Sunday, 1 December 2019

61. St Mary’s Church, Cubbington

Today sees the start of Advent, the four-week lead up to Christmas. Everywhere this morning youngsters are opening little cardboard windows to tease out a Peppa Pig chocolate or similar. A look round the shop shelves this week - plus of course the easy online options - shows advent calendars dispensing crisps, sweets, collectable figures and (for the adults one would hope) different flavoured gins. You can just about get one of the old Nativity scene picture versions, complete with a blob of glitter here and there, but they’re fighting a losing battle against very brash, very pushy opposition.

My own calendar this year is a handmade and hand-chosen one which today yielded me a small wooden bicycle, a string of battery lights and a penguin joke. Like the story of Advent itself, I feel it may be leading somewhere but enlightenment may take weeks yet.

To start the seasonal lead-up to the church’s most joyous festival - it would be an interesting but ultimately pointless debate as to which is the more important out of Christmas and Easter - I am visiting the beautiful church of St Mary in Cubbington. It’s a good-looking church on any day but the low sun for this earlyish start is truly making the rose-coloured stone glow.

Inside, there is evidence that St Mary’s has already fired the starting pistol on preparations for the nativity story. There’s a handsome, fully decorated Christmas tree and a splendid nativity scene ready to illustrate the story. And there are notices aplenty about forthcoming festive events and services. The communion service has a few changes to reflect the start of the season and a very steady-handed youngster is brought forward to light the first candle of the Advent Crown. How many of us, I wonder, cannot hear the words ‘advent crown’ without conjuring up images of interlocked coat-hangers and tinsel just like the one on Blue Peter.

Strange then, amid all this preparation and anticipation, that the sermon should focus almost exclusively on a very well-trodden attack on the retail world expanding the traditional twelve days of Christmas into a spending frenzy aimed at grabbing your money while supplying little other than material possessions. 

Christmas, says the vicar, used to start on Christmas Eve, intimating it seems to me that we should all stick to that non-commercialised timetable. Involuntarily my gaze strays to the six-foot tree and its fine decorations. These are arguments we hear every year. They start the second any shop begins the process of removing the Halloween tat and replacing it with glittering plastic nonsense we’re all supposed to need at Christmas. And the complaints intensify as council staff start putting up the lights and pubs start advertising the traditional turkey blow-out for which we’ll all need to book soon. 

I utterly agree that there is only a certain number of times you can hear Slade and Wizzard again before you lose your grip on the world but I can’t let this morning’s sermon go by without noting that there are two sides at work here. Far from being the greedy, profit-soaked retail heavens they’re made out to be, our high streets are dying on their feet. 

Everywhere you look shops are closing down - and not just small, vulnerable ones, but big players too. And they’re taking jobs with them when the shutters go up. Those that are left face  a struggle to survive, cutting prices, squeezing margins just to keep pace with the online threat - more a reality than a threat. The true meaning of Christmas   to many who work in the retail or hospitality sectors is a chance for survival which must, at all costs, be grabbed and made to work. Retail needs every penny it can get at the moment. Much like our churches.

I fall to wondering if, rather than fight to regain sole control over Christmas (its meaning, purpose and bounty), the church should admit a partial defeat and perhaps hit back with a ‘churchification’ of Black Friday, Bonfire Night or Halloween. All these overtly secular happenings could easily have more spiritual connections perfect for getting more people through the church doors.

Setting aside for a moment any debate over the ‘true meaning’ of the sermon, this was a very uplifting service in the company of a welcoming congregation.  People were quick to say hello and find out what brought me along this morning and - not for the first time on this project - I’ve found myself thinking I’d be happy to go back.

This next month will bring a surfeit of some elements of the modern Christmas. Like everyone I shall feel the pressure to shell out more money to kit out my Christmas experience with things I probably don’t need. I shall feel I’m being overwhelmed by the wall-to-wall advertising, the repeats of dreadful films, the sight of otherwise normal people sporting awful jumpers and hats with bells. 

But there will also be the preparations in churches and the stately retelling of the Christmas story with all its wonder, solemnity and hope. And I’m quite happy for those two things to sit alongside each other without the need for rancour or remorse. 

