Saturday, 12 October 2019

53. St Mary Immaculate, Warwick

On a visit to the British Museum this week I found myself, not for the first time, gazing on the remains of Lindow Man. I was transfixed by the crushed, leathery remains of this two-thousand year old man when I first visited on a school trip and I never miss the chance to look in each time I’m passing.

The undeniably gruesome and faintly voyeuristic act of staring at a dead person notwithstanding, it’s always interesting. As I ponder the simple existence of someone living in the peat bogs of England as the Romans arrived, I can’t help imagining that life moved more slowly then. I also find myself wondering what he’d make of us if for a brief while, he were able to stare out of his glass box existence rather than we in. Racing from experience to experience, defying distances, communicating without pause for thought and taking in more information in a day than he may have seen in his entire life, we must look utterly out of control.

A life based on daylight and darkness, phases of the moon and changing seasons must have been reassuringly regular. Everything from work to rest, eating to leisure in its regular, unchanging slot. Worship too.

But our daily lives are chaotic now. It never stops - and the 24-hour shops, night buses, overnight production and on-demand culture reflects this. Small wonder that many churches find it hard to pull in the punters when the traditional Sunday slot is now prime time working or leisure or just being busy for so many.

It wouldn’t be strictly accurate to call the vigil mass a direct response to this pressure on the set timetable, but it is a helpful indicator of the way things probably have to change. The vigil mass takes place the Saturday evening before the Sunday mass and gives those who can’t go on Sunday the chance to fulfil their weekly obligation. 

St Mary Immaculate is Warwick is surprisingly full for this Saturday mass - no hint of a few people making up for Sunday absences. It’s also apparent that there are people of all ages here and a clear sense, although I couldn’t say where it stems from, that this is a regular and popular service not a stopgap.

Inside it’s a fine-looking church with a splendid mixture of gold circle icons, stained glass and dark wooden painted panels. It has a claim to fame among Lord of the Rings fans as being the setting for JRR Tolkein’s wedding back in 1916.

The readings both touch on the theme of not taking things for granted but being thankful for all the blessings we have. One of the hymns, it is noted in the homily, was written by a man witnessing the worst of war’s atrocities around his city. Rather than railing against a neglectful God he chose to count all the blessings he had. It’s a theme worth pausing to ponder in this current time when everything seems so close to being taken away from us.

Interestingly it’s a point which will be made again tomorrow morning as Sunday’s mass follows the same format, readings and content as this. It’s a bit like multiple showings of the same film.

Some point to vigil masses having their roots in the time when days were measured from sundown to sundown, making it effectively the first mass of the Sunday; cynics have always branded it a soft option for those who can’t face getting out of bed for an early start in the morning. Either way, it’s a long-established part of the timetable and, with online churches now offering on-demand, pray-as-you-go services delivered right to your personal device, it may well have a role to play.

Friday, 4 October 2019

52. Truro Cathedral

I’ve been collecting cathedrals for decades. We’re blessed with many fine and splendid examples in this country and it’s been a slow process of ticking them off one by one when I get the chance.

I think I could trace my fascination with these massive structures back to a school trip to Bristol cathedral sometime in the early 70s. I loved the calm, I loved the jaw-dropping space and - perhaps most of all - I fell in love with all the hidden galleries and tiny high walkways and the secret doors, steps and passageways you’d have to use to get to them. Since then I’ve made it a welcome addition to any journey to take in a visit to another of these wonderful places.

I’ve always tried to go at a time when I could take part in a service. This is not solely so I can legitimately avoid the hefty entrance charges not becoming more often levied than not. I’ve always wanted to see - and hear - the cathedral in action. 

The midlands has provided a decent base for getting round many cathedrals but there are quite a few that defy the chance visit, they’re just too far away. So it’s a bonus, on a trip down to see Millie in Falmouth, to be able to pause in Truro long enough to visit the town’s fabulous cathedral (I have tentative plans to cross Exeter off my list on the way back). 

