Uploaded in instalments to website
from June, 2011
Cathedrals Old and New
The Cathedral of the Isles and College of the Holy Spirit is one of two cathedrals of the Scottish Episcopal Diocese of Argyll and the Isles, and sits in sylvan surroundings above the town of Millport on the little island of Great Cumbrae off the Ayrshire coast. We joined the congregation that all but filled it on Whitsunday. There were about 50 of us, and the place holds about 60! The cathedral, and the surrounding collegiate complex, now a retreat centre and unique bed and breakfast establishment, is a Butterfield gem, exotically decorated, with a lovely Lady Chapel, icons, statues and colourful wall tiling. At the service there was incense, reservation, a host of candles: all the accoutrements that we rejoice in at St Faith‘s but are rarely found in Scotland. But there was no choir, and just one visiting retired priest as celebrant.
In conversation with him later, it transpired that they are in interregnum, and seem to be facing a struggle to survive. The scattered congregations of our sister church in the Highlands and Islands share a handful of itinerant clergy: still regarded as the ‘English Church’, they sit somewhat uncomfortably between the R.Cs and the spectrum of often direly dour Protestant churches of the Reformation. Although the previous incumbent (neither Dean nor Provost, but Warden) has shared the cathedral ministry with his wife, also a priest, the visiting priest, who rejoiced in the name of Fr Pagan, spoke bitterly of ‘priestesses’ and revealingly of the divisions within the ‘Piskies’, as they are known, over the ordination of women.
It was a revelation and a delight to share in their worship on their Feast of Title, but it made us realise how uncertain seems to be the future for the Episcopal Church of Scotland, with only about 30,000 committed members in the whole country. As with Northern Ireland, the Reformation struck more deeply and divisively than in most of England and Wales, and fragmentation is still all too often the name of the game north of the border. Instead of realising that Christians have their backs to a common wall these days, the churches of Scotland seem happier to turn their backs on one another.
Glasgow Cathedral is, as they say,
definitely something else. Firstly, it is a Church of
Scotland Cathedral (in itself something of a contradiction
in terms for a church without bishops); secondly it is in
the care of the state. As a result, it is immaculately
maintained and showcased and alive with visitors. It is a
quite magnificent mediaeval building, preserved intact and
little altered from its centuries-old state, and filled
with imposing architecture, vistas and artefacts. But in
all other ways it wasn‘t our idea of a ctahedral at all.
The many pre-Reformation altars, dutifully labelled and
with their original sacramental purposes explained as
historical curiosities, are devoid of candles and crosses.
Even in the superb and beautiful vaulted lower church,
with its forests of ancient pillars, there is no real
sense of sacramental, living worship, and the entire
place, for all its echoing grandeur, had no feeling of the
numinous and felt more like a museum exhibit. A Cathedral
presided over by a ‘Minister’ and run by the local
Corporation, it is at the opposite end of the spectrum to
the living eucharistic worship of Cumbrae’s Cathedral.
Glasgow’s Cathedral lies securely in the hands of the
sate, but safe though its body undoubtedly is, we saw
little of the soul and spirit so clearly in evidence fifty
miles away on the morning of Pentecost in what may well be
the world's smallest cathedral. Here at least, small is
beautiful. For the time being, anyway.
Hidden Treasures in
Hidden away in a leafy corner of the
churchyard of St Andrew’s Parish Church in Maghull, yet
only a few yards from the traffic roaring along Northway,
are two very different places to treasure.
of Manhood’s End
Back in the balmy days of early summer, we holidayed in West Sussex, and explored some of the quiet backwaters away from the resorts and major roads. One area that was particularly appealing was the great inlet of Pagham Harbour, a wide and deserted expanse of almost land-locked salt marsh, saved from exploitation to be today the haunt of birds and birdwatchers and lovers of solitude.
At the end of a remote lane, a path leads down to the wide spaces where the seabirds wheel and, twice a day, the sea floods quietly in over the marshes. This was once a place of great importance, a Saxon capital and a place of trade and royal business. St Wilfrid is said to have landed here in the 7th century and used it as a base to convert the pagan inhabitants of this remote peninsula, reputedly the last place in England to be won to Christianity. He founded a monastery here and it was the site of a cathedral before the see moved to Chichester. Today, in a well-tended and beautiful churchyard are rows of graves – and a small chapel. Once it was far bigger, but the nave was long ago dismantled and rebuilt some miles away. What remains is the chapel of St Wilfrid, and in it to my surprise and delight were copies of a Christmastide poem which I knew well, but about which I knew little. It is by Rudyard Kipling, who wrote a lot about Sussex, and it is about this very place.
Eddi's Service (A.D. 687)
Eddi, priest of St. Wilfrid
In his chapel at Manhood End,
Ordered a midnight service
For such as cared to attend.
But the Saxons were keeping Christmas,
And the night was stormy as well.
Nobody came to service,
Though Eddi rang the bell.
‘Wicked weather for walking,’
Said Eddi of Manhood End.
‘But I must go on with the service
For such as care to attend.’
The altar-lamps were lighted,
An old marsh-donkey came,
Bold as a guest invited,
And stared at the guttering flame.
The storm beat on at the windows,
The water splashed on the floor,
And a wet, yoke-weary bullock
Pushed in through the open door.
‘How do I know what is greatest,
How do I know what is least?
That is My Father’s business,’
Said Eddi, Wilfrid’s priest.
‘But - three are gathered together -
Listen to me and attend.
I bring good news, my brethren!’
Said Eddi of Manhood End.
And he told the Ox of a Manger
And a Stall in Bethlehem,
And he spoke to the Ass of a Rider,
That rode to Jerusalem.
They steamed and dripped in the chancel,
They listened and never stirred,
While, just as though they were Bishops,
Eddi preached them The Word,
Till the gale blew off on the marshes
And the windows showed the day,
And the Ox and the Ass together
Wheeled and clattered away.
And when the Saxons mocked him,
Said Eddi of Manhood End,
‘I dare not shut His chapel
On such as care to attend.’
Eddi was Wilfrid’s chaplain. The intriguing name of Manhood End refers not to some historical loss of courage (nor even virility) but is a corruption of Mainwood End: where a vast mediaeval forest came to its end here. The place does not exist ‘on the ground’ today, but lives on also in the splendidly named ‘Hundred of Manhood and Selsey Tramway’ – an almost legendary light railway which ran its ramshackle rattle-and-bang way from Chichester down to Selsey for a few years at the beginning of the last century before sinking back into oblivion. It was part of the empire of Colonel Fred Holman Stephens, who ‘collected’ lost-cause minor railways. But that’s another story.
Having a bolt-hole in North Wales provides us with the freedom to get away from busy urban life for a few days – and the leisure when there to seek out remote and beautiful places still undiscovered by us after a lifetime of exploring Gwynedd. Such a place is Llandecwyn.
You head very steeply uphill on narrow lanes from west of Talsarnau to the sanctuary of a small and lovely lake, then take another high lane, marked only as No Through Road, to end up at a small church perched high on the hillside. This is St Tecwyn’s, vaguely remembered from many years past. It is unremarkable from the exterior – and it was locked – but several things made wandering round its enclosure an unforgettable experience.
The scenery needed no guide on a day of warm sunshine. The mellow slate gravestones and the blazing yellow gorse framed a panorama of the Dwyryd estuary and the high mountains of Eryri – Snowdon and its attendant peaks.
But there was a guide to these land and water marks – in the little lych-gate entrance were piles of leaflets telling the past and present story of St Tecwyn’s. Jim Cotter’s thoughtful and lyrical words described the place:
‘An enclosure for burial and remembrance: a church visible for miles from estuary and hills; a quiet place that draws people to it as a magnet; a breathing space; a still place whose walls are licked by the wind.’
Identifying the points of interest spread out far below, it offers prayers at each point: for example, ‘for those who have died in accidents in these hills and along this coast’… ‘those who enable the Welsh language to flourish’… ‘those who travel in search of meaning in their lives’… ‘those responsible for power supplies and those spreading the use of solar, wind and wave power’… ‘those who walk and climb the mountains and those setting out on pilgrimages’. There are more words and prayers about the as yet unseen interior of the church, including the ancient Cross of St Tecwyn and the Rublev welcoming angels ikon. The church is open, and apparently manned, during high summer, and these delights wait for us and other pilgrims.