Sunday, 24 November 2019

60. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Warwick

We live in a boom time for the ad hominem argument. Most obviously as the moment it colours our view of politics, particularly when it comes to Brexit. Leaders on all sides are judged more by what we think of them as people and less by what we think of what they’re actually saying. Admittedly the fact that they so rarely seem to say anything of substance doesn’t help, but the fact remains it’s the messenger not the message we’re drawn to, the singer not the song. 

Ad hominem thinking can be hugely counter productive. Green activists have, by their actions and their manner, recently run the risk of turning many people against aims and views which should, in any sane world, be universal; to a similar degree Prince Andrew’s backing for businesses, however laudable and worthy it may be, is now unlikely to survive the personal dents his reputation has suffered. Best scrap the whole thing then until we can find people we can believe in to bring us the message.

I say all this because I’m visiting a church which has had its fair share of generally-accepted stereotyping over the years. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has a strong association in most people’s minds. It’s the church of the Mormons - bible-belt America, doorsteppers in navy raincoats, closed-shop beliefs, little sex and no alcohol, and so on. The version of Christianity they carried in their identical black briefcases would, we believed, be as uniformly bland and lacking in anything remotely redemptive as the people that professed it.

My generation formed its first and lasting impression of the church based on the perfect teeth and reputedly perfect family values of the Osmonds. Nowadays people are more likely to have their opinions formed, however superficially, on the basis of the hit musical which pokes fun at the faith.

The Book of Mormon, when it’s not being a West End ticket seller, is this sacred collection of scripture underpinning the beliefs of this global church. Revered and rubbished in not-quite-equal measure, whether you accept its historical and literal authenticity or see it for an anachronistic fake probably depends - as I said earlier - on what you think of the people giving their views.

When I bumped into two missionaries in Warwick a few days before this visit they reassured me I had picked a great time to come along as the service would be one of farewell to some long-standing worshippers and would, as a result, bring in a lot of people. As it turns out I am in a congregation of fewer than two dozen, plus nearly half that number of young and very young children. It’s a chaotic morning at times.

The church is open, airy and modern. There is remarkably little by way of adornment. It has simple wooden lines and no iconography. Incidentally, when chatting to one of my welcomers afterward he spoke about a visit he’d made to St Mary’s up the road, hinting at an overload of art and decoration as  if that were a clear barrier to concentration. They keep it simple here for a reason evidently. The same simplicity is true of the service and its participants. Plenty of very sober suits and no vestments; prayers in simple phrases and no call to stand up or kneel down at any point. No props or costumes.

In addition to the brief prayers, there’s a communion of bread and (as you’d expect here) plain water. Again there’s no need to leave your chair for this. Or indeed to stand during the four slowest hymns I have ever encountered. I have no idea why this is, I’m too busy waiting for the next line under the watchful eye of a congregational conductor.

The main part of the morning, however, is in the form of testimonial talks from four people - two pairs I gather - who are moving on from this branch at the end of their mission times. 

The first pair are a fairly senior couple who have come to find each other and, through that, the whole purpose of their lives after the end of significant first marriages. Both speak at length and in halting, choked voices pausing often to pull themselves together and reassure themselves they can get through. It’s like a cross between a Betty Ford meeting and a press appearance from a sacked Australian cricket captain. I have no clue as to why we’re being made party to such an awkward, uncomfortable display of public emotions. Nobody seems to be paying the words much heed. Instead we’re all watching the antics of the children or, in the case of those presiding at the front, repeatedly checking their watches as the speakers embark on another bout of sniffling and tissue dabbing. 

Nevertheless there’s something moving here, if I force myself to ditch the (once again) ad hominem thought that these people are American and that’s what you expect. The woman spoke of finally getting back control of her life (her marriage I surmise not being fully Osmond in its perfection) and only being happy after placing that life in the hands of God. Not a move without its pitfalls I should think. But it meant a lot to her and her new fella evidently.

At the end it should be noted that no brainwashing hard-sell or standoffishness took place. Everyone I spoke to was welcoming and clearly at home in this church. I was offered the chance to come back and join a meeting to find out more, but the offer was casual and came with no pushiness. Perhaps, given the fact that I was the only man there not wearing a dark suit, they had taken one look and made an ad hominem judgment of their own.

