Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Blagovest Ensemble at West Tanfield

I've just heard about a concert of Russian Choral Music at St Nicholas' Church, West Tanfield on Monday evening (5th September). What an amazing opportunity to hear an internationally known choir from St Petersburg performing both sacred and folk music from Russia. A treat indeed! The concert begins at 7pm and there is no admission charge, so just come! There will be a retiring collection. (And there's a very good pub nearby where you can enjoy pre-concert food or just a drink afterwards!)

The conductor is Olga Kozlova. The organisers of the concert write,

'Amazing Music

Once more we have a chance to hear the sublime voices of a talented Russian choir, the St Petersburg Blagovest Ensemble, whose performances enchant their audiences.  The intense emotion and spirituality of the sacred pieces they sing contrasts with the zest for life and the humour of the Russian folk songs, and they may include an occasional English pop song sung in their own distinctive style. They have won fans across the UK and are coming back to West Tanfield this September.  If you have never heard such music you have missed a memorable experience. If you think it not your taste, prepare to be won over, like many others. 

Based at the St Petersburg Conservatoire – the centre of traditional Russian choral music - the Blagovest Ensemble is noted for its musicians’ high professionalism and their unashamed passion for the music they love to share.  Their concert repertoire includes pearls of Russian choral a cappella music, both spiritual and secular.
Russian choral music, with its distinctive melodic patterns, holds a unique place in the musical culture of the world - due in no small measure to the Russian Orthodox Church, which allows only the sound of the human voice to praise God in worship and whose choral tradition goes back a thousand years.  Even a small ensemble allows an audience to feel the dramatic and melodic wealth which characterises this music. It fascinates with its beauty and strength and leaves nobody indifferent. 

Censored in Soviet Russia for almost 70 years, it is only in recent years that the masterpieces of Russian choral spiritual music have sounded again, thanks to the work of professional musicians like Blagovest, who are devoted to this wonderful genre. Today this music is experiencing a second birth, allowing us all to re-open forgotten pages of world culture.' 

Saturday, 27 August 2011


This holiday picture, taken in Bodnant Gardens, in the Conwy Valley, reminded me of a poem by Jones Very in which the soul longs for God's presence. Very was an American mystic and poet, a Unitarian minister and a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The Prayer

Will Thou not visit me?
The plant beside me feels Thy gentle dew,
And every blade of grass I see
From Thy deep earth its quickening moisture drew.

Wilt Thou not visit me?
Thy morning calls on me with cheering tone;
And every hill and tree
Lend but one voice - the voice of Thee alone.

Come, for I need Thy love,
More than the flower the dew, or grass the rain;
Come gently as Thy holy dove
And let me in Thy sight rejoice to live again.

I will not hide from them
 When Thy storms come, though fierce may be their wrath,
But bow with leafy stem,
And, strengthened, follow on Thy chosen path.

Yes, Thou wilt visit me:
Nor plant nor tree Thine eye delights so well,
As, when from sin set free,
My spirit loves with Thine in peace to dwell.

                                                               Jones Very 1813-80


Hooray! Outnumbered returns to BBC1 at 9pm next Friday. Beautifully observed and partly improvised, this is a comedy about three children effortlessly and expertly outwitting their well-meaning and politically correct parents, mostly by the use of what might pass as common sense and bald statement of truth, from their perspective. This will be the fourth series and, given the ages of the children - Ramona Marquez (Karen), Daniel Roche (Ben), Tyger Drew-Honey (Jake) - I suspect it may be our last opportunity to cheer them on as they wind up their parents, played by Claire Skinner and Hugh Dennis, to a hilarious pitch of bemused impotence. Come to think of it, Ben also out-smarted the Vicar when he took his opportunity, at a boring wedding reception, to quizz him about God's chosen method of atonement ('Couldn't He think of a better way than the cross?'). Earlier, Karen had gone through a phase of slightly self-righteous Christianity; as someone whose Christian parents worried that we might not choose Christianity, it was interesting to see it all from the reverse perspective - a secular mother, troubled by her daughter's espousal of Christianity under the influence of a fundamentalist teacher. The children have razor sharp minds, questioning techniques worthy of highly trained barristers (especially Karen) and the wisdom of those who are not afraid to state the truth. The series portrays what I Iove best about being with children - their ability to get straight to the heart of a matter and to ask the questions which adults avoid but which really challenge our understanding of ourselves and our social norms.

Written by Guy Jenkin and Andy Hamilton of Drop the Dead Donkey fame, the series knocks spots off most of the comedies about family life seen over recent years. I am looking forward to Friday nights, this Autumn!

