Monday, 24 September 2012

London Fever

London can be bad for your mental health. It can make you quite unwell. This weekend took me to the middle of the country, a train to Winchester then a half hour drive to some dark space between the galaxies, far, far away. Working with horses early at 8am on Sunday, it was a simple day-trip to the country.

First signs
Going abroad used to be a longwinded process. Vaccinations and visas are of course no longer usually required to go to France but you used to have to make plans over which currencies you might need, there was a time before e-tickets, you had to phone to confirm your flight, the whole thing was just a lot more of an ordeal. My God, people actually used to buy travellers cheques. I had them once - money that you have to change before you can use it and which you have to pay for. What was that about? The first sign of London fever is where you start seeing leaving London in this way. Before catching the train I withdrew £100. The nervous anxiety that outside London there's only one cashpoint per county, that nowhere accepts plastic, that a beautiful ancient antique built by a druid would have to be returned to the shelf because the medieval bank was only open in the morning at dawn when everyone else trades their wares for cash still attached to the gold standard, had taken hold. Twenty minutes after the train's pulled away you see for the first time the unadulterated natural world. In the heart of Exeter you can always see the hills; in Cambridge you never really feel that you've left the countryside. In London you can go months without seeing an unmanicured stalk. And then you arrive in pretty little Winchester.

Winchester is designed to confuse you. There was a sign for the cathedral where I was meeting a friend to drive on to the wedding. After that no more signs. I asked a local who pointed me in the right direction advising me to turn right at Monsoon, where she clearly bought all her clothes. There were some comforting reminders of London, like Thieves and Crooks (Gieves and Hawkes), but I was as unable to afford anything there as in London; and I was surprised to see a Loch Fyne restaurant, mainly because I figured that by the time the fish had made the two-day wagon ride from Southampton they probably wouldn't be in great shape. The centre was full of people, all very casually dressed. I suspect many of them had been out back earlier on making butter. It turned out then that my friend had been "joking" so I went back to meet him at the station. There were plenty of signs for this but they had been clearly designed to take you on the most circuitous route possible past every single shop (of which there were at least nine). Which was annoying. I did however pass an AMAZING bakery and had the most delicious sandwich IN THE WORLD, in which the bread was infused with cheese. INFUSED. CHEESE. Amazing.

A Very Big House in the Country
My friend has devised an amazing strategy for navigation. He goes to google maps to note every turn off, but the clever thing is he then goes to street view and memorizes the scene so as to remember it when driving. Clever huh? I've no idea whether I could manage it but he didn't make a single mistake and we were genuinely in the middle of nowhere. I was a little concerned that the trip back would cost a fortune as a solo-taxi is not the most economical way to travel. When I got to the house I went through the list of local companies. The first three "companies" didn't answer the phone. When I phoned the next one it was a clear the "company" really was just a bloke with a car. He couldn't take me - my guess is that he was staying in to watch the X-factor. Amazingly the next company also refused to take me - this is 10pm on a Saturday night booked at lunch time - you'd think it would be a little more straight-forward. Anyway after some umming and ahhing I got an old man to agree to come fetch me. Turns out he was an old dear and chatted amicably while I drunkenly jibbered at him all the way home, mooning over having to leave an excellent party early. The wedding was awesome - there was a cupcake wedding-cake and they had boule and hoopla in the garden. Old school. It only took two hours or so to get home. Not actually that long. Try and get home from Dulwich "village" on a Sunday, a mere 8 miles away and you won't be in bed much sooner. Then again Dulwich and Winchester have more than a little in common, and quite possible a significant overlap in population.

