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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Wednesday, July 31, 2002
    Opting for humanity
    George Corness, who I cremated today, was a 'war hero' of sorts, someone who had survived five years as a prisoner of war, death marches and prison camps in Germany and Poland, and had carried with him a humour and dignity which helped others alongside him through their ordeals. And - here is a special form of heroism - after his captivity he had the opportunity to retaliate against his enemies, but unlike others, he refrained. He explicitly forgave.

    I'm no fan of modern warfare, I actively resist the popular sentimentalism about war which lazily permits to go unchallenged the obscenities of the arms industry, the west's brutalization of civilian populations in eastern lands, and so on. But I want to celebrate human endeavour in the face of wickedness, and George Corness's story merits that.

    The Jewish writer Elie Wiesel made this observation about the Second World War:

    There were some men and women who, in many places, did opt for humanity. Surrounded by terror, oppressed by absolute evil, they had the courage to care about their fellow human beings... They were alone - as the victims themselves were alone - so the question we must confront is what made them so special, so human, so different?

    Maybe it was that through their ordeals they had come to terms with the ultimate questions. I wondered out loud if that was the case for George, whether these words of Julia Esquivel could possibly have also been his. How I hope they may be mine:

    I am no longer afraid of death;
    I know well
    its dark and cold corridors
    leading to life.

    I live each day to kill death;
    I die each day to beget life,
    and in this dying unto death,
    I die a thousand times
    and am reborn another thousand
    through that love
    from my People,
    which nourishes hope!
    Tuesday, July 30, 2002
    In the park opposite my house a group of lads are playing football. I know most of them: they live just round the corner; two were confirmed at our church last year, one is likely to be next year; they and their mates are a friendly lot, a rag-tag mixture of shapes and sizes that boys are around fourteen. They've put coats and a supermarket bread tray down as goalposts and they are trying 'set-pieces', standing in formation in a rough arc around the goal, one crossing the ball in, one flicking it on, a third attempting a shot. That's the intention, anyway.

    Now, my playing days are over and I was never that brilliant when I did play, but I have to say from my first-floor vantage point here, they're not very good. I've seen few crosses reach their intended target, many
    misdirected headers, and a very untroubled goalkeeper. Still, they're enjoying it just like I used to enjoy it during summer holidays and every available break-time right throughout secondary school. And watching them and writing this has been a welcome relief for me from putting together three funeral addresses and a 'wedding thanksgiving' service.

    In its Northants days Greenbelt held a five-a-side competition; I played once in a GB 'Board' v. Celebrities game and got the assist to our winning goal (if I remember rightly, Cole Morton finished it). Maybe we should revive the tradition - it would give me an excuse to get out across the road to get some practice in, in the intervening days when I need to do something to combat the midweek liturgical overload.
    Monday, July 29, 2002
    Archbishop says 'get lost' to God
    Delightful timing as the latest edition of PLANET, 'The Welsh Internationalist' magazine, dropped through my letterbox this morning, PLANET's interested in all aspects of culture, current affairs, politics, poetry, and has global reach from an Aberystwyth base (check it out at ). This issue features an interview with Archbishop-designate Greenbelter Rowan Williams. I wonder, reader, if you share my excitement at the prospect of a church leader so creative, open and engaged, as the following extract demonstrates:

    PLANET: All of your writing - poetic, theological and political - consistently challenges the reader to think again about our certainties and responses. Would you agree that the challenge to conventionality is the strongest element of your writing?

    WILLIAMS: Probably, yes, because my religious and theological loyalty was engaged very early on by how you cope with emptiness, suffering and death. That's where the heartbeat of my religious commitment lies and it's also very much true of my poetry. I'd point to a poet of faith like George Herbert and say look at what he's doing - it's not at all as cosy as some people think it is. Again he's pushing the boundaries: "Is God still there if I say this? What if I say this to God? Is He still there? What if I say 'get lost' to God?" It's a sort of enactment through poetry of what faith is. It's not a liberal shrugging off of commitment. It's saying, rather, how far does commitment take me? What can I grasp if I keep on pushing?

    In Herbert, of course, what happens is God pushes back. When the poet says "get lost" to God, God answers: "No"! So you're pushing the boundaries but the boundary then APPEARS; you arrive at something. And that's what I try to achieve Ü yes, it's about challenging certainties and responses but it's also about searching for a certainty that's plausible and credible.
    Sunday, July 28, 2002
    A big maybe
    It's sweltering. And the whole world is off to Llandudno in their caravans. Or so it seemed to me this morning while staring out from the holy table into a half-empty church, me overheating due to excess cover of manufactured fibres whilst imagining my erstwhile congregation overheating in traffic queues along the North Wales 'expressway'.

    Ah, well, maybe August will be quieter, I speculate, naively really because already next week there's three funerals to do. But they told us at theological college that we ought to balance 'action' with 'reflection' so I am hoping that this month I can rediscover the art of reading whole books cover-to-cover (ie, from the INSIDE).

