Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Betjeman's C of E: an elegy to a lost world

We've enjoyed an hour of nostalgia watching a TV documentary by John Betjeman called A Passion for Churches.

Made in 1974, it's an affectionate portrait of the life of the Church of England in Norfolk. There is no county in England richer in beautiful historic churches. Whether they were great or small, urban or rural, famous or obscure, Betjeman loved these buildings. He often wrote about the church's architecture, arts and crafts. Church visitors are indebted to his comprehensive county by county gazetteer of English parish churches. To lovers of our built heritage, he is a hero.

I look back to 1974 as the year I came of age. Late in time, you may say, for someone born in 1950. But in that year I left college, got married and rented a first home. I was ordained less than twelve months later, so it was a year of milestones. Now that I have (just) passed another of life's thresholds, retirement, I'm keenly aware of how significant the rites of passage were that launched my grown-up working life. So this documentary about life as we lived it in the 1970s has recalled things I only half remembered, and reminded me how far we have travelled in the past forty years.

If you'd asked me earlier what church life in that era was like, I'd have said in a lazy way: much like today, only a lot more confident. However Betjeman's film makes it clear that it was, in fact, very different, another country where they do things differently. This is not because of JB's native melancholy, the elegiac register he falls into as he contemplates lost worlds in immaculate poetic prose. The evidence speaks for itself. You watch parish life in full flow. Churches are respectably full. The clergy still have their fair share of 'characters' and eccentrics. Many of them live in large historic vicarages fit for squires. Surpliced choristers sing Prayer Book evensong in remote country parishes. Sunday schools are bulging, even when they meet on a Wednesday. Clergy wear robes de rigeur. Men wear jackets and ties to go to church, and ladies wear hats, at least in comfortably-off Norfolk, as they sing from Hymns Ancient and Modern or, if they are high church, The English Hymnal.

True, there is Series 3 by now, and the Bible is read from the RSV or even New English, and the parish communion is replacing sung matins. The 'bombazine and bonnets of the Sunday morning congregation' is not the flamboyant fashion show it was a generation before. There is a genuine and well-intended attempt to popularise: Youth Praise has made an entrance, as has the Twentieth Century Church Light Music Group (who can forget the frantic rush of words to O Jesus I have promised or that heady slide down a seventh at the end of Living Lord, still sung today?). But worship songs are yet to come, as are mission action plans, fresh expressions, messy church, the decline in clergy numbers, female priests and bishops, alternative episcopal oversight and much else.

It's startling to look back and realise that like steam engines (also beloved by JB), the lost world of the C of E in 1974 belongs to my own life time. I guess that's down to my reluctance to accept that I'm getting old enough to have bridged different eras. After all, what I have lived through can't be that distant, can it? So why did I begin this blog by talking about nostalgia? That word, literally, means an aching for the past, but I'm not sure that was quite what I felt as I watched this delightful film. It's more to do with our attachment to our own memories. The older we get, the more important memory becomes. We invest in memory because it is so bound up with our own personal identity. That's where the 'ache' lies, because our memories are always receding from us and that means loss and even sadness.

So, forty years on, what have been the gains and losses in the life of the church? Here are some plusses. (One commentator thinks I'm being too cheery about these but judge for yourself.) In some ways, the church as an institution is probably in better shape even if it is considerably leaner. The tasks of mission are more intelligently contextualised and understood, and embodied in more versatile ways. The commitment to social justice is far more consistent and explicit (and publicly recognised). The role of 'public faith' is more clearly articulated. The leadership is better trained in strategic and policy matters and the church's processes are more transparent and accountable as a result, not least in what it is learning from the terrible failures in safeguarding in the past. Church buildings, in Norfolk among other places, are being opened up to a wide diversity of community uses alongside worship.

What about the minuses? I worry that the C of E is less comprehensive than it used to be, more uniform and less tolerant of diversity. It is perhaps more fractious and defensive. I worry that the founding vision of the cure of souls of 'the parish' is being narrowed to little more than chaplaincy to committed congregations. I worry that serious biblical study and theology are less practised than they should be, not least by a relentlessly busy hierarchy. I worry that because language shapes thought, marketing and management speak are at risk of eroding theological, pastoral, spiritual and mission-orientated ways of thinking and acting. I worry about the unspoken pressure to 'succeed', and the risk this poses to the spiritual, emotional and physical health of clergy. I worry about the decline of an institutional sense of irony. I worry about whether the church really believes it exists to promote a truly Christian wisdom to our world rather than just survive.

Better minds than mine have charted the immense cultural shifts that have taken place in the time I have been ordained. There is a lot to welcome, even if we may regret at the loss of what seemed like the more innocent, less baffling world of our youth. I guess this is as much about growing up and learning to embrace complexity as it is about the external environment. When we have lived long enough to be bewildered, or to suffer, or to know for ourselves the power of fear, loss and shame, life will never again be easy or straightforward.

