Sunday, 18 August 2019

44. St John Baptist, Berkswell

Berkswell is a splendid sight on a sunny morning. The early golden light seems to make the church stonework glow and the distinctive porch - a thing worth viewing in its own right - is garlanded by some fabulous sunflowers.

I’ve chosen to come here, to an early-shift communion service because I’m on my way into Birmingham to spend the day at Edgbaston watching Somerset and this provides an excellent opportunity to tick off a church I’ve long wanted to visit and get to the ground before the first ball.

Today’s communion is being led by Canon John. He starts proceedings by welcoming us and by telling us he’s recently retired - about twenty years ago. Canon John is here filling in for a couple of weeks while the permanent vicar is away enjoying a holiday. Yesterday he was working too, he says, in this very church conducting a wedding. 

I have many retired friends and they all have one thing in common - they seem to be busier than most people I know who work. Apart from me of course. It could be the demands of the family - particularly grandchildren - or being a key cog in a voluntary organisation, or even just going places or preparing to go places. I know a few who feel duty bound to help out at the place they worked because they don’t want to let former colleagues down. I suspect that is partly the case here, but only partly.

Having been interested in theatre all my life I’ve seen many performances reflecting the wide range of commitment and ability people are prepared and able to give. Although the truly breathtaking pitch-perfect performances are the undoubted highlights, there have been plenty of times when it’s the slightly less polished, slightly less confident performances that have won my heart. I’ve seen any number of stumbles on stage but it’s how people have recovered from those mistakes that makes me want to support their efforts more than applaud the abundantly-talented and professional. 

There are lots of little stumbles on show here - as you’d expect with a stand-in vicar and a congregation very small in number. We have a lesson read by a woman who was sitting quite contentedly in the pew behind me before being asked about two minutes before the service starts if she would mind reading from Hebrews as the person scheduled to do it had not materialised. A quick scan of, it has to be said, a lengthy and complex set of verses, and she read perfectly. Any theatre would be proud of rising to the challenge like that.

I expect Canon John has delivered the standard communion service hundreds of times down the years, but each theatre is different and each production has it’s own peculiarities. But it’s with complete openness and confidence that he stops and asks the congregation if HE should read the next prayers or if someone else has been nominated. He takes the prompt - including the gentle hint that he should by now be heading upstage to the altar to prepare the bread and wine - with calmness and good grace.

Later I see an engaging mime show as three ladies who have all appeared at the same point, divide between them the duties of removing the communion altar rail and re-stacking the kneelers. It’s all done in whispered urgency as if giving the game away would be the worst sin presented before the Almighty this morning.

It’s these small things that help to make life less automatic and more human. They remind us that, while the script may be unchanging, it’s the interpretation on the part of the performers which will determine that performance’s value. I can’t, of course, be certain but I’d guess that none of these people is here expecting perfection to be laid before them. They’re here, I would say, because they want to help out, to take part and enjoy doing just that.

Canon John’s brief address to the congregation centres on his wife’s perfectly reasonable demand that, as he sails deeper into his eighties, he set aside one day each week for spending time as a couple away from other distractions doing the things they like. One day a week, he tells us, to make the best use of the time they have remaining. One day to do only the things that matter and that you love. I would guess that her husband is probably following the path of most retired folk and is already doing that on the other six anyway.

Sunday, 11 August 2019

43. St Paul’s, Warwick

The new football season has started. Depending on who you choose to follow this might actually have happened last week. But this weekend has seen the big teams shove their much-vamped £70m players out onto the pitch and start the quest for more trophies, more fans and more money. 

Football is a big money business - it has to be to sustain the jaw-dropping salaries, the pampered lifestyles, the absurd cost to TV companies so we can all watch wall-to-wall product. 

But there’s another side to the game of course. Just a quick scan of yesterday's results from further down the food chain shows Newport traipsing all the way to Cambridge for a goalless afternoon. Wrexham will have clocked up a fair few motorway miles to get to Dover and heaven knows what time the players and fans of Eastleigh in Hampshire had to start out to reach Barrow-in-Furness in time for kick-off. 

You have to wonder how teams like this keep going, let alone why. It can’t pay for a limited number of diehard fans to have to travel that far. Why sit for five hours on the M5 and M6 when you could just join the other millions watching Manchester City on the TV? The result is sparse crowds and teams barely breaking even.