It’s an impressive sight. It still dominates the town (a city really, I know) mainly as a result of its height - the chance of finding a viewing point far enough away to take in its bulk having long been lost to the small streets and buildings which have sprung up to surround it.

Holy communion this morning is in St Mary’s Aisle. It’s a small side chapel still large enough to make the twenty-odd people in attendance look a little sparse. It’s a short service with very little other than the business of getting things done.

The service is quiet in volume too, perhaps it’s a case of trying not to intrude on the steady stream of visitors making their way round the cathedral’s advertised highlights - the fine terra cotta relief sculpture, the golden eagle lectern, the wealth of genuinely stunning Victorian stained glass and the well-renowned pipe organ. A working church it may well be, but it would be a brave cathedral indeed which halted the flow of cash coming through the door  (or into the tills of the burgeoning gift shop) just for the purposes of worship.

This service being a small affair tucked away at the side of the cathedral, there was obviously no chance to hear the mighty Father Willis organ in full flow. But as luck would have it there was an organ recital scheduled to start an hour later. 

As you might fear, the two dozen people for holy communion had ballooned to well over a hundred for the recital. Whether that’s down to the instrument, the Australian guest organist or the opportunity to sit somewhere quiet, dry and gale free to eat your lunch, I couldn’t say, but there’s probably a lesson in there somewhere.

The instrument, for all the fanfares given it, was impressive; less so the recital itself which seemed to have been programmed more with the cinema organ in mind rather than the bone-shaking seriousness this fabulous pipework deserves. I enjoyed, however, the TV relay of cameras in the organ loft showing hands speeding round the four manuals and highly-polished shoes clattering the pedals. 

The slight disappointment at the programme was mitigated by the discovery in the air ambulance shop down the road of a CD of Bach’s thunderous music  from Truro Cathedral. Mysterious ways, I suppose.

Sunday, 29 September 2019

51. Unitarian Chapel, Warwick

This pilgrimage has been characterised by comparisons. I have been struck by the similarities between churches working under the Christian banner. But I have been even more surprised by the differences. For a huge swathe of humanity nominally following the same God and (more or less) the same teachings of one man, there’s an awful lot to choose from. And it is a choice. I’m reminded of a whisky map I once saw. Two axes charted the desired level of smokiness or peat influence, the darkness or lightness and so on. By sliding around to your favourite area (dark and smoky with the merest hint of peat) you could read off the single malt that’s right for you.

Today’s visit to the Unitarian Chapel in Warwick sees me among people who have sited their choice on the equivalent spiritual map a long way from the pomp and circumstance, the regalia and ceremony of many churches, without - it has to be said - actually making a decision to stay on that part of the map. There’s prayer and bible reading and some lustily-sung hymns but it’s very low-key and there are constant reminders to make up your own mind about what you believe. Keep that finger free to choose wherever it wants to go. Unitarianism is all about what you want it to be about you could say. 

The Unitarian Chapel is a lovely little single-room space much loved by chamber concert organisers and meditation groups among others who share this venue with its resident worshippers. There are only about a dozen people here and we sit is a wide semi-circle to focus on the plain table and lectern. There’s a coffee table in the centre with a simple bunch of flowers and a single candle. 

Talking to a few people at this short service, it seems that many are on a journey (apologies for using that hackneyed word but Strictly Come Dancing has just returned to the Saturday evening schedule). I had a long talk with one chap whose spiritual travels have taken him from his Catholic roots, through a spell with Anglicanism and then via short bursts of experimentation including Evangelism. Comparing notes,I find his experience not dissimilar to my own. 

More than one person spoke to me of having arrived at Unitarianism through a liking of its lack of dogma. There’s no creed to recite and it’s clear that all those present can hold slightly (but importantly) differing views and yet be happy with that position.

Today’s service is led by Angela, a visitor from a chapel in Birmingham. She gets to do pretty much everything - prayers, readings and (in lieu of a sermon) an address on the theme of the day, who was Jesus?