I blush to think how little I knew of these things in the 1970s when I climbed up into the pulpit for the first time and cut my teeth as an interpreter of the Christian gospel. Knowing what I know now, I wouldn't go back to 1974. Neither, I'm sure, would the Church of England. Living in the present can feel like an ambiguous gift at times, but a gift is precisely what it is. And the more we seize the day, the better able we are to see the past for what it is, and learn to put away those rose-tinted spectacles in order to understand its ambiguities, learn from its failures, but also, in the spirit of eucharistia, to be thankful for all the benefits it has bequeathed to us.

You can find John Betjeman's film on the BBC1 website. You will love it, I promise!

Monday, 19 October 2015

Christ in a Choppie Box: talking about God in North East England

When I left Durham Cathedral at the end of September, I wanted to offer its community a tangible gift to represent 12 years in that extraordinary and wonderful place. People had been kind enough to say that they had valued my preaching in the Cathedral and across the North East. So I approached our friendly local publisher Sacristy Press to see if they would be interested in producing a book of sermons preached during these past years.

Christ in a Choppie Box* is the result. I decided early on that I was by no means the best judge of quality. The decision as to which sermons deserved to see the light of day in print as opposed to those that were best forgotten needed to be made by someone else. I was very lucky to secure the help of Carol Harrison, a distinguished theologian who, for most of my time in Durham, held a Chair in the Department of Theology and Religion in Durham University. (She is now Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford.) She was a regular member of the congregation at the sung eucharist and so heard (suffered under?) many of my offerings at first hand. She trawled through the oeuvre, picked the best and edited them, introducing her anthology with an introduction of great theological insight. I was also honoured that Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury and a colleague and friend from Coventry and Durham days, wrote a warm and generous foreword commending the book.

Who reads books of sermons nowadays? Especially when the front cover carries a 'selfie' of the preacher which looks like an act of shameless self-promotion? Well, I rather enjoy reading other people's sermons as it happens, and I suspect I am not alone. I've learned a lot from the sermons of Austin Farrer, Sydney Evans, Eric James, Martin Smith, John Habgood and Rowan Williams, to name a few who have significantly influenced my own preaching. Not to mention past masters of the art and craft of preaching such as John Donne, F. W. Robertson of Brighton, John Henry Newman, Hensley Henson, Ronald Knox and many others.

The difficulty with a book of sermons is of course that there is all the difference in the world between the 'event' of a proclamation delivered from a pulpit to a live audience, and the written text on the page. Preaching is something performed before it is something written. Every preacher knows that a sermon comes alive when he or she senses that some real encounter is taking place between the word of God and its hearers, a meeting that is potentially life-changing. The script itself has a different kind of existence, just as the musical score is not the same as the performed work that is 'made flesh' in the human voice or the instrument he or she plays. However, the written text is a genre in its own right that can stimulate reflection, aid meditation, kindle the imagination and enlarge the soul. That's what I hope for my Choppie Box.

Carol thought it was important for readers to gain some insight into what I believe about preaching, so she included a lecture I gave to clergy not long after I arrived in Durham on 'The Art of Preaching'. I ended it with my list of 'Ten Deadly Sins of Preaching' which is what I suspect people remembered long after the rest was forgotten. The risk, of course, is that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. I wish I could guarantee that my sermons avoid those all-too commonly committed offences against the noble vocation of preaching. Only you (if you read the book) can judge. I've also introduced each sermon with a few words indicating the setting in which it was delivered (because 'a text without a context is a pretext').

Most of the sermons were preached in Durham Cathedral, a few elsewhere. But all belong to North East England, the region that has become home and whose Christian history and spirituality have been extraordinarily formative as I have tried to establish my own Christian identity in the second half of life and find my authentic voice as a preacher. Included are a number of sermons on specifically North Eastern themes, some of the key places and people that have shaped this land of saints. And that includes the Cathedral itself, of course, the interpretation of whose mission and reason for existing is the key task of any dean.

The off-beat title has given rise to a lot of amused speculation. I ought to say (for the publisher's sake): read the book and find out for yourself what it means. But let me be kind and explain. Durham Cathedral has a beautiful Christmas Crib carved by an ex-miner who included in it several references to Durham's great mining traditions. In 'pitmatic', the language of the miners, the 'choppie box' was the trough from which the pit ponies fed underground. So it was a genuine manger, and this is how the Crib presents the infant Jesus, lying placidly in his choppie box with a pit pony standing by with the ox and the ass.

I hope you enjoy the book, whether you live in North East England or beyond. Let me know what you think via comments on this blog site. Responses to sermons are how every preacher learns. And although I have retired, I very much want to go on learning about the privileged and joyous role we preachers are fortunate enough to inhabit.

