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

    Friday, April 30, 2004
    Art and steel

    They were showing Stanley Spencer's wartime shipyard paintings at the Imperial War Museum North today. Proving to me again the wonderful combination of art and steel. It may be because I used to be a welder conscious of the creative process in sparks and flame, gas and cooling water, holding a sense of the temporal power and elemental beauty in metal.

    Some readers might say I'm still working in fabrication; but anyway, I'm as moved by Spencer's visionary portrayal of the wartime Scots shipyard as I was when I first saw the Angel of the North (and read the book about its construction by the men of Hartlepool Steel Fabrications).

    No matter that Spencer's work is deeply impressionistic - his welders are wearing tweed (hmm... that would burn well), his burners are working red-hot torches bare-handed, there are no sparks flying, no nasty jagged edges to the steel. No matter that the deliberate dignity with which he he portrays the construction work belies the truth that most of this work was in vain - the 84 merchant navy tramp steamers manufactured at Port Glasgow during WW2 were sitting targets for German submarines, and destroyed on sight. No matter that these iconic pictures don't quite get across the intense heat, the turbulent noise, the aggression, the banter or the furious movement of the yard.

    No matter, for it's all about impression. And the impression is of people sharing a common purpose, intent on their task, to such an intensity that they shine with an aura which belongs to another consciousness... hold on, I'm fabricating again... in other words there's a spirit in these pictures which Spencer would describe in sacramental terms. The mundane task is rooted in the holy. The glory of resurrection shows itself in, yes, art and steel.
    Thursday, April 29, 2004
    From the place of wild beasts
    WEST DERBY got its name from 'deor-by' - the place of wild beasts; the West was to distinguish it from Derby in the Midlands. The beasts are still there, cattle and other farm creatures out back in Croxteth Country Park. Now swallowed up in the city, it's one of the oldest villages around this part of England, once the administrative centre of S.W.Lancashire, an area between the Ribble and the Mersey known as the West Derby Hundred.

    When we stood together on West Derby village green on Good Friday, folks who'd processed from churches up to two miles away, I got one of those feelings we were at the centre of things. Four or five miles from the Mersey but at the very point from which the city grew. In Domesday, The riverside was largely uninhabited, Walton was the largest township in the area, but - right here, at this green, West Derby was the "mother church".

    The part of West Derby I'm in only emerged seventy years ago. And it has rapidly crumbled. On the fringe of the Country Park, cruel outsiders say that L11 is a place where other sorts of wild beasts roam: in humanoid form, shell-suited, emitting nasal whines when confronted, making the routine circuit between post office, tote and pub, violent, lazy beasts. These caracatures sidestep deep realities which strike at the core of what causes a place's rise and fall.

    Questions of economics, largely: like how the area has always been dependent on international finance. Croxteth Hall was the home of the Earls of Sefton whose family name was Molyneux, French Normans sent over by Duke William of Normandy after 1066 to control the area. As Britain ruled the waves the area provided craftsmen and sailors to service the agencies of Liverpool's international trading preeminenece. Then, as Empire and the country estate faded and the housing estates rose, the descendents of the Earls' workers would be employed instead in factories run from London or Detroit. And since the multinationals pulled out of the city their grandchildren's underemployment has been tempered by short-term project work paid for by injections of Objective One money from Brussels.

    Illustrating - what? That there is nothing new here; ordinary folks have always depended on big money for their bread-and-butter. And Liverpool has always looked outwards for sources of income: whether as an agricultural base, Gateway to Empire, industrial satellite, Euro-pauper or now Culture-Capital-exploiter. Which makes its people vulnerable to change: one generation essential to the nation's GNP, the next cast-offs in a shrinking marketplace.

    And I'm just wondering, though it's four or five miles from the main regeneration action (a city centre revitalising with blue-chip businesses in anticipation of 2008), whether the reality of the changes we're currently going through might be best observed from the area's ancient historic centre. Here, under the cross on West Derby green; here, on the ripped-up estates of L11; here, in the place of wild beasts; here - we'll get to see how the new money flows, and know, as we've known so often, who truly reaps the benefit.

