Looking back, but moving forward….

It is said of the Reverend Gustavus Frederick Hopton-Scott that he used to watch from the study window of his rectory as his parishioners arrived for church in his north Nottinghamshire parish, and once they had all arrived, he would follow them in, and lock the door, putting the key in his cassock pocket.  They were not going home until he was through! “Captive audience,” for him, was no mere expression.  He was the last person to be buried inside that church, and, as if to stop him going anywhere, it was decided that his coffin be encased in concrete!

The end of June marks the thirtieth anniversary of my ordination to the Priesthood. On Saint Peter’s day I shall have been a priest for thirty years.  Priestly orders are conferred for life, so even when I retire from employment I shall still be a priest.  Over the years I have served in two suburban parishes, and three groups of rural parishes, as well as being the Bishop’s Adviser on Rural Affairs.  I served in Hopton-Scott’s parish, many years after him.  I followed a priest who had been Vicar there for thirty-two years, and whose predecessor had also served there for thirty-two years. In sixty-four years the place had only known two vicars.  In another parish my immediate predecessor had been rector for twenty-seven years.  “I’ve known twelve vicars here,” said one elderly lady there, “you’re the thirteenth.”  Unlucky for some!

Such long-serving predecessors become legends in the parishes, loved and respected, and talked about long after they’ve moved on or died.  In fact people delight in talking to us as clergy about our predecessors and what they “used to do”.  Whenever I’ve been involved in making new appointments to parishes I have discouraged people from talking about the previous incumbent.  It gets a little tiresome after a while for the newcomer.  Clergy are all different, with different skills and interests, and different kinds of spirituality.  “Beware the legacy of the predecessor,” said a bishop to me one day. Sometimes it’s “Beware the cult of the predecessor” too!  A priest I trained with in Leicester reckoned after he’d been there for five years that the parish was running about fifty per cent how he wanted it to run, and fifty per cent how his predecessor had run it.  This picture here shows William E Hallam, Rector of Barnardiston, one of the parishes I currently serve, between 1898 and 1915.

“The past is a foreign country: they do things different there,” wrote the novelist L P Hartley, born at Whittlesey in Cambridgeshire at the beginning of ‘The Go-Between’. Some people harbour nostalgic images of what life used to be like and seem to long to want to inhabit past ages. I’ve sometimes had people talk to me about the “good old days” and asked them if they want to go back to having a dolly tub instead of an automatic washing machine. Of course they don’t!

Things were done differently in the past. The picture is from Felbrigg Hall, a National Trust property in Norfolk. We wouldn’t put much trust nowadays in the old fire engine we see in the picture. We rely on the modern fire fighter to use the most up to date equipment in fighting our fires. We wouldn’t expect our doctors and surgeons to go about their work in the same way that their predecessors did: we wouldn’t want them to! Nor would we want to have our dental problems looked after in the way they were previously. We expect professionals in all the various walks of life to use modern approaches, tools and techniques in their work.

It’s interesting to see how the clergy of previous ages and generations lived and worked. The Revd Francis Kilvert was one clergyman who in the late nineteenth century wrote in his diaries about rural life. Had he lived today he would probably have written a blog. Some clergymen in the past took a keen interest, as I do, in the world of nature, and some were recognised and respected naturalists. We have to remember though that what was possible for clergy hundreds of years ago, or even a few decades ago, is no longer possible for the clergy of our modern multi-parish benefices. Life and work in the twenty-first century makes different demands upon us and we must endeavour to make sure that our methods and our ministry are appropriate to the age in which we live.

Whilst our message is the same as it ever was, and the truth of the love of God for people is the unchanging message people need to hear, our methods and our media and our ministries need to continue to change and evolve in order to relate to the twenty-first century society in which we live.  It is a society which presents us with new opportunities but also with new challenges and problems. Clergy and lay ministers alike today face issues on a daily basis which were unknown to clergy and ministers a few decades ago.  We cannot continue to work as clergy as our predecessors in former decades and former centuries did – and – importantly – nor should we be expected to.

The Church is a living, moving and growing organism.  At school we used to have a school song, and the chorus (in English translation) was “It lives, it grows and in eternity it flourishes”.  The phrase loses something in translation, because in the Latin it rhymes, but what a lovely picture of what the church should be, living, growing and in eternity flourishing.  I was looking recently at sermon notes from nearly thirty years ago, and I came across words about growing, upwards towards God, together, towards each other in fellowship, outwards into the community and then growing numerically.  I remembered today that the parish where I served in Leicester thirty years ago had a “growth committee”.  Today the Church is still talking and thinking about growth.

The fact that the Church lives, and to live must adapt, means that it must change.  One writer, some years ago (and if I knew who it was I would gladly attribute it) suggested that the words which Church members sing and say may sound more splendid than the deeds and attitudes they actually show.  He wrote “they like singing lustily that no goblin nor foul fiend shall daunt their spirit, yet can get remarkably anxious when a new order of service or a new hymn tune is introduced.  Claims to be ‘Christian soldiers, marching as to war’ look a little lame when members of the Parochial Church Council reveal a greater interest in looking to the past than in marching to the future with courage and boldness.”