The church is apparently part of an experimental project to see if ‘small, little-used churches can come alive again as oases on the pilgrim journey, breathing places for quiet prayer, simple hospitality and thoughtful conversation.’ The church is open during most summer afternoons, and on Sunday evenings in July and August offers candlelit prayer.
All this is beautiful, and heart-warming, and we shall return. And the final revelation and inspration came when the leaflet pointed the visitor to graves near the porch. The visitor is invited to read the inscription on Albert George Lewis’s slab. ‘Not a bad epitaph,’ says Jim Cotter, and he is right indeed. Lewis is commemorated as ‘A True Welshman who loved poetry, music and mankind.’ Next to him lies Margaret Elizabeth, ‘reunited with her beloved husband. And still a garden by the water blows.’ And immediately beneath is a more recent grave, that of Michael Harker Glauert: ‘Mathematician, who loved and walked these hills. He has outsoared the shadow of our night.’
To read these lovely words in this beautiful setting was moving indeed. It is hard to think of a more fitting resting place than this quiet and holy acre far above the busy main road, in an ancient place of sanctuary with only the song of the birds, the distant call of sheep and the drifting clouds around. May they indeed rest in peace.
Pentecost with the 'Piscies'
A good many years ago, we spent Whitsunday on the Hebridean island of Coll. The only place of worship there belonged to the Church of Scotland. After the service we realised that there had been no mention in liturgy or prayer of Whit, or indeed of the Holy Spirit, nor any hymns to distinguish this from any other Sunday. This year, on the mainland, a journey of 20 or so miles in search of a ‘proper’ service for Pentecost took us to the nearest Scottish Episcopalian Church – the ‘Piscies’ or, as they are also known ‘The English Church’, part, of course, of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
The Eucharist was held in a little chapel with an interesting history. It is more or less all that survives of Courthill House in Kishorn, once a grand mansion owned by the Murray family, who had connections in very high places. Since that time the property has passed from hand to hand, and is now roofless, decaying and overgrown. But the little chapel, converted from part of the courtyard buildings, survives, and its small resident gathered congregation, together with any wandering Anglicans who root the place out, are served by an NSM from a good many miles away or, as was the case when we visited, a holidaying priest. He was from Devon, and three of those present (as well as us!) hailed from Merseyside. The service, in a pleasingly packed church (it holds 30!) was warm and friendly, with the twenty or so of us gathered round the altar for communion, with proper seasonal hymns sung unaccompanied – and of course, coffee afterwards (out of a flask!).
Then there was time to see, at closer quarters, a stained glass window above the altar of St George slaying the dragon. His rather effeminate features are meant to resemble, we were told, Alastair Murray, a son of the family killed in the Boer War (an amateur family tree at the back called it the BOAR War, and your correspondent briefly wondered if he was out there pig-sticking for England…)
Nearby an effusive brass told the gallant story of this officer of the Grenadier Guards in some detail. He was a proper Scot, no doubt about it, but the flag that flies prominently above his knightly figure in the glass is unmistakably that of St George and England… not the most diplomatic of signals to be sending out so soon after the Scottish Nationalists have taken over the running of their country, but probably no more than they would expect from the ‘English Church’!
We were staying at spectacular mountain-girt Torridon, in the second home of Angela and Peter Biggar, whom some will remember from their days at St Faith’s. We visited them in their first home above Inverness, and were shown round the Episcopal Cathedral there – a fine building, where Angela is currently learning, from scratch, to play the organ. They were keen to hear the news from Crosby and from St Faith’s, and they sent their greetings to all in Crosby who remember them.
The modern world intrudes very little on the splendid remote wilderness of Wester Ross (we were out of television and internet range, with only intermittent mobile reception: so what’s the bad news?). But the absurdities of the 21st century intruded just once, on a walk above the shores of Loch Torridon. A remote Church of Scotland church, accessible only by foot from a rough off-road track, was on our list of places to visit. But it was locked and deserted, and a sad notice proclaimed that it was no longer used for worship. The reason? Not falling population, nor dwindling churchgoing habits – but Health and Safety and Disability regulations. They had had to close the place because there was no disabled access possible.
Never mind the generations of the faithful, the less mobile of whom were doubtless carried there to praise the Lord. Now they must travel miles on proper roads to the nearest fully-accessible place of worship, with the only journey they can make to Corrie Church being to join their ancestors in the burial ground beyond the church and above the silent sea. This writer, and his companions, found this inordinately sad, not to mention an insult to the disabled. It took a walk among the hills and woods and along the shore to restore a sense of balance. Enthusiastic upholders of the worst excesses of the nanny state are invited to justify this closure: we preferred to forget it as soon as possible and look for otters along the loch or lift up our eyes to the eternal and unchanging hills.
Regular readers will know of this writer's preoccupation with far-flung Scottish islands and remote Christian communities. While watching Adam Nicolson's weekly TV voyaging around the Atlantic coasts of Britain, I was therefore doubly delighted when, early in October, he ended up landing on the tiny island of Papa Stronsay, across the water from the somewhat larger island of Stronsay, which is itself a satellite of the Orkney Isles. Throughout his voyages, Nicolson (son of the late Nigel Nicolson, farmer and writer and himself the owner of three even more remote Scottish Hebridean islands) leavens his scenic sailing travelogues with visits to local places of interest - and he certainly found one on Papa Stronsay.
He spent a day and a night as a guest of the Transalpine Redemptorist Order - a community of some thirty monks from all over the world who have established a strict religious community there. Nicolson, an avowed agnostic, sat in on services, mucked-out farm buildings and resisted the attempts of the international monastic community to convert him to the faith. He was awestruck by rising in the dark for the daily 3.15 am Mass (and we think our annual 6.00 am celebration on Ascension Day is an ordeal!), impressed by the strictly enforced vows of poverty, frustrated by the enforced silence of the monastic routine and the rigid avoidance even of eye contact at mealtimes, and bewildered by the constant use of Latin in the liturgies. He was nevertheless clearly impressed (if unconverted!) by the experience and moved literally to tears when the community crossed the sound to his sailing boat, sprinkled it with holy water, blessed it and presented him with a set of rosary beads. The final shots showed him sailing off into the sunset, waved off by a colourful assortment of black-robed monks and priests.
I had never heard of these people before, and Nicolson said little about them in his film apart from implying that they were seeking a stricter life than the contemporary Roman Catholic church encouraged, so I had immediate recourse to the internet. Fascinating! They are in fact, as I was beginning to guess, a relatively recent breakaway organisation, founded as a refuge for those unwilling to accept their mainstream church's modernisation. They look to Pope Pius X and to Archbishop Lefebvre, names perhaps familiar to those interested in the affairs of the Roman Church, and now have their own hierarchy of bishops and priests to perpetuate their orders. They are followers of St Alphonsus, founder of the piously severe Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer.
I dug further, and found more intriguing information. The Transalpine Redemptorists date back to 1732, but their present incarnation dates from what they term 'the crisis in the Church' following the reforming Vatican II Council, which hit them badly. Their website baldly explains why they opted out. 'The reasons are simple. The New Church offered heaven to all religions, mocked Hell and denied the necessity of the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary for salvation.' Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (a thorn in the flesh of the Vatican) advised them to make a new foundation and in 1987 they 'consecrated themselves anew to the Immaculate Heart of Mary', and formed their breakaway movement.
Now, affiliated to the Society of Saint Pius X (Lefebvre's priestly confraternity, which apparently boasts 4 independent bishops, over 400 priests and 100 brothers and nuns worldwide) the British branch has raised over two million pounds, bought and settled on Papa Stronsay. Here, in common with their affiliated sites (there is a church in Liverpool of the same tradition), they say the Latin Mass and have turned their backs comprehensively on the Church whence they came. They now call the island they purchased and the monastery and community they built 'Golgotha'.
Even more revealing was an article from the news archives of the 'Orcadian' local newspaper from 2002. Sadly, this reported that a novice monk from the order was apprehended in a Kirkwall internet café viewing 'sinful images of a homosexual nature'. In its background to the report, the newspaper explains more about the Redemptorists. 'The monks are not new to controversy,' the report says. 'They hit the headlines when they ordered women to cover up when on the 250-acre island they purchased in 1999. The strict Order told female archaeologists to wear ankle-length skirts and long-sleeved shirts while working on the site of the island's 12th century chapel. Male archaeologists were asked not to wear shorts, and radios and CD players were banned.'
