Saturday, 27 December 2008

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

It might seem churlish to have a real moan as a Christmas offering, but I have to admit that for the last week and more I have been simmering over the remarks attributed to Bishop Kieran Conry in his Catholic Herald interview. It is possible that his views have not been fairly represented, in which case I would assume he will issue a correction. But as his comments stand many of the faithful - clergy and laity alike - have been shocked by some of what he has to say.
Much of it has been touched on elsewhere. Here I would like to look at just three points.

First, regarding the sacred liturgy, the Bishop speaks of the centrality of the community. This is manifestly wrong. While liturgy is the action of the community, it is the service of the community. Thus the One Who is served must be greater than the one doing the serving. The Liturgy plainly does not centre on the community but on God Himself. To suggest that we are central in this action is to make our worship pointless. In all the Sacraments the things that we see, hear, touch and taste are the signs and symbols of that greater reality - the action of God that is behind them, inspiring the community's worship.
He also speaks of the community as being supreme over the individual, playing with words. As the Bishop knows perfectly well, the opening word of the Creed is not pistuomen but credo. The Greek word was used by the Fathers of the Councils as they gave their assent to the credal statements that were produced - the Councils speaking with one united voice. In the Liturgy things are different. Each one of us can only speak for ourselves before God, so we say 'I believe'. For exactly the same reasons do we say 'I am sorry' and 'I am not worthy.' These statements are signs of our own relationship with God, and it is the multitude of 'I's which make up the community.

Secondly the Bishop's statement on frequent confession is extremely disturbing - seeking to undermine the work that many of us are doing in trying to encourage people back to this wonderful Sacrament. Any priest will be aware that there are many who come to confession without a deep sense of conversion, and many who come back with the same words each time.
However, we do not, as priests, have a window into men's souls. There may be cases when a penitent's desire to avoid sin is getting stronger - even if the sins remain the same. And how many times does the Grace of the Sacrament prevent them from sinning? These are things we cannot know - but when I look at myself I can see that if I am letting it go for a longer time between confessions I am committing more sins. The Bishop's statement - as reported - seems to imply a lack of faith in the transforming power of Sacramental Grace.
And if people do come merely making routine confessions, is the role of the priest not rather to seek to lead them into a deeper appreciation of the Sacrament rather than to repel them? We need to try to help them come to a fuller understanding of the nature of sin, of Grace, of forgiveness. This can of course take longer - but St John Vianney found the time for it! It seems that the Bishop would rather turn people away than seek to teach them.

A sense of being unable to teach seems also to be present in the extraordinary statement that it is impossible to speak to young people about salvation because they won't understand. This is either lazy (not wanting to bother to teach) or patronising (not thinking they are bright enough). Of course it is not sufficient if we simply use theological jargon on its own - but the fact that such knowledge is not innate doesn't mean we shouldn't even try to teach it. That harks back to the discredited child-centred methods of education of the 1970s whose ill effects we are still suffering from.
To talk to teenagers about sin and death is to talk with them about things that are, in one way or another, part of their lives. Mostly they will say they don't want to sin. Certainly they will say they don't want to die! Jesus Christ has come into the world to save us from these realities over which, without Him, we have no control. What is difficult to understand about that? And how would talking to them about not over-filling kettles help to make it clearer?
Saving the world is, according to St Paul, an important part of our work as Christians. But to enter into that work we need first to encounter Christ as Our Personal Saviour and to develop a personal relationship with Him.
This we need to be taught - and who will teach it if our Bishops will not?

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Richard Hickox RIP

Richard Hickox would have been in the 6th form at the Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, when I first went there a a new student. I first remember him from a performance of the Dream of Gerontius he conducted in High Wycombe Parish Church as part of the Woburn Festival. With all the arrogance of a teenager I decided that performance was not a patch on what Sir Adrian Boult could do and so I decided to write of Hickox as no good!
I certainly had occasion to change that opinion over the years since then. Sadly I never did see him in concert since then but everyone will have their own cherished selection of his discography.
This evening I was listening to his wonderful recording of choral music by Sir Charles Stanford - the Songs of the Sea, Songs of the Fleet, and the Revenge. Also by no means to be missed are his wonderful recordings of the Haydn Masses - possibly not always as precise as those of John Eliot Gardiner, but possessed of a warmth and human feeling that more than made up for any lack. Also of note are his recordings of Masses by the very much underrated Hummel.
One could go on and on... and on. English music has lost one of its greatest champions, and in a year which has also seen the loss of Vernon Handley it comes as a double blow.
May they rest in peace.

Before the Conquest......

Last week we celebrated the feast of St Edmund, King and martyr - one of the many Anglo-Saxon saints who made this land once an island of saints indeed. Today I visited Oxfordshire's most important Saxon church - dating from round about the time of the Conquest. The village of Langford, like many of these remarkable places, is a little difficult to find - I suppose in the important places the churches got replaced with modern ones whereas in the real backwaters things remained much the same.

This isn't quite true at Langford though the Saxon tower is the first thing one sees = and an unusually elaborate one at that. The richness of decoration and the awareness of all the latest in architectural practice suggests that the architect was not simply some local man doing his best. In Domesday book Langford is listed as a royal manor, so this may suggest that before the Conquest it formed part of the holdings of King Harold or King Edward.

Around 1200 aisles were added to the nave, giving the church something of the appearance of an early Christian Basilica. The arcades with their round arches have wonderfully slender pillars with cruciform capitals very much at odds with typical Norman work, and it suggests that the importance of Langford was still such as to warrant getting an architect who was in tune with all the latest developments to come in to supervise the work. The lightness of the arcades is a delight to the eye and gives the church a real sense of spaciousness. The proportions have an Early English Style and lightness which is quite unusual for this date. Soon after this the chancel was rebuilt on a grand scale, again with unusual features. The tracery of the East windows is both pleasing and unusual, and the chancel includes a most unusual 13th century aumbry divided into six compartments.

The church also contains Anglo-Saxon sculpture on the grand scale. The East wall of the porch displays a life-size (but sadly decapitated) figure of the Crucified Christ, while over the porch doorway is set another scene of the crucifixion - though when it was moved into its present position those involved assembled it wrong - the figures of St John and Our Lady are on the wrong sides, both of them looking away from the cross!

All this is in a remote corner of Oxfordshire (between Witney and Faringdon) - and a part that is perhaps not much visited - but there is so much to repay the visitor in the villages and the scenery. One other delight is the little Norman church at Kencot.

On the down side this part of the county includes the ghastly development of Carterton. At risk of offending its inhabitants I think that if I wanted to encourage crime of all kinds I would build a place like Carterton. Happily some efforts are now being made to make it a place fit for humans to live in.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Wildest Hertfordshire...

...might sound like an unlikely scenario. Still, not far from Baldock is the wonderful village of Weston. It is reached by narrow roads climbing up the low hills from the valley floor and is an extremely spread-out village. To reach the Church of the Holy Trinity one drives down to the lower end of the village before climbing up a track past various timbered, weather-boarded and thatched houses - probably quite beautiful in the summer and possessed of a different charm in sombre November.

The importance of the Church itself rests in its Norman heart. On the approach there is little to see to suggest this, but on entering the Church the Norman tower on its four extrememly sturdy arches makes its presence more than felt. It remains the dominant feature of the Church's interior.

