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notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
Saturday, August 31, 2002Death is for making us wonder what life is Life, Death, God today. Martin's meditations set to music featuring many different narrative voices, has a very in-house feel (Meg's designed the cover, son Wesley features on one track as does Charlie Irvine jnr on another). But it's ok having meditations which are home grown, as all the best liturgy is. Contextual.
Struck especially by 'Death is', which has the refrain, 'Death is for making us wonder what life is'. Which is so true because at the point of death everyone affected is brought out of the humdrum into a place of encounter, enlightenment, or trauma where the 'big' questions loom large all of a sudden.
Watching a tape of last week's Six Feet Under with these thoughts in mind, helped me engage with it some more. 'Death is for making us wonder what life is' could almost be the subtitle of this series which is distinctive because the soap opera of the characters lives is played out in the light of death, not the most attractive subject for high-profile TV. In the mortuary people have conversations with the deceased, whose particular stories rub up against those still alive, in the funeral parlour lounge families say what they've never before spoken about themselves.
Six Feet Under has fewer hints of heaven than Martin's meditation, but nevertheless it's good TV for it doesn't trivialise death, it explores it and life with it. In death there is depth.
Friday, August 30, 2002Back Home
Wish I'd been more at peace on the road today as I completed the Liverpool - Cheltenham - Cambridge loop on major roads for the first time this week. Previously I had spent my journey happily trundling along England's byways. Today I opted for a fast return home, and found myself caught up in the grumpy spirit of speed that enfolds most of us who grudgingly share motorway space together. Getting annoyed with slower vehicles; making life difficult for annoyingly faster ones. You know what I mean, you've done it too.
I remembered one of John Bell's GB02 seminars which I'd had on in-car on Tuesday, where he talked about this spirit of wanting everything our way, now, without discomfort or inconvenience. And if I'd not been still caught up in this gracelessness I'd have maybe felt ashamed at myself - after all, a mere four hours for that cross-country journey, in a comfortable car with ok air conditioning and audio accompaniment giving me opportunity to laugh along with Paul Cookson and reflect on AIDS with Romy Tiongco, and to arrive back home as I'd last week arrived at Pitville, listening to 'Folk' by Howie B - after all, these are real luxuries, privileges, gifts of the age to me. I should be - rare word, this one - thankful.
Wednesday, August 28, 2002On the road
On the road across countrty from Cheltenham towards Cambridge (where I'm sat now, in the internet cafe beside the Corn Exchange) I visited: Stratford-on-Avon (for fun - watching the boats in the sun), Castle Ashby estate (for Greenbelt reminiscences - it made no impact on me at all), Odell (reason - ditto; but an enjoyable snooze in the churchyard), a big lake by St Neots (to soak up the evening sun), Papworth (to visit friends I met on Iona), The Church of the Good Shepherd, Arbury (to surprise the folk with whom I worshipped for two years, joining them for midweek communion), and St Matthews Church, Soham (to add my prayers, written and unspoken to the thousands of others there). All the while listening to GB2002 seminar tapes (John Bell's yesterday, Cole Moreton's today) and feeling enriched as I always do this week in the year, coming away from the inspirational event and seeing how it links into my life outside.
And as if to confirm this and keep it all going, I've just bumped into Nick Welsh outside Andy's Records; Nick a GB DJ, general mover and shaker, who this year hosted the film-and-discussion series at the festival, showing films with a 'media' theme (Network, Natural Born Killers...). Two years I lived here, I hardly ever saw him. Two hours passing through today...
Thursday, August 22, 2002Erratic posts this week Fishtank multimedia venue at Greenbelt, and maybe from internet cafes I find in Cambridge and en-route. But if the site's a bit static for a few days, please forgive me. I'm having a break.
and you're working on something good
but if it's really good
you're gonna need a bigger room
and when you're in the bigger room
you might not know what to do
you might have to think of
how you got started in your little room
... The White Stripes sing it; it fits where IÕm at in life and time today. I shan't go on again about Greenbelt; but it is perhaps the place I got started in my little room. And as the demands and challenges of full-time ministry surround and confound me, leave me not drowning but waving an armband in the deep end, it does feel like being in the bigger room, not knowing what to do.