This writer wonders how much of this was known to Adam Nicholson when he sailed in to Papa Stronsay. I found the film, and the facts, just a little disturbing. The sincerity and passionate commitment of the order is beyond question, and there should be no quarrelling with those who wish to turn back the clock and preserve the religious past so wholeheartedly, even if their zeal and doctrines rival the fundamentalists.
But there were jarring notes. Nicolson was clearly informed of the existence of a real and unimaginably terrifying physical hell awaiting those who were not saved. One monk made it quite clear that the main purpose of his monastic existence was to make sure of saving his own soul. And, in the corner of the cell Nicolson slept in, there could plainly be seen a skull. A 'memento mori', no doubt they would say, and a symbol of our mortality: nevertheless it seemed a somewhat morbid, even sinister artefact in a place so strangely renamed as Golgotha - the place of the skull.
One portrait in particular is of special interest. Alongside such worthies as Grace Darling and Elizabeth Fry may be seen the head and shoulders of a woman against a background of rocks and a lighthouse. She is Mary Rogers, and the scroll around her head reads ‘Stewardess of the Stella, faithful servant 1899’. Her story, central to a tragic tale of shipwreck off the Channel Islands, is told in ‘The Wreck of the Stella, Titanic of the Channel Islands,’ by John Ovenden and David Shayer, and I am grateful to Frances Luft, back from a visit to those same islands, for putting me on the trail of the dramatic story.
The Stella, a railway passenger steamer, was one of several boats competing for custom on the run from Southampton to Jersey and Guernsey. The rival ships often raced to their destinations, and on March 30th, 1899, the Stella, in thick fog, ran recklessly into the Casquets reef and sank within eight minutes with the loss of some eighty lives. The book goes into fascinating detail about the events of that day and the subsequent enquiry, as well as telling of the relatively recent discovery of the wreck and what it has revealed. The story seems to be one of over-confidence and negligence, and certainly of the unnecessary loss of life, but the actions and behaviour of Mary Rogers do much, as so often in times of tragedy, to redeem the disaster.
short time available after the ship struck the deadly
reef, she worked calmly and speedily to get women
passengers out of their cabins and fitted with
lifejackets: seeing one without a lifejacket she gave her
her own and helped her into an already overloaded
lifeboat. She then refused to endanger the lifeboat’s
safety further and turned away. At that moment the Stella
slid backwards, Mary Rogers, according to many reports,
cried ‘Lord, have me’, went down with the ship and was not
Little seems to be known of Mary Rogers‘ background. Born in Somerset and living in Southampton, she was a widow, her sailor husband having tragically been drowned at sea sixteen years earlier. After her death she became a nationally-known figure and an icon of the women’s suffrage movement. The book speaks of ‘a woman doing a man’s job and putting duty before female rights of escape, leading to a sacrifice which has a strong Easter resonance’
There are quite a few memorials to Mary Rogers, but the cathedral window is probably the most distinctive. In a city by the sea, it speaks eloquently of the heroism and self-sacrifice of ‘those who go down to the sea in ships’. And the book, by calling the Stella, however inappropriately, the ‘Titanic of the Channel Islands’, makes a final link with Merseyside in general, and St Faith’s in particular.
Mary Rogers is in the fine tradition of Joseph Bell, the Chief Engineer of the Titanic who, as many readers will know, worshipped at St Faith‘s, is commemorated in a fine plaque in the south aisle also gave his life in a final act of Christian witness that others might have a chance of survival.
A Church Befriended
So read the instructions found online for the Torrent Walk above Dolgellau: a marvellous walk along a winding tree-lined road and up a mile or so of riverside path as the Afon Clywedog foamed and rushed down beside us. But first we visited the church – and found something more or less unique in Wales. St Mark’s is hidden from view amongst a rhododendron-choked churchyard and its solid granite exterior seems to grow out of the earth and trees amongst which it is planted. But inside is a different story. This is an Art Nouveau church, decked out in Mediterranean warm colours (red ochre walls and vivid blue ceiling), with amazing altar and pulpit of glowing beaten copper, exquisite wooden carvings and Arts and Crafts fittings. What was it doing here, we wondered.
It turns out that this unique Victorian building was paid for in memory of Fr Charles Tooth, chaplain and founder of St Mark’s Church in Florence, a beautiful Anglo-Catholic shrine which gave its name to its little Welsh counterpart. Designed by Henry Wilson, itd is a Grade 1 listed building. Fr Tooth was the brother of Fr Arthur Tooth, imprisoned in 1877 for daring to flout what was then the law by introducing Anglo-Catholic ritual to the good old C of E. There were a few such ‘martyrs’ in England, and of course our own history was not without controversy. The Archbishop of York was petitioned not to consecrate ‘this mass house’, protestors more than once tried to disrupt our services in the first half of the last century, and this writer recalls Protestant Truth Society ‘heavies’ picketing us when the first Roman Catholic priest preached here – and later attempting to stop Archbishop Robert Runcie from appearing among us. So the churchmanship of the little Italianate church in the trees of Brithdir is easy enough to work out. Obviously this Fr Tooth, though he may have gone to Rome metaphorically, succeeded, along with the clergy of St Faith’s, in avoiding the worst rigours of the Protestant witch-hunts.
It was declared redundant in 2005, and is now owned by an organisation of which I knew nothing until this visit; the Friends of Friendless Churches. Founded in 1957, this organisation exists ‘to save historic but redundant places of worship from destruction, decay and unsympathetic conversion for public access and the benefit of the nation.’ They own 38 buildings and are looking to own more. In England they rely on subscriptions and benefactions and own about 15 churches: the rest are in Wales, where the Friends’ work is funded almost entirely by Cadw (the Welsh version of English Heritage) and the Church in Wales (the Welsh version of the C of E). Armed with their list, I shall hope to unearth their churches at St Peulan’s and St Figael’s on Anglesey, St Baglan’s near Caernarfon, St Brothen’s at Llanfrothen and St Cynhaern’s at Ynyscynhaearn – if only to find out more about such splendid saints, and to see what the spell-checker comes up with.
Their website is www.friendsofriendlesschurches.org.uk. Try ‘googling’ St Mark, Brithdir, to access more related sites, including some fine photographs. When we visited this magical place, two men, commissioned by the Friends, were making detailed 3-D digital scans of the lead Art Nouveau font, before moving on to the pulpit and altar. The idea, they said, was to make possible replicas of these beautiful and priceless objects should they be stolen. How sad that such a procedure should be necessary – but how good that people and organisations take such trouble to preserve, restore and make accessible something at least of our rich Christian heritage. The Friends have recently spent some £30,000 on repairs and will spend more. They work in partnership with the Ancient Monuments Society. Long may their quiet work flourish to the glory of God.
To begin with: some history. In 1903, a British Mission to Tibet, in reality a military expedition designed to counter a non-existent Russian threat to British India, succeeded in reaching the forbidden city of Lhasa and ending Tibet’s isolation and much of its mystery. This Younghusband Mission also exposed Tibetan Buddhism to western investigation for the first time, and, through the uncomprehending and critical fundamentalist Christian judgement of those whose reports came back, a harsh and damning image of that newly revealed faith was created. Tibetan Buddhism was seen by them as ‘A cloak to the worst forms of devil-worship, by which the poor Tibetan was placed in constant fear of his life from the attacks of malignant devils both in this life and the life to come.’
And indeed, the behaviour of the Tibetan armies in the face of British military might seemed to bear this verdict out. Urged on by lamas and monks, they put their faith in spells, prayers and incantations and were no match for organised military strategy. Much nearer our own time, the far more brutal and much more long-lasting Chinese occupation of Tibet, and the ousting of the Dalai Lama (whose descendant has just visited Britain) had the ironic effect of dispersing Tibetans abroad, and revitalising and reviving their faith. Their apparently primitive religion of ‘Chos’, the application of Buddhist Law introduced into Tibet by Indian gurus in the 10th and 11th centuries, and known as the ‘Thunderbolt Vehicle’ or the ‘Diamond Path’, became modified and softened in teaching and practice, so that the Tibetan Buddhism of today bears little or no resemblance to the ancient, primitive superstitions the British met on the high passes of the long road to Lhasa a century ago.