So London-fever, can be overcome. You just have to try not to be a dick and give in to zone one or even zone six snobbery. Definitely take out a lot of money - that taxi was pricey. And buy a sandwich. INFUSED WITH CHEESE.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

A Week in the Life of a Curate, Day 7


Last day. Technically the first day of the week, but since there was no sun, moon and stars at the time, I think it's a little anachronistic to call the first day Sunday. Nihiloday would be more appropriate, or perhaps 'Abyssday' or 'Lightday'. I wake up, grudgingly getting out of bed, and heading down for a cup of tea. Clearing up wine glasses and kebab wrappers has a cleansing effect on the soul, bringing order to the chaos. Checking the fridge I realise Mr K. has eaten all my cheese. Gobble, gobble, gobble. And the cheddar was very good. I shower and pick up the paper which doesn't get read, bar headlines. All the Sunday papers are unreadable. Getting into church 45 minutes before the service I light up the incense, sort the sound system and microphones, get the flutes out, help set up Kids' Club and other little things. We do a sweet blessing for the kids' first week in school and they get blue and pink pencil cases. It's busy - the fullest the church has been on an ordinary service since I've been here with well over 200. It goes on a bit long and the sound system is still playing up a little but there's a good atmosphere and a lot of people are back for the first time so there's a lot of catching up. The music is big with flute, clarinet and bassoon in addition to the recently doubled choir. Handel's 'Arrival of the Queen of Sheba' lends an awesome rather than reflective time of communion. My heart is in the sixteenth century and I'll don't think I'll ever get used to big anthems, but it's certainly impressive. The after service rush is kind of exhausting and kind of energising, especially with cake and champagne; you're trying to get round as many people as possible but you're also being drawn into engaging and helpful conversations, and, of course, always being charming.

When I get back Mr K has successful foraged for almond croissants but we head out for lunch, meeting up with a curate from Birmingham down for Roaring's mass. A delicious pub lunch with good English ale, followed by coffee and croissants on the roof. Some rubbish is playing in the park; I missed Kylie the day before, which is just the saddest thing. Speeding across London carrying our splendid white and gold cope we get to Roaring's church and I head in for choir practice. They're very pleasant and with a few additions from friends we seem to make a pleasant noise. Roaring is stumping around the building having serious conversations and looking smart in her little grey suit. The mass is marvellous. After being quite stiff while practising she is now relaxed and it's a joy to behold. Everything about the evening is beautiful and I have to fight back tears three times, especially when receiving communion. Obviously mass is not supposed to be about the priest but vocation is personal; Roaring has a vocation to say mass and watching it happen in front of you, you see a condensation of someone's life, reflected in the faces of all the gathered congregation, in all it's joy, conflict and difficulty, which is appropriate to the story she is telling.

Afterwards there's wine and little snacks, my collaborator from Wednesday is present and with light fingers lifts a bottle for the huddle of clergy at the back. Clergy can take any of the collective nouns used for birds. Following owls a congregation of clergy is acceptable, but much better is the crow: a murder of priests. Sausage rolls abound. We retire to chez Roaring and i don't throw wine on any walls. Baby Roaring happily gallops about and all is jolly. Looking around I notice that clergy have quite defined political views. There is a fairly even split of right and left wing - most of the left having voted liberal or green at the last election - but there are very few I couldn't tell you straight away their inclination, which is not true of my non-clerical friends. Amusingly my boss is in full agreement with a Southwark curate about the present government even though their voting habits are sharply opposed. Liberalism can be a uniting front. Baby R gets lots of cuddles but eventually we have to go home and the Boss is driving which is marvellous. Mr K. arrives from his reading in Peterborough around the same time and chicken kebabs from Cafe Helen are the order of the day. More wine and an impromptu full album performance of Queen's Greatest Hits on cello and guitar climaxes on 'Fat Bottomed Girls'. A late audition for the X-factor, if they'd accept a 4am audition after 2 bottles of wine, may or may not be on the cards. A mouse emerges to judge our performance but doesn't linger. It's been a long day and tomorrow I have a full day's staff training in Soho, starting at 8am with breakfast at the Savile, but I don't see Mr K. enough so we plough on, chatting and singing, all through the night till the broad daylight. I have kissed Christ's Roaring hands and for the moment all is well with the world.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