*Christ in a Choppie Box: Sermons from North East England. Sacristy Press 2015, £9.99. You can order the book from the publisher at http://www.sacristy.co.uk/books/theology/michael-sadgrove-sermons. I hope you'll consider supporting Sacristy in this way if you do decide to get it.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

A Great Letter Writer: an inspiration for bloggers

On holiday in France this week, I've had time to read a few books that have sat on the 'to be read' pile for ages. One of them got me thinking.
 
It's a collection of letters by a great French woman of the 17th century, Madame de Sevigne* (1626-1696). (Yes, yes, I know, I should have read them in French: one day, later in retirement, maybe.) Her translator (Penguin Classics edition) describes her as one of the best letter-writers of any age: fluent, vivacious, funny, with a sharp eye for observation and the ability in turns to amuse, inform and even inspire.
 
She was a Parisian with family roots in Burgundy who had married into a prominent Breton family. Her grandmother was a saint, no less (at least, she was to be canonised in the 18th century, Sainte Jeanne de Chantal, a friend and disciple of St Francis de Sales). She moved easily around the court of the Sun King Louis XIV, knew everybody who was anybody in 'society', and lived through events that came to define the France of the Grand Si├Ęcle. So her letters are matchless chronicles of her own times, an invaluable source of information that is also full of entertainment, for she had a wonderful eye for the absurd.
 
We have one person in particular to thank for many of these amazing letters. This is her daughter Francoise. On her, M de S shed a motherly love that, it has to be said, bordered on the obsessive. (She had a son too, but he didn't get anything like the same concentration of maternal attention.) When Francoise married and moved away to Provence where her husband had been appointed governor, there began a stream of correspondence between the two that ended only with Madame's death. It's these letters that tell us so much about the dramas big and small that fascinated the Marquise. From the affairs of state to the little violations of protocol observed in Parisian salons, not to mention her daughter's marriage and pregnancies, her husband's casual attitude to money, the risks of travel in winter, the servant problem, the merits and (especially) the flaws of last Sunday's sermon, she writes so vividly that you feel you are witnessing events with her.
 
Letters, like diaries, make for great bed-time reading. They come in bite-sized chunks, and if the writer is any good, they are not simply a compilation of happenings and circumstances but a distillation of them, a way of finding meaning through reflection and writing. This has interested me as much as the content, how the art of writing can be such a powerful tool in the hands of an effective practitioner. At the same time as reading M de S, I've also been enjoying A. L. Kennedy's book On Writing, a collection of her marvellous Guardian blogs on what it's like to be a writer, how she creates a novel, the experience of dealing with publishers, agents and reviewers and so on. In her very different way, Kennedy demonstrates the same kind of flair. It's a precious gift. 
 
These books have made me think about my own enjoyment of writing now that I have more time to give to it. They've made me wonder, like many others, what is happening to letter-writing in the digital age. Maybe as a literary form, the traditional epistolary form is in decline nowadays: some of us have almost lost the ability to hold a pen let alone write intelligibly and legibly with it.
 
But electronic media open up new ways in which old traditions can be kept alive. Kennedy's weekly pieces are a good example of how blogging can perform some of the same functions as writing letters. When I write my blog, it feels a bit like an 'open letter': anyone can read it, but there are some who respond as if it's a quasi-personal communication. I'm pleased about that. The same goes in shorter form for platforms like Twitter and Facebook where the art of saying a lot in few words can lead to surprisingly interesting, elegant and entertaining interactions. I've no doubt that Madame would be an avid follower of social media if she were alive today.
 
As, I think, would the New Testament writers. It's worth recalling how much of the New Testament consists of letters: some very personal such as Paul's to Philemon, others for more general circulation like Romans, Ephesians and Hebrews. In these letters we overhear the goings-on in the churches of the 1st century, just as Madame lets us overhear the 17th.
 
Maybe there's a message not only in the content but the literary form itself: don't be afraid of opportunism in communication. Allow circumstances to inspire and suggest themes for reflection and writing. If something has grabbed your attention, share it. Be spontaneous and see what emerges. In a strange way, social media, far from drawing us away from time-honoured literary forms like letters and diaries, may be taking us straight back to them and helping us both to appreciate them afresh, and to imitate them in renewed and imaginative ways.  

*An apology to her memory and to all lovers of the French language: every time I insert acute accents in Blogger, they disappear from sight. Clearly this programme is worryingly Francophobe.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Limbering Up

Well, this is it. It's ten days now since that marvellous farewell in Durham Cathedral. Then and since, the kindness and generosity of so many friends has left an afterglow that I find intensely moving. It's been 'a time of gifts'. And this is what retirement will be, say all of those who've trodden this road before us. Maybe there are some who haven't found it to be all that they'd hoped for, but if so we don't know of them and they probably wouldn't own up to it anyway. Apart, obviously, from those who have encountered health problems or been bereaved out of time.