The North Transept (now used as an office) remains Norman with two simple single-light windows and a blocked up arch in the East wall. This presumably indicates the original presence of an apse holding an altar. The original church would have been cruciform with an apses in each transept and also a central apse in the East. The chancel was rebuilt in an incongruous though neo-Norman style c1840. Of the Norman nave nothing visible remains. The aspect from the North West is probably that which suggests the original building most faithfully.
The SW aspect shows clearly the Norman transept, suggesting the original height of the Nave would have matched it. The nave was heightened when a S aisle was added and a clerestory on that side in the 15th century. The original height of the tower would perhaps have been to below the present tower windows?

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Right to Die?

This morning's newspapers carry the story of a young rugby player suffering as a result of an injury sustained on the pitch 18 months ago. Unable to accept that the future he had planned out for himself was now over, he resolved to kill himself - or, rather to persuade his parents to arrange for him to be killed.
Before saying anything else, let it be quite clear that one does not wish to judge someone who feels so depressed at such an accident, or deny the sense of life being pointless that may ensue. Also, unless one has been in such a situation, one cannot simply condemn parents who went along with what their son repeatedly urged on them.
However, there are questions to be raised.

We had no choice but to let our son die, cries the Daily Mail's headlines. But even the Independent, normally in favour of killing people who are sick, old, or unwanted, found this a little hard to take. Though their approval was clearly with the young man's family, they also ran alongside the story of another young Rugby player who had sufffered similar injuries, and who after three and a half years is rebuilding his life and future on a new basis.

I would argue - as did his physiotherapist and others - that Daniel James had simply not had time to come to terms with his injury, nor to see what kind of life he could look forward to. It is entirely understandable that a young man who sees his future ruined might react in this way - at lesat in the short term. But what Daniel needed was not to be killed but to receive help in seeing how his life could be worthwhile. Eighteen months seems like a long time for a young man, particularly when he is incapacitated. What he needed was the wisdom of those who are older and will no doubt have seen more tragedy and disappointment, and the many different ways by which people cope with it and overcome it.

It is true that at the moment we live in a society where large numbers of young people commit suicide simply because they haven't got any reason for living. But even the Independent sees it as a problem where the groups of suicides of people in their late teens and twenties. Daniel's reason seems to have been much the same as theirs - so where is the logic of saying to some people: We think you have a reason for thinking like this, so we'll kill you - while we say to others: We don't think you've got a good reason so why are you causing all this pain and suffering to those around you.
We live in a society which by and large does not believe in a Right to Live but is coming more and more to push for a Right to Die. Do we not see here the truth of Pope John Paul's description of our society as a 'culture of Death.'

Whether people have physical disabilities or not (and the liberal media are always pushing the idea that the disabled have just as much to contribute s anyone else, and are just as capable of enjoying life as anyone else) if they cannot see any point in living then it is up to those around them - and to all of us, to seek to show them reasons. To give them reasons for living, things they can achieve. Maters of life and death should not be controlled by a 'do as you feel' culture.

Those who are sick, disabled or depressed need help, not killing. Or do we really want to end up in a situation where if we go to the doctor suffering from depression we will simply be told to take ourselves away and die because that will solve our problems? When there is a solution like that available why should we be taking up a doctor's time and precious NHS resources. In modern England, it seems, Ebenezer Scrooge is alive and well - even if many others are dying.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes

Once again we find in some of the Catholic papers a real enthusiasm for scrapping the Act of Settlement which prevents a Catholic from becoming King or Queen. I'm not sure how many Catholics are queueing up for the job but it sounds good. It sounds as if we are indeed people to be reckoned with - peple who are as good as the next man - or woman. And in our age it is not right to show discrimination.
Of course, the voice of reason is nowhere present in any of this. Nor do any seem to think to question why some of those in the liberal establishment should be lending their support for this. As always we should ask cui bono? It is noticeable that many who are anti-Catholic in so many things will still agree that Catholics should be able to succeed to the throne, and really their motivation is quite clear. And it is not out of love for us!
The one point that nobody seems to want to raise about the Act of Succession is that it is simple common sense. If the Crown is Head of the Church of England, then it follows that the person holding that position must be able to support and defend the Protestant Religion. If we are seriously to try and say that a Catholic should be able to be head of the Church of England, would be as ready to say that religious belief should not affect the choosing of the Pope? This shows us the sbsurdity of the situation. The Act of Settlement should in fact not be repealed unless the Crown is no longer to be head of the Church.
Thus the price to pay (there is always a price) for repealing this largely irrelevant Act would be the disestablishing of the Church of England. Some might consider ways in which this would be a good thing - and they may be right. But if the Church were disestablished then this would be a secular state. The Church of England - with all its faults and difficulties - is still the guarantee that in law this Kingdom is a Christian Kingdom.
The only ones who would really feel a profit from repealing the Act of Settlement are those atheistic secularists who support such a move, and no doubt the Moslems who would then see even more of a religious vacuum that they could fill.
I don't want to be King. I do want this to remain - at least in name - a Christian Kingdom, committed at least in the broadest sense to the values of the Christian Faith. It may not be much, but it's better than the alternatives. Let us, as Catholics, support the Act of Settlement, and support Her Majesty the Queen, Defender of the Faith.

Monday, 22 September 2008


Looking at the Futurechurch website, one is struck by how the name is a misnomer. It looks not to the Future of the Church but to certain present day difficulties, for which it seeks to provide a quick fix.
As Augustine said long ago, much heresy begins with one idea that is good or OK in itself, but becomes concerned with that to the exclusion of all else.

Sr Chris Schenk, of Futurechurch, argues that because the Eucharist is the most precious gift we have been given then it must be the will of Christ that we should all be able to receive it frequently, and that we are therefore justified in doing anything to achieve this laudable goal. This is argument is obviously faulty taken simply as a pice of logic. For example, suppose that something seemed clearly to be the will of Christ but we could only achieve it by some immoral means, then clearly it would not be right to bring it about. We would have to seek other means, or else we would perhaps come to see that although Christ might want it, He might not want it at any cost.

No doubt it is the will of Christ that all His people should benefit from the Eucharist, but time and again throughout history in many parts of the world, the faithful have bee deprived of the Eucharist. We might think of penal times here in England, or of the centuries in Japan when there was no priest in the whole country. At such times the faithful kept faith alive by other means - by obedience, prayer and devotion - not by seeking to change the structure and nature of the Church in order to bring about the end they desired.

Futurechurch does not seem inclined to examine the past any more than it considers the future. A knowledge of what Christians have done in the past is surely likely to be a helpful guide when we find ourselves confronting similar problems. In the pontificate of Innocent III of blessed memory there was a remote village in France that had been without a priest for some years. Eventually the villagers had had enough of this and they appointed the village blacksmith (he being regarded as a man of repute and position in the community) to say Mass for them. Effectively this is the Futurechurch solution. And what was the result? When things came to the Bishop' notice, he asked Rome for guidance. The Pope said that this must stop. Nobody can simply set themselves up as a priest in this way. Yet he also emphasised to the bishop that neither villagers or blacksmith were guilty of sin, since what they had done had been in no way sacrilegious but was born out of a love an desire for the Eucharist.

So, we might ask, faced with a shortage of priests what would be wrong with the Church deciding to ordain men (though I think futurechurch would like to ordain women also) in such situations who could serve as part-time priests while gettin on with their family life and work at the same time. Would this not be a good way of meeting a very real need?

