(Thoughts after the Manchester terrorist attack)
A recent email conversation
I had a vision at the breakfast table this morning. It was a vision of a world in which most of the people, most of the time, go around pretending to be stupider, duller, less noble, less spiritual, more fearful and hateful, than they really are.
I’ve been reflecting all this week about the way being ill affects what we want to read. Before I developed the cough and cold which has made me feel so @&$%^! since Saturday, I was really enjoying Malcolm Guite’s new study of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Mariner. Since then I haven’t felt like opening it; in fact, I’ve mostly moped around not wanting to do anything, including live.
Somewhere, and I can’t find where, I read about an Eskimo hunter who asked the local missionary priest, “If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?” “No,” said the priest, “not if you did not know.” “Then why,” asked the Eskimo earnestly, “did you tell me?”
(Annie Dillard, in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)
(From Pink Floyd’s classic music video)
It turns out several Web friends also still have their old school reports… so I have quietly refiled mine. (Better not tell Alison.) But that blog post about why I kept mine? and speculating that it was because being Top of the Class was the only thing I was any good at, the only thing that made me feel I was any good at anything… it all looks a bit bleak, doesn’t it? It looks as if I had a miserable, unhappy childhood?
And yes, I don’t remember being a child, still less a teenager, with any sense of joy or real happiness. My school days are not a time I look back on as ‘the best years of my life’. I can understand why teachers and adults generally try to perpetuate that myth. It could be the only thing they think they can be good at, is making children’s lives happy and worthwhile. I feel sorry for them too. But that’s another problem.
The things I remember about school days, are predominantly fear and boredom. I wasn’t afraid of the teachers; mostly I trusted them because I learned how to cope (obedience - at least when they were looking - and jumping through the academic hoops). But I was afraid of just about everything else: playtime, games, other children, being made fun of, looking foolish in the eyes of my peers… Often, being afraid of going to and from school. This was the dangerous place where you could easily become the prey of teachers if you weren’t wearing your school cap, or of other pupils if you were. Or, you ran the risk of meeting pupils from one of the other schools in town, especially the boys from Huxley Secondary Modern who were said to hate us, be constantly lying in ambush to attack us, taunt us with their hate song:
Smell like cheese;
D’you wanna go to Huxley?
Should I mention, at this point, that I never met any of them in seven years, and was never attacked - by them - on my way to school? Perhaps they had their own myths and fears about our hatred and ferocity, and ran for hiding when they saw me coming? Though with hindsight I have every sympathy with them. Why shouldn’t they feel aggrieved, who had been told at 11 that they had failed, and were second-rate scholars? The grammar school system, much vaunted as the great post-war engine of social mobility - and certainly it was what got me to university, as one of the first generation in my family to do so - was also the great divider of society, relegating the overwhelming majority of children to that stigma of ‘failed the 11-plus’.
And boredom. Hours and hours of boredom in dull dull lessons. I used to think in my arrogance that it was because I was bright, and had to spend so many hours waiting for the less bright members of the class to catch up. Who am I kidding? If I had been really intelligent, I would have used those opportunities to learn better, to learn more, to seek more knowledge and abilities than the basics, to aim for outstanding excellence, rather than just to satisfy the exam system and be Top of the Class. True, the teaching styles of the 1960s left much to be desired, based as they were on writing down everything the teacher said, rote-learning, regurgitating class-notes in tests. We didn’t have the inspirational, life-changing teachers you come across in other people’s lives, or in the movies. (Dead Poets Society, anyone?) The ones I loved, and who, yes, did change my life in some way, were relatively few. Lovely Miss Loewenstein who taught English, and scary-edgy Miss Edwards, who started me on Latin, but also gave me my love of German.
And yet. And yet. Miserable though it was and I was, school did make me the person I am, and for whatever is good about that, I am indeed grateful. It’s often said that the commonest and greatest phobia for many people, is the fear of public speaking. Well, my secondary school really worked hard at teaching us how to do that. Can you believe that, in the first year of secondary school, we had a timetabled lesson each week called Speech Training? Perhaps part of the agenda was to get all these North London kids speaking ‘properly’, using correct Received Pronunciation; but it was also a way of spotting and correcting genuine defects in speech. I wasn’t pronouncing my r’s: when they got me to read in house assembly, it came out like, “Pwaise the Lord with the sound of the twumpets.” And actually I’m glad they worked on me to try and change that. Though you can still hear it in my speech quite often, I’m at least glad I don’t sound as bad as Jonathan Ross. But see this video: is it really a speech defect, or is it simply becoming an alternative way of speaking?