A Week in the Life of a Curate, Day 6


No one can imagine meeting the entire family Roaring all at once. It's like suddenly finding yourself in the Spice Girls movie, but they're clever. (Disclaimer: the Spice Girls may be clever; I've only ever seen them jumping around.) Fortunately before confronting extreme girl-power I had a quiet morning with the FT - the best paper of the week. I actually woke up on time for once with a cacophony of alarms probably waking up the street, all before some sweet George Clooney coffee sent me into the brave new world of outer London. The trains were a mess and I had to run off one train half way through the Old Testament lesson. The Common Worship app is well suited to unpredictable train journeys. After a quick cuddle with baby Roaring, on arrival, it was to St Mary's to drop off my church's vestments - Roaring's church's have gone strangely missing in the last twenty years, the legacy of wicked evangelical ministers. Roaring ran through bits of the mass with me providing tips and applause.  By our return Family Roaring had arrived and there was a lot of whooping and hollering. Baby Roaring and I went out to sit and in the sun. She casually gnawed a bone. The good news is that I'm back in Mother Roaring's good books as I have painted over the enormous wine stain I left at Roaring's first ordination, so I was allowed to share a taxi to St Nicholas. The service was lovely. Lots of singing - the highlight "And Can it be" with the excellent lines " 'Tis mystery all: the Immortal dies; who can explore his strange design?". The hands went down, the oil went on. She arose Roaring, priest. The after-party was all very jolly - tea and cakes - and what fine cakes! But no wine. Disaster. In protest I gobbled down three magnificent cupcakes with splendid icing. Dinner was marvellous but the return home predictably took an age. Emerging at Marble Arch I was greeted by hordes draped in Union Jacks literally singing at the tops of their voices such classics as "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" with a bit of "Oggy, Oggy, Oggy". At first I thought it must have been revellers after the closing ceremony for the paralympics, but a neigbour informed me that this is tomorrow and these were all coming back from the Last Night of the Proms. So many parties... Evelyn Waugh would have been impressed - nearly naked parties in Hyde Park? With sunburn? He almost mentions them with his Vile Bodies. Unfamiliar to him, however, in Hyde Park tomorrow Cold Play will be singing Ricky Martin's classic Livin' la Vida Loca. It will be tough to pull myself away to Roaring's first mass but friendship will have its sacrifice. Having changed and settled down to X-Factor before bed, I was interrupted by an "exuberant" Mr K. fresh from reading bits of his new novella attempting to let himself in but instead double locking himself out. Eventually he got in with the wondrous gift of a priceless Cafe Helen's Kebab for each of us. I'm sure I must have mentioned these before, but they are simply the most delicious things on the planet. We settled down to second dinner with a glass of wine. Mr K. spoke poetically, as he always does, but that's because he's a prose poet. It's much easier. He'd recently seen some pre-digital age photos of us when we lived together and was horrified at how fat he was that year - repeating several times that he actually looked like Boris Johnson. I reminded him that he used to get up at midday and have a pasta snack breakfast laden with cheese, and that in the evening we'd eat a large domino's pizza each, a feat neither of us would manage or even dare now. We talked for far too long until eventually the looming threat of Sunday demanded retiring for the night, slipping down to the cave sometime around 3.30am.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