Sunday, 17 November 2019

59. St Volodymyr the Great, Coventry

This pilgrimage has been a great eye-opener for me. I’ve come to appreciate the incredibly diverse nature of the religions happily existing alongside each other in our towns and cities. I’d recommend opening the doors and taking a look inside to anyone - and, if I had to name a convenient starting point, I’d recommend a stroll up Stoney Stanton Road. Mosques, temples and churches of every hue are lined up one after another on this road. You’d never be lost for choice if you called this place your home. 

This morning I am toward the outward end of this long street, one of those edge-to-centre ribbons so beloved of urban geographers. In a small patch of land surrounded by halal supermarkets and tightly-packed houses is the Ukrainian Catholic Church of St Wolodymyr the Great. It’s a church I’ve looked forward to visiting since I first drew up a list of all the many possibles I could include in my travels.

Outwardly the painted wooden building could be taken for a scout hut or community space, but inside the picture is completely transformed. Dark wood pews and paintings all draw the eye forward to a splendid screen of  colourful icons and vine reliefs in a series of marbled arches. It’s very impressive and plays its part throughout opening and closing at various points as incense and holy artefacts are brought out.

It may be a small church but this morning the turnout is strong. True to my experience of orthodox churches, such as it is, time is only a secondary concern. The mass has started as I arrive, despite me beating the published start time by ten minutes. The pews continue to fill up steadily after I’ve chosen a spot - there are people still arriving, kissing the icons and sitting down as the hour mark passes. I have no idea why this is. In most village churches, such latecomers could expect frowns from their neighbours and a stern (but anonymous) mention in the following month’s church newsletter. Here it’s just the way it is.

I have always had a love for the music of Eastern Orthodoxy. There’s something appealing and dramatic about the plaintive minor key liturgy that has always managed to transport my thoughts to far off lands. Perhaps it’s the sombre, low voices, or the fact that I can’t understand a word - whatever it may be it’s a joy to hear excellent singing here for this mass. The singing is carried out with confidence and gusto - not bad thing given the fact that for roughly half of the service, the priest and his singing worshippers are up against some noisy competition. 

Today is a festival day for the city’s Sikhs who are celebrating a landmark in the religion’s history by staging a party in the park preceded by a parade up the road on the other side of this church’s wooden walls. With their chants, songs and drums, Sikhs on the move can be joyfully noisy and their passing adds a thumping rhythm to the usually tranquil liturgy. 

I so wish those whose fears of immigration and cultural differences are stoked by the extremes of the current political tensions, were able to appreciate this diversity for what it is; something a city whose very existence was threatened by forces of such blind intolerance should be hugely proud of. Indeed, last night I joined people of all faiths and beliefs in watching a light show at the cathedral highlighting just that. I suppose that means there’s still hope even in these dark times.

Father Aleksandr, who presides from start to finish assisted by a small team of prop-bearing roadies, delivers a sermon based on the text of the morning, the relationship between the rich man and his slave Lazarus. I only know this to be the chosen reading because Fr Aleksandr unexpectedly breaks into English at a few points. It would be rude (and probably erroneous) to make such a judgement, but from the way everyone else was joining in, I had assumed I was the only linguistic outsider.

The service is is all-sung and by the time communion is offered I’m tempted to join in with my own phonetic version of the responses I’ve heard. But I resist - the welcome has been warm and I’d hate to put my foot in it with a howler of Boris Johnson proportions.

After the mass, and with the Sikh procession only a distant drumbeat, Fr Aleksandr comes to extend a welcome to me. I thank him for the English parts of the service. He tells me with a broad grin that he recognised me as a visitor but assumed, from my white beard, hair and patronly stature, that I too was a priest. Is it too late to retrain I wonder?

Friday, 15 November 2019

58. Shree Krishna Mandir, Leamington

This country is not lacking when it comes to traditions. Far from it, we have a whole calendar stuffed with all manner of them. From the big ones like Christmas and Easter to the cards we send at Valentine’s or the money we send up in smoke on (or more often around) bonfire night, we’re always marking something. But while many of these traditions spring from the thousands of years people have been living on these islands, they are not exclusively home grown. In common with many lands we welcome people from other cultures and the traditions they bring. In time those traditions lose their alien nature and become part of our national fabric.

