Cross-wars: some sane words on the atonement

Sometimes there’s more going on behind the words of a debate than the plain meaning.  Maggi Dawn has posted a wonderfully sane post on the various discussions on atonement currently flying around the Church.  This debate is over a century old and very little new is being said.  Time to chill-out and move on I think…

Of Andy Kershaw and John Barleycorn

I watch very little TV these days. The weekly trip to the telly room is for Doctor Who. For the rest of the time, the wireless is (and has always been) my broadcast medium of preference. The greatest gift the BBC has bestowed on the listening public is the ability to listen to radio shows retrospectively on the web. For me, this means that I can listen to Late Junction and Andy Kershaw on the Radio 3 website. (For non-UK readers, BBC Radio 3 is dedicated to music which demands serious listening – and has widened its output in recent years to include experimental, world, jazz, rock, blues, folk and electronic, as well as the main output of classical music.) So an evening off at home is often spent in my den, with the computer linked to a decent hi-fi, and usually Kershaw’s programme through the speakers.

In the last couple of weeks, Kershaw has twice played an engaging version of the traditional piece John Barleycorn by Tim van Eyken. The lyrics of the song are powerful: John Barleycorn is at once the personification of the barley crop and is also portrayed as an unjust victim of human violence. Christians will instantly see the the strong Christian allusions within the lyrics (although it is also argued that the song has pagan precursors). Van Eyken’s version brings the lyrics up to date, but maintains the strong spiritual allusions. In the end, of course, Barleycorn is irrepressible, and will always have the power to overcome his oppressors, inevitably rising again and bringing his blessing to all.

At the moment we’re planning the June service for Foundation. We’ve somewhat reluctantly decided to focus upon the theme of violence (there’s such a lot of it around these days!). On Thursday, after an evening’s discussion on the source, nature and necessity (?) of violence, we decided that the cross needed to be at the centre of June’s service, with its paradox that in the Christian faith, redemption comes through violence. Our discussions came back to me strongly as I listened to Van Eyken’s lyrics.

It’s possible to listen to Tim Van Eyken’s version of the song by visiting his myspace site.

Other highlights of Andy Kershaw’s programme last week were George Thorogood’s classic One bourbon, one scotch and one beer, a featured performance by the wonderful Manu Dibango and a fantastic contemporary calypso by 84-year-old Walter Ferguson, complaining about a computer whose deliberations led to his pension being cut off. You have two more days to listen to this episode before it is replaced by the next show, so the clock’s ticking.

Tracked it down

One of the parts I most enjoy about a visit to the Watershed Cinema in Bristol is the amazing trailer they put up at the start of each programme for the Europa Cinemas distribution chain, of which Watershed is a member..  It is a brilliant piece of branding, both visually and musically, which exudes gallons litres of European style and cool.

Well I paid a visit to the Europa Cinemas website today, and you can download not only the trailer, but a full-length (5min 04sec) version of the brilliant jazz-funk backing track.

The trailer is here.

The backing track is here.

And the full-length version of the backing track is here.

In my opinion, it beats any trailer produced by Hollywood right out into the Pacific Ocean.  Any West-Coast visitors are welcome to take a look at the trailer and see how cinema branding is supposed to be done!  😉

Joni Mitchell reconsidered

I’ve had a series of occasions during the past weeks when I’ve been listening to the radio and they’ve played a track by Joni Mitchell.  During his recent Desert Island Discs (introduced by the brilliant Kirsty Young), Andy Kershaw chose ‘Carey’ from the Blue album as one of his choices.  Maybe that was the final permission…  When I was in my 20s, Joni Mitchell was out of fashion, as she had become associated with musical tastes of the agonised 1970s teenage male: in the punk era, altogether too intense.  Fortunately now she seems to be going through something of a renaissance.

The hissing of summer lawns is one of my all-time favourite albums.  It may lack some of the memorable lyricism of her earlier albums (especially Blue) but it more than makes up for it in the way Mitchell chose to combine jazz with her existing rock-folk musical foundation.  In so doing, she set herself in the vanguard of the fusion movement – albeit all too briefly.  I remember hearing In France they kiss on mainstreet when it lurked in the lower end of the British charts in the summer of 1976.  I immediately bought the single.  The album followed as soon as I could afford it.  For me it summed up the pure delight of the discovery of jazz that I was passing through at that time.  Edith and the Kingpin is probably in my top 10 ever.  It is interesting to read on Wikipedia that Prince remarked that The hissing of summer lawns was the last album that he liked all the way through.