    [Visit BBC Liverpool Local History for more on the area's villages]
    Wednesday, April 28, 2004
    Trying to find the gold tooth in God's crooked smile

    "Trying to find the gold tooth in God's crooked smile", is how Jim White describes his search - the eternal search but also more specifically his exploration of life in the American South which is shortly to be released as a documentary film called Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus.

    It was great to have him pop in here (comments) yesterday and also to hear from his friend and musical collaborator Linda Delgado by email: "Jim is an amazing talent, and one of the nicest humans on earth. Anyway, Thanks for liking the music." Well, thanks, y'all, for making the music I like. And for being on a similar sort of journey. Can't wait to view the film, a BBC Arena production which we should see on our small screens over here eventually. [More Jim here]
    Tuesday, April 27, 2004
    Stand Up for Jesus (Sit down, for Christ's sake)
    BBC NEWS: England: Merseyside: City's hunt for comical clerics. "The nation's self-styled comedy capital is looking for gurus who can raise a giggle or clerics who have their flocks rolling in the pews," according to the news. To be honest reading this my heart sinks in anticipation of what they've found. Nothing worse than clerics trying to be funny. I should know, my 'fishy tale' quip last Sunday turned the congregation off immediately....
    Monday, April 26, 2004
    To see it as a labyrinth or a maze you would have to agree it had a centre. This is a map of the estate I live and work on. I'm still lost manouvering my way around it because it doesn't have a physical - or social - centre. Some roads lead somewhere but if you're in search of shops, or places of worship, or any kind of services, the only direction you can go is outwards. All these things are across the dual carriageways which fringe the twisty-curly-patterned mass of housing which is Norris Green.

    This week I have made a contract, between myself and a clergy colleague-mentor, to spend the next six months in active observation of the community I'm now in, recording what I find in conversations and through other initiatives like taking focussed walks to develop a picture of the social geography of the place.

    It's a chance to engage with some of the good resources I was introduced to in training: Hopewell's Congregation: Stories and Structures and Bailey's Implicit Religion come immediately to mind.

    It's also a chance to get to know my way around. People who've lived here a while know. My predecessor said there was no problem. I think I shall take this approach - I shall regard the parish grid as a labyrinth. With the people, the people at the centre.
    Sunday, April 25, 2004
    Championship over

    Congratulations Arsenal - who thoroughly deserve it.
    Saturday, April 24, 2004
    How children see things
    Dad's enormous articulated lorry pulls up outside, casting a dark shadow suddenly into the previously sunlit front room, and the baby squeals.

    A young girl closes her front door daintily, casts a glance down the dual carriageway, and vaults the garden wall on her dash for the no.14 bus pulling up twenty metres away.

    While lines and lines of glimmering vehicles pass the end of his road headed for the football match, the boy practices his soccer skills against a wall. His target: a battered old sign saying, 'No Ball Games'.

    The girls are in the bus shelter, not waiting to move, but eating, chattering, playing, observing all that passes by.

    Today I began to ask myself if I can imagine how children see things. I did this in the context of being reawakend to the Child Poverty Action Group. I've supported them, receiving their quarterly publications, for a number of years. But latterly I've been sadly disengaged from involvement in poverty campaigning, shifting CPAG's well-researched and carefully-argued journals directly from envelope to bookshelf, for future attention.

    Life is changing for me, and today I read their latest book. Ending Child Poverty by 2020 - the first five years, an examination of how far the government has moved towards the goal Tony Blair set at Toynbee Hall on 18 March 1999. Answer in brief - some way, actually, but there's far further to go. This shifted me from the lazy perspective I've embraced, that Blair's had it, new Labour have dived. Income poverty has fallen, "a real success," say CPAG, as has severe hardship: "There has been progress and it demonstrates just what is possible from a committed government."

    There is still a lot of poverty about - despite the progress still almost one in three children remain in income poverty. For many among them life involves food deprivation, inadequate clothes, cramped living in bad housing, and little access to leisure activities, holidays, toys and games. I suspect the children I observed down this road today would probably all know something of these things in their lives.

    What I've learned today is that there are adults trying hard to imagine how children see things. So they can help them express what they see in the public arena. In Wales, for instance, as in many European countries, there is a Children's Commissioner, and young people's groups such as Right Here Right Now (RHRN) are campaigning for one for England. I like the model, and what it symbolises: as a member of RHRN said, "I think a children's rights commissioner would create a culture of respect for children and young people."