Examples abound. In my school days there was no such thing as a Prom at the end of the year. Today this essentially American tradition is a fixture on the calendar. We haven't fully embraced Thanksgiving yet but the same nation's commercial hand has certainly changed the face of Halloween and made it into the trick or treat fest it is today.

It was only when I moved to the Midlands in the 1980s that I first heard of Diwali. In the more than half-a-lifetime I've lived here I have learned more about it and been delighted to see it spread among the wider community and grow in size, impact and (I would hope) acceptance.

And it’s Diwali that’s brought me to the Shree Krishna Mandir on a Friday evening. Last week I enjoyed a fabulous Diwali show at the Sikh Community Centre jointly organised by the Gurdwara and by this Mandir. Over two hours of colourful dancing, music, storytelling and more. It had a huge turnout and even had the town Mayor in the audience.

Having visited the Gurdwara earlier in my year of visits I was keen to add the Hindu equivalent. The Mandir has been in Leamington since the mid 1980s, but its tucked-away spot under the railway arches means it has stayed something of a hidden gem. That might be about to change if plans to expand find favour and with a considerable following that’s growing all the time, it’s probably a good thing.

The building as it is now is a single room space dominated by a splendid Mandap boasting a beautiful line-up of Murtis - the life-sized carved manifestations of some of the many gods of Hinduism. Today they’re sporting stunning orange garments but come another week and the colours may well have changed. I’ve said it before but nobody does colour like the Indians and this Mandir is the perfect tonic for a bitterly cold, rain-soaked November evening.

This evening’s prayer is a fairly brief and low-key affair. Prayers are chanted both cross-legged and then moving round the Mandap to honour each of the deities. It’s a concentrated chant accompanied only by handbell and clapping.

The welcome throughout was warm and genuine. Most religions (not all I’m sad to say) talk a great deal about opening out into the community around them and working to include non-worshippers and people of other faiths. Some religions do it better than others and the community at this Mandir have been leading the way for years. This is not a small piece of an alien culture hidden away behind pizza parlours and convenience shops; it’s as much a piece of the town as the parish church and the town hall. I hope the decades of reaching out are rewarded when the planning committee gets to have its say.

A few years back I wondered if the presence of such a large community adding so much to the fabric of our diverse nation through such inclusive festivals ought to be recognised in how we allocate our bank holidays. Might it be time to drop some of those bank holidays with little relevance and replace them with days off to mark some of the happenings which mean much more to a lot more people? Diwali might be top of my list if any government were ever forward-thinking enough to make it happen, although I have yet to see it in any current manifesto.

Sunday, 10 November 2019

57. All Saints and War Memorial, Leamington

All Saints really is a jewel in Leamington’s crown. I’ve certainly been to smaller cathedrals and ones without the wonderful sense of space and light this church has. In recent years it has become a regular venue in the town for music concerts and, oddly enough given the years I’ve been here, it’s to these I’ve been, never to a standard service.

This morning is Remembrance Sunday and we’re starting this communion service an hour early to allow time for the congregation and, more importantly, the choir to head up the Parade to the war memorial for the wreath-laying and civic silence at 11.00. Perhaps because of that we’re very thin on the ground. Given the significance of the day and the proximity of the church to the public memorial I’d arrived expecting crowds. There were twelve of us.

Thankfully there are more in the choir as All Saints has always been strong when it comes to music. It’s a slightly truncated service but there’s still time for a brief sermon reflecting how the world needs to be ever-vigilant to prevent a return to the chaos of two world wars. Burke’s oft-quoted truth about evil’s triumph requiring only for good people to do nothing is as chillingly accurate as it ever was - we just seem to have a problem these days identifying who the good people are and working out precisely what they should do.

After a hasty spot of refreshment for the choir we decamp a few hundred yards up the road to join a large crowd awaiting the arrival of the mayor et al. Yesterday I witnessed this same mayor representing the town through two hours or more of wildly enthusiastic, pounding, brightly-coloured Diwali celebrations at the Sikh Community Centre. Today’s flags, cadets, silver band and hymns must seem a world away.