This is where we need to think about the future consequences of our actions. If we were to respond to a fall in vocations by saying that we will ordain anyone on such a basis, many who might like to be priests would think: this is fine. I don't need to make it a commitment of my whole life; I can do it anyway! We would find numbers of vocations falling even faster! It would also totally change the work and role of a priest. A priest is not simply a machine for sacraments. Those to whom he is sent to minister are his family - hence the title of 'Father.' He is there to serve them in a whole range of situations and needs - and frequently at any time of day or night. The work Catholics expect from a priest cannot be done except by a full time and totally committed priesthood.
And there is more in the way of consequenes. With a drastic fall in vocations we would in time find ourselves without bishops - hence the Church would no longer be Apostolic. Without that central bond of communion each community would be reduced to doing its own thing and making its own decisions, and so the church would no longer be One or Catholic. With us all making decisions for ourselves rather than seeking to discern the will of God, the Church would no longer be Holy (that is, belonging to God).
And if the Church of the Future is not to be One, Holy, Catholic or Apostolic then what is left?

The people of Futurechurch may not intend or desire such results, and I have no doubt that their love for the Eucharist is as sincere as that of those thirteenth century French men and women, but if we seek a quick fix solution to our problems we may very easily find we have made them worse, even to the point of destroying what we profess to love.

What then is the answer? First, of course, to pray. Second, not to convince ourselves that the results of our prayer are infallible. Listen to others, and to the results of their prayer - because if our insights have come from the Holy Spirit, He will be giving them to others - we can be sure of that. Sr Chris didn't wish to reply to the above points, simply observing that we would not agree. Sadly that sounds so much like a mind that is wholly made up in advance of any argument. Because we don't debate simply in order to win, but in order to clarify our thoughts and test our own ideas - to test spirits so as to discern the one that is the voice of God. And if our thoughts converge into His thoughts then we are all winners!

Friday, 19 September 2008

Multum in Parva... the motto of the County of Rutland, the smallest of all the English Counties and perhaps unsurprisingly one with a very fierce sense of its own identity.

Having a day off today, the first for a month, I headed north up the A1 to see what treasures might be found in Rutland and East Leicestershire, to be rewarded by the amazingly sumptuous Norman Chapel at Tickencote. Multum in parva indeed! The little church was restored and partly rebuilt in 1792 when the West Front and South tower were added. The extraordinarily ornate exterior is buttressed in French style rather than English with demi-shafts. The first picture is of the unusual west front, done in a Romanesque style with a touch of Hawksmoor. This is the plainest aspect of the Church. By contrast the East front is highly decorated with intersecting arches, friezes, bland recesses and mouldings. It also reveals a room above the sanctuary - a feature of a number of Norman churches - though it is not certain whether this upper room overlooked the Church as at Compton or Melbourne. Here, the puzzle is, as at Iffley, why was such a sumptuous church built here?

Inside the mystery deepens as we find a sexpartite vault over the chancel. Traditional wisdom is that the sexpartite vault came to England after 1175 with William of Sens - but the church itself seems to be older than that - probably c1160. A clue may be found in those French style buttresses, for sexpartite vaults had been used in Normandy from very early in the century. So this appears to be a French Church rather than an English Norman one, hidden away in a quiet Rutland village.

But the true glory of the interior is the incredible triumphal arch that marks the entrance to the Chancel. This fivefold arch is described by Pevsner as being 'wildly overdone and in addition incompetently executed.'

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Church and State

One of the items of 'received wisdom' in our 'liberal' society is the separation of Church and State. In many ways, of course, this is a thing which is good and desirable. We need to recognise that in many - perhaps most - modern states there is no single religious belief which holds a general sway, and it is plainly not right to demand people of one religious belief to live under the sway of another. It is questionable how far a religion such as Islam recognises this truth, but nonetheless it is a truth. Those who are not Christian plainly should not be bound by laws which are made by Christians for Christians.
Of course there are those general laws, based on the concept of natural law, which are to be considered binding upon people of all faiths or none - as the current jargon has it. Prohibitions on Rape or Murder are examples of this.

Our own society, typically, takes things too far. It sees the separation of Church and State as indicating that there is no common standard of morality - and that therefore morality is not the concern of the state, but is something left to the judgement of each individual. Religious opinions, far from being seen as important, are things to be perhaps politely listened to, and then set aside as the enthusiasms of a small minority.

Because this is the 'received wisdom' it can be easy for Catholics to go along with this - not out of any wish to deny the faith, but because we do not wish to be imposing our views on others. The trouble with this view of things is that the result is the secular state ends up imposing its views on everybody. But separation of Church and State has not always been seen in this light. It has not always been seen as a denial of any common basis for morality.

In our society morality is seen as a matter for Church, not State - officially! In practice this is not alwayys the case. Increasingly the state comes to impose its own substitute morality for the morality of religious belief. But this is the opposite of what the true liberal democratic state should be doing.

Consider the words of Alexis de Tocqueville from his study 'Democracy in America' first published in the 1840s, approving the separation of Church and State, but not the isolation of one from the other:
Religion perceives that civil liberty affords a noble exercise to the faculties of man and that the political world is a field prepared by the Creator for the efforts of mind. Free and powerful in its own sphere, satisfied with the place reserved for it, religion never more surely establishes its empire than when it reigns in the hearts of men unsupported by aught beside its native strength.
Liberty regards religion as its companion in all its battles and its triumphs, as the cradle of its infancy and the divine source of its claims. It considers religion as the safeguard of morality, and morality as the best security of law and the surest pledge of the duration of freedom.'

Friday, 29 August 2008


Inequality - it's a thing we all detest - right?
I recently read a review of a book by Polly Toynbee & David Walker 'Unjust Rewards' on this subject. Johann Hari, writing the review, ended his comments by saying that 'no doubt Toynbee [what happened to Walker?] will be showered with right wing abuse for this book.' This is a fairly standard technique of the extreme liberal position, which means that if there is any criticism they don't need to listen to it. I will therefore begin with where I agree with the thrust of Toynbee's & Walker's arguments.

Inequality is a contravention of natural law, of divine law. This is if we assume that we are talking about inequality in the way people are treated, or the opportunities they are given. Even here, of course, we inevitably make distinctions. If somebody is unable to learn how to fly an aeroplane we do not insist that British Airways should give them a job as a pilot. And quite rightly so. What we should be concerned with is finding ways of establishing equal opportunities for all. This would mean that every person who thinks they would like to be an aeroplane pilot has the opportunities to move towards that goal. Nobody should simply be told: You're too old, you're too young, you're from the wrong family, the wrong address etc. etc. Yet even here we have difficulties. If somebody in their seventies decides they want to train to be an aeroplane pilot, is it wrong to refuse them? It might be that their health might not suffice to exercise the role. It might be that the years of flying time they would be able to put in would not justify the expense of training them. Already we can see that equality is not as simple a matter as we might wish it to be.
And we know that to be the case. If we imagine two people, and we give each of them £500,000 and leave them to get on with things, it is quite possible that in ten years time one of them will be doing very well while the other has drunk himself (or herself) to death. If we are concerned about equality of opportunity, we do need to be very clear about exactly what we mean.
Mr Hari presents us with two children on the Clapham bus (thank God, apart from the headline he refrains from calling it an omnibus) One is from a wealthy family, the other from a poor family. The child from a poor family is three times more likely to die in an accident, more likely to die young and less likely to 'achieve'. Toynbee argues from this that it is up to Government to do something to correct this iniquitous state of affairs. Parental income, she argues, determines who will run the banks and who will sweep the floors.