Almost all of this story was unknown to me until I read ‘Duel in the Snows’, Charles Allen’s account of the 1903 expedition. I read it in the wake of a visit to inspect some Tibetan Buddhists in the unlikely setting of a small and beautiful Scottish island last June. This Holy Island (not the Lindisfarne one, let alone the Anglesey offshoot where the boats go to Ireland), lies off the Isle of Arran, which is the southernmost of all the Scottish islands and a place of great beauty, and a lot of rain and mist. We took a small boat on a bright, warm day from Lamlash to visit this Holy Isle, to find that it was the annual open day of the Buddhist community there. The island has ancient Christian connections, but twelve years ago, a Tibetan Buddhist community, an offshoot of a full-blown monastery on mainland Scotland, bought the island (people do a lot of buying of islands in Scotland), and last year completed the conversion of its only farm into an International Centre for Peace and World Health.
It is impressive and intriguing: it’s fascinating to see chapel shrines with statues of Buddha in place of crucifixes or saints, and the incense there has a different smell. They were friendly and hospitable, handed out tea and (extremely) home made rock cakes, and showed off their peace garden: a touching display of homely, well-meaning text boards, bird-feeders, organic composting, little fairies (yes, really!), meditation corners, lots of mandalas (not, not Mandelas) and beautiful views over the sea to Arran. Along the path leading to the other end of the island were several large carvings of the Buddha, boldly painted and with piles of little offerings at their feet. At the far end, in isolation, is an international group of Buddhist women on silent retreat. Not your average Anglican Quiet Afternoon - this lot are there for three years and three months. (If I hadn’t found the path to inner enlightenment by then I’d want my money back!).
There is an inter-faith dimension to the community. They advertise a forthcoming dialogue between a professed Buddhist nun and a Christian nun, and they happily point the way along the path to the cave of St Molaise, a 6th century follower of St Columba. We visited his draughty retreat, and drank from the attested healing waters of his holy spring. This writer will tell you of any long-term benefits, but it was a lovely draught on a hot day.
I‘m still not sure what Buddhists believe, but they certainly didn‘t seem to be under the influence of any malignant devils in 2004. They floated gently and serenely around, bare-armed and saffron-orange robed, with assorted Tibetan and Scottish accents and, far from seeming an alien presence on that beautiful island, they, their centre, and their home-spun invocations to peace, love, harmony and respect for all creation add something indefinable and magical to Holy Island, which made me want to find out more. On this brief acquaintance, they seemed enviably detached and uninvolved, radiating peace in idyllic settings miles from troublesome reality and not doing much that might improve things in Iraq or Sudan, but that‘s a superficial judgement.
We found them, and their retreat, enchanting, and would happily return. They don’t allow alcohol, but then we were only there for a few hours...
of living in isolated places, from the King of Samadhi
Did I tell you that my brother has a nun living in a stable at the bottom of his garden?
That attention-grabbing opening demands an explanation. Briefly, the nun is Sister Penny Daniels, she is a member of the Anglican Society of St Luke, and her dwelling-place is in a converted stable in the grounds of my brother’s house in Strumpshaw, not far from Norwich. Her story is a fascinating one.
First, the Society provides the background . ‘The Society of St Luke has grown from its sister, the Christian Deaf Community, which is centred in the Middle East and serves the deaf communities by providing schools, medical laboratories and teacher training colleges.
‘The Society started in 1994 and its development is very much in the hands of God. Since 1997 twenty-seven Associates have taken vows of simplicity and promised to keep the Aims of the Society. There are three professed religious- two nuns and one monk and one Novice Sister, based in Sheringham. The active side of the religious life is now secondary to the aim of a life of prayer.
‘Developing from this is a concentration on helping people with their spiritual journeys by offering a place for quiet days and retreats. The Society has also been involved in taking missions, providing marriage preparation and courses on coping with stress. The Society also has a group of Friends who support the work of the Society by prayer and financial support.
‘The reality is that we are wounded and need help at various stages through the
journey of life. The Society is Anglican in ethos but open to anyone, offering friendship and being open to the healing of God through the Spirit working within and without the Society.
The Society’s declared aims are:
To live a life of prayer, with particular attention to the suffering of the world.
To care for the carers, especially to support them in their spiritual lives in a busy world.
To relieve and support those who come for help and counsel.
To assist and support the Church in its mission of care and prayer.
To provide for the spiritual needs of individuals through Companionship and Association of the Society.
To offer opportunities of retreat, refreshment and learning.
To support the work of The Father Andeweg Institute for the Deaf in Beirut, Lebanon and The Holy Land Institute for the Deaf in Salt, Jordan.’
Bishop Graham James of Norwich (known to many of us at St Faiths ) is Episcopal Visitor to the Society.
You can learn more about SSL by contacting Juliessl@btinternet.com
So where does the nun in the stable fit in? I spent an absorbing time hearing of her journey through widowhood to Reader training and parish ministry and the dawning of a vocation to the monastic life. This culminated in her meeting with Fr Andrew Lane, the founder and superior of the Society of St Luke, and her acceptance for the process of preparation for life as a member of the Society. Now clothed as a nun, she is a Sister of the Order, and the process will continue towards her eventual full profession. She continues to serve the local group of parishes from her outpost and to work in the community locally and further afield, and also to teach art, while observing the rule and daily offices of the order, showing the flag in full habit when ‘on duty’ and relaxing in civvies over tea and cake, looking out over her peaceful garden and the rolling fields around.
Working closely with her Vicar, David Wakefield, she welcomes to The Stable an increasing number of visitors, those in need of a quiet space, or simply a listening ear as she discovers and expands her particular ministry in these rural parishes.
She is able to bring special witness to places where the sight of a habited nun would once have seemed very strange, in the village shop buying milk, or taking the junior school assemblies.
In short, Sister Penny is part of an increasingly successful experiment, an ecumenical achievement and a focus of prayer, contemplation, sympathetic listening and healing at the bottom of my brother’s garden, and in the quiet pastoral surroundings of deepest East Anglia. To meet her, talk with her and share ideas with her was a surprising, fascinating and unique experience, which I look forward to repeating. She asks for all our prayers.
Lord, Thou knowest better than I know myself, that I am growing older and will some day be old. Keep me from the fatal habit of thinking I must say something on every subject and on every occasion. Release me from craving to straighten out everybody's affairs. Make me thoughtful but not moody; helpful but not bossy. With my vast store of wisdom, it seems a pity not to use it all, but Thou knowest Lord that I want a few friends at the end.
Keep my mind free from the recital of endless details; give me wings to get to the point. Seal my lips on my aches and pains. They are increasing, and love of rehearsing them is becoming sweeter as the years go by. I dare not ask for grace enough to enjoy the tales of others’ pains, but help me to endure them with patience.
I dare not ask for improved memory, but for a growing humility and a lessening cocksureness when my memory seems to clash with the memories of others. Teach me the glorious lesson that occasionally I may be mistaken.
Keep me reasonably sweet; I do not want to be a Saint - some of them are so hard to live with - but a sour old person is one of the crowning works of the devil. Give me the ability to see good things in unexpected places, and talents in unexpected people. And, give me, O Lord, the grace to tell them so.
Everyone who uses email will be all too familiar with unsolicited messages offering almost everything you can think of, including several goods and services inexplicably offered to this writer but which are not suitable for mentioning in a family magazine. One offer I received recently, however, offered something really new, which will be of undoubted interest to readers lay and clerical.
'PROCEED WITH YOUR ORDINATION' was the title, and the sub-heading 'Become a legally ordained minister within 48 hours!' Clicking on the link, (as one does, but only after scanning for nasty surprise viruses as Denis Griffiths reminds us always to do) I opened up a dazzling page of tempting prospects offered by 'Minister Charles Simpson'. Once ordained, I could, Mr Simpson promised, 'marry my BROTHER, SISTER or my BEST FRIEND' (not all at once, of course). And I wouldn't have to 'settle for being the BEST MAN or BRIDES' MAID' (so clearly Charles Simpson has no problem with women ministers).