I can still recall my first Remembrance service probably about fifty years ago and during a very brief period when I’d joined the cubs. I remember having to march in lines behind a banner, sit for hours in a cold church and then stay silent for what seemed even longer while everyone stared at the ground. It was as cold then as it is today, although at least the fifty years has provided me with the sense to wear long trousers.

I’ve always had a difficulty working out exactly the relationship between church and military. The church, with its promise of a life beyond this one, certainly has a role to play in helping salve the grief of the countless bereaved souls war leaves behind. And there is something of the church’s constant call for peace and understanding which can only help what meagre efforts nations make to avoid reaching for arms in the first place. But to tell those facing horrific combat that God is on their side, particularly when the enemy have the same God in their spiritual armoury, is plain daft.

Perhaps in these modern times the role of the church is taken by others. Secular alternatives will one day dominate. Go to any football ground at this time of year and you’ll find veterans on show, poppies ironed onto the players’ shirts and a silence far better observed than I witnesses toward the fringes of today’s gathering. I seriously wonder why some people actually turn up so poor is their concentration, so flimsy their commitment.

Where I stood, the prayers were ignored in favour of capturing the best video on the phone, the hymns largely left unsung. The silence fought against a constant barrage of chatting parents telling children to be quiet and - I kid you not - a woman humming along with The Last Post. And at the back of the pavement crowd a constantly shuffling stream of people anxious to get past this obstruction in time for the shops to open.

One day this may all simply fade away. The congregation will dwindle as will the scouts and cadets, and perhaps simply ‘liking’ a Remembrance page on social media will be sufficient to register a nod of appreciation to the countless fallen. And will that actually matter?

In the end all this rigmarole and parading amounts to very little. This is a simple act of remembrance. It’s not about glorifying the military, or about supporting a religion, any religion. It’s not about nationalistic pride or lauding it over the vanquished. It’s just about remembering - and promising to keep on remembering - a generation of people who either had no choice or who made the choice to put the greater good ahead of their own lives. And remembering, like all moral actions, is something you can do on your own. We shouldn’t forget that.

Sunday, 3 November 2019

56. St Mary Magdalene, Lillington

On a visit to Hong Kong I wandered into a shop stocked to the ceiling with paper goods in search of a notebook. I failed to find one and it quickly became apparent that everything in the shop was destined for something other than being written on. It was all for burning. Chinese Taoists believe their departed relatives are up with the gods and the best way to send them things is to emulate the smoke rising from a fire and just burn things to send them upwards.

Money features of course, although the not-so-stupid Chinese cottoned on fairly early to the fact that fake money costs less and burns just as well. But the shop also offered card replicas of everything from training shoes to reclining chairs - I suppose even the dead need a sit down after jogging round the clouds.

We don’t have an equivalent for this in the west. Perhaps we feel that when someone has made it to heaven, their needs are pretty much catered for. It would be a poor show, we might feel, if you had to spend your time in the afterlife worrying about money or uncomfortable trainers.
It’s quirky perhaps but no better or worse, and no less valid, than any of the myriad traditions and beliefs we humans maintain when it comes to what to do about those we’ve lost and still miss.

And it’s the dead who have brought me to St Mary Magdalene in Lillington this evening. Today is All Souls day and in much of the Christian community that means a special service in which we take a moment to remember people who have died.

The readings reflect the fact that we can’t escape death. There’s a time to be born and a time to die and so on. And we’re reminded - as we always are - that death is not the end and that eternal life waits for us. Even the hymns are uplifting in their marking of the progress of our lives. There’s a lovely modern setting of Teresa of Avila’s Christ has no Body now but Yours and I note, not for the first time, that music composed to honour the dead is invariably better than music which celebrates the living. Death monopolises the minor keys, the drama and the impact. St Mary Magdalene has a fine organ and a decent choir to underline this.

The first of two focal points in the service arrives with the reading of dozens of names of those whose friends and relatives want to be remembered. It’s a long list and puts me in mind of the memorial following the World Trade Centre attack. There’s a lot of couples here, husbands and wives I’d guess and the names suggests many had had long lives at the time of their deaths. 

Most of the prayers I’ve come across in my visits are aimed at the living. When someone dies they seem to become the departed, the deceased, the late, and the focus is on the upset and grief of those left behind. The phrase ‘our thoughts are with the family’ seems to be reflected in the prayers we regularly hear. But today we just remember - and I am reminded of the basic need we all have to believe that after we’re gone our existence will still have some meaning in the minds we touched while we lived. 