    I am especially looking forward to engaging properly with Joe Sacco's PALESTINE, a serious political comic-book masterpiece (so the blurb says and my initial flicks-through seem to confirm) and with an unusual thing called THE ART OF LOOKING SIDEWAYS by Alan Fletcher, which is a vast trawl through
    all sorts of material, 'a primer in visual intelligence, an exploration of the workings of the eye, the hand, the brain and the imagination'. It's full of all sorts of stimulating material, words and images, funny and profound
    and it's the first ever book I've bought specifically for the coffee table, (A) because its too big and heavy to hold in your lap; and (B) because I've evidently reached that 'coffee table' phase in my life, whatever that means.
    Saturday, July 27, 2002
    Comings and goings
    I wake on Saturdays with mixed feelings; itÕs a lighter day in the parish, a time to catch up with reading and writing. But itÕs also the day IÕm on call to the Royal Liverpool Hospital. And I know that when the pager goes my next hour will be a journey into the eye of a storm for a family about to lose a loved one. Administering the last rites is a deep privilege but a great trauma too. I deeply admire the hospital staff who in their own ways, ÔministerÕ to the dying and their families when (as often, sadly) chaplains arenÕt around.

    ItÕs hard to say goodbye, even in less extreme circumstances. A letter arrived yesterday from David Cross who is leaving his post as community linkworker for Church Action on Poverty (CAP) after nine years. David has been the catalyst for a great deal of positive work around the country, encouraging small and nervous groups of concerned people to find their voice and speak up about the realities of poverty in their home situation. He helped us set up a Merseyside group a few years back.

    Through DavidÕs great grassroots work CAP has spoken truth to power to great effect, epitomised for me in the deeply satisfying meeting I once witnessed between a friend from Everton, rendered ÔunemployableÕ through disability, and the Welfare Minister, in the latterÕs Westminster office. ItÕs typical of David that he should want to write to all he has worked with, thanking us for our contributions, and sharing with us some words from Ralph Waldo Emerson Òwhich have helped me keep things in perspective over the yearsÓ:

    To laugh often and much.
    To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children.
    To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends.
    To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others.
    To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition.
    To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.
    This is to have succeeded.
    Friday, July 26, 2002
    An evening with Margaret Silf
    The things you do for Greenbelt. Oliver emailed me recently saying, you live up north. So does Margaret Silf - can you pop over to her place to take her photo for the festival programme? Actually Margaret lives way down south (itÕs all relative isnÕt it?), sixty miles away in Shropshire, but I took on the task because I thought that actually it would be a good evening out; and so it proved to be.

    Margaret is one of this yearÕs festival speakers; sheÕs a writer on spirituality, her books have helped many people discover new ways of finding God, finding themselves, deepen and strengthen their lives. A recent book is called ÔSoul SpaceÕ and itÕs a guide to the various ways people can go on retreat; some sort of serendipity with the festival programme IÕm involved in, also called ÔSoul SpaceÕ, where people can ÔretreatÕ for a while at the top of Cheltenham grandstand, and talk with folk who can connect them with retreats, spiritual directors, soul friends, in other parts of the country at other times of the year.

    Margaret was a reluctant model for the pictures and she confessed to being a bit apprehensive about her first Greenbelt appearance because these sorts of things didnÕt come naturally to one more comfortable with the often solitary, silent pursuit of writing. I think I reassured her that she would enjoy it, and as she unfolded to me her ideas for her seminar I suggested she had a subject which many Greenbelters would relish. SheÕs working around the idea of Ôlife on the edgeÕ, of the dynamics of feeling and being an outsider, and of the energy in that. SheÕs also looking at different models for Ôthe churchÕ (my choice of phrase), more organic ones - what she has to offer about the nature of Ôthe body of ChristÕ is wonderful stuff. I wonÕt say any more here. If you go to hear her youÕll get the benefit.

    It was another kiss of life for me to chat with Margaret and her husband on all the above, plus our good feelings about Rowan WilliamsÕ appointment, what their cat will do while theyÕre on holiday, how a Liverpool church bombed-out in WW2 could become a centre for peace and reconciliation, and of course lots about Greenbelt to set the scene for them. A lovely evening in a hidden, beautiful part of England. Thanks Oliver.
    Thursday, July 25, 2002
    ... and today, I was the DJ
    I spent some time today listening to two very different people both of whom had stopped me in my tracks recently and said, ÔI think I'm being calledÕ ..... Now we just have to work out what that means: what should they do next? Being ÔcalledÕ can be exciting but scary too, and I was struck by just how vulnerable both these people were just now. Vulnerable like someone stepping out onto a dancefloor with a new partner for the first time, in full view of chattering friends and jealous enemies. ÔYou askin?ÕÕ, ÔIÕm askinÕÕ, ÔIÕm dancinÕÕ Wanting to dance with God is an ache that once it starts, will not go away. Today I felt a bit like the DJ helping this to happen. Church is ok on these sort of days.
    Wednesday, July 24, 2002
    My Greenbelt story, briefly
    Spotty teen in a Liverpool Baptist church youth club. I went to GB with my mate Dave, on a then-epic motorcycle journey. Headline: Cliff Richard; best act for me: Randy Stonehill/Larry Norman. Sunday Morning communion, preacher stood and said, ÒIf you think Jesus died for you, you can share in this breadÓ. I kinda felt I should; something massive started for me there.