    Part of the reason I've jettisoned CPAG journals to the shelves is because my mind cannot easily interpret the detailed figures they publish. I'm not trained in Rights or Welfare Law. But I'm glad to have them for the insights they bring; and I'm glad to be re-encouraged by them today, to try again to imagine how children see things.
    Friday, April 23, 2004
    If Jesus drove a motor home
    If Jesus drove a motor home, I wonder would he drive pedal to the metal, or real slow? Checking out the stereo. Cassette playing Bob Dylan, motivation tapes. Tricked up Winnebago, with the tie-dye drapes. If Jesus drove a motor home... If Jesus drove a motor home, and he come to your town, would you try to talk to him? Would you follow him around? Honking horns at the drive thru. Double-parking at the mall. Midnight at the Waffle House - Jesus eating eggs with y'all. If Jesus drove a motor home... Buddha on a motorcycle, Mohammed on a train. Here comes Jesus in the passing lane... but everybody smile, 'cause everybody's grooving. Ain't nothing like the feeling of moving with a bona fide motorized savior. Now if we all drove motor homes, well maybe in the end, with no country to die for, we could just be friends. One world as our highway. Ain't no yours or my way. We'd be cool wherever we roam - if Jesus drove a motor home.

    Even on the first couple of plays, Jim White's new album satisfies high expectations. No-one else straddles the very thin line between heresy and holiness as sucessfully as he does in his home-spun slice-of-life alt-country homilies. Jim's had a strange journey, as he explains on his bit of the Luaka Bop website. It's enriched him, and now it enriches and entertains us. Perfectly.
    Thursday, April 22, 2004
    Adventures in Art
    So what did I do with all those W.H. Smiths vouchers after all? Well, I couldn't get at all excited about investing in DVD technology, and it was a browse in Tate Liverpool's bookshop which eventually inspired me. I put in a Smiths order for ten books in the Adventures in Art series.

    They're kids books, really, I think. But I love them. Introductions to the work of various famous and influential artists, in colourfully-produced hardcover, with an interactive style, encouraging the reader to get alongside the artist in their workshop or spend a time in their physical- or thought-world.

    Here's one: Keith Haring: I Wish I Didn't Have to Sleep! which invites the reader to get inspired by NYC's restless creator of glowing dogs, and use their imagination in whatever ways it takes them (see pages here).

    Ten books - also including Bruegel's "Tower of Babel", two on Marc Chagall ("What Colour Is Paradise?" and "Life Is a Dream"), Paul Klee, Claude Monet, "A Day with Picasso", Leonardo Da Vinci: "Dreams, Schemes and Flying Machines", "The Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World of Salvador Dali" and one called "Mind Boggling Mazes and Loopy Labyrinths". I shall perhaps live with one a month into the new year; it'll be a breeze.
    Wednesday, April 21, 2004
    No way to do business

    New Howies catalogue arrived today. Have they been reading my blog "If they shut Thelwall Viaduct down"? (My idea was a narrowboat, but - close). Once again, an unashamed plug for a company with fairly unique business ethics. For example, a page of their catalogue is devoted to the idea that delayed gratification is better than instant gratification - "Less debt = More play":

    If you are buying a Howies product with a credit card, make sure you can pay it off this month. Or maybe you should buy it next month when you can afford it. We'd rather wait.
    Tuesday, April 20, 2004
    We become what we sing
    Can't get this pressure point out of my head
    Can't get this pressure point out of my head
    I feel it in work you know I feel it in bed
    Can't get this pressure point out of my head

    I've paid all my bills and I've acted so well
    I ain't been cheating, there's nothing to tell
    So why all this pressure I don't understand
    I call on my neighbours I lend them a hand

    Doctor oh doctor I'm willing to learn
    Well all of my bones, well they toss and they turn
    Mother oh mother I'm begging you please
    To rid me of madness and cure this disease.....