This simplistic argument has so many flaws that it is difficult to know where to begin. For instance, in an ideal society, the work of those who sweep the floors would be valued just as highly as the work of those who run the banks - but this ideal society is not what Toynbee is arguing for. She seems to believe the patent nonsense that everyone should be running the banks. But if there is then nobody to clean the floors, what happens? Equality at this level does not insist that everyone should be doing the top jobs, but should recognise that in a complex society the work of each member is work of value. If we deny this then we are condemning those who for whatever reasons are not able to run banks to a life of being regarded as worthless, having nothing to offer. A true sense of equality of worth recognises the principle that each person should contribute to society according to their means.

Where Toynbee examines disparity of income between rich and poor she is exposing a well-known inequality and what is at times an injustice. It does seem obscene that some have annual bonuses of millions whereas others struggle to get by on next to nothing. But her answer simply will not do. She suggests a High Pay Commission to recommend a 'suitable national average'. This sounds not unreasonable at first sight. But in fact what she is suggesting is that Government should be empowered to tell us what to do with our money. If a company gives huge bonuses to its chairman that may be immoral, but it is difficult to see in what circumstances it could be called illegal. Do we really want government to decide how much should be paid to people? Do we really want government to decide what is just payment - not just for the super-rich, but for me? The point of principle is important here. Do we want to live in a free society or in a society where goernment decides on all the details of our lives and our social interactions. We might have a government we can trust today, but will we have such a government tomorrow? We need to think very carefully before giving away such sweeping powers.

Toynbee also seems to overlook one of the reasons for children remaining in the lower echelons of education. She seems to think that government can and should handle all the problems, but while it may be debatable whether government should it is certain that government cannot solve this problem. Now, there may be areas where government can do something useful, but an awful lot depends on a child's upbringing.
We do not need to question, for the sake of this argument, whether a parent loves their child. But the fact is that our education system does not distinguish between children from wealthy or poor backgrounds. The same opportunities are given to each. Where then is the problem?
A child from a family (rich or poor) that encourages that child to work, to do well, to gain results, is likely to do better than a child from a family (rich or poor) that does not give such encouragement. Encouragement in this sense is not a matter of wealth or resources. A generation or two ago there was a sense among most families that it was a good thing of their children could 'better themselves.' This has been lost, and many of the poorer sections of our society do not see the advantages enjoyed by those better off as things that are desirable, or worth working for.

The problems of inequality are not capable of being solved by government alone, but need also the active help of parents who desire to see their children succeed better than they themselves have. Without this, any givernment programmes will be doomed to failure. It is not a situation we can buy ourselves out of.

Toynbee is right to highlight the problems presented by glaring social inequality. Where she errs is to suggest that government alone can find a way out of it. The only way out of the problems that beset us is through a conjunction of enlightened government and concerned parents - both of which seem to be in short supply in a society which has as its main aim the right of the individua lto do as they like and be valued for what they are.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Bleak Liturgies

As promised, some RS Thomas - an excerpt from his 'Bleak Liturgies, published in 1992

Shall we revise the language?
And in revising the language
will we alter the doctrine?

Do we seek to plug the hole
in faith with faith's substitute
grammar? And are we to be saved

by translation? As one by one
the witnesses died off
they commended their metaphors

to our notice. For two thousand
years the simplistic recipients
of the messag epointed towards

the reductionist solution. We devise
an idiom more compatible with
the furniture departments of our churches.

Instead of the altar
the pulpit. Instead
of the bread the fraction
of the language. And God
a shadow of Himself
on a blank wall.

The whole published in Thomas' Collected Later Poems by Bloodaxe Books.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Dedicated Builders

Last week's day off was a day of ups and Downs - Sussex Downs, that is. I know it's a poor attempt at a pun but never mind - it's Monday morning and I have three School Masses to celebrate today so allowances must be made!

One thing I forgot to do when in the lovely town of Steyning, was to ask someone how you pronounce the name of the place (Staining, Stenning, Stining). A little apart from the town centre is the great Norman/Saxon church (or what remains of it). The first church here was built by St Cuthman in the ninth century. His story is interesting. It is believed that he was a young shepherd in SW England who, on his father's death migrated to Steyning, taking his aged mother with him. (He walked, she rode in the handcart which he pushed). At Steyning, he got a group of people together and they built a church, and he lived the rest of his life there. In 1939 the playwright Christopher Fry wrote a one-act play 'reviving' this forgotten saint, called The Boy with a cart.

Anyway, the people of the town have erected a statue in his memory, looking at what has become of the church since his time. In the reign of the Confessor the church was given to the abbey of Fecamp in Normandy. If the proportions of the existing Church look somewhat odd, it is because of alterations made in the 16th century when the central tower, choir and transepts were taken down, as well as the two westernmost bays of the nave, and a west tower was built. What remains is however one of the finest pieces of Norman architecture in the country. The changes did not come about through the vandalism of the so-called reformation, but date from towards the end of the century. Whether they resulted from lack of maintenance, or simply from the church being so much bigger than what a small town needed or desired, I do not know. Certainly the town remained wealthy, enough to have a large grammar school and an adjacent junior school founded in 1614, though utilizing an earlier Guild House, belonging to the Fraternity of the Holy Trinity.

St Cuthman does seem rather critical of what he sees. What follows is a photo of the interior of the Norman Church - though like many Norman buildings it is fairly dark inside, and a view along Church Street past the Junior School towards the Grammar School. There are a great number of historical sites in this part of the country, and although I get completely lost when I venture South of Thames, the getting lost is part of the adventure. And when you find yourself high up on the Downs, on a beautiful sunny day with the view extending more or less for ever. and you the next town or village you come to will have something to make it worth while stopping for (other than seeking directions) then getting lost isn't so bad!

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Stevie Smith - Poetess

I just thought I'd like to share this poem with anyone who might happen to be looking in. Written in the 1960s, it's a sign that it was not only the Catholics who were having problems.

Why are the clergy of the Church of England
Always altering the owrds of the prayers in the Prayer Book?
Cranmer's tuch was surer than theirs, do they not respect him?
For instance last night in church I heard
(I italicize the interpolation)
'The Lord bless you and keep you and all who are dear unto you.'
As the blessing is a congregational blessing and meant to be
This is questionable on theological grounds
But is it not offensive to the ear and also ludicrous?
That 'unto' is a particularly ripe piece of idiocy
Oh how offensive it is. I suppose we shall have next
'Lighten our darkness we beseech thee oh Lord and the darkness of all who are dear unto us.'
It seems a pity. Does Charity object to the objection?
Then I cry, and not for the first time to that smooth face
Charity, have pity.

Next, we'll probably have some RS Thomas.

The love of God

We hear in today's Gospel: the heart of this people is grown coarse. What an admirable description of the situation we face at present in England!
Ome day last week I went to post a letter at the post-box across the road. On turning away from the post-box I narrowly missed a collision with a youth riding his bicycle along the pavement. He swore at me indicating that I should get out of his way. I pointed out the presence of a cycle path alongside the pavement, but he didn't seem very interested in that and swore at me again as he pedalled off along the pavement!

My reaction - well, I suppose if I'm to be honest I must admit that my first reaction was along the lines of: Who the devil does he think he is, behaving like that! - but my considered reaction was to think of how great the love in the heart of God must be for that young man.
Surely God must grieve over those whose hearts are so coarsened by the 'cares of this world and the lure of riches' that they have no time for anything else. A life that is lived so concentrated on self that every interaction with others becomes a confrontation; that every crossing of our own will becomes a source of anger - is that a life? Is it not rather a form of Hell? Is it not a shutting off of the self from all that can give life meaning or value?