For a taster see 


Auschwitz Project at Henshaws

Henshaw's Arts and Crafts Centre, Knaresborough, is currently hosting an exhibition of art work produced by disabled activist, Di Lofthouse MBE. Working closely with artist Shaeron Caton-Rose, Di has created an extremely powerful group of works expressing her response to a visit to Auschwitz, last summer. Those murdered at Auschwitz, of course, included many people who were sent to the camp because they were deemed disabled. In this exhibition, Di expresses her reaction to what she saw in paintings, prints, sculpture and film through which she explores the theme of humanity in the face of atrocity. Her belief in the dignity of every individual 'whatever skin you live in' has long informed her campaigning and is a prime motivational force in this very moving exhibition. Part of the exhibition can also be taken on tour and is suitable for schools and other educational groups. It would particularly fit the history and PSHE curricula, dealing, as it does in a very powerful way, with issues to do with respect and human rights.

I have visited the exhibition and found it sobering yet hopeful. The Revd Elizabeth Sewell, the Team Rector of the Knaresborough Team of churches writes, 'This exhibition at Henshaws is amazing! Very powerful in its own right but also an opportunity (I think) to explore ability rather than disability.' It closes on 2nd September, so get over to see it this week if you can, especially if you think the touring version might be a resource for your school or church.

For information about the exhibition

Di Lofthouse, the artist

in conjunction with Shaeron Caton-Rose

A Pharmacist's Story

I've just received my summer newsletter from a friend who is working as a pharmacist in Vellore, South India.

'A cow lies happily across the main road, barefoot toddlers play by the roadside, a chicken is being waved over puffed rice by a tree shrine...the day begins.'

She has been there for a number of years now, helping to run the dispensary and organising training for the many medical staff. She routinely finds employment as a pharmacist in the UK during her leave in order to be able to finance her next year's work in India. The hospital where she is based is the Christian Medical College and Hospital in Vellore which was founded in 1900 by Dr Ida Scudder in response to the suffering of the women of rural South India. Today, it is an inspirational place - one of India's leading hospitals with over 2,000 beds spread across its main site and a number of outlying sites. In 2010, it was named 'India's Most Socially Responsible Hospital'  in the Indian Health Care Awards and it was also runner-up in the 'Best Multi Speciality Hospital' category.  My friend writes that, this year, they have daily treated 2,166 in-patients and 6,180 outpatients from all over India, with doctors routinely conducting ward rounds in Tamil, Hindi, Telugu, Bengali and English. The average daily birth rate is 45; every day 125 operations are performed and 1,540 radiological tests carried out. These are fairly staggering numbers by any standards.

Christian Medical Cllege, Vellore, India with PI Suresh David

Many patients cannot afford the full cost of their care and the Friends of Vellore have a 'person to person' scheme. Donations go into a fund which doctors and social workers can access to help individual patients pay the expenses of their medical treatment and care. CMC does not distinguish between rich and poor or between those of different beliefs and creeds but treats every person who presents on the basis of their health care needs and so this fund is a vital support to the the work of the hospital. To give some examples of the kinds of need, a new born baby with neonatal sepsis was hospitalised for 20 days at a cost of £299; his family's income was £7.00 per month. A mother with severe anaemia required a Caesarian section and was hospitalised for 7 days at a cost of £199; her family's monthly income was £11.00. Both patients paid a proportion of their own costs, borrowing money to do this, but the hospital was able to make a substantial contribution through the person to person fund, reducing the loans these families had to take out to a manageable size. 

I find the story of this hospital and its sacrificially self-giving staff inspiring and moving. The Christian Medical College seeks to be a witness to the healing ministry of Christ through excellence in education, service and research. You can see more at

or find out about the person to person scheme on    

Friday, 19 August 2011

Yorkshire's Monastic Churches as You've Not Seen Them Before!

William Thackray, priest at Scruton, in this diocese, has just produced a book entitled Standing on Holy Ground; Monastic and Collegiate Churches of Yorkshire. The book contains photographs of all the monastic or collegiate foundation churches in Yorkshire from ruins to parish churches, from monasteries to cathedrals, from coast to dale, from urban south to rural north. The photography is breath-taking and this is a book to lose yourself in. During its production, he visited most of the churches throughout the different seasons and so the selection of photographs of many of the sites reflects the rhythm of both the natural seasons and the Christian year. The photographs capture the unique atmosphere of each place and, in many instances, communicate something of the essence of the communities who inhabit them today for worship, pilgrimage and celebration. Also included are brief histories of the buildings with stories of the communities who have inhabited them down the centuries, portraying the heights and depths of faith and folly. He has produced similar books on the churches of York city centre and the churches of the City of London.

If you are interested in seeing more, William Thackray is available to give illustrated presentations on the Monastic and Collegiate Churches of Yorkshire, the Churches of York City Centre and the Churches of the City of London. These talks last anything from half an hour to an hour and a half, depending on the nature of the group. This is an excellent resouce for schools, MU and WI groups, local history societies and other organisations who are looking for speakers. There is no charge. Expenses and a donation to the Chidren's Society would be welcome.