So what’s this go to do with a pilgrimage round churches? Fairly obvious, I suspect. This morning sees me at another Sunday service sharing a wonderful space with fewer than twenty people. There’s nothing wrong in that, but it’s a pattern I’m seeing time and time again. There are churches where the pews are full certainly, but there are far, far more where they’re struggling to hold onto a couple of dozen regulars let along bringing in anyone new.

A few years back there was a surprise hit TV show called Troubleshooter. Industrialist Sir John Harvey-Jones would take a break from running ICI to go and dispense wisdom - sometimes is a shockingly blunt fashion - to firms struggling with dwindling sales and ageing workers in tough markets. Quite often the advice would be radical and utterly without sentimentality. Change could be pretty brutal. I’d love to know what the great man’s view would be of all these under-attended, fairly static churches. He’d probably recommend closing most of them, selling them off and concentrating resources in those that remain. 

Perhaps that’s what’s needed here. St Paul’s in Warwick - a gem of a church tucked away by the side of the racecourse - could easily find itself one one of the Troubleshooter’s hit lists. In some tough-talking board room scene it would be rendered redundant and its congregation simply grafted elsewhere. Of course there would be outrage and many tears but it’s all for the best isn’t it?

Judging by this morning’s welcome I’d say no. Fewer than two dozen there may be, but there is a pride in welcoming a newcomer to the church. The man who comes over to shake my hand asks my name and where I’m from and then proceeds to point out every single one of the congregation by name.  It’s an impressive demonstration of how close a family a small church can be. I doubt many people at the larger gatherings could boast the same knowledge of the people with whom they choose to worship. It clearly matters.

This communion service is one which mixes the traditional form of the service with songs rather than hymns. I have to admit that, after a long succession of such musical offerings, I am starting to pine for some decent hymns.

These modern songs are usually well-played (as is certainly the case here) but their banal, endlessly uplifting lyrics and strummed open chord sound (not to mention the unnecessary chorus repeats to drag out the length), can quickly become repetitive and deathly dull. I know being uplifting isn’t in itself a crime and is part of the whole church-as-spiritual-affirmation business, but sometimes a rousing rendition of Abide With Me can be equally inspiring and I find myself wondering if the advertised presence of a church organ should feature higher in my choice of where to visit next. 

But as the final song rolls on St Paul’s offers something I’ve never seen before in the form of a very eye-catching flag dance performed to the side of the altar by a member of the congregation who’s clearly done this before. It works well, I have to say. Interpreting the music and providing a visual to keep us all focussed - John Harvey Jones would probably have recognised an innovative idea there and asset-stripped that for it to reappear elsewhere. For me it was just a further reminder, if one were needed, of how attached people become to their own place and how they demonstrate that connection in whichever way best suits them. 

And in the end that’s what keeps all those small clubs, tiny family businesses and slightly becalmed churches going. Fans of Eastleigh don’t want a bigger club, they want this one. The same is true for companies which have done things one way for generations and would lose their soul if they suddenly changed tack overnight. For churches, there is always the feeling that things will carry on as they are as long as the people who go along want them to. It’s not efficient and it’s strategically fairly moribund but that’s just the way it is, and for collectors of churches like me, it’s a perfectly acceptable state of affairs.

Saturday, 3 August 2019

42. Leamington Mission

Football should kick off at 3.00 on a Saturday afternoon. Shops should shut at 5.30 six days a week. Pubs should stop serving at 11.00. And the correct time to go to church is 10.30 on a Sunday morning.

The pressures of commerce and television have scuppered the first three of those and it’s been one of the lessons of this pilgrimage that the last one doesn’t apply and never really has. 

From Friday Prayers to Thursday afternoon spiritualism, the notion of ‘church on Sunday’ is completely redundant - and always has been in the eyes of the Seventh Day Adventists. Placing their beliefs firmly in the literal teachings of the scripture, it’s a Saturday (Sabbath) for them.

The Mission is a smallish chapel-like building which has been many things during its time. I remember coming here to watch a cracking blues gig back in the early 1980s and I recall the Royal Antediluvian Order of the Buffaloes having the place for a while. It’s now home - as it has been for some time - to a congregation of Seventh Day Adventists, who meet here on Saturdays for Bible study and worship.