Angela peppers the service with a clutch of readings from Khalil Gibran’s collection of character studies of Jesus from the perspective of people who may have shared experiences with him. We hear reflections on, among other aspects, Jesus the prophet and Jesus the bespoke carpenter.

During her address Angela relates what was said at a recent funeral she attended. In listening to a member of the family saying a few words about the departed, she noted how we can all have a different view on what a person was like. Broadly we’ll probably pick out the same things, but to a greater or lesser extent. and with a different priority.

Perhaps Jesus is a bit like that. Certainly to Unitarians. Unlike more dogmatic faiths which preach a particular view, however broad or narrow that might be, it’s for Unitarians to make up their own minds. We have no particular reason NOT to accept some historic evidence that Jesus lived. What you believe beyond that, and what you think that means for your own life, will dictate your answer to the question Who was Jesus?

It would be easy to view Unitarianism as being some sort of Christianity-Lite - a religion with all the bits you object to removed. But that wouldn’t really be fair. This gathering did not feel like at all like watered-down worship. There was a palpable commitment to follow the Christian path and to respect the right of others to tag along for any part of the route they wished to cover.

This pleasingly ‘suit-yourself’ approach to faith is attractive in many respects, perfect for someone forming their own opinions whilst enjoying swapping views with others. Not happy with the creed up the road or the evangelistic outpourings across town? There’s a place of calm acceptance right here.

It is easy to see how this casual approach would tempt many away from faiths where they may feel at odds with parts of what goes on. Given, however that there are so few people here, it would perhaps be more instructive to know what tempts them to regard this as a stopping point on the journey rather than a lasting destination.

Sunday, 22 September 2019

50. Grosvenor Road Christadelphian Hall

Have you ever read Dracula? It’s a story everyone’s familiar with. We all know about the vampire’s bite, the Transylvanian castle, the flowing cloak, the stake through the heart and so on - we’ve seen it in countless films and lampooned in comedy sketches and TV adverts. But have you actually read it? 

I only ask because I have, and it’s a brilliant book. Twice as scary as any film and full of bits most filmmakers opt to leave out. Sometimes, it seems, we’re happy just to know the gist of the story without feeling the need to dig any deeper or consult the original.

These thoughts are in my head because I’m visiting Coventry’s Christadelphians this morning and when it comes to reading the Bible, they have an essential connection with the original far more diligent than many. The Bible contains the word of God and, for this congregation, offers everything you need to live and to understand what’s important. Read it, read it again, study it and then study it again, appears to be the way to go.

The Christadelphian Hall in Grosvenor Road is another church which falls into the over-stuffed category of ‘places I’ve walked past a thousand times but never gone inside’. It’s a modern hall, clean and light inside and there’s a very healthy gathering for this ‘breaking of bread’ service. The welcome is essentially warm - as it remains throughout - but my arrival is met by quite a few suspicious questions. 

But there are handshakes too and a bit of welcome help when it comes to finding passages in the bible - listening to the readings is,it becomes apparent, not the full picture. You have to read the words and see for yourself every reference. It’s a very studious, slightly introspective approach but, I should note, that the congregation also produce the best hymn singing I’ve heard for a long while so it’s not all kept inside.

Today’s parables include the story of the prodigal son. It’s one I think I’m familiar with but a complete, deliberate reading acquaints me with details I didn’t know. Whether ‘going back to the original words’ allows me to understand more in this case is a moot point. It is a parable after all and its meaning is to some extent metaphorical rather than relying on exact literal details. Once you’ve grasped the meaning and the underlying thrust of a parable, you may, I suspect, have taken all you can. But this morning is a clear example of how the strong Bible-based church works.

In keeping with this almost library like, forensic approach to the Bible’s historic text, there is a studious feel to the whole morning. There are lengthy silences throughout the service, and a quiet way of going about things.