My next reaction: How do we communicate to such people the hope, the love, the forgiveness, the reason for living that the Gospel offers us? In the present climate, where so many young people kill each other, or themselves, for trivial reasons, is there not an urgent need to make such communication? How do we do it?
I don't claim to have the answers, but I am sure I have a starting point. It's not about making the Gospel 'relevant' (see earlier post). That's a false path. Rather it's about those of us who are Christian taking that faith seriously. We can only communicate the Gospel if we live it; if people can see in our lives that sense of love and belonging, that sense of forgiveness and of hope, that joy in the risen Christ that marks our lives. It's not about being relevant, but about being credible. If that joy etc. is present then people will see it, and some, just some, will want to know what it is that we have that they do not; and of those, just some will want to ask: Could I have that too.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Cotswold Wonders

Following the events of the last couple of weeks it was great to get a day away in the peace and quiet of the Cotswolds - even if I was unable even to find at least on eof the villages I was looking for!

First and foremost was the village of Elkstone, where the Church had an upper storey built over the sanctuary as at Compton (see earlier post) and Melbourne. Whereas Compton is still intact and Melbourne totally disappeared, at Elkstone perhaps the people who lived here forgot the purpose of this upper room, for at some point during the Middle Ages it was converted into a dovecote, or columbarium.

The interior of the Church shows a very low vault built over the sanctuary, in order to carry the weight of what was above it. The Norman arches are highly decorated both with geometric and figurative carvings. Climbing the stairs to the upper storey one finds oneself inside the dovecote and can only wonder what the Church would have been like as completed.

In the church today a columbarium is a place used for the bestowal of ashes of those who have been cremated. This view of the dovecote shows why the word is used. The niches for the urns are reminiscent of the niches in which the doves would originally have rested.

In this part of the Cotswolds is a whole string of truly ancient Churches stretching from North Cerney away to Daglingworth, where the church (dedicated to the Holy Rood) has some old Saxon carvings including one of the crucifixion itself. Like all Saxon the Churches the nave is high and narrow. The carvings themselves are simple - even crude - but nonetheless posess a certain dignity.

The main problem in this part of the country is finding the villages you are looking for. There are huge numbers of roads - some of which are unsuitable for motor vehicles. And to cap it all the villages do not have signposts as you enter them as is the case in most of the country. On arrival at a village you need to look for some indication that it is in fact the place you are seeking! And while I readily found Duntibourne Abbots, Duntisbourne Lees and Middle Duntisbourne, I failed to find any trace of Duntisbourne Rous, which I was looking for! Never mind - it is, as Chesterton might have said, all an adventure. And here's a picture of the Holy Rood at Daglingworth.

Monday, 30 June 2008

Ad multos annos...

The last ten days has been a busy time. In the Diocese of Northampton we have taken part in the priestly ordination of Fr Andy Richardson and Fr Simon Penhalagan. It is my prayer that God may fill their ministries with grace and joy as they work to bring others to Christ Who has called them to His service.
Here at St Martin's we also celebrated the Golden Jubilee of Fr Neville Mc Clement, a former Parish Priest here. With him (from l to r) are Fr Brendan Killeen, Mgr Tony McDermott (a native of St Martin's Parish) and my self. The Mass was attended by over 200 people, both present and past parishioners and people from other parishes in which Fr Neville has served. People came from far away as the East Anglian Coast and from Blackpool to take part.
It was a great celebration and a reminder to all of us of what the priesthood is truly about. Celebrating Priesthood is not simply about celebrating ourseles because a Sacrament is given to us both to help us to our own sanctification and to assist others likewise. To celebrate Priesthood is to celebrate the whole Church, both clerical and lay.
Since we are all good Catholics there was also a party after Mass with food and drink in a suitable abundance!

Friday, 13 June 2008

Dissent takes many forms

It is also often very subtle, lying not so much in open statements of dissent but in suggestions and associations. Sometimes it may not even be the intention of the one with whom it originates. I was reading in the Catholic Herald an article profiling Fr Daniel O'Leary and his recent book. I am not commenting here on what Fr O'Leary has written - I don't know him, and haven't read his book - but on the impression the article gives me.
Much of what is contained in it is unarguable, and the idea that we need to find ways of preaching the Gospel in ways that can communicate with people is naturally true.
But speaking of a lack of spiritual nourishment in liturgy and preaching in many churches, he says; The power is lost when relevance to life is lost, when the religion is no longer concerned with the realities, conditions and struggles of ordinary life. A little further on we read of two versions (admittedly not completely mutually exclusive) of the Roman Catholic Church - one still clerical, institutional...the other less institutional, less clerical, more human and trusting, where people rely more on the true inner authority of their baptism and on the Spirit-inspired sensus fidelium.
Leaving aside the implication here that a church which is clerical and institutional (whatever the precise meaning of those words may be) cannot also be human and trusting, there is much that is highly dubious in these words.
I may not be the world's greatest intellect, but I have never understood what people mean when they talk about the 'relevance' of the Church. If it be true that God became man, died on the cross to free us from sin, rose from the dead and ascended to heaven in order to show us the way to eternal life, then how can that not be relevant? People may accept it or reject it - but nobody can reject it on the grounds that it is not relevant. They might reject it because they don't believe it, or because ot asks too much of them, or because they're afraid to hope for something that wonderful. To try to link the faith primarily to this world is both a betrayal of faith and doomed to failure. If our faith in Christ Jesus has been for this life only then we are the most wretched of people, comments the Apostle.
If it be true, then it offers hope to the drug addict, to the single mother, to the unemployed, to the terminally ill, to the businessman, to the sports star, the musician etc. etc.
Christianity, it has been said, is based on one over-arching belief, and four practical paths of action. The belief is that God became man, died, rose again and ascended into heaven, reuiniting the earthly and the divine realms.
The actions it enjoins on us are first: to develop ourselves and our capabilities to the full, taking responsibility under God for our own lives. Second: to follow th epath of God's love - which leads us to God, and to become divine! Third: to show in our lives a real commitment to the poor and the outsider and the unloved. Fourth: to share the good news we have received with others.
This was the preaching of the early apostles - preaching not based on relevance to day to life but based rather on REJECTION of day to day life infavour of something deeper, more satisfying. Hence the preaching of the faith must not start with such vague things as 'Gospel values of trust, courage and openness' but with a firm and confident proclamation of the Word of God, Jesus Christ. If we don't start here, how will anyone think that we really believe it.
People can rely on the 'true inner authority of baptism' only when they have truly accepted the authority of Christ, only when they have truly committed their lives to Him and to His love. The 'institutional' church exists, like Christ, not only for those among us who may already be saints, but for those who like Caravaggio's St Matthew desire to follow, but still have one hand on our own gold! It exists to strengthen and encourage the sinner, to remind the sinner that even if he is not followng Christ faithfully, Christ has not abandoned him. It exists to show to others the love of Christ and attract them by and through that love; to help them grow in commitment to Christ and rejection of this world's values - not always as something evil in themselves but as something less than perfect. The Church is an institution in order to be a visible sign of Christ's presence - even if at some times the organs of that institution might be less than admirably used. The Church is, after all, made up of men and women who sin in all kinds of ways. The Church is clerical not to be exclusivist but in order to throw into relief the holiness of the sacraments which she guards and administers.