So this coming weekend I return to the place that started me off and where I know I will be able to reflect on how I got started in my little room. Next week, revisiting Cambridge, where I trained, for the first time since, may help too. Should be a refreshing, energising time. Thanks, White Stripes.
Wednesday, August 21, 2002Greenbelt - the year starts here Greenbelt which remains for me a source of enormous strength, encouragement, energy, etc, without which I may have given up on the Christian faith, certainly on the church anyway, many years ago.
I've missed it only once since 17 - while on Iona in 1999 - and it wasn't till I managed a cursory one-day visit the following year that I realised just how much I missed it. It's the programme of music and various arts that thrills, the innovative worship which energises and reawakens my flagging faith, the seminars and workshops that make me realise that God has a future and that I'm in it. It's the irreverence which goes deeper than any piety that energises me. But overall its the people that make it, because we're a sort-of community who've formed around this thing for the past 20-odd years. Bruce Cockburn is one of them and his song sums it up: its a festival of friends.
Too much conversation is usually difficult for an introvert like me but it's manageable at GB. And so I look forward to four days of virtually non-stop interaction with various goths, punks, drunks, druids (yes, Rowan Williams is coming), queers, straights, ministers of the faith and faithless mysteries, peaceniks and techies, monastics, scholastics, guitarists, clowns, men in gowns, men in shorts, short men in big cars, journalists, optimists, soroptimists, children with painted faces, adults with painted faces, opera divas, comedians, community workers, advertising copywriters, young ladies, actors (on and off-the-stage), holy women, poets, protesters, storytellers, shopkeepers, each of them unique, each drawn by the open accepting nature of a Christian event where no-one's judging you, where whatever your faith or no-faith, you are very welcome.
It saddens me that a good artist with a vibrant spirituality, who I enjoy, has such a down on the religion which he feels has done nothing but harm to us and our culture, and to him: "She walks up to me, makes the sign of the cross, she says, 'Julian H. Cope you're a real dead loss'." I can understand why he feels that way, sadly; that's why it's so good when folks like Cope experience Greenbelt and find instead of being ostracised for being different, they're accepted, in the immortal words of top Greenbelter Pip Wilson, as beautiful human people.
Tuesday, August 20, 2002Contains profanities Greenbelt is only hours away now and I'm being constantly reminded of it. Today I've enjoyed reading the new Wild Goose magazine with news of friends and excellent insight from John Bell; and also the current LGCM magazine, which carries this poem, which makes me well up with some sort of holy thrill the more I read it. I hope Rosie Miles won't mind me reproducing it here because it says so much about what Greenbelt's about, and the possibilities it suggests.
For all the Godawful Bits of the Bible
(For Sara Maitland)
For the texts of terror:
For the rape and the pillage and the shame
Of these sanctified words;
For the whatthefuckdowedowiththis verses
That make no sense at all
To us, now;
For their endurance in our lives;
For the utter brokenness
Of God's human words;
For knowing how these words have
For still somehow reading on.
In spite, or even because of all this,
There are theologies
Or irreverence and mischief
Winking their way into our lives;
Playful theologies of craft
Weaving the weft against the warp,
Shuttling untold designs
Into new patterns;
Theologies of art and lies
Telling us stories we never knew.
These painful words will endure,
Or maybe be forgotten.
How we inhabit their shadow
Is no longer a question
For those who think they know,
But for the loving potters,
the waiting poets,
the holy clowns.
Monday, August 19, 2002On blogging
So I joined the Greenbelt Blog and enjoyed the discipline of sitting down each day and thinking of what to write; a good reflective exercise. And, being a peripheral techie (before I went into the Church full-time I was a computer programmer) I've found myself reading around the blogging phenomenon, and getting my own website set-up today with which to keep on blogging post-Greenbelt (or perhaps, alongside Greenbelt depending on what its blog team decide to do about our future when we meet this weekend)
So, on this platform, this is the first of hopefully many blogs. And hopefully also some good dialogue with those who take the interest to read them.
This year at the festival we will doubtless help each other discuss and deal with issues around child abduction, paedophilia etc, the media's top agenda just now. Without in any way wanting to sideline those questions, I hope we'll also put them in wider perspective. I hope when we meditate on RAF Lakenheath, where Holly and Jessica's bodies were discovered, we'll remember it's the US Air Force's primary and most important tactical bombing base in Europe, home to 5,000 military personnel tooled up for destruction.