The breaking of bread part of the service is not available to those not baptised in the Christadelphian church - how different from last week at Ashow when I was invited to join in regardless of faith and previous commitment. But that’s just the way things are and this church is very serious when it comes to looking after its own members. Perhaps that’s why my standard enquiry about taking pictures after the service was politely but firmly turned down.

The Christadelphians are a tight brotherhood and perhaps a little inward-looking. All the prayers offered this morning are for members of the church and the exhortation given is a call to everyone to reaffirm their commitment to the church and its beliefs and practices. There’s very little, if any, by way of urging worshippers to go out and help in the local community. 

Knowing a book thoroughly is rewarding and there is value in consistently going back to it to see if any more can be gleaned. But there’s also value in occasionally looking up from that book and seeing what’s going on outside your study window. 

Sunday, 15 September 2019

49. Ashow Church

This has been a weekend for things drawing to a close. I enjoyed the Last Night of the Proms but I’m always slightly sad to see the season end. It’s the same with the cricket as the Ashes series nears completion. Soon it will be football and Strictly - just as enjoyable for me but proof of another shift in the calendar.

We get very used to things being in the same place in a calendar year and, with that familiarity, it’s easy to build up a resistance to change. The same is true in the church calendar I should expect. We know where we are with Easter, harvest, Christmas and so on. No need to change things, just let matters continue as they have for generations. But complacency can be dangerous.

Ashow Church this morning is in ‘Ordinary Time’. I’ve not come across this before but it seems like a period which is not part of a set-down festival. A free lesson on the timetable perhaps. The church’s own choice of what to focus on. 

It’s certainly a chance to take a step back and reassess, an opportunity to do some housekeeping too, both physically and mentally. And, as becomes apparent, there’s a great need for that.

The Assumption of Our Lady church, to give it its full name, is a very attractive church. It sits on the edge of the village overlooking the passing river and is a recognisable point along quite a few country walking routes. By chance I’ve chosen to walk here this morning along a path and lane from Kenilworth. It’s a good way to arrive but as I always do, I’ve set off far too early and I’m rewarded with half an hour’s reading on a very pleasant bench.

Inside, the church is traditional. There are wonderful pews with high screen surrounds. I think I like these rather in the way I always fancied having a box at the theatre.  

I am also quite taken with the splendid compact organ. It only has the one small manual and fewer than half a dozen stops but the sound is good and, in the hands of a decent player, we’re even treated to a spot of Bach. It’s all the more engaging because the organist has the shallowest of platforms and his stool has to be kept level by the strategic placing of two small piles of hymn books.

It’s a standard communion service but with one difference. Instead of preaching a sermon, the vicar Nikki Moon has chosen to address a few words about the position in which the church finds itself.

In common with many of the fine old buildings whose presence we take for granted, this church needs work to halt the ravages of time and the weather. Church repairs are never cheap and there will have to be some very active fund-raising to pay for what needs to be done. But the crumbling fabric of the building is, you’d have to say, not as pressing as the problem which lies within.

Nikki is vicar to more than one church. Like many I’ve encountered on my travels she has to divide time between flocks. If the churches are close enough and time permits, it can be done. But time is the problem here. Being vicar of Ashow and Stoneleigh is deemed to be a part time role. Nikki’s time covering the job is coming to a close and the viability of both churches surviving with one part-time 20-hour vicar is questionable - particularly with another long-term reader becoming unavailable and nobody steeping forward so far. 

So the message to the congregation is clear: Take up some of the strain somehow or the future could be bleak. The trouble is that this crucial message is being given to fewer than a dozen people most of whom are already doing their bit. And this, to a certain extent is where I came in at the start of the year. Falling numbers and, without wishing to be indelicate, a steadily ageing congregation is a far from healthy position. 