Fr O'Leary seems to verge dangerously close to pantheism when he declares 'The world is God's beloved body. Calling it Godless is a huge mistake.' Preaching a gospel that seems to comfort people where they are and leave them feeling good where they are is always a temptation. But with Bunyan's Christian, we need to remember that we are walking through the wilderness of this world, and that Jesus Himself, far from reckoning the world as God's body, spoke of the Prince of this world who was opposed to Him.
If we make a supposed 'relevance' our priority then we abandon any real spirituality based on the teaching of Jesus. We conform the church to the world rather than the other way about. Our preaching and teaching needs to come first and foremost from the depth of a lived and certain faith. It needs to begin by proclaiming to people what God has done and what tha means for us. And for all sorts of reasons we will often fail. But we will not fail as badly as we would if we changed the message - changed the Gospel.

Whose throne?

Having recently reviewed Hilariter I notice that Fr David has included a photo of Canon Udris on the throne of St Gregory. Whether Canon Udris or myself looked more apostolic beggars the real question - what has Fr David done with the photo that was taken of HIMSELF seated in that throne back in January? I think we need to be told!

Monday, 9 June 2008

There's no place like home.

Or close to it anyway. Wherever one is in England (almost!) it is possible to think that that particular county is the most beautiful in the land. But for me Buckinghamshire (as the county of my birth) must always hold that position! Wandering around the villages between Aylesbury and Milton Keynes, one finds a great beauty in the low hills that surround the Vale of Aylesbury. It's not just the historic buildings that feature in the guide books but the historic buildings tha people live in. It is true that most of these villages are not villages in the real sense, being largely inhabited by people who work somewhere else, but despite Philip Larkin's fears much of England remains. This house in the village of Quainton is an example, where people have lived for hundreds of years. It is just down the road from the almshouses, founded in the late 17th century, to provide for the poor in their old age. In our days it is considered degrading that the poor should have to rely on others for material assistance. But things have not always been seen in this light. It used to thought that one of the purposes of wealth was that some of it at least should be used for the good of others. Quite why it is thought better to rely on an impersonal 'state' than on generous-minded individuals is, I admit, a mystery. Many of the old almshouses were places of real comfort (for the age) where people could, after a lifetime of service to their community, retire in comfort ad security. In a way it wasn't even 'charity (as if that were a bad word!) but the rewards for their labour.

These almshouses, founded by a son of King James I's Chief Minister, don't look that bad a residence today. They were built close to the Church, as well, in recognition of the fact that those who lived there would wish to pray for their families and benefactors and take part in the worship of the community. There we see a real sense of what community is about, not the artificial constructs of modern social engineers but growing from the relationship between people. Until we bring to an end an excessive reliance on the anonymous state and bring to the fore once again relationships, things are unlikely to improve in our society. Anyway, that's enough of a rant for today. Let's end with a picture of Quainton church

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Romanesque Somerset

When on a short break in Somerset I discovered that I had forgotten to bring with me that indispensable guide to what to see - Nikolaus Pevsner's The Buildings of England. Well, I hadn't quite forgotten, but in my haste I had selected the volume for the wrong part of Somerset. Imagine my consternation when, on arrival in Porlock, I discovered this error. I then had to try and remember some place names that had stuck with me in my 'reconnaissance'. Among the place names I thought I remembered was Stogursey, so off I went towards that village.

Arriving, I found that I had rightly remembered it as a place to be on my 'must-see' list. The former village of Stoke Courcy had a marvellous Romanesque Church. The view here, looking west from the High Altar, shows the most wonderful liturgical space, as the floor slopes and falls away down towards the nave. The Norman arcades to the chancel merely serve to open this space out. As with many of these ancient churches it is difficult to be too exact as to the date, but I would consider it seems likely that this particular church was begun pretty soon after the Conquest, probably in the 11th century. What we see today dates from probably about a hundred years later than that.

The Church was not the only thing to see in this small village. It must have been a place of some importance, for it had a castle as well. Being directed by a local scholar towards Stogursey Castle, it was only after opening the front door and entering a small kitchen that I discovered the Castle was not in fact open to the public. It is owned by Landmark Trust, and is available for residential hire. Anyway the lady who looked after the place agreed that I might look at what there was to see if in return I took a load of empty bottles to the bottle bank at the far end of the village. It seemed like a good deal!
Stogursey castle is even today surrounded by its moat, and one has to enter by way of the old drawbridge. Not a lot remains of the fortiications themselves, and the house which was formerly the keep is the part which is available as a place for a group to stay.
All-in-all a good place to visit.

Saturday, 31 May 2008

Holidays are good for you

While the rest of the parish was going mad cleaning and polishing and getting everything ready for the Bishop's Visitation, I took a week off to go down to Somerset. I didn't have what you might call the best weather, but then, you can't have everything - not in this life! It was, however, a relaxing and interesting stay. I was staying at the Ship Inn at Porlock, where Southey wrote a sonnet while he was bored because a rainstorm kept him from continuing his journey!

I was very far from being bored and found that the rain kept off for long enough to walk to Culbone and back, along the cliff path - quite tiring when you're out of condition - but at the end of it is what claims to be the smallest parish church in England, at some 35 feet in length, and dedicated to St Beuno. It is in fact only accessible by footpath but it's a lovely little place and in a beautiful setting. It's difficult to be sure of its age, but I would think that parts of the fabric may go back even to the 11th century.

Even older wonders may be seen in this part of the country. At Tarr Steps, on the Barle Water (they don't have Rivers down here, but Waters) is an ancient stone bridge which some would date to the 10th century, but others even to prehistoric times. You can see why bridges were needed for these streams most of which are extremely fast-flowing and violent waters not easily to be crossed by fords. The country is wild. Its roads are extreme by English standards with even the main roads having precipices, hair pin bends and frequent gradients of 1 in 4 (25%)

Here we see Tarr Steps - however old it is. In the next post we may find we have a couple of pictures taken on Exmoor itself. We'll see what happens, but this will have to do for today. As I already mentioned we have the Bishop's Visitation of our parish this weekend, so it is inevitably a busy time - not because he demands it, but because the rest of him have what I consider a natural desire for him to see the parish at its best.

In the calendar, of course, today has been the Feast of the Visitation. If I believed in omens and suchlike fooleries, I would probably say that was a good sign!

Friday, 30 May 2008

The Sacred Heart of Jesus

Having just arrived back from watery Somerset, I cannot let this day go by without a word concerning the Sacred Heart. For me, this feast is one of the very greatest in the Church's year. It is the day above all days when we simply remember the love that God has shown us, the love that is shown to its perfection in the life of Jesus. The Christian faith can only ever be understood by the lover. I remember that on the day I left Oscott College to go on retreat prior to my priestly Ordination, Fr David Oakley was preaching at Mass, and he said that to be a Christian in truth meant that one had to be an incurable romantic. Following those words of his, so much of what I had prepared for my retreat went out the window! The feast of the Sacred Heart is simply (simply!) the feast of the love of God for me, for you and for every one of us. It is a marvellous day. Go away and think about it; what difference Christ's love for you makes to you rlife. If it doesn't make any difference, still think about it: what difference the love fo God might make to your life. It has made all the difference to mine. And that's all I will say. If I allowed myself, I could sit here all night talking of the Sacred Heart - but then I wouldn't be getting ready for the Bishop's Visitation!
God bless you all.

Monday, 26 May 2008

Corpus Christi

This weekend we held our 2nd Deanery Corpus Christi procession at St Martin's - combining it with our 4th May procession (we figured that Jesus wouldn't mind sharing it with His mother), which is why the picture below is of an image of Our Lady. Despite having a number of travellers coming to the Church on Thursday looking for Mass on what they thought was a Holy Day, the transferral of this particular feast to a Sunday is, I feel, a good and desirable thing enabling such events as this to take place.