I began my first Woolgathering* blog in the new year of 2012. My first post was about taking a preliminary canter into the blogosphere, trying it out, seeing what happened. Here I am again, setting out on a new blogging journey. But no longer in the role of a 'Northern Dean'. This time, it's just me, Michael, wool gathering in North East England from our home in the South Tyne Valley in Northumberland, the much-loved county we used to live in and where I was a parish priest in the 1980s.

I'm sure you don't want to read overmuch about the journey into retirement, so I am not going to obsess about it in the future. I expect that many of my themes will be the same as before: Christian faith and spirituality, life and times in North East England, literature and art, music, politics, photography...  and whatever else takes a fancy. Maybe retirement is a time to stop apologising for being an eclectic dilettante and start celebrating the joys of inhabiting our 'hinterland' (to use a word beloved of the late great and lamented Denis Healey).

For now, we are settling into the rhythms of life in Haydon Bridge. It sits astride the River South Tyne, its two halves connected by its elegant 18th century eponymous bridge. It's a large village upstream of Hexham, tucked in between the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty to the south, and Hadrian's Wall and the Northumberland National Park to the north. We live close to the left bank (which makes it sound a bit like Paris). Within a couple of hundred yards or so we have shops (including a Co-op, pharmacy, newsagent and butcher), community library, railway station, level crossing, bus stop, doctor's surgery, garage, chippy, two churches (CofE and Methodist) and two pubs. There is a blue plaque in honour of Philip Larkin's frequent visits to spend time with his lover Monica and a heritage trail celebrating John Martin, the famous 19th century painter of apocalyptic canvasses. On every side lie the beautiful wooded valleys and lonely fells of Northumberland.

It's a good village to settle in. Like the village we have just moved from (aka The College, Durham Cathedral's intimate and charming close), the human texture is warm, welcoming and companionable. This of course is what matters most in any community, but especially, perhaps, in retirement. Our neighbours have been extraordinarily kind and helpful. Contractors are unfailingly pleasant and do their work well. We've been warmly received in the parish church across the road (dedicated to St Cuthbert, so we feel at home). If you want a job doing in this village, someone is bound to be able to tackle it or knows someone nearby who can. There is a brilliant village bulletin, The Haydonian, crammed with news, small ads, activities listings, parish council reports, church information and local history. It's less than a week since we completed the move, but we feel at home here. The house is lovely to live in. Boxes and packing cases are gone, our furniture fits the odd footprint of this Victorian end-of-terrace, books and pictures line the walls and make it feel like home.

So the Big Question now is, how to fill the days and weeks and years that stretch ahead; and in the present, how to establish new daily rhythms, create a new shape for a new life. It will, I'm sure, be a case of not being afraid to try different things; find out by trial and error what works and what doesn't. 'If we're spared', that is, as the quaint phrase has it. Thanks to the Diocese of Durham, I have been given three months of sabbatical leave to reflect on a lifetime in public ministry and how I can be useful to the church and the wider community in the North East in the coming years. Prayer comes into this. The advice has almost universally been: don't make decisions too quickly, maybe not for several months until you have sloughed off the tiredness that forty years of full-time work can bring. You need to be mentally, physically and spiritually refreshed and reinvigorated to face positively and with expectation a new and utterly different future. Verb sap. I am taking my time and trying to be wise and sensible about it.

Meanwhile, there is something else I need to sort out. When I'm asked, as you are when you're new, 'who are you?' 'what do you do?' I'm not clear what to respond. I don't want to become an Imperfect Man ('I used to be a cathedral dean') and certainly not an Aorist Man ('I was once a parish priest'). The Perfect Man would reply 'I've worked in cathedrals for much of my life' because at least that is 'past with present consequences' as grammarians say. But it feels important not to define myself in terms of what I no longer do. So I'm wary of using the 'R' word because it feels past- and passive (I know that's not true of retirement but you'll know what I mean). Do I reply 'pilgrim, priest and ponderer'? as on my Twitter profile? Or 'writer', 'photographer', 'spiritual guide'? None of these quite captures the whole truth. Ideas welcome.

So I'll report from the front line of the Third Age from time to time as it settles around us, like this new home we live in. As before, I look forward to your company and conversation in cyberspace. I'm particularly open to insights about how to cross this life-threshold safely and well, how to begin a new life all over again, and not least the spiritual dimension of it all. (And my thanks to those who posted on this topic in response to my last few Decanal blogs about retiring.)

*My 'Northern Dean' blog site http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.co.uk is still live if you want to read posts from a previous era.