If you would like further details send a message to 


The Faith of Girls

A friend recently drew my attention to this rather unique and recently published study of adolescent girls' spirituality and attitudes to faith. The Faith of Girls; Children's Spirituality and Transition to Adulthood looks at the experience of girls as they move from childhood to adulthood and is a must for anyone involved in youth work. Anne Phillips, the author, draws on psychology, sociology, gender studies and textual criticism of the many biblical stories of girls' lives, as well as on her own research into girls' experiences of God, church and growing up in contemporary society. It is a book about girls in transition, their developing identity and sense of self in relation to God. It will appeal to academics and practitioners, to those primarily interested in helping young people and to those primarily interested in theological or gender studies. It has been hailed as breaking new ground by critics.

An Oxford graduate in theology, Anne Phillips has been a secondary school teacher and, for 20 years, a Baptist minister. She is currently Co-Principal of the Northern Baptist College in Manchester.

The book is published by Ashgate Publishing, Abingdon. Sample sections of the book can be viewed at

Children Are Welcome

Our children's Officer has been busy! Not only have Diocesan youth and children's team created a new pack of information, Children Are Welcome, which has been sent to every parish, with some really good resources, but Graham Richards, our Officer, has organised four evenings in September (before the clocks go back) to help churches think about how to use the resources. The evening will provide inspiration and information about how to get going with making children a welcome part of church life in your own localities or, indeed, how to refresh and improve what you are already doing. There is one evening in each deanery but you can go to any of them by booking a place on

Wensely Deanery, Redmire, 29th September
Ripon Deanery, Ripon, 6th October
Richmond Deanery, Richmond, 12th October
Harrogate Deanery, Bilton, 13th October

Friday, 12 August 2011

Archbishops, Riots and Police

You can read the full text of the Archbishop of Canterbury's speech in the House of Lords on the Bishop of Bradford's blog, together with a comment from Bishop Nick who is on holiday in the USA, trying to keep up with developments here.

I thought the Archbishop's speech was one of the more positive contributions I've heard to the debate - 'Seeking explanations is not the same as seeking excuses...'  He is so right to point out that education has become too 'instrumentalist' - striving for a narrow range of competencies and skills rather than to create character and the practice of virtue and good citizenship.  I also thought Archbishop Sentamu was good on Newsnight last night, avoiding the  'I told you so'  line and the woolly liberal line and managing to make some positive comments about how moral education could be different and about how we can generate among younger people a belief in a future to which they can contribute. Bishop Nick is right to say that it is really for the bishops of the areas affected to comment in detail on what happened during the riots themselves - they have the local information. Talking to friends around the country, what happened in each of the different cities and towns was distinctive. 

I agree with ++Rowan in wanting to thank the police for the courageous job they did in impossible circumstances, especially before the COBRA meeting could be convened. I am sure that mistakes were made in places but, had they gone in with greater force, we could have been looking at the loss of many more lives and, frankly, a much, much worse situation, escalating into widespread, deliberate violence against large numbers of people as well as property. Also, we should thank the fire and ambulance services for their courage in facing both threat from the rioters and danger due to the fires and damage to buildings.

Our thoughts continue to be with all who have lost lives or loved ones, those who have been injured or lost homes or property, and those who have to continue with their businesses and pay their staff while unable to open their premises as usual.  

(See yesterday's post Riots on British Streets (11th August) for more opinion.)

Thursday, 11 August 2011

A Rural Debt Advice Service

Keith Tondeur, the national director of Credit Action writes,

'There is increasing alarm about the level of personal debt in this country. You may be asking,'What has this got to do with the church?' If so, you may be shocked to know that there are almost five times as many verses in the Bible about handling money as there are about either faith or prayer. Two thirds of Jesus' parables relate to money. Within in yards of your church and....often within it, there will be people struggling with debt issues.' 

A group of Christians from Swaledale and Wensleydale and the surrounding area has got together to do something about the problem of debt. They are setting up a rural debt advice service that will offer high quality professional help, free of charge. 'By standing beside our clients, we will empower them to help themselves out of poverty and be released from worry, fear and social exclusion caused by chronic debt.' The service will be known as Hope Debt Advice and will work in partnership with voluntary and statutory agencies, local churches and commercial organisations. The charity hopes to launch its services in the autmn and they are looking for volunteers to pray, to work with clients (after training) and to fundraise. There are plans for local centres in Richmond, Leyburn, Bedale and Masham.

For further information, or to volunteer, e mail

Riots on British Streets

In some ways the riots of the last few days seem far removed from rural North Yorkshire. But we've been looking and listening and, like everyone else, trying to make sense of this startling and bewildering development in our national life. Several members of my family live in Nottingham where 5 police stations were fire bombed or pelted with bricks and missiles and where our friends, and especially some of their children, are now nervous about going out just to do everyday shopping.

