. She seems an eminently Suitable young woman, save for her voice, which is audible only to Bats. Or at least, so it seems to an Aged Parent who now wears two hearing Aids. These are of the Digital variety, and possess the excellent property of being able to tune out background Noise in Restaurants and Public Houses. At home, they can tune out anything by dint of the Off Switch.

Master Laurence, having relinquished his employment as a Hospital Porter, embarked for a time on career in part-time Barmanship, but is currently resting while enquiring after an Apprenticeship as an Electrician. Time will tell whether this will bear fruit. He passed his Driving Test with flying colours (to a mixture of parental Pride and Apprehension) and now navigates his brother's ancient Fiat around the shoals and rapids of Greater Manchester. How long this will continue is problematic; a minor collision with a sturdier Volkswagen has raised questions as the to Roadworthiness of the Cinquecento.

Miss Polly contines to flourish at school while apparently taking extra lessons in how to be a Cool Chick. She has taken up the guitar, and occasionally can be heard in Practice. She has inherited her Mother's ability to sing in tune, but alas, so far seems to have her Father's guitar Skills.

The Good Doctor continues to work at Stepping Hill Hospital, and has now been joined by a third Consultant Microbiologist. (All three are Women, but quotations which involve words such as "Hubble" and "Bubble" are regarded as Unamusing.) The new arrival's Advent was announced as the dawn of a New Age, in which there would be sufficent Microbiological Consultation to allow Sarah to return home at a civilised time of the evening. In the Event, it seems that the third Consultant has discovered areas of Microbiology which had hitherto lain untouched, such that the individual Work Load appears to be diminished not one Whit. On top of this, Sarah continues to be involved in the Children's Work at church and to pursue her ambition to walk across the country by obscure Footpaths.

I myself continue in relative good Health while complaining about the Stresses and Strains of Team Rectorship. A recent training course held for Team Rectors by the Diocese turned out mainly to consist of asking what it was that Team Rectors actually did. This was a mild Disappointment, as most of us were there to ask that selfsame Question. I have also recently bought a new Digital Camera, which is providing much harmless Amusement. And by virtue of tales too long to tell, I have also acquired two new guitars. This means that I am now unable to play a whole four Instruments, which is something of a personal Record.

In September, Gavin the Curate departed to take up a new ministry as Army Chaplain and is now ensconced in Paderborn, Germany. There were Tears shed, and much waving of Handkerchiefs, but the greatest Revelation associated with his Departure was that Curates do actually work. At least, since his move, the Rector finds himself doing much more than has been his wont!

I have no wish overly to tax my Readers, and am aware that this will not be the only Round Robin to have graced their Christmases, and will therefore end with every Good Wish for Christmas and the coming Year.

Yours etc.,