    Early 80s
    Politicised and thrilled into a living faith by the social gospel coming out of people like Frontier Youth Trust's Jim Punton and America's Ron Sider. Saw U2 for first time at Liverpool Royal Court and, electrified, thought, 'I'm going to heaven with these guys'. The connection between all these, of course, was Greenbelt. Attended each year with increasingly large groups from Crosby. One year 130 of us travelled to Knebworth together.

    Mid 80s
    Thatcher decimated the manufacturing industry and, with many others in my part of the world, made me unemployed; I took A-levels and went on to do a degree in English, meanwhile supplementing my income by writing regularly for Strait, the Greenbelt magazine. Disillusioned, left the church at this time, but still found faith & hope in the festival's vision. Studied under John Peck College House's 'Christian Worldview' course.

    Late 80s
    Back to church via youth work in CofE parish. Halcyon days taking inspiration from Greenbelt friends and performers and applying them locally - notably our own monthly dressed-up disco version of Pip's Rolling Magazine and various experiments in 'alternative' worship, encouraged and inspired by Glaswegian friends.

    Went on the first Greenbelt pilgrimage to Iona (1992): another epiphany for me - I'm now a member of the Iona Community. And less than a year later answered a call from then-festival manager Martin Evans to take a place on the Greenbelt board. Awed and inexperienced but full of enthusiasm, spent the next five years helping coordinate a diversity of GB activities, notably the 24-hour cafe, publicity, the action fair, and worship. Immense honour to be so involved. Immensely grateful to those who carried on after I left, keeping the festival afloat through its most testing time.

    The only GB I've missed since my first. Halfway through my time at Ridley Hall training for the Anglican ministry. I was working a month on Iona, which was good, but my heart still ached at having to forgo the Bank Holiday experience.

    Part of the SOUL SPACE team, turning the Panoramic Restaurant into a beautiful place of prayer and contemplation, offering people half-hour conversations with one of our team of 'spiritual directors', where Greenbelters talk through anything on their minds with someone with a caring, listening ear. Favourite artists last year: that mad magician bloke Andy Turner had on his late night shows; oh, and Baka Beyond. Wonderful. All of it. Bring it on again.
    Tuesday, July 23, 2002
    What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding?
    Well, the nearest we got to crowd trouble at the Elvis concert last night was when five burly Security blokes tried hauling an equally burly guy off his friend's shoulders in the middle of an audience swaying to 'What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding?' Ironic, that, I thought. To his eternal credit the guy landed on the floor still holding his beer glass aloft, not having spilt a drop. THAT is self-control.

    Costello was on blistering form; relentlessly good, rocking out with a vengeance. There's not too much GRACE in his songs, the emotions are too raw for that. But therein lies their value: no chance of 'psychic numbing' in his world. This isn't music with which to drown sorrows: but rather, to flail about for reasons for the sorrow, to shout, cry and scream for answers. Beautifully brutal.

    The summer begins here for clergy too: well, ones like me whose term-time weeks are full of schools activity: assemblies, communions, hosting class visits to church, running clubs etc. That's all over for a while now; so it's time to look ahead - to Bank Hol Weekend, meeting valued old friends and recharging the batteries at Greenbelt (my 23rd) - but also to the autumn and beyond. Today I'm taking a carload from our Penny Lane parish home to the Welsh borders to look at a couple of prospective centres for a Parish
    Weekend in 2003. After the recent trauma of leading the funeral of a friend lost in tragic circumstances, this sort of day is a real kiss of life to me.
    Monday, July 22, 2002
    Monday morning Snooze
    Only four more Mondays till Greenbelt. Monday mornings are ok for me: the only chance of a lie-in on my only day off all week (cue chorus of tired old joke: "I thought you clergy only worked one day a week." Ha ha haaar). Some Mondays I'll take off from my Liverpool home to explore the great North West, or Welsh hills (last Mon. visited the newly-opened Imperial War Museum North, in Manchester, an amazing building, the prev. week I chucked Julian Cope's 'The Modern Antiquarian' on my passenger seat and went looking for SUNKENKIRK, a wonder-full stone circle in southern Lake District); today a lazier day mooching around, in anticipation of tonight's 'Liverpool Summer Pops' concert: Elvis Costello.

    The last time I saw Elvis was at St David's Hall, Cardiff, a sleepy venue which riled him somewhat, he being a passionate performer, fired / inspired by anger. He livened things up by jumping down off the stage and mixing it among the punters, eyeballing the ones closest to the aisle and telling them to get up and dance. Needless to say, it worked. There are rumours that the audiences at our Summer Pops are livelier - incredibly, they had to call the police in to calm things down at last week's SUPERTRAMP concert! - so tonight should be a thriller. I'll let you know.