Tomorrow, Christopher's funeral and woodland burial take place. Printed orders of service are not allowed because of the Covid-19 restrictions (unless printed at home). In case anyone needs online access (a PDF has in fact been emailed to all attendees), it may be viewed here.
Lockdown. Gloucestershire. Working ‘remotely’ as they say. At lunchtime I drove to St Nicholas’ Church, Oddington, not having the time to walk the couple of miles there. We call it St Nicholas-in-the-Woods but that is not its proper name. It sits in a magical spot half a mile from the village, the original settlement around the church having relocated up the hill possibly because of plague. The building has no electricity and is not used for regular worship (there is an 1852 Victorian church in the ‘new’ village). St Nicholas dates from the 11th century and gets a mention in Simon Jenkins’ England’s Thousand Best Churches. It has a Doom painting covering almost the entire western half of the north wall of the nave and thought to have been painted in or around 1340. The oldest bell is dated 1684.
We have visited dozens of times, in all seasons. I sometimes go alone, as today. It was unlocked and empty. I love the interior space and although I don’t buy in to the ‘holy spaces where the walls are saturated by centuries of prayer’ mantra, which I regard as both nonsense and sentimental, I find this space very conducive to attentiveness, wonder and imagination – which is prayer. I name before God the people and causes on my mind. The church yard is also magical. The many gravestones serve their true and proper purpose of reminding mortal beings of their mortality and transience. The wind sings through trees. Here are some pictures I have taken over the years.
Grateful thanks to those locals who look after this building and keep it open.
I am moved by this film about Herbert Fingarette, made by his grandson. Herbert worked as a philosopher and in one of his numerous books had concluded that the fear of death was irrational. Years later, the prospect of death began to frighten him. You can read the story here, in The Atlantic, and see the film, below.
On watching it I wondered if perhaps the subject of his fear is in fact loss rather than death.
And what a shining example of the film-maker's art: to observe and record and to let the story speak for itself.
I have written of my friend John Murphy elsewhere on this blog (you can read it here). He occasionally had gently provocative letters published in The Times of London. Here is an example.
This BBC Radio 4 programme - one of the 'Something Understood' series, is a delightful reflection on the value of written letters. If written letters have fallen out of your life in favour of texts or emails, it is especially worth listening to. "American broadcaster Julie Shapiro began a long correspondence with her great aunt Lill following the death of Lill's husband twenty-five years ago. It lasted until Lill's own death seven years later. These letters, read by Irma Kurtz, form the central part of a programme that examines the rituals, intimacies and sustaining qualities of old-fashioned letter-writing". Link to the BBC site and programme.
"The meaning of Jesus Christ is God's concern for and presence in this world. The Christian faith is not about some god who is an abstract presence somewhere else, but about the living presence of God here and now, in this world, in exactly this world, as people know it, and see it, and touch it, and smell it, and live and work in it. That is why, incidentally, all the well meant talk of ‘making the gospel relevant’ to the life of the world is obscene: it secretly assumes that God is a stranger among us, who has to be introduced to us and to our anxieties and triumphs and issues and efforts. The meaning of Jesus Christ is that the Word of God is addressed to people, to all people, in the very events and relationships, any and every one of them which constitute our existence in this world. That is the theology of the incarnation."
The Spurgeon Metropolitan Baptist Tabernacle dominates London's Elephant & Castle. It is said to draw a large crowd.
They kindly dropped an explanatory note through my letterbox this week. It's about this C19 pandemic thing. Apparently its from God:
"THESE are momentous days when we find ourselves in the midst of a worldwide 'discipline' or warning from God, calling us to acknowledge and seek Him. And although we shrink from the thought, this is the reason for all unexpected catastrophes, whether epidemics, floods or vast fires. The Bible says these things will come more often in the 'last days', when atheism abounds and people generally have no thought or prayer to their Creator. A warning from God is not like the last judgement, because it is an expression of God's love, urging people to turn to Him, whereas the last judgement will finally close the door of mercy...."