    Can't get this pressure point out of my head
    Can't get this pressure point out of my head
    I feel it in work you know I feel it in bed
    Can't get this pressure point out of my head

    Pressure pressure pressure pressure pressure pressure pressure pressure pressure pressure pressure pressure pressure pressure pressure pressure pressure pressure

    The Zutons say that Pressure Point, "A dark, New Orleans-flavoured soul classic" is about "that first 10 minutes when you get home from work and want to kill everybody." They reckon it's a song that defines their sound just now. It's certainly their best, erm, so far. Suits the mood between my ears tonight. I've become what I sing.

    Some of the pressure on me today has been pleasant pressure - organising an Iona Community BIG SING for Friday night. In aid of The Iona Community Growing Hope Appeal, a million quid required for developing the Community's work with young people and day visitors at Iona's island centres.

    Plans are all pretty much in place now; so tonight I sat back with the current GOOSEgander, magazine of the Wild Goose Resource Group, the Community's musical outreach team, for some considered wisdom from John L. Bell.

    The great thing about WGRG is not only that they put on the most thrilling SINGS, where everyone regardless of perceived ability, is enabled to have a good go, and virtually all emerge glowing with satisfaction. It's not only the rich vein of songs - self-penned and world music, reflecting with honesty the complexity and extremities of Christian experience. It's also that they place great value on thinking about music - its meanings, its effects. All in all, they're a great education.

    So in this article John reflects that music isn't neutral - its context is always important, and it always has an effect. "The truth is that texts set to tunes, especially memorable tunes, have a habit of seeping into the subconscious and subliminally shaping or dulling perspectives on life, love, personal ambitions and political choices." Put another way, we become what we sing.

    John develops his discussion in the direction of encouraging Christian songwriting of quality and integrity. Where real life issues and raw emotions find voice. I'm left thinking if I put on Pressure Point in church could it be a psalm, a prayer? And looking forward to Friday to share and be shaped by some good and honest - and also God-centred - songs.

    [If you're in the area, come and join us with WGRG's Alison Adam at Liverpool Hope University College Christ's and Notre Dame chapel this Friday 23rd April at 7.30. Admission: £5 (£3 unwaged)]
    Monday, April 19, 2004
    Still don't know who Killed the Zutons
    One of those full-on exhausting days, and after pre-ordering to ensure I got it on the day of its release I was too zonked to listen to Who Killed the Zutons?. It was the other cd which arrived today, which filled the 45 minutes I had to recoup on the settee: Stina Nordenstam's Memories of a Color. Far more soothing. maybe I'll breakfast with the Zutons tomorrow. Should be some energy rush.
    Sunday, April 18, 2004
    Land Lines
    "It requires great love of it deeply to read the configuration of a land," wrote Scots poet Hugh MacDiarmid.

    Such love develops instincts which enable writers to tune into what's behind the landscape. The authors of Land Lines, a project of The Scottish Literary Tour Company Ltd, suggest that "The spirit of place is everywhere in Scotland."

    The viewpoint near Bemersyde in the Borders known as Scott's view, for instance, is a truly haunted place. It's a fine view in any case, over the fields and woods and the winding River Tweed to the strange, unexpected Eildon Hills, but there's an extra dimension if you know two things. Just here Sir Walter Scott, out riding, was accustomed to stop and look at his favourite view; and, after his death, as his funeral procession passed this way, his own horse, drawing the hearse, paused for some minutes - out of habit? out of respect for his master? - at the accustomed spot.

    Land Lines is a journey by word and photograph, through the natural, human and spiritual landscape of Scotland. It's rich in expression, and it starts, of course, with the mountains which perhaps most define that land to outsiders looking on: insiders can relate to them far more intensely, like Nan Shepherd in the Cairngorms:

    So there I lie on the plateau, under me the central core of fire from which was thrust this grumbling grinding mass of plutonic rock, over me blue air, and between me the fire of the rock and the fire of the sun, scree, soil and water, moss, grass, flower and tree, insect, bird and beast, wind, rain and snow - the total mountain. Slowly I have found my way in. If I had other senses, there are other things I should know.

    This, of course, sets my senses spinning. And I recall the famous lines of that great Scouse poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (ok then, Welsh, but he was a priest here for a while):

    O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
    frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
    May who ne'er hung there.