Lots of the diaries from my school years (confession time: I still have most of those, too) record my pride but also my embarrassment about speaking in front of the class or the school. And of course I still have nerves about public speaking in unfamiliar settings. But it isn’t the huge terror many say it is: it has, after all, been my life.
Another thing for which I am forever grateful about my school years, is my faith. If I am a Christian, it’s down in large measure to the influence of school. In those days the law about a daily act of worship in schools was still actually observed. (There was none of this modern nonsense about teachers not wanting to lead an act of worship because they - or many of the children - don’t believe. Ritual doesn’t require belief: it requires performance. That is how faith is taught, communicated and nurtured. So probably the teachers’ reluctance to lead corporate worship is a fear that they themselves might ‘catch’ religion? Well, I couldn’t possibly comment.) It wasn’t designed to interest or entertain, like modern school religious assemblies are required to do. In fact I don’t recall anything like a comment or a homily. Assembly consisted of a hymn, a Bible reading, and a prayer read by the headmaster, often one of the BCP collects at Morning Prayer, but also sometimes prayers like the prayer of St Ignatius: Teach us, good Lord, to serve thee as thou deservest… It quietly, modestly, without fuss or perhaps even noticing, puts God there in the start of the school day.
And then there were the Christian teachers, who believed in what they believed, and wanted to share that Good Thing with the children. I was often blissfully unaware of it at the time, but even though I never went to the Christian Union (why would I?) there were other occasions. Like the day our form teacher invited some of us for tea and conversation about our ideas and what we believed. I didn’t realise at the time that there was a faith-sharing Agenda. As a teenager I was always bolshy about people trying to get me to believe as they believed. I was ‘C of E’, for God’s sake, like everyone else - what else did they want? Also a Protestant: I would believe as I chose to believe. It now seems extraordinary that the school even organised a group excursion to Earls Court in 1966, to hear Billy Graham speak during his London crusade. I especially resented his whole style of emotional manipulation and appeal, though it made a big impression on some of my friends… And yet here I am, where I am today. The Spirit works unpredictably, through all our life experiences.
So, yes, in ways that it and I probably never knew or imagined, school helped make me what I am. For sure, I can imagine ways in which it might have made me different. But that is fantasy. For what I am, it was certainly good for something.
(And, pace Pink Floyd, we do need yes education. The best of it is probably not conveyed by the Curriculum, the exams we study for, or the school system. But it may still, often, be somehow imparted by school in spite of itself.)
When I was a very new Christian… No, let’s start again. When, as a young adult, I was very newly beginning to explore my Christian faith, I was fascinated by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. I read and re-read the Collins Fontana paperback edition, priced at five shillings (25p in brackets), which I still have on my shelves. Even though I’ve also bought more recent, expanded, probably better editions, this little paperback with its brown pages still has a place in my heart.
What a year 2016 has been. For many people, a year of shock and grief at the number of well-loved celebrities who have died: among them we felt especially the loss of Victoria Wood, Alan Rickman, Leonard Cohen, Carrie Fisher - others will have their own special List of Loss. For all of us, a year when we have been stunned by the outcome of votes in some of the world’s leading democracies. The Brexit vote on June 23; the election of President Donald Trump on November 8… both have baffled and horrified the rest of the world, and who knows how much the countries where these decisions were made, will be irrevocably changed as a result? In both the UK and the USA the election campaigns plumbed previously unknown depths of falsehood, calling evil good and good evil, and deliberately trying to stir up violent hatred of foreigners, and anyone ‘different’, as well as of political opponents. What has happened to decency, civility and truth, in our two great democracies? Truly, the world has become stranger, more uncertain, more dangerous than it has felt for many years.
It was always going to be a funny sort of Christmas for us. The first time in 38 years that I haven’t been involved in leading services, preaching, celebrating the Eucharist, or all of the above. The first Christmas ever in our new house, after 25 Christmases in our last home - which was the longest time that either of us has spent in one home in our lives. The first Christmas in a home that we own, rather than a parental home, a rented home, or a tied cottage AKA clergy house. A Christmas, frankly, of grieving for the church we loved, and the friends we love and have had to leave behind there.