Worship at The Mission starts with music from the band with the words on the big screen and moves through communal prayer to a full recounting of the Joseph saga to an audience of one rather bewildered child, before more music and a talk from a guest preacher. 

I’m getting slightly more used to these big screens. Not having to balance hymn books, service sheets and books of common prayer on a tiny shelf is a clear bonus, but looking up during the offertory prayers to find the church’s sort code and account number in foot-high writing is arguably still a step too far. 

The music is uplifting in theory but I do find these anthemic concoctions can so easily become bland, simplistic and repetitive. Perhaps it’s the noticeable lack of numbers today, or the pre-storm humid weather, but the place is hardly buzzing.

Today’s talk stems from the story of Gideon. After years of living under oppression, injustice and cruelty he appeals to God for help. Visited by the Angel of the Lord and instructed to take some decisive action himself to improve conditions for him and his people he answer with a few polite points. He wants to know why he should be expected to lead the way when he’s not the obvious choice, he wants to know why God has let this situation develop in the first place and he wants some sort of sign as proof that it won’t all go horribly wrong.

Over the course of a not altogether inspiring 40 minute talk we’re invited to agree that Gideon was just throwing up excuses and that he should just have had more faith. We all of us, the speaker repeats at length, just need to trust more and have more faith.

I find this one of the most troubling aspects of religions which rely almost entirely on the literal text of the Bible. Faith, in this expression, seem to mean trusting absolutely and at the same time abrogating any right to ask questions. We are, as humans, a naturally inquisitive species. Our development down the ages has been almost entirely as a result of that constant search for answers. Out greatest achievements, conquests, discoveries and so on have been made because we wanted to challenge our own ignorance. It’s true that some of our worst actions have come from the same desire, but with absolute faith and nothing else, where on earth would we be?

So we’re left with a rather unsatisfactory answer. Whatever awful things happen in your life, don’t waste your time trying to work out any notion of causality or reason, just believe a bit harder. In a way it’s faintly redolent of being told not to be a doomster or gloomster but that Brexit heaven can be achieved just by believing in it enough. I find it as impossible to give any credence to that view and its proponent as I do to any kind of blind religious faith.

To imagine a life without questioning is almost impossible for me, without conjuring up visions of some dystopian, submissive half-existence - and that doesn’t seem to be the case for the people here today. So perhaps they all secretly DO question things but find the answers acceptable. Or perhaps there is something about unquestioning faith which I’m not yet able to grasp. Either way it’s another question for which I think is worth reasoning out an answer, but I don’t truly believe the answer is to be found here.

Sunday, 28 July 2019

41. St James the Great, Old Milverton

One of the conversations I’ve had quite often with friends since starting this blog and my wanderings round churches crops up whenever they ask me where I’m going next.

I’ve amassed an impressively long list of places I’d like to go and I’ll often have an idea of where my next visit will be. But mentioning the name of the church often brings a bit of a blank expression on the face of the person asking me. 

A very flimsy observation would be that we often know where a church is, but not what it’s called. Round towns and cities we tend to refer to churches by which road they may be in, or which more secular landmark is close enough to pin down the location - the big church near the Shell garage, for example, or the modern one near where you park for Argos.

Out in the countryside the churches seem to be synonymous with the village in which they stand. So, this week I’ve been telling those kind enough to enquire that I shall be at St James’ - then adding ‘at Old Milverton’ when they look bemused. 

The naming of churches is probably covered exhaustively by those of a scholarly and ecclesiastical persuasion. I’ve often wondered if it actually mattered. It helps differentiate, certainly, but is there any more than that I wonder. I can’t imagine people would travel too far simply to be a member of one congregation purely on the basis of that church’s name. Would some saints prove more popular than others in attracting the crowds? Would St Peter’s be packed out while St Kentigern’s stands empty?

Perhaps church names are of as little importance as those of pubs. I’ve never chose to visit one pub over another purely as a result of its name. You don’t have to be a royalist to go through the doors of the Queen’s Head or feel you are more likely to be among equestrian folk simply because you’re in the White Horse.  

But St James is St James and part of the reason I’ve come here today is that this weekend is the feast of that saint and therefore the patronal festival service of the church.