Over recent years one of Lakenheath's prime activies has been bombing the people of Iraq. The Lakenheath Action Group reported last year that "F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jets and crews from the USAF 494th Fighter Wing from Lakenheath continue their three monthly rotational operations to enforce the unlawful 'No-fly zones' in Iraq." This is everyday stuff in that slice of Suffolk. See yesterday's blog for perspective on that.
Sunday, August 18, 2002The banality of evil
Soham's clergy rightly focussed on the pastoral today - praying for the people in the darkness surrounding them, reminding them of all the love and prayerful support that people the world over were extending to them, encouraging them to support each other and look in hope to God.
But I couldn't help picking up on the vicar's repeated expression of disbelief that something so awful could happen "in a place like this". Sadly, it can, and does, happen in any place. The vicar read: 'It is what comes out of the heart that defiles a person', and that caused me to remember the phrase coined by Hannah Arendt, when reporting on the trial of war criminal Otto Adolf Eichmann, 'the banality of evil'. When she first set eyes on him she was struck by his ordinariness - he's "not even sinister," she said. "The deeds were monstrous, but the doer ... was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous."
It can happen in an ordinary place like Soham because people with evil intentions are unexceptional. I know that, because what comes out of my heart is often quite disturbing. It's only our being entangled with God's grace that teaches us restraint. The light that shines through this darkness, though, is that a community may respond to awful events by welling up with goodness, and it seems the people of Soham have done this today, in their solidarity and their prayerfulness.
Saturday, August 17, 2002
He's a cheeky man, Martin Wroe. Today I relived the pleasure of his GB2000 conversation with Rowan Williams, the one in which Martin predicted that the next Archbishop of Canterbury would be a holy man, holy as indicated by the wearing of a large beard. Williams received this with generous good humour, as he did throughout an hour of quips from his irreverent interviewer.
Listening to this on in-car cassette, there were tears of joy in my eyes, literally and dangerously, in contraflow on the M62 as I relived the moment when Rowan was asked to justify theologically his admiration for the Simpsons: "Probably the best answer to that is 'Doh!'." The joy increased as I heard him mock himself and his position with comments about the 'interestingly-named' 'Primates meeting' - "social grooming, a competition for the position of dominant male". And my heart warmed at his passion for the church taking a proper position on the arms trade - describing the time a bishop told him a discussion on the subject in the Lords had been 'a good debate' Williams' response was to say that 'a good debate' was just not good enough - he's looking for "public anger" on the issue.
Thank God for Williams and Wroe today. The Williams who encouraged his GB audience to keep trying new ways of being church because the church's so-called 'timeless traditions' mainly originated between the 1890s and the 1950s; the Wroe who immediately jumped in by asking, "Is Graham Kendrick that old?" Anticipate with glee the opportunity to hear these two odd-God-bods again next weekend, by which time they may have revised their under-ten-words description of Christianity, which they were working on in 2000: Williams: "God's love and recreating power in Jesus are never exhausted"; Wroe: "We're all bastards but God loves us anyway - that's only eight."
I also cried with pride and joy when Everton came out today, for our one hundredth year in the top flight. That went deep; I think perhaps Williams and Wroe, though, go that little bit deeper.
Friday, August 16, 2002Soul Space
SOUL SPACE is intense and challenging when it's up and running but at this stage it's simply about making arrangements for meeting up. We turn the Panoramic Restaurant into perhaps Greenbelt's only specifically quiet area, with a prayer corner with cushions, candles, icons and incense, bookstalls with spirituality titles for people to browse, and on the lower level, at tables with an expansive view, we hold our half-hour conversations where a steady stream of festival-goers take up the invitation to have someone hear what they are going through, often about their prayer life, or God-life, or a decision they face.
People wander in and out at all hours of the day and night just to see what's up there, often just to gaze out across the festival site (and at night, watch the town lights and the star lit sky). Do visit us this year.