In the event it wasn't a procession as such, due to the weather. Nevertheless getting on for 200 people took part in the devotions held in the Church including people from some half dozen of the neighbouring parishes - so we felt it was a success. But it's a great thing to do on a Sunday - a coming back after Mass to say 'Thank You' in this way, like the leper who returned to give thanks for his healing. Our children's choir, however, still had a Mass to do after the Devotions, so ended up being at the Church from 3.00 through until about 7.30! That was a real thanks offering to the Lord.
Our Lady's image (pictured here) was given to the parish by members of our Filipino Community, who also made the dress she wears on special occasions. When bringing her back from the Philippines they refused pointblank the demands of airline staff that our Lady should travel in the baggage compartment. She had to be in the cabin.
We value our images of the saints not always because they are works of reat art, but because of what they represent to us. A boy of round 12 years old, of a travelling family, said to me a couple of days ago that he was worried about his older sister joining with some born again Christian group and not having any time for statues. 'Father', he said to me, 'when I look at that statue I see something beautiful. I see our holy Mother, our Lady. And, father, if it weren't true, I couldn't see it.'
Our Lady's statue will remain in the church until the Visitation, which i salso the occasion of the Bishop coming on his visitation to St Martin's. The Bishop's coat of arms may be seen on the church wall behind Our Lady.

Friday, 23 May 2008

A Liturgical Mystery

Having visited the church at Compton in Surrey, just outside Guildford, I am left with unanswered questions. The bulk of the Church was built in the 10th and 11th centuries with some later additions. Foremost among these were the 12th century additions to the chancel. A low vault was built over the altar and an upper room was inserted. Sir Nikolaus Pevsner wonders about the liturgical function of such a space. Was it used, in the time before rood lofts, for the proclamation of the Gospel on major feasts? If so, then the Reader of the Gospel remained unseen from much of the church. There is evidence of such an arrangement at a number of places in England, notably at the Imperial Basilica at Melbourne in Derbyshire and at Elkstone in Gloucestershire. But only here has the upper room survived intact, still with its original 12th century wooden guard-rail - one of the oldest pieces of woodwork surviving in England.

Whatever it was intended for, it's marvellous to think of all the wonders that lie hidden away just off the main road in all parts of our country. That part of Surrey, just below the great ridge known as ;The Hog's Back' is particularly beautiful scenically. Here is a view over Compton Lake taken from just outside the church itself. It's a strange thing, but whatever county of Enlgand I am in, I end up thinking it's the most beautiful - whether it be Hertfordshire, Essex, Surrey - or perhaps next week Somerset, when I go down to spend what I like to think of as a well-earned rest in Porlock.
I think I have by now worked out what a blog is for - it is perhaps what used to be called a 'commonplace book' simply recording things that strike one as noteworthy.
Thinking of The Hog's Back, I was invited to a child's birthday party this week - a Filipino family. At the centre of the banquet was a whole roast pig, that they had been cooking on a spit on the patio for most of the day. For me it was a novel experience to go up when I wanted something to eat and slice it from the pig. The pig didn't seem too unhappy - it's right foreleg seemed to be waving - pity I didn't have my camera!
I was also moved this week to write a letter to the Tablet. Correspondents had been writing objecting to communion being given on the tongue rather than in the hand. One was concerned about the 'sexual overtones' of this practice. Another was concerned that the people were being 'infantilized' and dominated. I am glad that I don't live in the same world as these people. If we are conscious as we receive communion that we are meeting Christ, receiving His Body and Blood, then surely anything else is peripheral? What room is there here for mere human considerations, even if they were sane? There are some very sad people in the world who clearly devote great amounts of time to thinking of peculiar ways to attack the Church.
I also had a letter from a lady in Wales warning of three days and nights of total darkness during which Christians should not venture out of doors under any circumstances. And after these three days and nights then, so she told me, Lesbians and Homosexuals would find it very hard to walk because they would be CLOVEN-HOOVED! Insanity is not the sole preserve of the loony left. Anyway, I'm off to Porlock, after which we have the Bishop's visitation. Au revoir!

Sunday, 11 May 2008

On the last and greatest day of the Festival

So Eastertide ends.
Pentecost brings to an end this season which is such an emotional roller-coaster from the beginning of Lent until now. This three month period sees us make a journey with Christ's Apostles from the high point of Peter's recognition of Jesus as Messiah and Son of God through his almost immediate rejection by Jesus for thinking in man's way not God's; through the fears and bickerings along the way of the journey to Jerusalem; through the triumph of Palm Sunday; through the panic following Jesus' betrayal and arrest; through the experience of His trial and death; through the Resurrection when Jesus was beyond all hope restored to them; through the Ascension when He made it clear that He was not going to be with them (physically) for much longer; to Pentecost - the Descent of the Holy Spirit.
Take a deep breath and relax. Relax? Will the Holy Spirit let us relax, or will He carry us on and forward to the place of His power? If we let Him, who knows what He will do? If we let Him. So often all that we need to do is to stand aside from our own concerns, our own ideas, our own plans; to get out of His way and let Him work. Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Your faithful: enkindle in them the fire of Your love. Send forth Your Spirit, and they shall be created, and You will renew the face of the earth. Alleluia, alleluia!

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Luton in the month of May

It's May, so let's have a typical picture of Luton at this time of year. Luton doesn't always get a very good press, it must be admitted, but this is just outside my front door. In many parts of the town one can find tree-lined avenues - at this time of year resplendent in blossom. The many parks and open spaces moved one writer (albeit in the 1930s) to write of Luton: Here the pilgrim who comes in search of beauty will never be disappointed. It's a great place to be.
In the church grounds here is a veritable wildlife reserve among the trees and bushes - and especially when it's a while since the grass has been cut. We find squirrels, hedgehogs, cats, foxes, several different species of finch and of tit, as well as many other birds and insects. Cutting the grass can be problematic in view of the area of the grounds. It's a matter of finding a long enough slot of dry weather to do it all. I prefer to do that particular job myself. It's work that is good for me - St Benedict knew the value of manual labour. They made us do it at seminary because it was a good thing for a priest to do, not because it was good for seminarians! But keeping some kind of order in a garden is surely what Adam and Eve were doing before the Fall!
It's been a busy month so far - and set to become busier with our Corpus Christi procession in a couple of weeks, and the Bishop's Visitation the week after that. Then the 1st communions. Also in June we have the golden jubilee celebrations for Fr Neville McClement, formerly parish priest here at St Martin's and in the same month we have in the neighbouring parish of St John, the priestly ordination of Andrew Richardson. He and Simon Penhalagan are the only priests to be ordained in our Dicoese this year. We pray that more may be helped to respond to God's call - for undoubtedly He is calling them. Then there is Confirmation on 11 July - after which we can hope that things quieten down a little.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

It's a Mad World.....

A couple of mornings ago I heard the news headlines on Radio 3 as I was waking up. The first item was news of record profits announced by BP and other oil companies resulting, so it was said, from the increase in oil prices. The second was that one of Saddam Hussein's ministers, Tariq Aziz, was going on trial accused of having executed businessmen for profiteering. I would like to think this was a deliberate juxtaposition of items, but I fear probably not.