St James The Great together with his brother John were from fishing stock and were among the first to be invited by Jesus to leave behind their daily lives and join him in his wanderings and teachings. They accepted and became disciples.

It’s hard to imagine how such an invitation from someone today would be received. The idea of turning your back on all the things you may have worked for, not to mention the people with whom you’d shared so much of your life, to follow a fairly untrodden path, no matter how enigmatic its figurehead, is almost unthinkable. It’s the kind of move we associate with people lured in by shady cults, or perhaps the actions of someone in the throes of a mid-life crisis. Not the sort of thing we’d advise doing without prior research, a decent contract and some fairly watertight guarantees. 

Nevertheless, I’m sure the number of people on their deathbed regretting such a rash move is hugely outnumbered by those reaching the end regretting that they lacked the courage to give it a go when the chance presented itself.

Perhaps having a little bit more of St James in our lives wouldn’t be a bad thing. It’s something which I ponder every time I daydream about walking the route to Santiago knowing I’ll probably never take so much as the first step.

The service this morning is bright and cheerful. The welcome in this beautiful and clearly much-loved church is warm and genuine. We’re treated to a sermon touching on the example of trusting faith set by St James, full of splendid humour and topical relevance. In the collect for St James’ Day we ask for divine guidance in turning our backs on the false attractions of the world to follow a better path. I’m not entirely sure what those ‘false attractions’ might be. I only hope I’m steadfast enough to make the right decision when it comes along, even if that decision is to at least lift the curtain on a few false attractions just for completeness’ sake.

It has become something of a gentle joke but nothing which takes place in a church seems to be complete without coffee afterwards. At times I’m tempted to wonder if the church believes that the friendship, understanding, redemption and salvation it offers is not enough to bring the people flocking, but offer a cuppa and the masses will beat the doors down.

Coffee after the service is a bit more than that of course. It gives the opportunity to socialise and reflect on the message of the morning and the wider significance of spending these times together. Somehow the ritual of standing round sipping a cup of tea or coffee makes those conversations easier. 

This service goes one better (a lot more than just one better in truth). Today being the rough equivalent of a birthday for the patron saint, the service is followed by generous glasses of wine and some truly splendid plates of nibbles. These treats were supposed to be enjoyed outdoors in the churches fabulously picturesque churchyard, but this being England in the summer we’re forced indoors by some fairly heavy rain. Nobody would want the problems of a soggy canape or rain splashing into your wine glass.

I wonder if, had the weather on that morning at the sea’s edge been enough to make anyone think twice about venturing outdoors to listen to a wandering preacher, James’ life would have turned out different. Probably not. It’s the decisions we make which shape our lives but it’s the conviction and vision within us that shapes those decisions. Perhaps that’s why he became a saint and I didn’t.

Sunday, 21 July 2019

40. Abbey Hill United Reformed Church, Kenilworth

This weekend has been the 50th anniversary of the moment when man first set foot on the moon. It’s been hard to get away from. Most TV stations have been showing documentaries about the Apollo missions and their astronauts and the papers have reprinted their coverage from 1969.

That’s all been fine by me. I’ve been rediscovering the fascination I had for space and the moon landings I had fifty years ago. I recall being woken in the small hours of the morning to gaze at a grainy image I still can’t fully work out, as the first man on the moon came down the ladder. Like many at the time, I was caught up in the saga and, though I could not claim to have grasped the enormity of the task, or the complexities of the politics behind the whole thing, I followed each development keenly.

At school I remember moonscape pictures and cardboard rockets. I even dimly recall a song performed in front of the school radio which counted down ‘5-4-3-2-1’ and ended with us all whooshing like the giant Saturn V on the launchpad. 

We were promised so much from the conquest of the moon. By the time I reached 40, I was told, we’d have people living on the moon and we’d be zooming back and forth with no greater upheaval than hopping on a bus. Mars and the other planets were already being lined up.

Ah well. Big dreams. There is always a practical gap between the dream and the reality and that’s something on my mind this morning.

The United Reformed Church is a bright and open church, small but with a genuine welcome. There’s even a few faces I recognise and I’m glad to see. Like so many churches it has a battle to find younger people, but there’s a decent turnout considering the food festival is already in full swing filling the town with temptations and clogging the streets with diverted traffic.