What are the reasons for the riots? It's too early to know which of several possible factors were the decisive ones in turning our streets into arenas for violence and looting. Tragically lives have been lost but the main focus seems to have been property. The reasons that are being given are
  • criminality - but why? and why now?
  • breakdown in family life and the morality and discipline that good parenting and schools provide.
  • rampant consumerism - an attitude that pervades the whole of society and which says 'I should be able to have what I want now.'
  • disenfranchised groups in society - people brought up in a consumer society with little opportunity to make choices and become legitimate consumers themselves.
  • reaction against the police and against law and order - a desire by the voiceless  to take power by showing that they can break the law if they choose to.
  • the atmosphere created by government cuts and the threat of the breakdown of our whole economic system which lurks behind our present lived reality. 
  • the new era of tweeting, twittering and facebook and other forms of messaging which allows riots to be spontaneously organised with hundreds of people gathering in one place at a particular time - something that could not have happened until recently. This is the more sinister side of Internet democracy, perhaps akin to what we have witnessed recently in Middle Eastern countries. 

Probably, the true reasons for the riots are drawn from all these and from other factors that have not yet been identified. The court cases yesterday and today show that plainly this urge to violence and anarchy is not a problem confined to young people or to people who are unemployed or uneducated. Politicians seem to be falling into two camps - on the one hand, those who want to attribute it all to criminality, brook no excuses and deal with it through punitive measures and, on the other hand, those who want to find the social causes and who are fearful of punitive measures such as long prison sentences, stopping benefits and withdrawing housing as these will fuel discontent. I saw Harriet Harman on Newsnight vigorously trying to argue that both approaches are needed - a response that punishes lack of individual responsibility and a response that looks at the social forces that have made this possible and, for once, I agreed with her! 

Well, it is too early to make judgements about why all this has happened - summer madness of the most sobering kind. The worrying question is, 'Is what we have seen just the tip of a very ugly iceberg which now underlies the waters of normal social dealings in this country?'  Three things which have been concerning me for a while are not, I think, unrelated to what has happened.

Firstly, there is now greater disparity between the wealthiest and the poorest in Britain than in any other country in Europe. People are living in real poverty cheek by jowl with those who have vast resources. In the parish where I served in the early 90's in Nottingham, I can take you to places where teenagers live ferral on the streets, the care-home system, never mind their families, entirely unable to contain them, young children are so hungry they hang around the chip shop bins and eat discarded food, and homeworkers do menial jobs like assembling hangers - a house full of women working all day for perhaps £15 to be divided between them. These people are not lazy. Prositution and the drug culture are rife and are a normal part of middle class life but destroy the lives of those who are unemployed or poorly educated and who often service these habits. Within sight of parts of the parish are hotels where you can spend £800-£1,000 for a night's stay. Poverty was not the direct cause of the riots, but huge disparity between the resources available to people generates anger and lack of respect in different ways from different parts of society and the riots have played into this. The fact that groups within society are living with poverty, hunger and lack of opportunity that most of society does not acknowledge or appear to care about points to a deep degree of unhealthiness in our social order. It is wrong when we simply care about what we have got and whether we have got what we want, right now. The rioting and looting demonstrated that, in fact, this is exactly how some people from all parts of society think today.  

Secondly, in many familes and communities right across the social classes we seem to have lost the ability to exercise discipline with quite young children; the seeds of an attitude that says 'I am entitled to whatever I feel like...' are planted well before secondary school. At the same time, adults, apart from professionals who work with young people, often don't seem able to engage in conversation with and listen to youngsters - you have been able to see that in some of the interviews over the last few days where rioters and their supporters have been asked their opinion only to have it dismissed and shouted down. Where respect and real listening don't occur, problems cannot be solved. Even if someone has committed a crime, we have to try to understand what the world looks like from their perspective if we are going to take measures to prevent the same thing happening again. There is a worrying lack of willingness for different age groups to listen to one another and I think this is a growing phenomenon. 

Thirdly, we do not yet have systems of politics, government, law and order and communication that have adapted to the presence of the Internet. We do not yet realise the degree to which the Internet has changed, for ever, the nature of authority, democracy and control in society. People can now circumvent much of what formal education, politics and even the media have to offer and they can form local and global alliances which have nothing to do with recognised social or political structures; they can just as easily disrupt conventional alliances and systems. They can do this very speedily and in unpredictable ways. I suppose all this is one reason why I blog. I think it is important to learn, first hand, about the power of the Internet and of digital communication. We are all on a very steep learning curve to discover how power operates in a world where, if you just hit the right tone, you can bring 100's or 1,000's of people of all ages and backgrounds together to achieve something very noble or something very ignoble...and the outcome may indeed be frighteningly unpredictable.  

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Florence Nightingale

On 13th August, the Church of England commemorates Florence Nightingale. She was born in 1820 into a very well-connected, upper-class family, Unitarian and Abolitionist on her mother's side, Anglican and Latitudinarian on her father's. Her family knew most of the leading Tory and Whig politicians of the day.