Now well into my 40s, the lyrics and musical virtuosity of Joni Mitchell have stood the test of time.  It’s still a pleasure to listen to her voice, lyrics and harmonies.  It’s also good to see a new generation appreciating her music with the air-time it’s been getting of late.

Tracey’s loving Anglicans

After a day of gloom, pondering the likely outcomes of:

  1. The Primates’ Meeting (probably what you’d get if you locked a load of monkeys together for a few days)…
  2. Two debates on The Issue at General Synod (which will, I’m sure, produce more heat and headlines than light and joy)…
  3. The possible effects of polarization on the Church of England in the future …

I had the genuine delight of seeing Tracey Wheeler’s loving tribute to Anglicanism (with a little help from Robbie Williams) on what must be not far off her 10th anniversary as a reluctant convert …

By the way, I think I was there at the tree-hugging incident and it didn’t look ironic to me…

It’s a lovely church folks.  Let’s not ruin it, eh?


It’s flu or it’s H5N1 …  I’m very cautious about diagnosing myself with flu and even now I’m hesitant about calling it that.  In my book, “real” flu knocks you out of action for two weeks, minimum.  Well, I’m not sure this little bug is going to do that, but it felled me on Monday.  The best part was what it was doing to my head.  From the start of the day, I had that weird feeling you get when the conscious part of your brain is several layers detached from your senses, as though the virus was lodged between the two and fighting to gain control.  When I finally gave up and went to bed, I had a mild hallucination – remembered faces turned into a piece of music and a conversation became a colour.  Not unpleasant!  I’m starting to consider wearing flowers in my hair and demonstrating against the Vietnam war.  The major benefit of detaching from work is that it gave me a bit of space to update the blog yesterday, wrapped up warm but keeping my brain in gear.  I was slightly distracted from the niceties of XHTML by that big bear with a banjo in the corner of the room, wanting to talk to me about the subversive cultural influence of George Formby.

Groovy! Cough-quack cough-quack…

In the meantime, if anyone is worried about catching something like this, you can feed your paranoia by looking at this post on the excellent site.  I have found that I have caught fewer colds in the last two years.  I’ve put this down to two things: not hanging around in a cold house working at my desk and washing my hands regularly through the day.  But this one finally got me!

Blog redesign

The layout of this blog has been roughly the same since I started hosting my own blog in Summer 2005. Even if you didn’t tire of it, I certainly had. The new one is based on a lovely WordPress theme called Pragmatic. I’ve done some tweaking of it to fit in with the Blog’s title, and it will continue to be refined over the next few days.

The key change is that the new theme is a variable width style, which I much prefer to the limited fixed-width one from the old design. It should render reasonably well in most contemporary browsers. I’ve checked to see how it looks at various screen resolutions, and all seems OK, right up to the width of this MacBook Pro, which I think has one of the widest resolutions on the net.

For those of you who miss the landscape of the Worm’s Head which headed up the old design, I hope periodically to alter the header on this one, so the Worm may make a return as the seasons change. The present picture was taken on a walk near Abergavenny on a grey autumn day in 2005. Its present form is after some fiddling around in iPhoto and the Gimp on a Mac and a Linux machine respectively. The blue sepia effect seems to reflect the mood of winter.


I discovered that the page was rendering oddly in Safari – I have now fixed this. There was some particularly odd code lurking around the WordPress loop, and lots of redundant references to styles which simply did not exist in the CSS. A bit of cleaning up and it all seems to be working OK.