I've heard this line of Christian thinking many times before. Who hasn't? It is easy to make fun of it because it is in fact rather silly. For those susceptible to this kind of distorted theology it is also rather dangerous: it can do harm.
It's hard to know where to start. First, such a framework simply does not fit within my faith-as-a-working-hypothesis-to-live-by understanding of the Christian God. Not even a bit. God, we are told, is love and such love is not reflected in endless, subtle, multiform 'disciplining'. Love has better methods at its disposal. Second, such a view paints God as a rather poor communicator, doesn't it? If "all unexpected catastrophes, whether epidemics, floods or vast fires" are warning from God intended to 'discipline us' its a bit of a scatter-gun approach. Can't God do better?
Those who elevate the entire canon of scripture into a coherent, God-dictated set of certain facts and instructions naturally approve of this kind of disciplinarian interpretation. Those who are drawn into the mystery of God as made known in and through the short life of the Nazarene and who seek understanding from a canvas far wider than the words of scripture (human experience and understanding, the material unearthed by an adventurous and curious life, reason, beauty) will see it for what it is: a narrow theology of sin and salvation free of wisdom and heart.
Humans are not the point and purpose of the planet. This refreshing claim I found as part of The Manifesto of The Dark Mountain Project. ("The Dark Mountain Project is a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself").
Christians have a special difficulty with this claim, the story being that God made humankind for a special and superior purpose, and that all creation is in subservience to them. A good deal of harm seems to have followed.
Spotted on the Old Kent Road this week. 'The Light of the World' Church, currently neither receiving nor transmitting much light because of building works. That points to good and sensible stewardship of their building. Even so, the irony of it made me chuckle. It also made me think of the various ways in which the Church in many of its denominational forms* can blur the message of the Gospel by things architectural. I understand why some churches are big and tall, 'pointing to God in majesty' as I've heard it said, yet sometimes they seem only to make mere mortals feel small, and not in a good or necessary way. Others appear solidly unwelcoming and fortified.
*Quaker Meeting Houses and comparable Non Conformist places of Worship are sometimes exceptions, the buildings appearing both modest and inviting
Many things appearing in my email inbox depress me (please, Asian Babes, give it a break) though among the most unwelcome is the dreaded subject line "XX has sent you a Jacquie Lawson ecard". These combine sentimentality with convenience: an especially toxic combination in my book.
Jacquie Lawson may sense this, and so offers the hapless recipient the opportunity to "skip to end".
Should we be worried when risky behaviour seems cosy? My friend Fr John Rowe felt that church life - unintentionally - ran the risk of 'trivialisation by repetition' in making the Eucharist (Holy Communion, the Mass) so common a feature of its liturgical life.
Repetition can be a good thing, or at least carry good effect, and my own regular celebration of the Eucharist, and participation in it, has had many good, habit-forming effects (I believe). But I see his point, and it is one I share and like occasionally to highlight, by commenting, when asked, that I celebrated the Eucharist and 'no-one was hurt'.
I don't want anyone to be hurt. Of course not. But I want us to be changed by it; even shocked and shaken (or if not shaken, stirred). And that's, surely, the danger of too much repetition of this central liturgical happening of Christian life: the weight-carrying, meaning-carrying message and narrative which the Eucharist embodies and asserts ought not become 'just a thing'.
I have sometimes heard other clergy speak in emotive and disturbingly cosy terms of celebrating the Eucharist "and encountering Jesus there" and of finding such daily liturgical adventures to be essential to life. I am uneasy with this kind of perspective. Encounters with the Risen Christ are not confined to liturgy (there's surely a case for saying the Risen Christ might be far more interested in speaking to us in the ordinary business of living). And liturgy should shake us up from time to time. Hard hats on.
I'm indebted to my friend David P for introducing me to this magic poem/insight by Les Murray
The Meaning of Existence
Everything except language
knows the meaning of existence.
Trees, planets, rivers, time
know nothing else. They express it
moment by moment as the universe.