When it comes to the conducting of funerals, he says 'Don't settle for a minister you don't know!!' Under the heading of Baptisms, I am promised that once ordained I will be able to say 'WELCOME TO THE WORLD!!! I AM YOUR MINISTER AND YOUR UNCLE!!' What's more, I will be able to 'VISIT CORRECTIONAL FACILITIES' (something I‘ve always coveted...…)
Simpson assures me that the Certificate being offered to
me would cost me not $100 (yes, of course it's an American
scam!), not $50: no, 'the entire life-changing course' is
a snip at only $29.95. For this I get a Certificate 'IN COLOR, WITH GOLD SEAL
professionally printed by an Ink Press' and
shipped to me free.
Faced as we all are with declining congregations and a shortage of priests, it is really surprising to me that our own Church of England has not yet availed itself of such facilities. Why did our Martin Jones embark on a long, demanding and undoubtedly far more expensive course of training for the ministry when Charles Simpson offers him, and me, this 'outstanding new tool' within a mere eight days of sending a cheque and, apparently, without any intellectual or spiritual effort? Sounds great, doesn‘t it! Just as soon as readers come up with (if my sums are right) a paltry $110.95, I will seriously consider changing my life forever. Watch this space, brethren!
It’s not every Sunday that the intercessions at an Anglican Choral Evensong feature prayers for Welsh narrow-gauge railways – but that’s exactly what happened to this writer recently. To be fair, it happened at the Church in Wales church of St John, Porthmadog, a seasdide town which is the home of two such railways. And the occasion was the celebration of the 40th anniversary of ordination of the Reverend Dr Richard Buxton, an English Anglican priest now living in North Wales and who is deeply involved in the work and activities of the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways which operate out of that small seaside town.
I know Richard from many a lineside meeting, but it was a special pleasure to join him in his contemporary canonical garb. I say contemporary, because he has a habit of donning appropriate period clerical dress and gracing the stations on occasions when Victorian vintage trains are running from Porthmadog harbour and adding an air of benevolent sanctity to the serious business of running a crowded railway timetable and squeezing the crowds into undersized carriages. But he is also a man of influence in the narrow-gauge world, and his quiet diplomacy has on several occasions helped to calm matters and heal passionate disagreements between rival groups: but that’s another story. Passions can run unexpectedly high between the lines…
This marriage of church and railways is happily not untypical of the Porthmadog narrow-gauge world. The railway owns a Victorian hearse van, complete with funereal architectural features, once used to convey the coffins of expired quarrymen down to their final resting-places. I well remember seeing it used a few years ago to carry the ashes of a much-respected official to their interment in a lineside station garden, done with proper liturgical accompaniment. And when another well-loved man’s recent passing was marked by a special train, his relatives were deeply moved when the railway’s staff and workers turned out in formal dress and stood to attention as the train hooted mournfully past.
There is a fascinating and almost mysterious connection between railways large and small in general and the clergy of the Anglican Church (equally curiously, in my experience, rarely if ever the Roman Catholics). Examples abound, but to name just two: the ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ stories were created by the Revd W. Awdry (and the ‘W’, splendidly, stood for Wilbert!). And those of us who were entertained by the Cappers at Wakefield Cathedral some years ago were refreshed in the Treacey Room, named after Bishop Eric Treacey, who was probably the greatest railway photographer of his age. When films and TV set scenes in churches, they are usually atmospheric R.C. ones, where murders and dark secrets abound. When they shot that iconic film, ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt’, it was the Anglican vicar on the footplate, and when his bishop turned up, he begged him to be allowed to act as fireman, and held it one of the highlights of his career.
The writer is not ashamed to confess to being a lifelong railway enthusiast, quite happy thereby to be classed as an ‘anorak’. His not so secret passion is shared, to his knowledge, by at least two members of our congregation. Denis and the late and lamented Kevin are hereby ‘outed’ from the railway closet: perhaps next year the Men’s Fellowship might go on retreat to Crewe… or even Porthmadog?
A recent edition of the Daily Telegraph carried two separate articles which took the editor's fancy and may strike a chord with equally unrepentant traditionalists. One was religious in theme, the other more secular, but they shared broadly the same unfashionable set of values.
Rupert Christiansen has written a book, 'Once More with Feeling', which is a collection of his favourite hymns, carols and anthems. Here is some of what he says about his selection.
'Even in an age as benighted as ours, its spiritual life flattened by prim multiculturalism, yah-boo-sucks atheism and mindless materialism, the great hymns and carols of the Protestant tradition retain their unique capacity to bring us together. It is to their fervent eloquence and broad melodies that we turn in times of trouble and celebration: not just weddings, funerals and Christmas, but any occasion that calls to be marked or memorialised with solemnity or dedication, be it the beginning of a term, the end of a war or the FA Cup Final. The collective singing of hymns marks not just faith in the battered but resilient Christian gospel of love, but also an assertion that we are ultimately one, not just in God but in our humanity.'
Christiansen defines himself as coming from 'the warm reasonable heart of middle England.' His family 'paid its respects to Anglicanism' and he still feels a deep affection 'towards its cardinal virtue of accepting the moral and material realities of existence with tolerance rather then with judgement.' And, he says, 'my vague but unbreakable affiliation to its simple creed has allowed me access to a treasure-trove of music and poetic language.'
Having hymned the praises of the great canon of traditional music and words, he is scathing about much modern hymnody, as 'the end of the 1960s saw the inexorable rise of the modernisers. "God of concrete, God of Steel"? "Dance then wherever you may be,/I am the Lord of the dance said he"? Come on guys, who are you trying to kid? Any fool could tell that behind that fixed-grin New Seekers chumminess was something emotionally flaccid, bloodless and phoney in comparison with the organ-powered ardour of "Who would true valour see".'
His final words condemn many of the late 20th century's new hymns unequivocally. 'They may make people feel comfortable and their catchiness may lead to a rise in the decibel level, but they seek to connect to earth rather than to heaven, preaching a gospel that doesn't look beyond friendliness and familiarity and social improvement. They do not minister to awe and wonder - the part of Christianity that passeth all understanding, the sheer mystery of it.'
The link with the second article is perhaps tenuous, but it also looks for the best of the past. Harry Bingham introduces his new book: 'This Little Britain: How One Small Country Changed the Modern World.' He looks at the image that Britain presents today and notes that when a newspaper invited readers to submit a new design for our coins, one wrote: 'How about a couple of yobs dancing on a car bonnet, or a trio of legless ladettes in the gutter?' He believes, however, that the image of a 'fragmented, degenerate, irresponsible society' is nothing new, and is in any case far from fair. His main thesis in the article is that we should be proud of our long heritage and more willing to proclaim it. A few quotations will illustrate his point.
'If one were asked to pick out the single most salient feature in human history since the birth of Christ, it would be hard to avoid industrialisation, whose forge was 18th century Britain. We dug two-thirds of the world's coal, refined half its iron, forged five-seventh of its steel and wove half if its commercial cotton cloth. We were, in effect, imagining a whole new world into existence, a world that has utterly altered human expectations of health, wealth and technological possibility.'
Bingham goes on to list the countless areas - technological, scientific, medical, electronic - where British inventiveness played a key role. He lauds our colonial achievements ('the Empire covered a quarter of the earth's surface, but used an army smaller than Switzerland's to rule it'). Likewise we gave the world our language and actually pioneered a politer, more civilised, less violent society' - and 'the English at least was, as far back as we can see, by far the least violent society in Europe.'
His final arguments take on board our lack of confidence in our modem identity -but see this as no bad thing. So much of what made us distinctive has been assimilated into European and world culture that we no longer need to mourn the loss of 'our ancient, cherished, much vaunted uniqueness.' And his challenging final statement: 'Over a period of centuries the inhabitants of the British Isles came slowly to hammer out a concept of modernity that was largely free, fair, technically advanced, prosperous and peaceful. That was their second greatest achievement. The greatest was simply this: to have exported that model so widely and so well that it no longer looks British at all.' In other words, we may have lost an Empire, but we found a role in influencing the world for the better.