Three posts on clergy life (3) – visiting

Sam’s post on clergy workload speaks eloquently of the way the importance of visiting was drilled into him by his training incumbent, and how it ultimately contributed to an experience of burnout, requiring a period of a year out of full-time ministry. Visiting is one of those nostrums of the work of the clergy. Like Sam, I too was trained on the assumption that second to leading worship, visiting was the most important thing clergy should be doing. Some of us will have heard the saying, ‘a visiting parson makes a church-going people’. Trite, but punchy. I know from my own experience that some church members believe that the best way of my going about my time is to spend my hours wandering from street to street, knocking on the doors of my parish. Hmm…

The Visit is one of those tools that all church leaders have in their ‘toolbag’. Used correctly and at the right time, it can be very effective indeed. For example, a visit from the church leader to a newly arrived couple at church will often ensure the link with the church is fused for the long-term. When the church leader calls, people get a sense of their significance to the wider body. It builds key relationships. It is not, however, always the best use of the priest or minister’s time: it just depends on the nature of the locality or parish of the church in question.

Random door-knocking is even less likely to be an effective pastoral or missional method. The area of my two parishes has a high number of bedsits and flats. The population is mobile. 47% are aged in their 20s. In the last (2001) census, a far higher percentage than the national average described themselves as having no religion. A far lower than the national average described themselves as ‘Christian’. Many households are filled with short-term letting students and young professionals. Most occupants work during the day, leaving their homes by 8.30am and returning at the end of the day. Compare this kind of parish to one, perhaps forty years ago, where most residents stayed in the area for decades; where women stayed at home, at least after the birth of the first child. In the latter, a visit from the clergy would be likely to find someone in, and establish a link which would be relevant years later. In the case of my parish, most doors lead to empty flats, except during the evenings – which in my case are taken up with church meetings. Even were there to be someone in the premises during the day, it’s unlikely that the visit would make any meaningful impact, often because the resident would have moved away inside of a year. Many flats these days have electronic entry systems anyway, where the residents only open to expected or known callers. The myth of the visiting priest is eclipsed by the facts.

The myth of the visiting priest is further shattered by the realisation that when it used to happen with any frequency, it was either in small rural parishes, or where an urban parish had about three curates – quite common right up to the 1970s. Solitary parish priests with parishes of in excess of 10,000 people, who are feeling guilty for not visiting more, should be exorcised of the power of this nostrum. Visiting isn’t a panacea. Sometimes it’s bad use of a priest’s time. Occasionally, it’s exactly what the priest needs to do.

In my situation, I have found a far more effective way to build relationships is to go where people like to go. In this area, it’s to meet for a coffee in one of the excellent coffee bars in the neighbourhood. I have also discovered that although church meetings trump the possibility of a visit in an evening most nights, it is possible to meet over lunch with people near their workplace. It’s human contact where people are, rather than the quiet pad of clerical feet down empty streets, that makes the difference.

So we need less clergy training (especially in training curacies) based around nostrums such as the visiting clergyperson. Instead we need some creative, common-sense and strategic thinking, in order to build up the human contact which is essential in all Christan work, by clergy or by others.

Three posts on clergy life (2) – “If you meet George Herbert on the road, kill him”

Sam’s long post on clergy workload raises many issues familiar to ordained Anglican clergy, especially those who are incumbents. His interlocutor, Mad Priest, tends to chastise Sam for working long hours doing things that, as a priest, he’s not supposed to be doing. However, I felt that Mad Priest’s criticism of Sam’s approach tended to sound a little over-comfortable to me. I’m prepared to believe that Mad Priest enjoys doing his ministry, geared by the three things he believes he is told to do by the Ordinal: preside, teach, visit. But I cannot believe that he’s doing this as an incumbent, and if so, he’s either got a very well-paid personal assistant, or is quietly generating administrative chaos for any other church, agency or individual who has to engage with him or his church. There seems to be something slightly docetic about this approach. Although Mad Priest is clearly passionate and sincere in his approach, I feel it’s more about getting something to fit around his boundaries which he’s laid out beforehand, irrespective of what the needs of the situation actually are. Brave, but is it right?

My other reservation about Mad Priest’s comments on Sam’s ministry is that he seems to have a benchmark called ‘Priest’ which seems to be the bottom line for him. This seems to me to be arbitrary and should be called into question. In so doing, this raises a whole area of other general comments about the job I find myself doing.