When she was 17, she had what mystics call an 'audition'; she heard God speaking to her, calling her into His service. During her life, she had four further mystical experiences, but this audition, at the age of 17, was particularly interesting since, at the time, she had no knowledge of the mystical tradition and, in fact, came from two traditions that are peculiarly averse to mysticism. In later life, she undertook a learned study of mystics like Catherine of Sienna, Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross, but, at 17, she had little background to help her interpret what God might be asking of her. Later, she said that she had an idea that this call involved turning her back on the conventional expectations that she would marry and live a life of comfort. It was a call to search for active ways in which to serve God. She had a hard time of it! Years later, she wrote, 'I would have given my all to the church but she would not have it; she sent me to teach children, but gave me no training.'

Florence had a hard time with her family, too. She had to fight her mother to continue with her maths studies, deemed unsuitable for a girl. When, in 1844, she anounced that she wished to nurse, her family was horrified, as horrified, she later wrote, as if she had announced her intention to turn to fraud and embezzlement! Eventually, she won their agreement, if not their favour. On her way back from a tour of Europe, she stopped at Kaiserwerth, in Germany, where she trained as a nurse with the Lutheran order of Deaconesses. When she returned to London, she briefly ran a hospital in Harley Street.

In doing all this, she flew in the face of the received wisdom of the time, arguing with her family, achieving a level of education that was thought unsuitable for a woman and introducing the concept of training into the world of nursing, which was largely, at that time, a job carried out by untrained women of the lower classes and ex-soldiers. Undoubtedly, she beacme a very competent nurse by the standards of her time. In England, she introduced cleanliness, decent food, call bells, proper sanitation and individualised care. At Scutari, during the Crimean war, she managed four miles of beds, each 18 inches apart. In today's terms she was something like the Chief Executive of a medium sized hospital trust with all the attendant problems of supply and all the frustrations of constantly changing government policies.

History has sentimentalized her as the 'Lady with the Lamp', a dedicated nurse, smoothing the fevered brows of dying men. Florence Nightingale's outstanding achievement, in fact, was as an administrator and statistician, not as a nurse. Her great contribution to nursing during the Crimean war was to persuade the Generals, by means of detailed statisical research, that 6 times the number of soldiers died of infection in military hospitals as of wounds acquired on the battle field; and then to make use of her family's political influence to improve sanitation and nutrition in British military hospitals. It was through her pioneering work in the use of graphs to represent statisical findings that she made possible advances in sanitation at Scutari and, after the war, in Britain and India. She invented a particular form of pie chart, known as the polar area diagram, which she used to illustrate seasonal causes of patient mortality at Scutari. She was a friend of the mathematicians Mary Somerville and Ada, Lord Byron's daughter and she beacme the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society. 

Historical biography has dealt her a poor hand in the way it has represented her solely as a nurse - the Lady with the Lamp who founded St Thomas's School of Nursing and lost her own health through overwork in the Crimea, becoming a chronic invalid and returning home to write a modest text book, 'Notes for Nurses.' She was so much more! A doggedly brilliant public health reformer, a deeply committed and devout, if unconventional, Christian and a considerable amateur theologian and classical scholar. In 1850-2, she wrote an 800 page work entitled, 'Suggestions for Thought to Searchers After Religious Truth' which includes her own theodicy, unique as a nurse's theory of evil and suffering. The work contains prophetic, radical and heterodox ideas. She believed passionately in education for all and in an educated electorate, predicting that, 'One day, women will take an active share in the affairs of state through parliamentary government'. She utterly eschewed the frivolous, leisured life of women of her class.

In 1850, she wrote in her diary, 'God called me this morning and asked me would I do good for Him? For Him alone, and without reputation.' When God called her, she did not vacillate, making plans haphazardly, saying 'yes' and 'no' at the same time. She single-mindedly sought out, found and followed her vocation. She trusted alone (and often she was very much alone) in God's faithfulness and in the 'Yes' of God that is found in Christ. She wrote, 'The promises of God are fulfilled in loving obedience.'     

What Do We Expect of Our Priests?

Evelyn Underhill, an Anglican mystic and spiritual director of the early twentieth century, once said something to the effect (I can't remember her exact words), 'One thing I require of a priest above all else is that he(sic) has time.'

Today I had one of the several-times-a-week conversations that I have with people who are concerned about falling numbers in the church. The conversation went something like this;
'I don't know what the clergy do all day but they are not bringing people into church.'
'Do you think that is responsibility of just the clergy?'
'Well all I know is that if you were in business, you wouldn't be getting paid unless you were producing results.'