More madness - I read in this morning's paper that the people of Lesbos are objecting to 'Homosexual & Lesbian Rights groups' because they insult the good name of the people of that island. The surprising thing I suppose is that it's taken them this long to get round to it.

More seriously it does raise the problem of the things that people are determined to take offence at, whether it be Muslims who may for all I know never have heard of Denmark getting 'offended' by cartoons in that country about Mohammed or whether it be drivers on the London Underground getting 'offended' by a comedy film (which seems in rather poor taste) about suicides on the Underground. 'It's not a laughing matter' we are told. But has comedy ever been a laughing matter (in that sense)? Back in the days of the Ealing comedies, one film that I remember was 'Kind hearts and Coronets' where the leading character systematically removes all the members of his family who stand between him and a title. We could argue that the idea of a man doing such a thing is no matter for laughter - and we would be right. Yet the film is funny. Of course comedy offends - that's what it's for. It exists in order to make the pompous look foolish; to make the unthinkable something we an laugh at instead of be frightened by.

It seems that the law of our land both allows anyone to offend anyone they wish, and at the same time encourages those who feel offended to say that their rights are being overridden.

Much of this offence is not genuine, of course. It is an act on the part of people who want to be taken seriously, and it should be disregarded. The best respone to it is a raspberry.

At the risk of upsetting artists I point out that the engraver who depicted the pelican (see last post) had probably never seen one. In case pelicans might be offended at being depicted in that light I post a picture of what a real pelican looks like - and they don't feed their blood to their young either. Of course I must not upset any vampires by suggesting there is anything wrong with that either......
Have a nice day!

Monday, 28 April 2008

Oh to be in England

The village of Wendens Ambo in Essex is one of many villages (and towns) in that part of England that have retained much of their character from former ages. It seems that to begin with there were two parishes of Wendens, Upper and Lower. Then they were united into one village, called Wendens Ambo (meaning Both Wendens)! This charming view is looking down the village street from the church with its tower - according to the guide books Norman. But looking at the tower and at the unusual height of the interior of the little church I can't help wondering if perhaps it is older than that - or perhaps in some places the older ways took longer to be superseded. The countryside of NW Essex is beautiful, with gently rolling hills and extremely bendy roads - no doubt made by the rolling English drunkard.

Just a few miles past Wendens Ambo lies the ancient town of Saffron Walden. No doubt in days gone by it would have been surrounded by the fields of saffrom which gave it its wealth - saffron being used as a dye, for food and for medicine. The saffrom wealth enabled the merchants of this town to build the largest parish church in the whole of Essex, and to this day there are may streets of houses dating from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries - as well as the former Corn Exchange (now the Library) described by Nikolaus Pevsner as being a 'tasteless but jolly Italianate style.' I haven't got a picture of that at present, but we do have something of the great church of Our Lady.

Among the many monuments in the church is one ancient brass commemorating a priest of the church from the 15th century. Many pious images on monuments of all kinds were destroyed by the iconoclastic zeal of Protestant 'Reformers' nut one unusual survivor here is that above the figure of the priest is a depiction in brass of the 'loving pelican' which according to medieval belief fed its young on its own blood. The pelican, thus becoming an image of Jess is shown here driving its beak into its breast while its young await their nourishment below in the nest. The Latin inscription reads: 'So much has Christ loved us.'

Monday, 21 April 2008

Spring is here...

...or nearly so! Taking advantage of this I undertook a Church crawl among the village churches of NW Hertfordshire, and driving along the country lanes in between. I was pleasantly surprised to find three out of four of my 'target' churches open for people to visit and/or to pray in.

The church at Redbourn is typical of many round here, with its massive Norman tower and the flint exterior largely dating from the 15th century. To the right of the church can be seen the very tastefully designed Parish Hall, linked to the church and built in the 1990s. Inside, however, the true age of the church can be seen in the elegant but solid Norman arcades dividing the aisles from the nave. Pace Pugin, I always feel that a Romanesque style is the most fitting for church architecture, speaking of strength, of timelessness, of purity, of endurance...... Here's a photo of the interior.

No law, no crime......

This from Saturday's 'Independent' Newspaper, on the subject of the number of children held in custody in the UK - far more than in any other country in Europe. One of the reasons given, that the age of criminal responsibility in the UK is lower than in other countries, is reasonable however much one might question the advisability of sending children as young as 8 or 10 to prison!
Another reason is the rise on ASBOs given against children which 'means there is a greater risk that they will get caught up in the criminal justice system' If we think clearly we will very soon realize that it is not ASBOs which cause this to happen as if there's nothing that the children can do about it. Against their will, it seems, they are 'caught up' in this terrible system. The ASBOs are, if anything, a warning to the children saying: continue to behave in this manner and this is what will happen. It is not ASBOs that result in children going to prison, but persistent criminal behaviour.
So long as we teach children - or adults - that they do not have to take responsibility for their own actions, things are unlikely to improve on this front. Children need to learn that their actions can andwill have consequences. Parents need to learn to be responsob;e for their children and so on and so forth.
Yet any attempt to speak what is basic common sense seems to result in accusations of 'demonising' those who seem at fault. Clear thinking in all levels of public debate - whether political, social, religious or criminal would be a great step forward!

Wednesday, 16 April 2008


Today has been an interesting day. In some ways a typical one in the life of a Parish Priest. A funeral in the morning. Lunch at the top table at our local school with the Head and the children who are this week's 'Stars' for work, behaviour, attitude etc., the afternoon doing the accounts and the evening at the hospital after Mass. It's never boring.

I was reflecting on the readings for today's Mass - with the names of some of those who formed the early Christian communities with a range of skills and talents, a range of widely differing social backgrounds and political beliefs - but all united in the desire to be followers of Jesus. Here, surely, is why the Church is Catholic - not simply a gathering of like-minded individuals but a people, a family.

In the evening I heard from Fr Michael Griffiths, a priest of the Diocese who has just begun serving as Parish Priest on the island of St Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean. By the wonders of modern technology we could speak as if face to face. Well, in truth he couldn't hear me very well, but nevertheless...... The Church is present in the most remote parts of the world. He is settling in his little house there and already beginning his work with a Requiem Mass for Napoleon Bonaparte. Let us keep him in our prayers as he brings the faith to the ends of the earth.

Today I include a picture of the Church of St Martin de Porres, where I am Parish Priest. It's a small church, and modern, having been built in 1979. Nevertheless it is not without its attractions, some of which will be posted here from time to time. The Reredos installed in 2000 is the work of artist Stephen Foster and is an eyecatching image on entering the Church. More images will follow, in due course.
That's all for today.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Hello, world! I'm not really sure that I understand this blogging business, but we'll see what comes of it.

The beginning of this blog follows a visit to one of the best hidden secrets of London.
Near St Bartholomew's Hospital is the church of St Bartholomew the Great, built by Rahere, a Jester and courtier of King Henry I who, towards the end of his life, took Holy Orders and committed his life totally to God. He became the first prior of the great church that he built.
It is a place of wonderful peace and beauty, an act of thanksgiving for health and life.
The title for this blog is Pater Seraphicus because our faith is something that should give us a certain outlook on the things that happen in the world around us.
We do not ignore suffering and oppression and disease - far from it. But because we know the last word is with God, we are strengthened. Rahere survived the wreck of the White Ship, where King Henry's son and heir died. He survived fever and severe illness in Rome. The results were that he wanted to give thnks and to help others. To view the world with the eyes of a Seraph - with compassion and sorrow but also with a great love and a massive hope for the future.
Rahere's church (or most of it) still stands.