    I am enjoying reading Land Lines. Thanks Sylvia & Mike.
    Saturday, April 17, 2004
    Beauty is truth, truth beauty

    Rearranging the books on my groaning shelves today I did well to stop to linger at only one lost old favourite: Edward Tufte's Envisioning Information. It's a book about how to make complex data accessible. How to display the three-dimensional realities of life on the two-dimensional page.

    It's a beautiful book, which is the whole point. Eradicating fuss and noise, clutter and glare; championing space and simplicity, layering and separation. Helping people easily perceive complicated pieces of information requires beautifully-produced graphs, charts, maps, websites... 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,' Keats wrote. Tufte shows how; he also writes critically against Powerpoint and other tools which he says, 'weaken verbal and spatial reasoning, and almost always corrupt statistical analysis'.

    Part of the attraction of Tufte's careful work is that he draws on practitioners from all sorts of other disciplines, equally devoted to clarity and beauty, like Italo Calvino, here describing his approach to writing:

    My working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language ... Maybe I was only then becoming aware of the weight, the inertia, the opacity of the world - qualities that stick to writing from the start, unless one finds ways of evading them.

    The lightness Calvino describes is a category in his Six Memos for the Next Millennium and as an Amazon reviewer wrote,'The lessons learned from "Lightness," "Quickness," "Exactitude," "Visibility," and "Multiplicity" can be applied in any creative situation.' They complement Tufte's approach. And would be equally valid, I'm thinking, in community development or liturgy...

    Friday, April 16, 2004
    In blue
    Today, another fruitless search for a cd of Hector Zazou's Songs From The Cold Seas, but I returned home instead with something as brittle and singular; Stina Nordenstam's And She Closed Her Eyes.

    Zazou's atmospherics carry the listener far northwards, out into icy waters, and his female collaborators give voice to the purity and desolation of those cold sea flows - Siouxsie, Jane Siberry, Bjork, Suzanne Vega. Nordenstam's vision recalls Zazou's, but differs: her songs are not sweeping but intimate, not cold but attractively oblique. In an interview with a Swedish magazine she said,

    "I'm very sensitive to things like describing reality, even though I think it's the most interesting thing, because it's very modern in a way. A hundred years ago, that effect on people's perception of reality didn't exist. For example, I tend to think that it's horrifying that everybody is reading the news at the same time. They buy the evening paper, read the same thing and think the same thing. That's really scary, I think."

    So what that it was Amazon that put me onto her: listening to Nordenstam I believe my ears have found a precious unique voice. Between my headphones I am in blue, surging icy Swedish blue.
    Thursday, April 15, 2004
    Hillsborough 3.06
    I feel tremendous respect for the parents of the Hillsborough victims, almost awe. They were so strong at a time when their world was collapsing. The parents saw the players as a means to revive their children. They never blamed us when the child remained unresponsive, still reliant for life on a bedside machine of lights and tubes. We did what we could, but I didn't expect to be a miracle worker. It was incredible when those two boys came round while we were at the hospital. It was difficult walking past parents whose child was still in a coma. As those two revived, people expected more and more to awake left, right and centre like a nice film where everyone recovers, opens their eyes and say, 'Hi, how are you doing?' But life is not like a Hollywood movie.

    - John Barnes, on the website of The Hillsborough Justice Campaign.

    Fifteen years on and still there's a lull in the city's rush at 3.06pm as many remember those who set out that sunny Saturday morning to watch a football match, and came back dead. Fifteen years on and still there's anger about the powerful protecting themselves and the influential misleading the people, there's still newsagents who won't stock the Sun, making a principled stance at their own expense against that tabloid's terrible smears against the people of this city. Fifteen years on and still people who were there suffer mental torment, physical pain.

    At 3.06pm on April 15, 1989 the referee blew the whistle on the Hillsborough game, Liverpool-Notts Forest, as people spilled over the Leppings Lane metal cages, out of the crush onto the pitch to try to save each others lives. I was at the other semi-final, Everton-Norwich, Villa Park, and it was later in the game that the news started filtering through to us that our friends and relatives were involved in something unprecedented, something awful. At home people stopped everything they were doing to listen to the incoming news; for hours afterwards mothers and wives and sisters and brothers and girlfriends and granddads stood by open curtains waiting for their loved ones to - please God - return. In the days before mobile phones it took hours before those at Hillsborough could tell anyone at home what was going on.