Not everyone will agree with the sentiments these two writers express - and it would be good to hear other views - but they strike a chord with this writer, and they resonate with much of what Fr Neil said in a sermon about the importance of order, tradition and ritual in society. Maybe we're all just getting old, but in my experience many young people share these views and look to us to uphold the best of the past and not seek to sweep it all away in a tide of modernisation and repudiation of our heritage. It would be good to think that our brave new world could be populated by generations aware of continuity and possessed of a proper pride in what we hand on to them, and on which they can both build and improve in the years ahead. Having one foot in the past is a great help in taking a balanced view of the future.
• Twenty nine of us, crossing coast-to-coast by coach and car on the long haul to Little Walsingham, where a mediaeval lady of the manor was commanded in a vision by the Blessed Virgin Mary to build a replica of her house in Nazareth. Destroyed by Henry VIII's reformers, it was refounded 90 years ago near its original site, where the little Holy House is today the centre of the shrine church, itself the spiritual centre of the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady and a place of constant pilgrimage • Today 'England's Nazareth' sits surprisingly in the midst of a remote arid picturesque village, whose streets are full of shops selling keepsakes, souvenirs, statues, holy books and pictures, not by any means all of which are in the best of taste • The place itself ... walled by gardens and hostels, a warm and amazing place of hidden corners, pathways and passages, soaked in sanctity and pervaded by prayer « A place where, while Crosby was saturated once again, God's sunshine shone and the air was still, the moon shone full and fair and the air was filled with birdsong and chanting • 48 hours of rich and varied experiences ... worship in forms familiar and strange ... fellowship in the refectory queue and, this being St Faith's and Walsingham, around the bars of the welcoming village hostelries • A fascinating mixture of prayerful devotion and shared laughter, not all of it always entirely reverent • The mysteries of the rosary (the ultimate in worry beads)... for many a focus of prayer, for others, even by the end, about forty Hail Marys too many • The intense and wondrous silence of the Holy House, bedecked with blue and gold and a myriad of burning lights .. the most moving of backgrounds to a parish at worship and in intercessory prayer • The mysterious shrine church ... shafts of light on fifteen chapel altars large and small... secret vistas round every corner and archway • On many occasions, the awareness of others at prayer or in praise: voices murmuring and distant bells sounding • • An all-singing, all-dancing ostrich, a squeaking nun and an Our Lady Bird (ask someone who was there, but don't mention burgers!) • A trip to two amazing, vast and beautiful Anglican churches in the middle of nowhere yet open and unattended, richly adorned and powerfully prayerful (they wouldn't last a week on Merseyside) • The Stations of the Cross around the shrine gardens ... parish parties wending their way beneath the trees and the singing birds, each group doing its own thing yet part one of another • Confession and absolution before the pub (a case of hunger and thirst after
righteousness!) • A little gem of an Orthodox Church .... St Seraphim and icons galore in, of all places, an old railway station • A singularly moving and spectacular Procession of Our Lady around the dark grounds, by candle-light and to the enthusiastic accompaniment of a hymn with more verses (and certainly more Ave Marias) than you could shake a stick at, and punctuated by dubious descants and just a little departure from devotion in places •
• A visit to the Roman Catholic shrine (the Slipper Chapel down the road), and moving words in their official handbook commending a visit to 'our' shrine and 'our' Parish Church and asking for prayers for the Anglican Diocese and its priests and people .. how far and wonderfully we have come in recent years! * Conversations in corridors, coffee brewed in little rooms, bonding between people who may scarcely have spoken to one another before • No sense (at least not for long) of anything alien or frightening ... and no pressure to accept anything you weren't happy about, nor to feel left out if you chose to snooze or stroll rattier than join in things * Concelebrated Mass in the shrine church ... a spectacular and crowded Saturday night special, although, as with much of the worship in a place whose weekend congregations have outgrown it, it was a case of peering from behind brick pillars for a glimpse of the transcendent, the sleeve of a surplice or even Ged peering down like a gargoyle from bis perch in the organ loft • A place where even the gardens smell of incense » Village streets dotted with black-garbed priests, like something from centuries past Pilgrims young and old leafing through racks of prayer cards in the shrine shop ... weighing up icons ... settling for the least garish statuette » Parish Mass in the parish church in the village, packed with pilgrims and locals ... a building gloriously light and airy, with acres of clear grass, after the intense and sometimes stifling weight of the shrine church • Strolling back after coffee at the back of that church through sunny, still streets lined with flint-set, pantiled-roofed cottages • Drinks outside the Bull in God's providential lunchtime sunshine (where was it in Crosby in August?) • The transporting experience of going down into the well in the shrine in a new baptism for the blessing of pure, cold water ... in the mouth, on the forehead and splashing over the hands
• And. on the road home, abiding memories of peace and a deep silence ... of prayer made simple and appealing ... of fellowship made stronger and laughter more ready than ever (where even the old jokes sounded new)... of a place to which to bring doubts and scepticism, but where, even where those reservations remained, it did not matter ... a place where it seemed overwhelmingly and satisfyingly normal to be a Christian, an Anglican and to live a life founded in the sacraments and prayer ... where to believe and to practise the faith was simple and natural... a place where the unlikely became possible, the flamboyant and even the absurd were at home with the beauty of the holiness and where we could all be ourselves for a spell ... a lovely place and a lovely time, together for a time out of time with our fellow Christians and, without a shadow of doubt, with our God •
This piece was written on return from the first St Faith's pilgrimage to Walsingham: there have been many subsequent such events. By a quasi-miraculous transmission unknown to, but welcomed by, this writer, it subsequently appeared on the Shrine's website, where it remains (minus a few in-jokes) as an introduction for visitors.
Below you can read a poem called ‘Golgotha', by G.A.Studdert Kennedy. (The writer was an Anglican priest known as ‘Woodbine Willie’, and his signature graces an early St Faith’s register as a preacher many years ago, and one word in the poem has been altered to mnatch the occasion.)
The poem’s theme is that of a modern generation who are indifferent to Christ and his teaching, and who simply ignore Him. Two recent events illustrate the truth of this, however indirectly; in both cases not with simple indifference, but with attitudes showing how far our contemporary society seems to have moved from Christian values.
When coloured teenager Anthony Walker was so brutally murdered in a racist attack in Liverpool not so long ago, there was an outburst of shame and outrage here and elsewhere. He was by all accounts a lovely lad: Christian through and through and, in the weeks and months that followed, the calm faith of his mother Gee shone through everything that she said and did. My admiration for her attitude was further strengthened when, a few days ago as I write, she was interviewed by Gordon Burns on BBC local television. She made it entirely clear that she could not find it in her heart to hate those who had embedded an ice-axe in her son’s skull, but rather extended to them the forgiveness that Christ had taught her and us. What particularly struck me, however, was the amazement which this statement produced. The interviewer was gentle and courteous, but seemed at a loss to understand how anyone could forgive and not be consumed with hatred and a desire for revenge. Without probably intending to, he made hers seem a unique and almost incomprehensible attitude, rather than a shining example of the Christian principles which, in the past, might have been taken as the ideal pattern of behaviour in a civilised society.
And then, following hard on the heels of this revealing interview, came Prime Minister Tony Blair’s statement, when being interviewed by Michael Parkinson, that he looked to God as a source of inspiration and guidance when making up his mind to sanction military action against Iraq. This was met, in most of the media and by many leading figures, with hostility and even contempt. For his many critics, such decisions should never have been influenced by faith and beliefs, but solely by political and military considerations. The infamous Alistair Campbell had memorably remarked a while back ‘we don’t do God’, and sadly it seemed that his words struck a chord with many in recent days. I was reminded of the amused condescension with which Jeremy Paxman asked Mr Blair on another occasion whether he and President Bush prayed together, as if this was an entirely ridiculous and irrelevant thing to consider doing.
Whatever one might think of the political issues in question, it is surely to a Christian both revealing and tragic that our leaders should thus be taken to task for seeking God’s guidance and acknowledging their faith in him when faced with momentous decisions. It seems to me to be just one more example of the insidious side-lining of the church and all it stands for. In both of these stories, it is all too easy to see that we live in a post-Christian society, where open, whole-hearted and public expressions of faith are greeted with amusement, incredulity or plain hostility - or, as with Studdert Kennedy’s image, an even more dangerous indifference.
Can anything be done? Are Christians doomed in our time to become increasingly marginalised? Can our individual witness do anything to counteract this creeping secularisation? I don’t know. But it’s no good asking the Church to take a lead. It is far too busy tearing itself to pieces over gay priests and women bishops.