From my wanderings this year I can only report that in some ways the good news is also the bad news. Ashow can take comfort from not being alone in its predicament - but the reason for that is that nobody else has yet come up with a guaranteed, rapid route back to health. Cutting the number of services or sharing them around between similar churches is fine, but only as a way of disguising the paucity of attendees. What the church needs now - and not just in this tucked-away corner of the faith - is more people. A lot more people

Judging by the confusion, disillusionment and grief sweeping this divided country at the moment, there are an awful lot of people around in need of a calm. clear direction. Periods of trouble and worry are traditionally prosperous recruiting times for the church. It’s just a simple task of getting them to come in through the doors and fill the pews. And in that task I don’t envy hard-working people like Nikki. 

Monday, 9 September 2019

48. Knowle Parish Church

It is, of course, a popular misconception that being a vicar is an easy job because you only have to work one day a week. I doubt anyone really believes that, but I’m sure many would be surprised by just how far from the truth the idea is. 

There’s a huge schedule of organisational duties, pastoral care, midweek meetings, community support and so on. And that’s before any thought can be given to the Sunday worship. He or she is a driving force as well as being the glue that holds the whole thing together. 

This church has been without its own vicar for about a year and, although normal life goes on with the help of visiting clergy and supporting assistants, it must be a huge relief to all to finally fill the vacancy.

And that’s why I’m here tonight. I’ve always liked the look of this church, a familiar sight on my way into Solihull for so many years, but I’ve never been in. Tonight is the service of induction for Geoff Lanham who will be the new vicar.

Knowle Parish Church - properly named Church of John the Baptist, Saint Lawrence and Saint Anne - is a big and very traditional-looking church. It has a large nave with decent side aisles and tonight every pew is packed. There are even additional plastic chairs in the central aisle and a few seats at the back. The sidesmen are acting as makeshift usherettes looking for gaps to be filled and trying to make sure everyone has a view. At the front no fewer than four big video screens mean even those tucked behind the hefty stone pillars don’t miss a thing.

The regular congregation are here of course, impatient to get a look at the new man. But there are also civic dignitaries and quite a sprinkling of clergy from other churches. I arrived with the minister from the nearby Methodist church, keen to support a fellow member of the profession. 

It’s a big service to match the big crowd. The Bishop of Aston presides over the bulk of a long service and adds a welcome touch of levity amid all the rigmarole. She makes regular allusions to the church as a ship setting out on a new voyage with a fresh face at the helm. Geoff is the skipper taking over an established crew. It’s a theme we keep returning to. 

The induction of a vicar comes with a lot of promises. Promises on the congregation’s behalf to welcome the new incumbent, and promises from the new shepherd to lead his flock with wisdom and compassion. In some ways it reminds me of the promises made by all sides at a Christening. It stems from the days before the mass of criminal database checks in our modern commitment to safeguarding, but somehow an undertaking made before God and your future congregation is probably just as weighty.

There’s a pleasing eccentricity to part of the proceedings. The new man is placed in the vicar’s chair and invited to lead a prayer from there. He’s then paraded down to the door of the church where his hand it placed on the door handle and, following a ceremonial tug on the bell rope, he gets the keys to his new church.

Having been given the official nod, one of the vicar’s first duties seems to be to accept a whole raft of responsibilities from representatives of the wider community.

The school governors will be requiring his input, the church wardens and youth leaders likewise. And from the mayor of the borough a very firm hint that his presence in the Lions fun run wouldn’t go amiss. The vicar’s busy time just got a whole lot busier it would seem.

A few splendidly-sung hymns later and it’s time for refreshments in the hall, plenty of handshakes and a groaning table of cakes. Those in charge of the baking have certainly made the warmth of their welcome abundantly evident.

And now the work starts. It must be daunting in a way. Joining any group as established as a well-attended church is hard enough. But to join it in the position of its new leader must provide added challenges. All churches have their ways of doing things. So. I firmly expect, do all vicars. As I head back into the night I only hope that whatever niggles there may be are suitably outweighed by the optimism and willingness so clearly on display throughout this service.

Sunday, 8 September 2019


Yesterday I bought a book without going to a bookshop. I also kept up with a few friends without having the inconvenience of actually meeting them and I even managed to check the weather without having to open the curtains.