Visibility is easy on days like today. Wandering around the parish like a good traditional priest, stopping and chatting like it never seems possible to on dark winter days when the programme's so packed there's no time for God even in the C of E. Best bit for me so far today, a good half-hour outside my house with three local children who I'd never normally see to talk with. While I cleared the extensive weeds from the doorstep they set about removing the snails for me, a great help. Better still, maybe, to follow - a barbeque with colleagues this evening, usually a very enjoyable event. And I¹m in the mood for walking there, to St Clements¹ Toxteth, bottle in hand, smile in my eyes, visibly silly on a hot summer¹s night.
Wednesday, August 14, 2002The Grace of God
When I was about five I was playing in the back yard.
And my father was painting the stairs leading into the house.
And my mother called me in for lunch.
And I go to the bottom of the stairs,
And my father says that we can't step on them.
And I am baffled. I mean - how are we ever going to get into the house?
I mean - this is a major crisis.
And he says, well, you know, close your eyes and I'll show you.
So I closed my eyes and he picked me up -
And he LIFTED me over the stairs, into the kitchen.
And I just turned and for a moment
My father had become God.
Tuesday, August 13, 2002Iona folk
I owe my Iona experience to Greenbelt, where in the mid-1980s I first encountered the Community's rootsy worship. And then in 1992 I went on the first Greenbelt 'pilgrimage' to Iona, instantly loved the beauty of the place and was deeply moved by the 'integrated' worship and vision, because it brought together many strands in my life previously disassociated - spirituality and justice, work and worship etc - and so creatively.
Over the subsequent decade I committed myself to the Community's 'rule' - of prayer and bible study, accounting to other members for my use of time, money and action for justice and peace, and meeting together regularly. It's a source of strength for me, at times a struggle, and at other times - you guessed it - yet another kiss of life.
Monday, August 12, 2002And they have all walked by the genius sea
a summertime mix of visitors.
Then, onto Liverpool's Cathedral of Football - Goodison Park, of course. Gentle pre-season buzz around the ground and in the club shop, anticipating the new kit and snapping up end-of-line bargains. I got a tshirt for £6; no doubt I'll be wearing it on GB Saturday (to shake hands with Sunderland fans).
And finally, to my parents' for a bite to eat and a little time on the seafront promenade at the bottom of their road. Very clear view over the Irish Sea to the Snowdonia hills today. I grew up here, and remain fascinated by this scene as it changes through the seasons, as so many other people are. I wrote a poem about it once; it remains a favourite:
And they have all walked by the genius sea:
Old men and bad men
Travellers and typists
Middle-aged women with varicose legs
And they have understood the tides of eternity:
Grubby boys and big boys
Flaxen-haired girls with love on their minds
And they have been anointed by the damp salt wind:
Vicars and sailors
Paupers and prisoners
Singers and salesmen with stories to tell
And they have all praised the glittering horizon:
Communists and cripples
Lunatics and lovely girls
Busty young wives with wombsfull of life
Old soldiers, young cousins,
Divorcees with dogs:
The tides of eternity have all called out to them
And they have all walked by the genius sea.
Friday, August 09, 2002The Evil Heat is on...
I need music which engages the state of the world, which is why the Primals remain a must-buy, because of the way they use noise to critique the status quo. But I have to say, the light touch is the right touch sometimes. And at the end of a day when I've struggled with "whoever comes to me will never be hungry" in the face of Africa's famine and this country's impasse over sustainable development, when I've spent time with someone who last month lost her husband to cancer, at 35, who I miss too, it's a kiss of life to
settle down with the Primals rockin' out in wonderfully banality to lyrics like 'Oooh baby, do it again...'
Thursday, August 08, 2002Beware bad joke
The Indigo Girls are big advocates for the gay lobby and the audience reflected that; in one song they critique the church for its 'unloving' attitude to that community, but after it they spoke more positively about changing attitudes. I guessed they'd been impressed by the the 'open and affirming' North American churches, but doubted they'd say the same if they were doing their lobbying in the UK. Not yet anyway.
I've seen some memorable gigs in that theatre - Stiff Little Fingers, Throwing Muses, the phenomenal Fall. This didn't compare. But it was a good night nevertheless. Notices outside told us that at 11.00 there'd be a band on called 'CURFEW'. But they never showed; instead, the lights went up, so we came home, ears buzzing.