They crowned Him with a crown of
When Jesus came to Liverpool
For men have grown more tender,
The crowd went home and left the
These latter spoke (a few sang, played or chanted) for anything from two or three to ten or more minutes, and their contributions consisted of tributes or statements, followed by readings of poetry or memorable prose. Contributors came from the ranks of the good and the great, but also the ordinary people of London, who had helped or just been caught up in that unforgettable day.
Like, I guess, most people, I was caught up on the day by the unfolding drama of that Thursday, finding it hard to avoid the constant parade of tragic and dramatic images on the wall-to-wall TV coverage, not just because so many scheduled programmes were replaced, but also because of the human drama that was being shown to us. Throughout the day, much was very properly made of the dedication and professionalism of the emergency services and the resilience and compassion of the victims and those who gave them help. And it was these admirable qualities that were again rightly lauded in the Trafalgar Square vigil. Contributor after contributor paid tribute to the people of London and how well they coped with disaster. Their matter-of-fact, understated cheerful heroism and self-sacrifice brought at least some goodness out of an otherwise unmitigated evil. People of every type, creed, age and colour were unashamedly united in proclaiming their defiance of terrorism, their belief in freedom and tolerance and their deep concern for our common humanity. It is ironic that it seems to take the worst events (the Blitz, 9/11, and now 7/7) to bring out the best in humankind, but it is an irony rooted also in our Christian faith, from its foundation down through the long story of the martyrs of our creeds.
stranger, then, that the Christian faith played so
relatively small a part in the vigil. The Bishop of London
was there, as was the Archbishop of Westminster, and their
words of course echoed with the messages of our beliefs.
But they shared even this one slot with a Muslim, a Jew
and a Sikh, and they were sandwiched between policemen,
trade unionists, the Mayor, firemen, hospital workers and
bus drivers, as well as (I guess) anarchists and activists
and (definitely) rap poets and singers. And as such they
represented, more than anything I can remember, the widely
multi-cultural society of urban Britain. To bring these
disparate elements together took a skilful balancing act
A generation ago, any significant national gathering would surely have been framed in a religious context. It would have featured, as most state occasions still do, robed Anglican clergy and formal liturgy, with perhaps a token appearance by the Church of Rome and a Nonconformist minister. The event would have been presented in terms of the age-old certainties of Anglican Christianity. How things have changed. Following a tragic event which tested the faith to the limits and engaged the fears and sympathies of a nation, today’s suffering people took part in a vigil that simply celebrated humanity, with little or no reference to the spiritual dimension; it acted out a powerful folk ritual that owed little or nothing to the established church or even the notion of a Christian nation.
To record this is most certainly not to criticise or complain. The whole thing seemed to this life-long Christian a fine and moving tribute. What it did do was to show how far we have travelled in recent decades. We are a multi-faith society, in which Christianity can claim less and less automatic right to be heard. And equally sadly, for so many people now, religion, albeit in its extreme and distorted form, is seen as a cause of conflict and the dealing of terror rather than the bringer and agent of peace, wholeness and meaning to life. The people who came to that vigil did not seem to be coming to pray: if anything they would see those who pray as being those who, to some degree, had brought about the deaths these spectators had come to remember and mourn. For those of us who do believe, there is much here to think and pray about: not merely centred on the terrible events themselves, but on the reactions those events brought out and what that means for the faith and for the world Christ came to save.
One of the pleasures of holidays, at least for this writer, is coming across unusual and intriguing churches in relatively remote places. I have reported previously from the northernmost outpost of the good old C of E (or at least its Episcopalian alter ego): this time the impressions are of two of our churches on islands very much at the opposite end of Great Britain.
The one furthest to the southwest is to be found on St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall. This beautiful and spectacular crag is offshore from the little town of Marazion, just east of Penzance. A National Trust property, it also houses some of the St Aubyn family, whose patriarch is Lord St Levan: their castle crowns the wooded crag, which you get to either by walking at low tide over the connecting causeway or, if the sea is in, by small boat. After a testing slog up, the castle is a fascinating and romantic building – and it contains the Church of St Michael. The original Benedictine Abbey’s Priory Church, rebuilt after an earthquake in the fourteenth century, is still regularly used for worship, and has features dating back to mediaeval times, as well as some fine later features.
We visited the Mount on a Sunday, making our fittingly damp pilgrimage over the causeway on the one wet day of a fine week, and joined a congregation of some 30 or 40 for a lovely Eucharist, about as near to heaven as this earth perhaps permits. There was a strong sense of spiritual continuity and of union with the countless numbers who have made their pilgrimage to this English Mont St Michel.
On our way home to Crosby we took the boat from Bideford to Lundy Island for the day. This beautiful, wild island in the Atlantic off the Devon coast is rich with flowers and birds, and boasts a fine, hospitable tavern and wonderful walks on the wide turf above the sea. And it has its own church: a solid, oddly urban-looking Victorian edifice which dominates the tiny village.
now also in the benevolent hands of the National Trust,
but, like quite a few of the most beautiful places and
properties of Britain, owes its survival in no small part
to the equally benevolent patronage of Victorian and
Edwardian families and gentry. In the case of Lundy, the
family’s name was, very appropriately, Heaven! For many
years the island was known as the Kingdom of Heaven, and a
priest of that name had the church built and maintained.
Today it houses exhibitions and is only occasionally used
for worship (and for expensive weddings, we gathered!),
but it stands foursquare as a witness to the Christian
faith – and, like its western counterpart in Cornwall,
acts as an Anglican Outpost in the seas of faith.
The book (not yet published: I am in the happy position of reading and reviewing pre-publication proofs) goes by the title of ‘Mysteries of Glass’, and it is written by Sue Gee. Set towards the end of the eighteenth-century, it is an affectionate portrait of a young curate taking up his first position in a delectable country parish on the Welsh borders. At first all is good and the book delightfully portrays its protagonist coming to terms with rural parish life: the visiting, studying and preaching, and the deep affection for the natural beauty in which he finds himself set. As he grows in confidence, however, he falls in love, despite himself, with the wife of his ailing and doctrinaire rector. He agonises with his conscience as he eventually yields to love; his feelings and that of the girl are movingly described. The book, inevitably, has no happy ending but it is by no means entirely pessimistic, and for me its chief delight lies in the portraying of a lost age of England - and of the Church of England. In this rural idyll, people know their place and that of the Church to which they give their automatic allegiance. But the moral code is severe and unyielding and personal happiness seems always to come a poor second to duty and doctrine.
The TV series is called ‘A Seaside Parish’. Some years ago, the BBC filmed an earlier series (‘ Country Parish’) following the work of a parish priest moving from a suburban living to a rural one. He had to come to terms with a range of problems, and, after the series ended, sadly chose to abandon parish life, partly due to the pressures of a mountain of correspondence from viewers seeking his pastoral help. I very much hope that the same thing doesn’t happen to the Revd Christine Masson, vicar of a cluster of village churches centred on the north Cornish seaside village of Boscastle.
The series is, as I write, ongoing, but she is coping well. The everyday portrait of a priest faithfully doing God‘s work of care and prayer is a heartening one, not least in the way it counters the more common prevailing TV images of the C. of E. as a church more likely to be peopled (in and below the pulpit!) by eccentrics, trendies, gays and heretics. She has her made-for-TV moments, of course: meeting local witches, posing for a nude builders’ calendar (the builders are nude, not the Vicar!), and being menaced by nocturnal jellies on the doorstep (you’ll have to watch it!) - but the most interesting thing to me is that she is a woman priest, divorced and remarried, and has a real compassion for outcasts, misfits, and those to whom, not so long ago, the Church would have had no mission or contact. Anglicanism has come a long way from the pattern of life so faithfully and beautifully portrayed by Sue Gee, but it would, I think, be a real mistake simply to deplore the loss of old certainties and values. Gee’s curate is ostracised and disciplined for forbidden desires: Boscastle’s vicar would be more likely to have understood him and made him and his like part of her ministry of compassionate understanding. That she, and so many like her, survive in the 21st century to bring God to her flock is reassuring and heartening. Her life is no idyll, for all the wild beauty of her parishes’ landscapes - but neither is it bound by a rigid, unforgiving and class-ridden hypocrisy. And for that we should offer humble thanks to the God of the Church.