 It's hard to know where to go with this other than to listen and try to learn. I would be the first to admit that I have witnessed situations where clergy seem to have operated in ways that clearly put people off the church and do not inspire faith. I wouldn't exempt myself at all from the charge of having made mistakes in my ministry in terms of drawing boundaries too tightly and making wrong assumptions. As an archdeacon I am dealing with one parish where a recent stewardship campaign revealed the fact that villagers were very supportive of the desire to have a thriving local church but massively sceptical about whether they were in fact welcome in their village church. The last priest but one had refused to allow people who were not confirmed access to the sacraments but failed to run any confirmation classes while the last priest had refused to baptise their children on the grounds that the parents did not practise the faith! Put all this together with the increasing secularism of society and the lack of Sunday availablity and it begins to seem a miracle that churches in villages like this still have reasonable congregations and are active alongside their current priest. Yes, sometimes we clergy need to be held to account and helped to understand the results of our actions so that we can change and improve our ways.

However, I am increasingly concerned about this 'results in terms of numbers' approach to appraising clergy. While it is understandable, it is also harmful as it creates a consumerist understanding of what faith, never mind ministry, is all about. The body of Christ is not called to productivity but to faithfulness. Now faithfulness does give rise to the need to get things done and to communicate effectively but the 'measurement' of the church's mission is faithfulness to God's ways and the visible fruit of this faithfulness in the lives of every member of the church. This is somewhat different from a business or resource-
management approach to growth and employee appraisal. 

Congregations today often put clergy (and many of our most active laity such as readers, wardens and youth leaders) under great pressure to be busy all the while, thus decreasing the time (Evelyn Underhill's criterion for a good priest) available for prayer, in particular, and for study, thought and preparation, of which true spiritual wisdom is born. Where people detect deep wisdom in priests, leaders and congregations, there is usually a committed following of disciples. Where people detect a lack of depth and spiritual insight, then however 'busy' that group of people might be, people tend to fall away, disillusioned, as time goes by. 

Clergy I speak to often profess themselves to be under-trained in practical matters such as administration (usually top of the list), project management, employment law, financial planning and team building, sometimes also in the skills required for good chairing of meetings. So, many clergy either spend time learning these things after they become incumbents or they never learn them and therefore expend a great deal of energy struggling with things they feel they do not do very well. Sometimes they bring these skills with them from careers outside the church but discover a bewildering lack of resources available to them once ordained.

My point is this; we cannot go on expecting clergy to do more and more and at the same time expect them to be able to maintain and deepen their spiritual life in ways that lead to and renew wisdom. Over the centuries, clergy have been seen as theologians, custodians of the sacraments, quasi legal clerks (mediaeval church), teachers (reformation church), social workers (nineteenth century), counsellors and managers (twentieth century). Down time, more and more roles have accrued to them without any of these roles being removed. Many clergy also lead teams who manage buildings or they manage buildings themselves because no teams exist. They are also expected to provide vision and leadership. It is little wonder, then, that most parish priests today feel and probably are, to some extent, jacks-of-all-trades. Quality is sacrificed to quantity. There may be some lazy clergy, but the overwhelming majority of clergy I know work very hard, often putting in a three-session day, six days a week, and they keep this up for the whole of their working lives.

Where is the time Evelyn Underhill spoke of to become and to be people of prayer and spiritual depth? To be steeped in the scriptures and in the traditions of Christianity? To  think about how the deep truths of the Christian tradition can best be communicated in the particular contexts where we minister and to practise doing this? To inspire faith and nuture it? Contrast other professions and vocations. Even when they are mature and experienced in their chosen area, musicians, sports people, artists, poets, scientists spend long hours practising their chosen discipline and learning how to communicate through it in order to be effective; we might expect the same of our priests. Then there is the question of availability. Clergy struggle constantly to weigh the need to be available to the person who calls round unexpectedly or gets talking with them about something very serious, against the need to do routine pastoral visiting, against the need to do the admin. they have no secretary to help them with, against the need to be properly steeped in the prayer and preparation that fits them to be worship leaders and teachers, usually in a number of very different contexts with a great range of ages. In cities they are ministering across much larger swathes of population than even their immediate predecessors were, and in rural areas they are ministering to many more communities. 

In order for clergy to be effective spiritual leaders we do not simply need to apply management techniques for producing growth; it is much more complex than that. I am not against proper reasearch and appraisal. These are useful tools. However, there is something about the way the Kingdom of God grows which is deeply antithetical towards a consumerist success ethic. Growth happens because of long-term depth of faith and depth of dependence on God. These are very unfashionable concepts, especially 'dependence' in our self-reliant society. God's kingdom grows from tiny, well-planted seeds, from the work of labourers who turn up for the last hour of the day, from the sacrificial giving of the poor, from the willingness of people who cannot normally be expected to get on with each other to work together, from early mornings and late nights spent in prayer on the mountain, from the frustratingly unpredictable work of the Holy Spirit producing change and metanoia and reconciliation in people's lives. 