We’re all familiar with the online world and how it has changed the way we live. It used to be something we might worry about; If I had a pound for every person who told me the newspapers I produce would become extinct in a year, I’d be able to retire from my job at the newspaper. I suppose they are gradually going - as are many of the shops which sold them - but we’re just that bit more used to the change going on.

There have always been people who prefer the trappings of social interaction to come to them. Think of all those people who bought the record rather than go to the gig. Many people I know prefer to wait for the DVD rather than run the gauntlet of noise, phone lights and the smell of fast food which constitutes any visit to the cinema these days.

But people’s migration to online living leaves us with many social spaces less well attended than before. Perhaps the paucity of worshippers at many services is a reflection not of people’s disenchantment with what the church offers, more that they just don’t want to actually turn up week after week.

Cue the online church. It’s a place you can visit, join prayer, sing praises, hear a sermon and so on without ever leaving your home. It’s a church - and a whole religion to back it up - which you can carry round on your phone just as you carry the gossip of friends, Jacob Rees-Mogg memes, hours of music, up-to-the-moment cricket scores or unlimited porn.

After a brief and not altogether successful Google I’ve found the Everyday Online church and with an hourly service starting in four minutes, I’ve barely time to find some headphones and make a coffee before I’m off to church.

The name Everyday Online has me pondering. Everyday mean normal, ordinary, humdrum even. Every day, on the other hand, means a constant presence. It could be a mistake; it could be a sassy attempt to cover both bases or even invite a comparison between the two. Oddly enough Ikea are currently using the same spelling. You have to wonder where in the spectrum of subtle or ignorant it lies. There is, as Nigel Tufnell once said, a very thin line between clever and stupid.

Everyday Church is not entirely virtual. There are a string of real, solid South London churches behind this website. But it’s the online incarnation which interests me. Click on the site and you can join any service live. Each service lasts an hour and includes much of what you’d expect to encounter if you pulled up to one of their real churches in Croydon or Wimbledon. There’s a welcome, some extremely well-produced music from the band complete with singalong lyrics, the option to join prayers and a lengthy sermon in the form of a lecture.

Darren is our online pastor, ironically he’s pictured against a background of a completely empty church. Giving the sermon is Phil. There are buttons to click to chat live with other worshippers or type in your request for a prayer. The sermon is backed up by exhaustive notes for those who want to delve deeper into its themes. 

It’s a decent theme this morning. There are three key directions Jesus works, says Phil. In towards the the church family, up towards God and out into the wider world. Too many people - and too many churches - only cover two of those dimensions. Time to throw away your 2D Jesus and usher in the 3D saviour. And that he does - giving a fearful whack to the cardboard cut-out Jesus he’s been sharing the screen with. 

It’s a compelling lecture full of references, philosophical and scriptural back-ups and delivered in a very watchable fashion. I can think of plenty of places I’ve been to where this standard of preaching would open up a few eyes.

But absorbing as Phil is, he’s up against all the other distractions of being online. I’m drawn to the live chat as we go along, and the live request-a-prayer - although my request for the online community to pray for me to get round the afternoon’s cycling challenge in Coventry is shunted into the cul-de-sac of ‘someone will be with you shortly’.

I find myself wondering if Phil will notice if I just check the latest on Brexit resignations, order some more socks or have a quick game of solitaire. Such distractions exist in church, of course, but this seems relatively risk free.

Ultimately the online church route lives or dies on what it is you actually want.  There may be any number of reasons why people are in the unfortunate position of not being able to go to church and this could provide an option to them. But for those of us who can still attend, it’s a fairly straight question of where in your list of priorities you place genuine human contact. This is convenient, free (if you ignore all the ‘donate now’ buttons and banners) and only takes as long as it takes to watch. Do you really need to venture out and sit in a sparsely-populated building with a few others you only see once a week? 

Judging by the overwhelming majority of the places I’ve been so far this year and the enjoyment of the community identities they’ve built up over years, worshipping alone on your laptop still has a lot of folk to conquer.