The strength about the word ‘Priest’, in describing the minister of a church, is that it doesn’t stipulate a particular activity. It is a highly flexible word, rooted in the Greek word for ‘elder’, implying someone in a community who has both authority and responsibility. If we take it in its more cultic sense, then ‘priests’ who are ordained can only justify such a title by reference to the priesthood of the whole people of God, which is derived from Jesus Christ’s ministry. Then, there is again the reference to the Ordinal. Although it forms part of the Anglican ‘deposit of faith’, the Ordinal is not holy writ. Ordinals, like all liturgy, are conservative documents, which need to be interpreted in particular contexts before their exact meaning becomes clear. They are certainly not a job description. Perhaps I am shaped in this through being a member of the Liturgical Commission which helped draft the present contemporary language Ordinal in the Church of England. The very act of composition was a matter of debate in which different viewpoints over the three-fold ministry, each with their different emphasis, struggled to affect the exact wording of the draft text.

I have three observations:

First, the word ‘Priest’ is a dicey one, because it is a religious community archetype. Many people think they know what a priest is, what priests are for, what priests should spend their time doing. The word attracts all sorts of infantile expectations, normally to do with nurturing wish-fulfillment. This is further compounded by some of the words and titles used to address priests, especially ‘Father’!

Second, even if we did know for sure what the ‘job description’ of a priest was, there’s a further question of why this should not change to suit different circumstances and contexts. In the Church Times this week, there are loads of job adverts for priests. However, the expectations and demands of those jobs vary enormously from rural/urban, rich/poor, single-parish/multiple-parish, liberal/conservative. Most clergy vacancies will these days include job descriptions. Those job descriptions will vary hugely.

Third, the ministry of the whole Church precedes the common use of the word ‘priest’. What is original is the basic understanding of what a disciple is, and the call to the Church to make disciples in every age. Our archetypes of ‘priest’ are shaped in the main by a mythology of the Church of England Parish which goes back to the time when most parishes were populated rural neighbourhoods, where everyone was notionally Christian, and where everyone knew everyone and knew their place. This social landscape has disappeared, yet the archetypes and the mythology remain alive in the consciousness of the Church of England.

I find myself going back to the original ‘presbyters’, who were called ‘Elders’ because they naturally occupied the role of responsible, accountable, public leaders of a community. That community was called to continue Jesus’ mission by following him, proclaiming the Good News and making disciples. If such ‘priests’ exist today, then it is surely to do something similar, not least in a situation which has become highly missional. In short, it is much easier to see a link between the original word for priest, ‘Elder’, and a leader of a community with an apostolic mission. It’s much harder to see such a causal link to the person who kept up an ecclesiastical status quo through routine pastoral care, teaching and presiding at eucharists.

The transition from one mode of priesthood to another is difficult for the Church to negotiate. It is even harder on priests themselves, who have to live with the competing pressures of the demands of the present moment, the apostolic call towards effective proclamation and disciple-making, and the old pastoral archetypes of Christian England, with their implied methodology. Perhaps this is why Sam finds great healing and help in the saying, ‘If you meet George Herbert on the road, kill him.’

Three posts on clergy life (1) – clergy stress

Two items have caught my attention this week. They have both spoken in different ways about the life of Anglican parish priests. I’ve purposefully avoided speaking too much on this blog about the work-side of my life, partly because I feel that the best aspect to my blogging is that it gets me to focus beyond the role I occupy for much of my working time, and onto things beyond my immediate horizon. But the first item was a fascinating dialogue between two Anglican incumbents (ie. they are vicars), Mad Priest and Rev Sam, both bloggers, contained on Sam’s blog. The second is an article in this week’s Church Times, entitled ‘What price priesthood’ about clergy stress and breakdown, which included a useful summary of recent research on this subject.

Many non-ordained people struggle to believe that being a priest can be stressful. Some even still believe that we work for one day a week, visit a few people and spend the rest of the time reading theology and collecting butterflies. However, in many cases, particularly those who are responsible for one or more churches, a working week well in excess of the legal working time directive is the norm. The other factor behind clergy stress is the lack of the work/life boundaries which most people would take for granted. Two things illustrate this. Despite trying my best to keep my working time within bounds, since the start of November, I have been working roughly 70 hours per week. This is achieved by having four days which begin at 7am with the email and end with the closing of a meeting around 9.30 or 10pm, then a lighter day (8 hours), a day off, then a 12-hour Sunday. I live in my work environment, in the house and outside the house. Every time I go into the supermarket, I meet people I know for whom whom I carry pastoral responsibility. A chance meeting inevitable bridges the boundaries – I ask them how they are, I may be aware of issues that it would be appropriate to ask after. To do otherwise would be churlish and bring something false or unnatural into the relationship. Like most parish priests, I have an office at home and I also use the house for meetings. I am immersed in my work context. I don’t have a place to go ‘home’ to which is outside of those work responsibilities.