All Christians and especially priests need to be people with a certain spaciousness of time; time to be present to God in prayer, in study, thought, devotion and service. If we have to start measuring things, these are the places to look, along with some questions about how the church can train priests in more of the skills they need so that they can be confident in areas they are currently anxious about. We need to free people up to give more energy to the core aspects of priesthood which produce spiritual fruit and attract people to God's kingdom and to the life of the church. If we simply make everyone busier and measure and assess more and more, the churches will get emptier. 

So I was grateful to my friend who wanted to apply more rigorous appraisal to the clergy for making me think, but I could not give him a quick, neat answer. Neither could I agree with his approach to church growth, though I could take away the point that clergy may lack some of the skills and resources needed to carry out their ministry effectively and that we should be doing something about that.     

Thursday, 4 August 2011

The Bible in Welsh

While on holiday, we visited an exhibition in honour of the four hundredth anniversary of the King James Bible at the National Library of Wales (Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru) in Aberystwyth. The parallel story of the first translation of the bible into Welsh was also told. It reminded me that I have very a personal connection with Bishop William Morgan who made the famous 1588 Welsh translation. Born in Penmachno (near Betws y Coed, in North Wales) in 1545, Morgan studied at St John's College, Cambridge, gaining a DD in 1568. He learned Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic. He was then ordained by the Bishop of Ely, in Ely cathedral, and took his first living at Llanbardarn Fawr, near Aberystwyth. My home parish, where I sang in the choir, went to Sunday School and learned to play the organ, was Llanbadarn Fawr and I, too, was ordained deacon at Ely cathedral, in 1988, exactly four hundred years after the publication of Morgan's seminal translation of the bible.

His was not the first translation into Welsh of the New Testament; this had been done by William Salesbury in 1568. Morgan translated the Old Testament and Apocrypha and revised Salesbury's work to produce the first complete edition of all the canonical scriptures. His bible has been inestimably important for the Wesh language - perhaps more so even than the King James Bible has been for the English language. Morgan created a translation which was both close to the original texts he worked with, and couched in the classical Welsh of the poets. Because so much public business was conducted in Latin or English (incuding property and legal matters which were often not recorded in Welsh) Morgan's translation was instrumental in arresting the decline in Welsh, giving a new dignity and importance to the language and creating the parameters for modern written Welsh. Morgan went on to become Vicar of Llanrhaeadr y Mochnant, Bishop of Llandaff and then Bishop of St Asaph.

Of course, every Welsh child knows the story of Mary Jones who, at the age of 16, walked 25 miles from Llanfihangel y Pennant to Bala to buy a bible from the minister, Thomas Charles. Her story inspired the establishment of the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1804 which originally set out to address the problem of the lack of Welsh bibles available in Welsh-speaking areas. It grew into the internationally known ecumenial and non-sectarian Bible Society which has overseen the translation of the bible into many languages. The exhibition contains the bible Thomas Charles gave to Mary as well as a second copy he gave her - clearly he had heard of BOGOF and used it as an evangelistic tool! 

Many of the texts from the exhibition can be seen on

You can also see texts of the English translations of the bible as well as material about the poet and theologian Ann Griffths (1776-1805) and the hymn writer William Willams of Pantycelyn on the Library's wonderful Digital Mirror - the National Library of Wales is recognised as a leading centre of digitisation in Europe. No doubt William Morgan and John Wycliffe's translations would have been rather different, had they had access to the range of texts today's scholars have! 


Monday, 1 August 2011

A Very British Institution

The Financial Times is currently running a series of articles on British Institutions. The Church of England got the treatment on 29th July in a well researched piece by Matthew Engel. It reads as the view of a sympathetic outsider (I may be wrong) and it is well worth a look.

Engel notes the falling attendances and wonders about the effectiveness of the church's forms of government and the exercise of authority - is power too quirkily spread? He tells the stories of some inspiring and effective ministry in places as far flung as County Durham, Surrey and Herefordshire - clergy and congregations who are enthusiatically contributing to making the world a better place. He wonders if, or in what sense, worshippers actually believe the words of the creeds they recite and notes their loyalty to a tradition which is broadly and not too specifically defined. He identifies ++Rowan's dilemma in holding the church together and makes the point that, with only 1.13 million worshippers in England (though 20 million self confessed 'supporters') and 85 million Anglicans worldwide, any solution to divisions in the church must take into account the global perspective. I quote his penultimate paragraph,

'One can see that although Anglicanism may touch barely one percent of the world, it is the lingering sense of universality that gives it what bite and purpose and dynamism it still has. Its problems need to be resolved in a global context; in the words of Paul Handley, the editor of the Church Times, 'You can't have a Surrey solution.' The church has to be about improving life here on Earth and not just a bet on the existence of Heaven.'
Well, amen to that.