    At 3.06pm today all was quiet at Anfield at the annual service of remembrance. Just down the road here, traffic seemed slower and thinner for a short time. My imagination perhaps; but I know many in this city, in their small ways, kept vigil this afternoon. Though some will keep on fighting for it, the powerful will keep resisting, so there may never be justice for the families of those who died. But there will always be solidarity.
    Wednesday, April 14, 2004
    Among the ruins, among the glory
    Yesterday Radio 4 broadcast An Island Between Heaven And Earth:

    Alistair Rutherford's play dramatises the trials and tribulations of a group of unemployed shipyard workers and trainee church ministers who arrived on the island of Iona in 1938 to restore the ruined monastery buildings surrounding the medieval Abbey. They were all volunteers and their problems were only just beginning.

    You can download it to listen here ... this week only....
    Tuesday, April 13, 2004
    Joy on the edge
    Berkshire: Joy as nuclear marchers hit base.

    I was about to launch into a meditation on the irony of how it seems the greatest evils we permit tend to be based in places perceived to be the most beautiful or - ha - peaceful. But then I was reading the Trident Ploughshares newsletter and I remembered that wasn't entirely true. Coulport and Faslane on the Clyde, Devonport in Plymouth, for instance - grey metallic shipyards, each.

    Perhaps what links them with nice places like Fylingdales, Lakenheath and those rural areas mysteriously erased from our OS maps, is they're perceived to be peripheral... stuck out in the English countryside or anywhere in Scotland, away from the consciousness of the masses. Out of sight - out of mind, the ethos of our military/industrial planners. Thanks to the walkers and the peace campers, those faithful pilgrims and vigilants, that isn't always necessarily so.

    [2002 blog on Lakenheath / Soham here]
    Monday, April 12, 2004
    The great British Bank Holiday walk
    "Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men." said Martin Luther King Jr forty years ago. Like the prophet he was and is. He was a great one for walking. And it's great to see the revival this year of the great British Bank Holiday walk - particularly the one to Aldermaston, the place where the UK's weapons of mass destruction (nuclear warheads) have been produced since the 1950s.
    Sunday, April 11, 2004
    A Quote for Easter Day - with those in faithful anticipation
    "I know whenever peace comes, flowers will be planted instead of mines"
    - 12-year old Afghan student

    When there is peace
    They will plant flowers
    Instead of mines.
    And they will explode
    In silence, and blow us
    Quite off our feet.
    Their colours will blind
    Our eyes, their scent
    Will sing in our nostrils,
    Cling to our clothes,
    And linger in the air.
    Fragments will fall
    As petals, not metals,
    And none shall be afraid
    To walk, though beauty
    Too shall require
    Our gentleness
    When there is peace.

    - Alan Horner, in this month's Coracle
    Saturday, April 10, 2004
    Quote for Holy Saturday - As the world returns to grinning numbness
    Scooby-Doo beats Gibson's Easter passion: On the eve of Easter weekend, Mel Gibson's record-breaking film The Passion of the Christ has been overtaken at the box office in Britain by Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed.
    - The Times
    Friday, April 09, 2004
    Quotes for Holy Week - 5 - With the relieved, the released, those anticipating renewal
    Thieeery Henri; Thieeery Henri;
    Thieeery Henri; Thieeery Henri

    - Forty thousand Evertonians tonight as Everton beat Spurs 3-1 virtually assuring our Premiership security for 2004 and giving us one of the better performances of a frustrating season, to satisfy our hunger for progress.

    Singing that (a) to taunt the Spurs fans - for they have nothing approaching the wonderful talent of their North London rivals; (b) because earlier today said Henri put three past Liverpool, a pleasure at any time, and particularly his second which was contender for one of the best goals scored anywhere, ever.