'Britain wallowing in
Britain is suffering from a severe bout of ‘mourning sickness’, a collective condition characterised by ostentatious, recreational grieving for dead celebrities and murder victims. The nation has replaced the social ties of Church and family with the rites of conspicuous compassion - the piling up of rotting flowers and sodden teddy bears, the ‘lapel loutism’ of empathy ribbons and the staging of ever-lengthening minutes of silence.’
Thus begins a challenging article by reporter Sean O’Neill in the Daily Telegraph, reporting on an unflattering portrait of British society offered in a booklet by Patrick West from the ‘Civitas’ think-tank, the Institute for the Study of Civil Society. His views are savagely critical of this trend in our behaviour, and he puts it down to cynical and selfish motives. These ‘collective carers’ are, in his opinion, merely wanting to be seen to care, rather than actually caring, probably because they want to be loved themselves. He dates the phenomenon from the Hillsborough disaster, when it was largely localised on Merseyside; since then it has spread rapidly through the reaction to the Dunblane massacre and the ‘ghoulish displays of weeping and countless bouquets of flowers left outside Kensington Palace following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales’.
Since then, the report believes, what it pointedly calls ‘grief lite’ has become for many an everyday and even enjoyable event, reaching its ‘fearsome peak’ when thousands of ‘grief tourists’ descended on Soham, to the despair of local people and their vicar, in the wake of the deaths of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman.
Tellingly, the report suggests that ‘the compassion caravan’ has a tendency to move on quickly to new causes. Today, Diana is a mostly forgotten individual. ‘On the fifth anniversary of her death, the gardens of Althorp and Kensington Palace were deserted. Diana had served her purpose. The public had moved on. They were now too busy ‘never forgetting’ other people.’
harsh words indeed, but they strike a chord with this
writer, although I have some misgivings about the
wholesale condemnation of ribbon-wearing, which is surely
still often evidence of contributing to the worthiest
causes. But I have long found something distasteful and
morbid about the ‘shrines’ to road victims left to
rot around posts in Merseyside and elsewhere.
The tributes at Anfield, which I well remember visiting in
the wake of the Hillsborough disaster, were powerfully and
movingly focussed on a local grief and its epicentre at
the ground. Even then, though, I was uncomfortable at the
pages of tributes in the local press, as many people
seemed to be jostling for space just to be seen to be part
of the mourning process. Since then, the phenomenon so
acutely analysed by Patrick West’s polemic has become ever
more mawkishly prominent, the product of sentimentality
rather than sentiment and, as the report
thought-provokingly concludes, has grown at the expense of
real compassion. The report states bluntly that ‘the
spread of ribbon-wearing has not been accompanied by a
growth in charitable giving. Between 1995 and 1999, as
ribbons flourished, donations to good causes dropped by 31
per cent.’ There may be no easily demonstrable link
between these two trends, but it is tempting to believe in
one, and certainly to wish that the mass practitioners of
the ‘rites of conspicuous compassion’ would put their
money where their mouth so obviously is.
If you haven‘t seen them, do make a point of watching the films on the big screen, on video or on DVD. The extended versions in this latter format carry absorbing hours of background information, explaining some of the staggering skill that has gone into the special effects, the sound, and the digital creations responsible for so much of what you will see, not least in the creation of the character of Gollum. There has been nothing to equal Peter Jackson‘s films, and it is hard to imagine anything doing so in the future: this is the definitive version.
But the books remain, and they are equally worth visiting, or revisiting. They are superb works of the imagination, many-layered, poetic and quasi-documentary, and they are underpinned by Professor Tolkien’s deeply-researched scholarship, both historical and linguistic, which lifts the books far above the level of mere fantasy or escapism into a world of rich and convincing detail. One of the most impressive aspects, to this writer, of the filming process was the profound respect in which director, actors and production staff held the books, and the loving care with which they strove to be faithful to them. The author, of course, died many years ago, but it is sad that his descendants and estate have so clearly disowned the film, since it is created in no small part as an act of homage to the original masterpiece.
But there is more here than mere epic achievement. The Tolkien world, on the page and the screen, has a moral and philosophical dimension that is out of the commonplace. The values it enshrines, and the standards its ‘good’ characters maintain, are universal, and they are Christian. Tolkien was a staunch Roman Catholic, and although he was careful not to introduce overt ‘religion’ into the stories, and to deny any easy allegorical interpretations, the tales are of a hard-fought struggle to meet destructive evil with the forces of integrity, and basic decent goodness. There is no pretence that the struggle is easily won, and a recognition that sacrifices must be made and that much has to be lost in the process. Indeed, the book is often pervaded by a melancholy awareness of mortality, and the passing of old glories and stories, and the ending is certainly no glib fairy-tale. But it is most certainly what might be described as ‘life-enhancing’: a reading, and no less a viewing, leaves you feeling many good things - awestruck, perhaps, impressed and entertained, certainly, but also more aware of the value of life and the many-coloured God-given splendour of the human condition. In these early years of the 21st century, with so much darkness, uncertainty, cynicism and despair abroad in our world, the epic creation of J.R.R.Tolkien, and of those whose film so magnificently underlines his achievement, can give us fresh hope and inspiration.
Papists and Protestants
In the first, Jonathan Petrie, the ‘Religion Correspondent’, is delighted to be able to report that ‘Irish Roman Catholics have been warned that church-going could pose a threat to their health because incense contains potentially dangerous chemicals.’
The threat to altar boys and girls was
highlighted by Dr Jim McDaid, ‘a transport minister’ (well
this is Ireland we’re talking about) in the context of
plans to ban smoking in the workplace. He isn’t actually
against incense as such, but is worried about the
carcinogenic agents present in the smoke. A spokesman for
the Dublin Archdiocese dutifully agreed. ‘Obviously
anything that sends a cloud of smoke into a child’s face
is something we would be concerned about.’ Interestingly,
she went on to say that while incense ‘had been widely
used in the past during Benediction and High Mass,
nowadays it was most often used at funerals.’ Finally, the
Master of Ceremonies to the Archbishop of Dublin had his
say. ‘In a small church building you have to be aware,
particularly if there are servers suffering from asthma.’
As the (Protestant) crow flies it is no great distance to the Outer Hebrides, beloved of this writer but, in its northern reaches, a last outpost of stern and unbending fundamentalist Protestantism a world away from Papish incense-swingers. Columnist Adam Nicholson, who actually owns a clutch of delectable islets, wrote recently about original sin, a concept unknown to free-thinking Britain in general but alive and well in Lewis and Harris. He gives an entertaining description of a recent Stornoway service at which he was the one man not in a suit and his wife the one woman not under a hat.
‘Some of you may think,’ the minister thundered, ‘that you are here on this earth to enjoy yourselves. Well, I have got some news for you. You are not. You are here on this earth to suffer.’ Nicholson speaks of the ‘shimmer of appalled delight that riffled through the congregation at these words.’ He goes on to analyse the Calvinist theology that makes possible such a statement and has preserved, against a rising tide of erosion, the uniqueness of the Presbyterian Sabbath where reading the Bible is about the only approved activity.
Having experienced the Stornoway lifestyle myself, I rather enjoyed Nicholson’s thoughtful and witty analysis and, in part, his defence of this vanishing way of life. Until, that is, I read this sentence. ‘It was publicly stated, in several Hebridean pulpits, that the two girls from Soham who were kidnapped and murdered last summer would not have met their fate if their families had kept them inside as they should have done’
Two worlds and two Christian
denominations, a few miles apart across a northern sea,
yet more than a world apart in their interpretation of the
Gospel. Each has its absurdities and its blinkered
preoccupation; they share, also, a continuing decline in
their numbers and influence and, in the case of the Roman
Catholics, an entirely understandable loss of moral
authority in the wake of ongoing revelations of years of
institutionalised child abuse. The cautious, lovable ‘via
media‘ that shelters under the Anglican umbrella
accommodates both extremes, thank God: long may it
continue so to do. But this writer at least is happier to
be a victim of passive holy smoking at ‘our end’ than to
condone the joyless and judgemental puritanism at the
other end of that colourful spectrum.
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