In the 2000s there’s been a glut of Christian organisations rebranding themselves and coming up with trendy new names. The idea seems to be that the original names sound old-fashioned and unappealing. The problem is that the trendy new names seldom tell you what the organisation actually does. Worse still, when they do convey something, it often sounds like an in-joke for those who get it.
I don’t know if this is true of all careers and professions. It turns out that post-retirement from parish ministry becomes a time of soul-searching, an attempt to answer such questions as, What was it all about? What did we achieve? Was it worth it, anyway?
This is a post about NaNoWriMo, and how I am doing.
Much as I love Bible Society, I’m still struggling with their present emphasis on what they call ‘bringing the Bible to life’.
In Vienna, I found the Esperanto Museum. It was not, as I supposed, the shop window of a local Esperanto Society, where I would be greeted by samideanoj with cries of “Saluton! Ĉu vi parolas Esperanton? Kiel vi fartas?”, but was rather a department of the Austrian National Library. The Museum was founded in 1927 by Hugo Steiner, and opened in 1929. It contains over 35,000 books, 2,500 magazines, 22,000 photographs as well as thousands of other items. After the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938, it faced the same hostility from the regime as did individual Esperantists. The German authorities demanded that the books be moved to Berlin to be housed in a library of disapproved books, but the director of the Austrian National Library insisted that the collection belonged to the nation, and so was able to resist the edict.
At the Universala Kongreso de Esperanto in Nitra, Slovakia, the president of the Universal Esperanto Association Mark Fettes gave an inspirational opening address to Congress. Others may have translated it better or differently, but this is my Esperanto translation exercise for today.
Last Sunday morning Alison preached a cracking sermon, didn’t she? I thought it was one of the best I’ve heard her preach. So, she’s set the bar pretty high, and I’m afraid I can’t emulate that, I don’t think this will be one of the best sermons I’ve ever preached (I’m feeling a bit too emotional for that). But with God’s help it will be ‘good enough’. And it will be the Last Sermon I preach from this pulpit – at least, as vicar of this parish.
Well. I didn’t think anyone would find, let alone read, this little, still ‘experimental’ blog, with its musings so far largely about taking up wet shaving again, after so many years of wearing a beard, and later (after some years of cartridge blade shaving, using shaving gel) using an electric shaver.
For most of my adult life I haven’t shaved. I grew a moustache at 20, a full beard at 23, which I then wore (with two brief looks at the naked chin to make sure it was still there, before quickly growing the beard back again) until I was 50. At that time I looked like a caricature of a bald and bearded middle-aged clergyman. I no longer needed the appearance of maturity and gravitas I clearly thought I lacked in my 20s; I now concluded I looked mature enough, and shaved it off.
So we’re now 10 days in to the new era of shaving, and the learning goes on as I practise wet shaving again, and read more about it on the Internet.
It felt like it was time for a new face; but disappointingly it turned out to be the same old one.
We’ve been working at the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity; not with a joint act of ecumenical lowest-common-denominator worship, but with the opportunity within our Churches Together group to attend one another’s regular times of prayer during the week. Instead of a boring mishmash, we see the diversity of each other’s lives and prayer. So, this evening we shared in Orthodox Vespers at St Nicholas the Wonderworker in Ferry Road.
Well, it looks as if I’ve finally (accidentally?) stumbled upon the right settings for my DNS registrar and my Github pages, to get my personalised domain name (godspell.org.uk) to point to the Github page.
It’s a wonderful thing, being able to host your blog and/or web pages on Github. And I’ve found out (I think) how to make it work. Sometimes it takes a few goes and false starts, but we usually get there in the end.
Had my hair cut today. I didn’t manage to get it done before Christmas: apologies to all those who were traumatised by having to watch a mad-haired vicar perform all over the Christmas services and events.
Today’s anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy reminds me of another one of those “Where were you?” questions that mark milestones in our lives.
That light tinkling noise you can hear, is the gentle shattering of illusions as I read in the latest edition of the Lincoln College Record, “The Myth of the Red Baron”. For as long as I’ve been connected with Lincoln College, it’s been known that there was once a von Richthofen at Lincoln. No one was quite clear about how, if at all, he was related to the famous Red Baron, the Great War flying ace. I was one of those who devoutly hoped that it was the Red Baron himself who studied there, or failing that at least a brother.