Tuesday, August 06, 2002The real world revisited
Opponents of this action offering nonviolent alternatives are told, 'you don't live in the real world'. These words are very like that other fatalistic litany, 'there is no alternative'.
The challenge and the joy of the Christian faith is that there is always an alternative to such activities, and that when we search for it with the help of God, 'the real world' looks very different from the violent, doomed place it first appears.
Jesus said 'I am the way, the truth and the life': following him is like taking directions from at a different kind of map, real nevertheless, where the landscape en-route consists of grace, peace and reconciliation.
(Ahem - that's my article written for next month's Parish Magazine!!!)
Monday, August 05, 2002In the real world
Most maps highlight roads - this doesn't show any, just bridges, which are important on the canals so that each one is numbered and many bear names: 'Crows Nest Bridge', 'Round Thorn Bridge'. Most maps highlight urban settlements - this simply follows the waterways, emphasising settlements along their way whatever their size (eg, Bell o'th' Hill, Welsh Frankton) and sidelining major towns in the area (eg, Crewe, Flint). Most maps don't offer homely advice such as early closing days, names of all the pubs en route, and tips about navigation ('Be prepared for fast currents here'). This does. (Imagine a motorway atlas with similar tips: 'If there are roadworks on this stretch of the M6, take a good book to read', or 'A14 - watch out for lunatic drivers in Huntingdon area'. etc).
I like this map because it shows our little world in a new light. I once went on a narrowboat holiday and enjoyed the different perspective on the British countryside which it provided. It challenged my perception of landscape, of how I see and prioritise things. It challenged also, the temptation to criticise such 'other' perspectives, on the grounds that they're not 'the real world'. For some people, this world of boats and locks and 4mph limits, IS the real world. I had a good conversation with just such a couple today, who live very comfortably and contentedly on a 70ft narrowboat. And, returning home on the rush-hour M53 with an impatient Mercedes speeding behind me, I appreciated and applauded them.
Sunday, August 04, 2002Half a world away yet closer than breathing
Occasionally we had guest appearances from other daft DJ-inclined pals, and I would show off by dropping in extracts from interviews I'd done in my role as features writer on GAIR RHYDD, Cardiff's student weekly, and for STRAIT, Greenbelt's own mag. The tape I rediscovered today comes from early August 1987 and features Dave getting excited about the prospect of seeing Bruce Cockburn for the first time, and his mum telling him: 'You should be out in the sunshine, walking.'
On the other side, I drop in bits of taped conversations I'd had with GB poet and luminary Stewart Henderson (in Liverpool's plush Adelphi hotel).
And there's 'Two Tribes' from Frankie Goes to Hollywood featuring comments from our friend Jim: 'If any member of the family should die while in the shelter put them outside and tag them for identification purposes': 'Is this an advert for Barratt Homes?'
Funny, those days seem half a world away and yet in other ways closer than breathing.
Friday, August 02, 2002Penny Lane is in my ears and up my nose
Best bit this afternoon, was walking past two smiling young women tourists who were unselfconsciously taking each others pictures outside Sergeant Pepper's Bistro and the Penny Lane Wine Bar opposite. What's home to me is a great adventure to them. The Penny Lane road sign on the corner is surely the most-stolen one in the country. No wonder our city council is skint.
Funny living in a street made world-famous by a pop song. I guess that makes me and my neighbours the spiritual kin of the inhabitants of Baker Street (Gerry Rafferty), (Positively) 4th Street (Bob Dylan), Tenth Avenue (Freeze-Out - Bruce Springsteen), and of course the northern classic Beezley Street (John Cooper Clarke). Among others.
Murray Street (Sonic Youth) has been on my CD player for a little while. That's the place their Manhatton studios are based; they're the sounds they were creating on Sept 11th, and literally blew the dust off to complete later on last year. Penny Lane warms my heart. Murray Street makes my ears burn.
Thursday, August 01, 2002I'm the kind of man who leaves the scene of the crime
If the occasion had required wit, I would have said, 'ashes to ashes, mud to mud', because at that point in the ceremony a glob of sludge was what left my hand and landed on the coffin with a dull thud. No time to chat with relatives and friends, no time for that usual valuable interaction today. It was just too wet. BRMC sing, 'I'm the kind of man who leaves the scene of the crime.' That's how I felt today.