    But also (c) perhaps, because that name, those words have become a byline for joyful celebration; synonymous with skill and sass and style and soccer delight. I've spent most of the day dwelling on death - leading others to dwell on death; but alongside the piety Good Friday has also been a footy day for me too. Good to find life at the end of it tonight.
    Thursday, April 08, 2004
    Quotes for Holy Week - 4 - In the crowd looking on at royalty
    Dwelly, in charge of ceremonies at the Consecration of Liverpool Cathedral, 1924, on hearing that the King had arrived too early for the ceremony, asked Lord Derby, "Can the King wait?" The reply he got was explosive; but his response was priceless: "My Lord, this service is not for The King but for Almighty God." (From the booklet for The Office for the Royal Maundy, Liverpool Cathedral, today)

    Today I have been in the crowd looking on at royalty, as the Queen visited Liverpool to give out Royal Maundy money. My republican pretenses, already enfeebled after all those oaths I've been swearing at bishops lately, were pretty much demolished after the churchwarden booked me a seat in the Cathedral for this annual act of royal charity.

    It was good to be there - after all, it's a one-off occasion; she goes to a different cathedral each year so we won't be seeing her here again in Holy Week. And I can't pretend I wasn't impressed by the colour and movement and music and symbolism of it all: "Accept this symbol of self-giving which she pays to Thee, the giver of all good things."

    But more than all that, it was good to be there because, of the 78 men and 78 women who received her gift in recognition of their years of Christian service to their communities, I knew four. When we stood up, craning to see what was happening, for what seemed an age, as the Queen distributed the coins I told myself I was standing up for Stella, for Ray, for Ruby and for Bob. Honouring them, honest-to-goodness folks who've quitely enriched my life and the lives of many others. It was worth being there for that.

    In the crowd looking on at royalty - feeling critical (why don't they do the foot-washing bit anymore? Makes a mockery of half the liturgy), proud (what a ceremony, what a great British celebration), confused (should I be enjoying this or not?), defiant (I will NOT sing the National Anthem in an act of worship), hungry (it's 12.15 and all I've had today is a yoghurt)...

    In the crowd looking on at royalty - like they were in Jerusalem that week, I'm sure, equally ambivalent, equally moved.
    Wednesday, April 07, 2004
    Quotes for Holy Week - 3 - For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ipsilanti

    When Sufjan Stevens announces: Say Yes! to Michigan! it also means, Say Yes! to LIFE! The quote above is his background to the wonderful, gracious song For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ipsilanti, with its heart-melting refrain, 'I'll do anything for you, I'll do anything for you, I did everything for you, I did everything for you' [I blogged about it in February, here].

    And I've been struck this week by the deep value of empathy, the great power in simple acts of understanding others in their complexity and their pain. Struck by the pain of those in the Passion story who fail to demonstrate this - name any from a long list including Peter, Pilate, Judas, you and me. Struck also by the unlikely ones who do - the woman at Jesus' feet (see yesterday's blog), the centurian at the cross, their gracious actions and awestruck words. And finally, struck by those able to express these things in song. Unlikely individuals: Christina yesterday, Sufjan today.

    One thing which makes Sufjan's music beautiful is his profound ability to express an empathy with others in their complexity and their pain. Compassion. He's finally hit HMV ... a joy to know such graceful art is now available on the high street.
    Tuesday, April 06, 2004
    Quotes for Holy Week - 2 - With the woman perfuming the condemned man's feet
    We are beautiful no matter what they say
    Yes, words won't bring us down
    We are beautiful in every single way
    Yes, words can't bring us down
    So don't you bring me down today.

    All the way down the M58 coming home from deepest Wigan this lunchtime I was looping this - Christina Aguilera's Beautiful [words : : download]. On Two Shots of Happy, One Shot of Sad, Pip's 2003 favourites compilation. Very singable. Very emotive.

    A morning at the annual diocesan Renewal of Commitment to Ministry service sensitised me to it: the power of the story of the woman perfuming the condemned man's feet with her hair, risking shame and criticism; its creative possibilities. At that woman's lips Aguilera's words say so much in their simplicity: celebration, empathy, and defiance.

    No matter what we do
    No matter what we say
    We're the song inside the tune
    Full of beautiful mistakes
    And everywhere we go
    The sun will always shine
    But tomorrow we might awake
    On the other side
    Monday, April 05, 2004
    Quotes for Holy Week - 1 - In the Temple
    You're obliged to pretend respect for people and institutions you think absurd. You live attached in a cowardly fashion to moral and social conventions you despise, condemn, and know lack all foundation. It is that permanent contradiction between your ideas and all the dead formalities and vain pretenses of your civilization which makes you sad, troubled and unbalanced. In that intolerable conflict you lose all joy of life and all feeling of personality, because at every moment they suppress and restrain and check the free play of your powers. That's the poisoned and mortal wound of the civilized world.