This morning’s main focus is the story of Martha and Mary, the one a constant and diligent worker, the other reluctant to give up her place at Jesus’s feet and help out with the chores. When the ever-busy Martha appeals to their guest to help get Mary to pull her weight around the house, Jesus replies that Mary, in choosing to listen to his teachings, has chosen the more important path and that she’s to be lauded for that.

There were deep thinkers aplenty in the Apollo missions. Some pondered what would happen when we went out into what previous civilisations had considered the heavens only to find them empty. If we could conquer space, what need would we have of God? It’s interesting to note that almost the opposite happened, particularly among those who went. 
Seeing the Earth from the perspective of its creator made a huge impression on those who saw the view either first hand or through the breathtaking pictures. Apollo 8’s crew were even moved by their trip to the beyond to make a Christmas Day broadcast of the opening verses of Genesis. 

I’ve often idly wondered what would have happened if someone other than fervently Christian America had got there first. Given the growth of the new economic powers in China and India (who launched another rocket just this week), there’s every chance we’ll be seeing the eventual conquest of Mars through a rather different perspective. They certainly have the Marthas to make it happen.

I’ve never found Mary and Martha the easiest story to reconcile. Perhaps it’s because in modern times we’ve educated ourselves NOT to regard all domestic tasks as being Martha’s responsibility, that we feel Mary could and should pitch in a bit. These days we feel it’s not too much to ask everyone to do their bit. We’ve become conditioned to acknowledging and praising the work of behind-the-scenes people in every walk of life. The evidence is there in the church’s own newsletter which invites people to spare an hour from their busy schedules to do their bit by welcoming people to a forthcoming exhibition.

Praising the tireless efforts of those who make things happen is not to deny that the world needs Marys too. We could all benefit from taking time to prioritise the important things in life, but without people doing the spadework, where would those dreamers, those thinkers be?

That may be a slightly skewed reading of the story, but it’s one which springs to mind when I think of the tens if not hundreds of thousands of people it took to complete the project to put those men on the moon and bring them home. 

Like so many significant human achievements, it was based on the hard work and willingness of the many leading to those at the apex of the pyramid being able to hit the target on behalf of all of us. Mary might dream of an everlasting state of praise and understanding, but I have a feeling it’s Martha who’s going to make it happen.

Friday, 12 July 2019

39. Warwick Hospital Chapel

The walk through the vast site of Warwick Hospital, and then down the long corridor through its sprawling building leads me past departments, wards, clinics and rooms ready to deal will most of the challenges a human body can face. Each area is marked by the same hospital sign carrying a long, medical word. Some I recognise but there are many I can only guess at. The one I’m heading for though is unique. It’s the small chapel and it’s the only ward in the hospital which treats the soul.

It’s one of the functions of faith that it should be there when we need it. Whenever we come across a problem or are confronted by a situation which leaves us wondering how to react, we should be able to call on whatever we believe in - and that doesn’t have to be religious in nature - to help provide a guide for us.

Hospitals are, in some ways, like scaled down versions of the life beyond their walls only with the drama and emotion turned up higher. Life-threatening crises happen on a daily basis here. People come in for help at a time when they and their family or friend are desperate for things to work out well. Even on the brief walk from where I parked I’ve passed people being taken from ward to ward with whom I would not care to change places. I’m aware too that the chapel is only a few joyful, exultant strides from the maternity unit and all the emotion and thanks that brings.

Sometimes all that’s needed is the opportunity to take the briefest of breaks from the pressure. To sit and quietly collect your thoughts and sort out in your own mind what’s happening, what’s likely to happen and how you’re going to feel about that. The chapel - and the little gem of a garden in a courtyard outside - provides that opportunity. Like any church’s clergy or staff, the chaplaincy team here must arrive at work not knowing what they will encounter each day but probably knowing it will be something.

But all the contrasting emotions and needs of the patients whatever they may be, is only half the picture. Because the chapel has to cater for the equally-deserving needs of its marginally more permanent community - the staff. And if the patients are a diverse lot, then so are the staff. That’s why I’m in the chapel this lunchtime with about thirty assorted members of staff to observe Friday prayers.

Through its stained glass entrance way, the chapel is modern and light. There’s plenty of colour in the form of some splendid Christian tapestries and hangings behind a small altar. The simple chairs make it a place which can be quickly reconfigured to meet differing uses. 