There’s a story about a Bishop who was visiting a country church and spoke to a man who had been church warden forty years “You must have seen some changes in the church during your forty years,” said the Bishop.  “Aye,” replied the church warden, “and I have opposed every single one of them!”

I don’t take the Tablet, but this is interesting

Many years ago, around the beginning of the nineties, I think, I was invited to go along to a conference of Roman Catholics in Louvain in Belgium.  I was a young clergyman then, and still quite new to ordained ministry.  Having studied languages at university and able to speak both French and German, I was also interested in ecumenical matters. That is to say I was interested in the dialogues between the various Christian churches.  I don’t recall quite how many people there were at the conference, but they were mainly lay people (not clergy types), from around western Europe, with a few even attending from the countries which were at that time still behind the so-called ‘iron curtain’.  There were only six of us from the UK, and we were all members of the Church of England.  There were, interestingly, no Roman Catholics present from the UK.  It was fascinating to hear some of the ideas which the Roman Catholic lay people were saying, particularly as they were putting forward ideas which in the UK would have been unheard of and, in all likelihood, unwelcome!

I remember that our small group from the good old C of E was invited at one point to make a contribution to the conference.  We had time to prepare and sat around writing something, which was then translated into French.  French was the main language for the conference, and there were simultaneous translators sitting at the back of the hall, providing translations into several other languages for people to listen to on headphones via state-of-the-art infra red technology.

As our small English group was invited to address the conference, it fell to me, as the linguist present, to deliver our prepared message.  I stood up and announced (for the benefit of the translators) that I would be speaking in French.  My first few words were greeted with a round of applause.  The delegates had obviously expected me, as an Englishman, address them in English!  I made reference in my address to the “Malines Conversations”, a series of five informal ecumenical conversations exploring possibilities of corporate reunion between the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England. These took place in Belgium in the 1920s, and so it was appropriate that we should be present at Louvain. My reference to Malines drew another enthusiastic round of applause!

An article in the Tablet came to my attention today via Facebook, in which a Roman Catholic lawyer has said that Anglican orders are not necessarily invalid. The article also mentions the Malines Conversations.


Remember you are dust….

One morning as I walked back through theological college after the early communion, I remember one of the students telling me I had a mucky mark on my face.  I knew that, as I had just come from the Ash Wednesday service.  The mucky mark was the remains of the sign of the cross which had been put on my head by the priest, as he reminded me that “you are dust, and to dust you shall return”.

I had first come across the ‘ashing’ ceremony at university some years before, as it wasn’t something which we did at the church in the community where I was brought up.  At university I remember the senior chaplain asking me on Ash Wednesday if we had any palm crosses. We didn’t, so he told me to burn the front page of the Church Times! Tradition says that the ashes used on Ash Wednesday are created from the palm crosses of the previous year.

20140718-221707-80227065.jpgOne of our church members brought me half a dozen palm crosses yesterday, so I burnt them this morning and replenished my supply of ash for the beginning of Lent which comes next week. Burning palm crosses isn’t easy.  They tend to smoulder rather than burn, and even when they do burn the resulting charred remains need to be ground down into a powder, suitable for the priest to dip his or her thumb in and make the sign of the cross on the foreheads of the people.

Partners together ….

I wonder whether, like me, you’ve attended conferences and training events and been put into a small discussion group and allocated a “facilitator”.  My linguistic background tells me that a facilitator should be someone who makes things easy.  That isn’t always my experience of facilitators.  Sometimes they seem to make things more difficult.

img_3939There are people who make things easy for others, and there are people who seem to want to make life difficult.  Today’s psalm at Morning Prayer was psalm 56.  The author had encountered some of life’s troublemakers.  It is the cry of one who feels under attack.  “They trample over me,” he says “they assault and oppress me”.  “Many are they,” he continues, “who make proud war against me”.  He complains that “all day long they wound me with words”, and “their every thought is how to do me evil”.  Not only that but “they stir up trouble, they lie in wait, marking my steps, they seek my life.”  Not content then, with making trouble, with making his life a misery, they want to end it!

That was followed this morning by a reading from Ecclesiastes 3 and 4.  Chapter three is that chapter which tells us that there is “a time for everything”.  The author points out that it is important for human beings to be happy in their work “I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.” “There is nothing better,” he says, “for a person than to enjoy their work”.

The author of Ecclesiastes tells us about the meaninglessness he finds, the vanity of so much of what he sees. “I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.  Fools fold their hands and ruin themselves.  Better one handful with tranquillity than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind.”

The author goes on to write of the importance of partnership in our undertakings.

“Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labour:  If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”

An interesting reading, which was chosen by a couple who were married last year. An interesting reading in the week of Valentine’s Day too, as we celebrate and give thanks for the love of our life.

If I read that reference to the cord of three strands correctly then we do well to thank God for His partnership alongside ourselves and our partner, as co-workers, as facilitators together of the coming of His kingdom in all its fullness.

“Here’s one I prepared earlier….”