We surely can’t be praying that God will send our lost ones back. While some remembering people taken far too early or in tragic untimely circumstances might secretly, desperately hope some miracle could reverse the grief, I’m probably with the ‘seasons for everything’ way of thinking. Having my lost ones back would simply be bewildering. 

Nevertheless in the service’s main focal point I light a candle and pause briefly to say hello to those I’ve loved and lost. Hardly a day goes by in which I don’t think of them, or recoil in horror at the pace with which the years are speeding me ever closer to joining them. By the time the congregation has taken its turn in lighting a candle, the church lights have been dimmed and we sing the last hymn in a highly atmospheric gloom. It’s a service and a moment I’m sure I will remember for a long time.

Perhaps that’s the purpose of all remembrance: to make us more keenly aware of the time we have left and the imperative to make ourselves remembered in other people’s minds. Thinking of the dead might make us go away and strive even harder to make our mark in this world. After all, you can’t take it with you. Unless it’s cardboard.

Sunday, 27 October 2019

55. Holy Trinity, Coventry

This imposing, rather dark church has been a secret pleasure of mine for some time. During the years I worked in Coventry it was somewhere I could rely on for a period of calm in the middle of the day.

There were occasional recitals to be enjoyed but mainly it was a choice of sitting on a bench in the cathedral ruins, when the season allowed, or coming in here to get away from the stress of the city and the job. 

Holy Trinity has a commanding position. It is now the most dominant church in the city centre - partly because of its own splendid spire but partly owing to what happened to its closest neighbour, the cathedral.

November 14, 1940 is a date the city will never forget. A ferocious and relentless attack from German bombers pounded the city and its people throughout the night. When the sun came up the following morning the city was unrecognisable. 

Much has been written about the destruction of the cathedral; much has been made of the way the city rebuilt its Christian focal point and set about the even greater task of coming to terms with what had happened and coming to a lasting understanding with those who had done it.  

It’s an inspiring story, miraculous in some respects, but there was an equally inspiring story just a few yards away at Holy Trinity. Knowing the likely onslaught to come, the church vicar led a team, including his own son, who camped out in the church and spent the night fighting the fires caused by incendiaries falling on the roof. 

I often found myself wondering whether, given the same level of threat to life and limb, I would camp out to defend my place of work against the worst the enemy could throw at it. I have no doubt I wouldn’t, but then again, a church ought to be more than just a place of work and the commitment and bravery on display that night show that this building - along with many in the city - did hold a special place and still does.

There was damage - some valuable, historic windows were lost - but the church stood as it still stands today, alongside the cathedral ruins and, of course, the new cathedral. I doubt if the heroic vicar saw it that way for a second, but there is an irony to becoming the city’s focal point for steadfastness and resolve only to be usurped by a huge modern interloper at the bottom of your garden. A case of ‘always the bridesmaid’ perhaps.

The service this morning is relatively well-attended and there are all the hallmarks of it being a city church: plenty of obvious regulars but many attending on their own looking for a community they may perhaps lack at home.

Perhaps no moreso than any other church in these time of dwindling numbers, but it is a pity this place isn’t packed out. It may not have the sheer acreage of stained glass or stunning tapestry you can get at the other end of the graveyard, but it is wonderfully appointed and, in the shape of a fabulous medieval painting of The Last Judgement, it has enough ‘things to see’ to put it on any casual pilgrim’s list.

The welcome and the atmosphere are warm and genuine and it’s easy to see why those who choose to come here might value it higher than the automatic choice of the cathedral’s space and splendour. 

This morning’s is a traditional communion and provides a welcome chance to dodge out of the bustle outside. Today the square at the church’s front is filled with the noise and movement of some sort of street fair which has the highest count of stalls selling fired things you really should not eat that I think I’ve ever come across. 

As a footnote to this service, I noted among the congregation two people in England rugby shirts. It would have been three had I not opted to be a little more formal. I wondered whether they were here privately giving thanks for a victorious showing over the mighty All Blacks or to get in some early devotional credit with the Almighty about next week’s final. A bit of both I should imagine.