Dogs and stars
COMMITTED Anglicans among the readership of the Church Times will know that our dear old C of E is presently going through one of its periodic acts of self-vandalism and iconoclasm, and is smashing up all the eternal verities in a quest to be relevant. By which I mean that dioceses are developing Strategies (with a capital S).
This is not to be confused with thinking strategically — an infinitely harder and yet more useful exercise which escapes most of us most of the time.
Here, in Ely, we are still accidentally flogging off vicarages that are needed by a parish, and spending a fortune on strategy workbooks that needlessly offend the clergy by describing evensong and midweek Holy Week services as “Old Dogs”. I am, I promise you, not making this up.
Messy Church and Café Church are described in this same workbook as “Rising Stars”; so you can guess what conclusions we are supposed to draw from these subtle and playful allusions.
I SUSPECT that my parishioners are worried, therefore, that I have been taken in by all this, and am about to visit some monstrous ecclesial novelty on them.
My suspicions of this were aroused at a Standing Committee meeting a few weeks ago, when I suggested that we ought to buy a projector. There were some sharp intakes of breath, puzzled and pained looks, tutting, and fiddling with hearing aids (OK, I made that last one up — none of them has a hearing aid).
Rapidly I had to explain that I meant a data projector in the parish hall for the purposes of lectures and catechesis, and I was not about to dangle a screen from the rafters in church for hymn-singing.
“Oh, well, that’s OK, then. Yes, fine. Father, of course,” came the reply as pulses slowed and people recovered their poise.
The temptation to suggest that people could join in with Merbecke and the Advent Prose much better if the words were on a screen with a bouncing ball to guide them was considerable, I admit. Some of the more obscure bits of Victoriana in the 400-500 range of the hymn book would be transformed by projection in massive type on the nearest wall.
Most of the congregation are more or less reconciled to the fact that we use the New rather than the original English Hymnal (although bits of the NEH —“Lord of the Dance”, for example — are still steps too far), but I suspect that a screen really would be too much.
We do occasionally use New English Praise (they are very accepting of their Vicar’s liturgical radicalism), and I did even use the accessible-language baptismal texts when they were under trial, but that’s about it.
Our present parish mission statement is very worthy and nice, but I am half-tempted simply to rewrite it as “Reversing into the future” and post it to Church House.
The gas man cometh
GOING backwards is something I strongly sensed I was doing last week, when the builders came to fix the box holding the church’s gas meter. It was old and rotten and needed replacing, and we’d finally got round to arranging a firm to do it. They were commendably swift in arriving, and equally brisk in their labours, and left the next day, assuring me that it was all sorted.
So it was, save for the fact that the door that they had put in it was tiny and at the wrong end. Not only was it difficult to read the meter, but it would be nigh-on impossible to get the meter out if necessary.
I was reconciled to the business by the thought that a torch and a strained neck would mean that any engineer could probably read the figures on it if pushed; and how likely was it that the meter itself would ever need to be changed?
It was at this point that the new gas firm — to whom we had changed a few months previously to save money — let us know that they had their own preferred meter. Would it be all right if they made contact with us soon to arrange its installation?
As I type, the building firm are back and sawing away furiously.
I FEAR that I may be off novelty at the moment, thanks to my most recent attempt to reach out to “da yoof”. Actually, I’m not sure the five- and six-year-olds who were there quite qualify for such demotic descriptors, but you get my gist.
Anyway, twice a year we have an afternoon of crafts and activities for children in the congregation, followed by a guided mass (with running commentary), and then we end with refreshments.
On the Saturday before Advent, I gathered our children and began to talk them through the holy mysteries. One young chap, who (it must be confessed) is not a regular at mass, looked thoroughly perplexed by what was going on. With that endearing (that is, of course, exactly how I received it) unfiltered honesty of the young, he proceeded politely to heckle me.
“What do you mean?” “What’s all this about?” “Jesus? I don’t think so.” “Mum — what’s he on about?”
Seasoned orators among you will know that one has to decide whether to engage with a heckler, or carry on as if he or she is not there. From my Cambridge Union days, I had learned that one should always engage — wittily, if possible — with interruptions.
The problem was that in the debating chamber one could at least be rude or speak at the other person’s expense; making personal comments about an innocent child and his questions might, however, be thought injudicious, not to mention uncharitable.
I decided, therefore, to offer gentle explanations, and try to fold his questions into my narrative. The problem was that his questions kept coming, and my narrative — flimsier than tissue paper — lacked the robustness to hold his interventions. After a couple more minutes of wittering away, I finally ground to a halt, and introduced the Prayers of the Faithful.
Rarely, I confess, have I ended a sermon or turned to the intercessions with such relief. The young man has a great future as a barrister or interrogator — just don’t let me ever be the defendant.
Now I come to think of it, however, perhaps I should get him back, and give him our diocesan strategy document to read.
The Revd Robert Mackley is Vicar of Little St Mary’s, Cambridge.