And it gets a lightning-quick reconfiguring before my eyes now. The chairs are pushed aside to create a central space as a curtain sweeps across to screen off the altar end. Two men swiftly unroll long sheets printed with prayer mat designs and set them out to face east. 

Over the next few minutes, as prayers are given individually, the room fills to capacity with a great range of the hospital’s staff. There are some clearly just off the wards still in hospital blue, some from admin, some in the kind of suit only consultants would wear. As the shoes come off so do the lanyards, phones and stethoscopes. 

Today’s talk is all about the requirements of praying five times a day and that those prayers must be offered at the correct times and in the correct place to meet that requirement. 

As the moment for the collective prayer approaches, the doors continue to open as another and then another nip in to join just in time and I can’t help but wonder about the situations they’ve come from in order to be here. We’re all busy people, I know, but the pressure on some people’s time must be greater than others mustn’t it? Religious observance carries commitment certainly, but when what you’re doing from moment to moment could be life or death to another, that commitment has to expect to be blurred from time to time.

The Friday prayer being solemnly observed, it’s all over and the doors open a final time to let this busy group of people out to rejoin whatever ongoing drama they briefly escaped from. And, with a speed and efficiency any professional theatre would be proud of, the sheets are folded, the curtains re-opened and the chairs painstakingly returned to their neat rows ready for whatever spiritual need this chapel is next required to meet. 

Passing through the busy corridor on the way back through the building, I’m acutely aware of the fact that all the people I pass, patient or staff, will have something going on in their minds from which a moment of quiet escape would probably help, and - not for the first time in a hospital - I’m silently thankful that the sign I’m looking for is the one marked EXIT.

Sunday, 7 July 2019

38. Holy Trinity RC Church, Sutton Coldfield

We’re always making promises. So says an advert currently cropping up all the time on TV. The paint company behind the ad is attempting to compare the hollow assurances we give others over so many things in life with the certainty it offers of full satisfaction when you stand back and admire your re-decorated room. There’s even an element of getting your money back if you’re not absolutely blown over. 

Life frequently offers moments when we have to place our trust in others in the hope and belief they will be true to their promise and not let us down. In many cases those situations arise because we are helpless to act for ourselves - the first years of our life being an obvious example. 

This Sunday I’m privileged to be at a christening. It’s a practical example of how we make our promise to look after someone and how we also choose to record that promise in the sight of others we trust. Both are important and both carry a great deal of responsibility.

Christenings, in common with weddings and funerals, are an occasion where the pews are often temporarily filled with many who wouldn’t otherwise be seen in a church. Having recently been to many largely unfamiliar churches  and places of worship, it’s strangely pleasing not to be the only one unsure of when to sit or stand, what to say out loud or when it’s permissible to point the camera. The family and close friends - particularly those being called on to be Godparents - rise to the challenge well and the service has a buoyant, joyful character. 

It’s at these times in our lives when we’re most aware of the need to have people around us. Family support would be our first wish, but there’s a wider network among friends and colleagues. And there’s also the broader sense of the church as a family and I hope, as we all do today, that this young lady growing up will come to feel she’s backed up by any or all of these families. 

Welcoming a new person to our family - whether that be a metaphor or not - is something all cultures seem to do. The exact details of the ritual may change from religion to religion but the basic vows are the same; we promise to look after the new arrival in a physical, practical sense but also in terms of spiritual and emotional support. In this case it’s a Catholic christening and so we’re focussed on the font and the blessed candles.

Christenings are wonderful examples of metaphors and symbols at work. The water used to draw a cross on the baby’s head represents all that water stands for in the process of creating and supporting life. Its role in nourishing our earthly life is also strongly remembered.

And there’s light too, in the candles lit and held by those supporting the child. Light symbolises so many things, not least keeping darkness, and through it threat, at bay.

It’s symbolism of a fairly straightforward nature admittedly, but it comforts and underlines the very straightforward things we all feel for our children.

When all’s said and done the christening is a memorable occasion for everyone there apart from the most important person who will, of course,  have no memory of the gathering and its meaning whatsoever - even more so having had the good grace to sleep through much of the proceedings. But as long as those charged with looking after her keep the memory of what they promised safe in their minds, that won’t be any problem at all.