Even this fool of a body
lives it in part, and would
have full dignity within it
but for the ignorant freedom
of my talking mind.
Les Murray from Poems the Size of Photographs, 2002
"A Reason To Stop Worrying - Watch This Whenever You're Stressed Or Anxious"
On the 0832 from Paddington to West Ealing. Various announcements, including an interesting variant on the now all-too-common ‘if you see anything suspicious call the Transport Police: See it. Say it. Sorted’. This is usually said over the London Underground's PA system in a bit of a ‘cor blimey’ voice. Today, on the overground service from Paddington, it was more Hyacinth Bucket. And it was slightly different in detail: If you see something you not happy about, contact the…’. I was looking out of the window at the time, at a c1970s brutalist sky-grabbing tower block, feeling sympathetic to the poor sods living in it. I was not happy about it. Taking the good woman at her word, I got on the blower….
For some years I have played with the idea of SSM (unpaid/volunteer) clergy and their stipendiary (paid clergy) friends meeting from time-to-time in the upper room of a pub where we might experiment with – learn to hold – conversations. The working title for this gathering was to be ‘Chapter & Verse’. It would be an Undergroud Seminary of sorts. There’d be none of the popular ‘theological expert’ speaker stuff followed by questions; instead we’d seek new ways of sharing knowledge, learning from one another, caring for one another, seeking God and reading the signs of the times. We’d aim to retake theology back from the academy and the ‘experts’ (or at least from its specialised annexation from our lived lives) and seek to learn afresh what it means to be stewards of the mysteries of God as Paul rather invitingly puts it [1 Cor 4:1].
Can I attempt a summary? I love so much about life and the world. I am often moved by responses within me which can be captured by the words awe, compassion, reverence and wonder. In equal measure I experience horror, shame, fear and contempt. I can be very patient in some settings, very impatient in others. I know moments of wonderful peace, and moments of an internal rage. I am largely unmoved by many plays, novels and popular drama, finding them all less interesting than the drama I experience life to be.
Mission and Vision Statements are a boil on humanity's backside. I keep meaning to collect some of the more ridiculous examples often sighted on vans, letterheads and websites. Churches have fallen prey to them, too. But new to me are post-dated offerings. Spotted one today, from a church in the UK: "Our vision statement: We believe that in five years time, God is calling St [X]’s to be a vibrant, welcoming presence seeking justice and serving the community by offering friendship, hospitality and worship." One shouldn't rush these things.
I've been re-reading some of William Stringfellow; always a provocation and inspiration. One such text: "I continue to be haunted by the ironic impression that I may have to renounce being a lawyer, the better to be an advocate" (1) What shakes me rather about this is its closeness to something I have said several times to friends and which I have far more often thought to myself over the years: that for some church people there may come a time when it may be necessary to distance oneself from the institution the better to apprehend the Gospel. Put more simply still: necessary to leave the institution the better to follow the Nazarene. I suspect this sense, dilemma even, is more common than we might think, and might especially afflict professional Christians (clergy, monks and nuns; who knows, even bishops). It can be a lonely position to be in.
When I have said this, some hearers look highly nonplussed. Such is the correlation in our minds of church and Gospel. Others are interested in the underlying assumptions. Some understand exactly. And 'church' here means the institutional form, not the status of being part of the church by virtue of baptism.
(1) William Stringfellow, "A Lawyer's Work", Christian Legal Society Quarterly 3, No 3 (1982)
'Ageing is a privilege, not a predicament' (Attributed to Martin Firrell). Too many friends have died in the last year or so, and it has depleted me. Some of them were 'getting on' as they say: John was in his 80s, another John his 90s, Dick and Bill were up there too. Joe went early, in his 70s and soon after retirement. Colette in her 50s. The death of those we know and care for takes a toll. It is not just the loss of access to them, of their being there. More chilling is the ferocity of the question that arises by the fact that they no longer exist. For how is that to be lived with? We usually do, of course. But it remains: how could that astonishing composite of a unique and loved person no longer exist?