    From Octave Mirbeau: The Torture Garden, a radically nasty piece of work.

    One time I put this up as wallpaper on my computer at work; a tiny act of rebellion against my employers. Today I rediscovered it in an article written by Alex Cumber, Chaplain to the Goths, in the Cambridge Theological Federation newsletter we edited together in 1999. Surprised to see it there; and brought up sharp by his call for a 'radical reality check' about 'what it's all about'.
    Sunday, April 04, 2004
    As if in a dream dreamt by another
    In A Seventh Man, a 1970s study of conditions encountered by Turkish migrants working in Germany, John Berger describes the migrant's experience:

    Yet his migration is like an event in a dream dreamt by another. As a figure
    in a dream dreamt by an unknown sleeper, he appears to act autonomously, at
    times unexpectedly; but everything he does - unless he revolts - is
    determined by the needs of the dreamer's mind. Abandon the metaphor. The
    migrant's intensionality is permeated by historical necessities of which
    neither he nor anybody he meets is aware. That is why it is as if his life
    were being dreamt by another.

    Hence the title of an exhibition at The Museum of Liverpool Life, David Jacques: As if in a dream dreamt by another. Jacques' banners and audio tapes come from years spent listening to the stories of Liverpool migrants - family histories formed through outsiders finding their place here, making this their home, ceasing to be 'them' in any valid sense, but nevertheless bringing a sense of 'difference' into the lives they made. Like the Welsh grandmother who learned how to affirm her Presbyterian values within the 'exotic' ways of the very Catholic place which became her home; the Finnish woman who appreciated the humour those around her shared so easily, but whose natural sobriety embued her family with a very different kind of character.

    All this got me thinking about the migrant in me. In 41 years I may not have got very far (five miles from my childhood home, two miles from my place of birth) but it was when putting up April's Pic of the month that I realised I've moved eight times in the past eighteen years; it was when walking home with a parishioner last night, a woman well into retirement who has never, ever moved, that I realised this may be a sign of the migrant in me, a spiritual migrant perhaps or at the least a wanderer in search of ... something ...

    How much of my moving has been like a dream dreamt by another? Berger's terms are interesting. In retrospect, some of my moves were driven by 'historical necessities' - my unemployment and Liverpool's decline brought on by Thatcher's policies certainly contributed to my being the first in our family's memory to leave in search of university qualifications. And the move into the church (which accounts for four migrations in nine years) - propelled yes, by inner certainties, but also by the encouragements, hopes, enthusiasms ... dreams perhaps, of others ...
    Saturday, April 03, 2004
    And then you
    We arrange our lives as best we can,
    to keep your holiness at bay,
    with our pieties,
    our doctrines,
    our liturgies,
    our moralities,
    our secret ideologies,
    Safe, virtuous, settled.

    And then you -
    you and your dreams,
    you and your visions,
    you and your purposes,
    you and your commands,
    you and our neighbors.

    We find your holiness not at bay,
    but probing, pervading,
    insisting, demanding.

    And we yield, sometimes gladly,
    sometimes resentfully,
    sometimes late... or soon.

    We yield because you, beyond us, are our God.
    We are your creatures met by your holiness,
    by your holiness made our true selves.
    And we yield. Amen.

    I've spent Lent with Walter Brueggemann's Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth. It's one Lent practice I'll keep on after; his prayers are as fulsome as his theological texts.
    Friday, April 02, 2004
    Good Friday?
    From the Cookham Good Friday? Stations of the Cross project. Forgive me, but there seems a lot more light and life in this than in the Hollywood Passion on at the Showcase just now...

    Thursday, April 01, 2004
    Pic of the month

    It fell off the kitchen wall today, due to shoddy workmanship the first week I moved in here. Stopped everything to rehang it. Properly this time. This picture has been with me for a long time and I'm always keen to have it somewhere very visible - a hallway, landing or, in this place, kitchen. It's by Matilda Harrison and though it could be anytime, I've made it April's Pic of the month.