I used to love to watch “Blue Peter” as a child.  The presenters would make things out of washing-up liquid bottles, cardboard tubes and sticky-backed plastic, amongst other things.  I used to keep a “useful box”, as I called it, full of such items which might one day be required.  I was often disappointed though, when I tried to reconstruct whatever it was that the presenters on the TV programme had made.  The well-known phrase was “here’s one I prepared earlier”.  They made everything look so easy.  In practice it wasn’t as easy as it looked, and my efforts turned out nowhere near as good as the ones on the TV.

p1380804We had a presentation at our local photography club in January about making reflection pools, for photographing birds and their reflections.  I decided to have a go.  Today, despite the poor weather, I went out into the garden and made a start. It wasn’t as easy as I had thought!  The reflection pool requires a metre-long plastic tray.  Once filled with water, the tray becomes less stable, and if it’s not perfectly level, the water runs out!  Lifting one corner, thinking it to be too low, seems to affect the diagonally opposite corner too.  The tray needs to be supported along its whole length.

Having initially set it up, I adorned it with a branch, and bits of variegated and green ivy, some slate chippings, and some moss. The moss turned out to be a mistake.  I discovered that the moss, which went right down into the water, was in fact acting like a sponge, and slowly but steadily syphoning out the water on both sides of the pool!

I managed a few photos, but later in the day found that the water had been draining out of the pool and so I had to take it all apart.  I shall have to look at a more stable way of supporting it!  “If at first you don’t succeed…” they say… “try, try again!”

Eating cheese late in the evening is not on….

I try not to eat cheese in the late evening as I reckon it gives me nightmares.  My dreams are weird enough as it is.  Last night I dreamed I saw a flock of kingfishers.  I went back to the coach as I had only binoculars with me and needed my camera, but then I couldn’t get through or over the gate to where the birds were.  A weird dream, because one might occasionally see one kingfisher, or rarely, two, but birds of this particular feather do not ‘flock together’!  Last week an Archdeacon I know suddenly appeared in one of my dreams. Quite why, I don’t know.  I remember asking if he wanted tea or coffee, but since it was (in the dream) four o’clock, I suggested it had to be tea.  I know he expects tea at four!

There are dreams, of course, and there are dreams. We might talk about things we’d like and someone will say “In your dreams”.  Sometimes we might be tempted to aspire to a particular lifestyle which is “the stuff of dreams”. Sometimes we are encouraged to look to the future and to dream about what we’d like the future to look like.

In 1963 the American civil rights activist Martin Luther King famously delivered his speech which began “I have a dream”, and spoke of freedom and equality arising from a land of slavery and hatred.  More recently, in 1979 the Swedish pop group Abba sang about a dream “a song to sing, to help me cope with anything….. a fantasy to help me through reality.”

Sometimes our dreams might in some strange way reflect the reality of whatever is going on in our lives.  At other times they might be completely inexplicable.

4aIf we look at our Bible, we read of God speaking to His people through dreams.  A few weeks ago we were hearing about the angel of God who appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife.  The wise men, having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, went home by another route.  Joseph had another dream in which he was told to take Mary and the child Jesus to Egypt, and he stayed there until another angel in another dream told him it was safe to go back, albeit not to Bethlehem, but to Galilee now, in order to avoid the reign of Archelaus. In the photo (of a window a Little Bradley) you can see the pyramids of Egypt in the background over Joseph’s right arm.

The Old Testament too tells us about various people who had dreams.  Jacob dreams of God’s angels ascending and descending from heaven on what has become known as “Jacob’s ladder”. Joseph (he of the “coat of many colours” is known to his brothers as a dreamer.  He has dreams about Pharaoh’s officials, with whom he is in prison, and eventually he is drafted in to interpret dreams for Pharaoh himself. Then there’s Daniel, who interprets the dream of king Nebuchadnezzar and tells him in effect “Sorry, old man, but the writing’s on the wall for you”.  The writing was, literally, on the wall, in the King’s dream.

The prophet Joel spoke of the pouring out of God’s Spirit on all people. “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.”

The peoples of the Bible were used to seeing angels, the messengers of God, and used to receiving messages from God through their dreams. In some ways it would be much easier for us if God spoke to us with such directness today.  It’s not at all easy to discern what the will of God is for us.  May some of your dreams come true.  The ones you’d like to, of course!

Good Morning….

There are a few texts, I carry around with me in my diary.  As I transferred them across to my new diary, I came across this one.  I don’t know the author, or where I found it, or I would gladly attribute it….

window 2“Good Morning.  I am God and today I will be handling all your problems.

Please remember that I do not need your help.

If life happens to deliver a situation that you cannot handle, do not attempt to resolve it.

Kindly place it in the “something for God to do” box.

All situations will be handled in my time, not yours.

Once the matter is placed in my box, do not hold on to it, worrying about it.

Instead, focus on all the wonderful things that are present in your life now.

If it is a situation you think you are capable of handling, please consult me first, to make sure it is the proper solution.

Remember I neither slumber nor sleep, so there is no need for you to lose any.

Rest in peace, and remember I am only a prayer away.”