Having spent much of my holiday in Wales where church attendance and numbers of clergy are declining more rapidly than in England, I am left with big questions about how we square this with the obvious and genuine life that exists in many congregations, be they everso small. Do we just bury our heads in the sand and keep going much as we are for as long as we can? There is something about a two pronged approach here. Faithfulness to a sense of God's call, commitment to Christ as our Lord and mature understanding of our tradition are vital and to be celebrated wherever they are found. On such ground is the future of the church built. At the same time, I want to ask every church, 'Have you sat down with a group of non-members and asked them what they see in the life of the church (both good and bad)?' If we took the answers seriously, they might be very sobering, but they would surely contain vital pointers to what we should be giving our attention to and how we might go about it. The trouble with bodies that are shrinking is that they become tribal and defensive. The Church of England needs to guard against this and that is our dilemma - the tension between the need to look inwards and renew our own confidence in our mission (talk of National Mission Plans at General Synod - not necessarily the way to go, I think) and the need to keep looking outwards, not just within our own nation but towards our neighbours around the world. (++Rowan's example of the press-ganged soldiers of the Congo saying 'the church has not forgotten us' is a good example of this.)

One of the things that Engel picks up on in his article is the changing nature of people's view of authority. The institutional church is heavily based on notions of respect for authority figures and I believe that one of our problems is that, within the church, these figures are plucked from a relatively narrow section of society and therefore pretty unrepresentative. Another problem is that whereas, today, many organisations operate through the personal influence of leaders who have won respect by words and actions that make a difference and who have posed relevant challenges, the Church of England is, for all its complex, power spreading structures, ill equipped to move away from authority structures that guard the status quo. We literally creak at the seams as we try to operate systems of synodical government, patronage, regulation of buildings, education, training and adminstration in 44 independent dioceses that are far too complex for the number of 'workers in the field'. The effect? We are all over-busy looking inwards and keeping the usual balls in the air to generate many leaders (at local or national level) who can truly lead by influence, speaking to the hearts and minds of people outside the church precisely because they understand their concerns. We are all too focussed on tinkering with matters that seem important to those of us who spend a lot of our time thinking about the way the church does things and, consequently, we fail to spot what we must find a way to stop or to reform. Every now and then someone has a radical idea; usually it is hailed as prophetic and then ignored, watered-down or shelved for 25 years (think of the Tiller report!)  Odd, for a body of people whose leader led entirely by influence which drew its authority from relationship with God rather than from earthly authority structures; indeed, a leader who was a thorn in the flesh of those who sought to operate the authority structures of His day and who was sometimes so radical in making the tradition within which He stood work in terms of the society in which He lived, that people said He was either mad or He must be of God.

My husband, coming from a profession that spends a lot of time thinking about the future, has often remarked that church life seems to have an imbalance in terms giving too much weight to the past. This seems to render us short on imagination about the way things could be. It also prevents us preparing for the future in any effective sense (think of the difficulties we in are in over vocations and training enough clergy and lay leaders.) In Christianity the doctrines of the second coming of Christ at the end of time ('eschatology') have always been as important as the doctrines of creation, incarnation and salvation. This ought to make us a people who have some confidence in imagining, planning and thinking about the future and who feel just as called to be commentators and interpreters of up-to-the-minute trends as to be guardians and interpreters of the past. The point about tradition is that it expresses truth which has to be 'dug out' and applied in every new context and time. This is hard work and demands not only a profound understanding of how a tradition has been shaped in the past, but an equally profound understanding of the comtemporary context in which truth needs to emerge. To my way of thinking, groups like Forward in Faith and Reform seem to ignore the second half of the enterprise; the more middle-of-the-road parts of the Church of England explore contemporary context a bit half heartedly and the Fresh Expressions movement is focused on contemporary context, sometimes without the depth of understanding of tradition that is essential to sustain new churches beyond the staring point. Of course, the difficulty for a global communion (which the Anglican churches are) is that the contemporary contexts are many and various; this difference gives rise to several of the arguments that are at the heart of current Anglicanism, especially the ones about gender and sexuality.

OK, all this might sound a bit esoteric, but everything I have been saying applies at parish and local community level just as much as at the level of synods, church leaders and national and diocesan structures. To boil what I have been saying down to a few simple principles, I believe that the survival of the Church of England depends on
  • the continued faithfulness of worshippers.
  • a deep commitment to give service wherever we can.
  • an urgent willingness to listen more to those outside the church and radically to re-interpret our traditions in the light of what we hear. This means changing what we do and how we do it, deciding not to change some things and the wisdom to know the difference.  
  • a refusal to become tribal, defensive and inward looking.
  • greater simplicty.
It is the last three bullet points which we particularly need to give attention to, because we seem to find them difficult to put into practice.

Oh, and many Yorkshire readers will be pleased to know that one of the other Bristish Institutions examined by Matthew Engels is horse racing! (see the Finacial Times 10th June, if you missed it!)