Normally this is all fine. I like people. I wouldn’t have gone into this job if I didn’t. But the lack of boundaries and the long hours are inherently dangerous to parish clergy. It’s fine when all is well. It’s far from fine when things are not – there is no place of complete escape from the responsibility. No boundaries of time or space which are safe enough to hide behind when one is feeling wounded, exhausted, or in need of space to recuperate. For married clergy, this lack of boundaries inevitably affects the spouse, and hence bears upon the marriage relationship. Any children are also, to some extent, affected too. Most children don’t see their dad (or mum) at work. My children do. Quite a lot of the time. Including time when most families are spending time together. For some clergy children, this is also quite damaging. (I try my best to minimize the effects of my job on my kids, but I’d be fooling myself if I believed that I was able to shield them completely from being affected by the fact that their dad is the vicar.)

It’s easy to say that such a lifestyle is, in part, the fault of the clergyperson themselves. After all, we are ultimately responsible for our own diaries. We are only ‘timetabled’ on Sunday. The simple answer, surely, is just to carve out more time for ourselves and our family. But there are many things which bring about a 70-hour week. The first factor is that we are normally the only full-time paid person in the outfit. This means that not only do we know more factual stuff about the situation (and therefore are called upon to make decisions more than anyone else), we are also often the only ‘desk’ that work can pass onto or across. Whilst I can delegate predictable, routine things, a good many things in the life of a parish and church are one-offs, requiring a flexible and informed response and the kind of joined-up consistent thinking that only full-time teams can achieve. In addition, Anglican church law places the incumbent in sole responsibility for a good many things – many, many bucks stop at the desk of the vicar, but there are very few other desks to pass across before arriving there. I can quite easily use up a 40-hour week with administrative-related business alone, before even touching the pastoral, liturgical, teaching or missional work. Yet it is these latter areas where my primary gospel responsibilities lie. Like many self-employed people, clergy dread holidays because they know that they will face all the administrative work that they would have done during the holiday period when they get home. It normally takes me about three weeks to shift a week’s backed-up work, to the point where the workload returns to normal, so holidays come at a high personal price. This work isn’t imaginary. If it is ignored, there are consequences. People show up at meetings to find that inadequate preparation has been made. People are discouraged when they send an email to the vicar and nothing is returned. The phone messages are not answered. The letters, forms and references not replied to or completed. Just having pastoral chats with people isn’t enough. Ministerial faithfulness in human relationships involves administrative faithfulness too. Meetings are also necessary. Churches are places which revolve around voluntary activity. People are stakeholders in the life of their church community. They have a right to have a say, and to engage with me in decision-making. Although email has helped establish shared communication in a context other than ‘the meeting’, it also comes at the price of needing further time to read and respond. So the hours are filled.

And what about boundaries? It is possible to set stricter boundaries. Some clergy actually leave their area on their days off. But I like my home – I’ve only got one! I like going around the shops and places in my neighbourhood. I don’t want to wander the land on my time off like Cain. I want to relax in the familiar surroundings of home and locality. So I have to realise that to some extent I am rarely completely ‘off duty’. And when I do go away, there is also the cost of not being there when someone needed me. Guilt. Recently, after Christmas I took a few days’ solitude by going away on my bicycle. Whilst I was away, someone dear to me in one of my parishes called me in great distress. That person had never called me in such a state of need of a pastor before. I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there for completely good, if self-motivated, reasons. But it was the one time that person had called me in need. And I wasn’t there for them. However much you rationalise that kind of thing, you still feel guilty of not being the thing you’re called to be, even though you know you’re not really. The whole life of a parish priest is filled with the nagging sense of letting people down. It’s because you cannot be always there, always available, always saying the right thing, being the flawless priest that you, and they, so desperately want you to be.

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