A Week in the Life of a Curate, Day 5


I’m not sure whether I managed to sleep through four alarms involving light, radio, annoying tunes and beeping, or if there was a strange technological black-out across W2, or if I am simply incompetent, but I wake up with a lively spirit at not quite nine o’clock. Not a disaster as it’s my day off but much regretted later. Friday is a good newspaper day with Ms Treneman and Caitlin Moran’s Celebrity Watch in The Times, plus a chap who’s marrying a friend of mine this New Year’s Eve with a very good piece. He includes a delightful quote from a Bank of England Governor who was asked by parliament his reasons for a policy and responded: “Reasons Mr Chairman? I don’t have reasons. I have instincts.” I say the morning office from my phone while listening to “U don’t dans 2 Tekno” by the Alabama 3. Both these facts make me feel slightly guilty. Afterwards to make up for missing Wednesday I take a 15k run around the many parks of Westminster. At first I feel good and cruise across Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens into Holland Park. It’s seriously swanky here - enough to make the Hyde Park Estate look positively Council. Cutting through it leads down to Kensington High Street which joins up with the bottom of the gardens. The long stretch in the baking midday sun is torture. Mad dogs and Englishmen. I regret sleeping late. The loop round Green Park is much more pleasant but St James’ is still Olympified and so forces me into a wider arc, which is the last thing I want. Getting past the palace is the usual obstacle course and I finally sweat my way up back through Hyde Park pleasantly overtaking the most absurdly slow cyclists the world has ever seen. It still feels good. Running is probably my most helpful spiritual practice. I find it easy to focus my mind on a single subject so whether it’s working through an idea or meditating on Scripture or whatever it can be very productive. The emotions of long distance running work as a sort of crucible - going through agony and endorphic ecstasy with your mind locked on Romans 7 is an experience - who will save me from this BODY OF DEATH?!

After a shower my beginning of term haircut is a success though it means washing my hair three times in one hour which seems ridiculous. I HAVE to fully shower after a haircut, the itching, the itching… Popping into town I pick up Roaring’s ordination present on bike, then head back for juice and coffee. When Roaring was first ordained I sent her my thoughts on getting ‘made’ deacon. Having failed to remember to send her a card to her retreat, I promised to put down how I feel about ordination. I think about this as I get the tube to London Bridge reading ‘Little Gidding’. I meet a friend for a glass of wine and a cigarette by the river and then head to a lecture by Sarah Coakley at Southwark Cathedral. It’s on the sex crisis in the Church and is interesting but much the same as what she has written in the past. I’m wary of seeing sex and love of the poor as a mediating form for the real object of God and my sympathy is more with Romantics like Buber and Schleiermacher, finding God within the concrete expressions of human desire and experience. Her ascetic view of marriage as martyrdom and the emphasis on marriage and celibacy don’t ring very true to me; but then I am very modern. We have dinner with another couple of friends afterwards and it’s all very jolly.

When I get home I scramble my thoughts together on priesthood.

First of all, there is only one priesthood, on this everyone agrees: the priesthood of Christ. Everyone also agrees that all Christians share in this priesthood, the priesthood of all believers as we are all part of the body of Christ. There is also a specific vocation to the priesthood; a calling. I am not interested in magic though, in some hocus-pocus metaphysical alchemy of the soul. Symbolically it would make more sense for the congregation with the bishop to lay their hands on the priest of their election, rather than a clerical web of power-infusion. The so-called ontology of priesthood is, I believe, a mythology, obfuscating the significant act of a developing relationship between God, priest and church that has been lived out by the deacon in her first year. It is easier, more clearly bounded, to define a moment of power and change - those magic hands, just as it is fetishized in the eucharist as a decisive moment with the words of power (institution). It is more true, though, to understand the entire action as a transforming relationship, a participation of the priest and people in the divine life; A new calling to participate in an old relationship. The retreat provides a sort of liminal phase, the caterpillar in the chrysalis, but for the people as well as the priest. The first mass completes the action. But it is always the priesthood of Christ - if I were Roaring I would kiss my own hands after her first mass for they are Christ’s - he has no hands on earth but yours. A gift and an awesome responsibility. You are a walking sacrament because God has chosen you to this calling and inhabits you as part of the body of Christ through God’s own actions.

Anyway rather than getting caught up in a prosaic list of priestly actions, let’s have some Eliot instead:

What we call the beginning is often the end

And to make and end is to make a beginning.

The end is where we start from. And every phrase

And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,

Taking its place to support the others,

The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,

An easy commerce of the old and the new,

The common word exact without vulgarity,

The formal word precise but not pedantic,

The complete consort dancing together)

Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,

Every poem an epitaph. And any action

Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea's throat

Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.

We die with the dying:

See, they depart, and we go with them.

We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.

The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree

Are of equal duration. A people without history

Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern

Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails

On a winter's afternoon, in a secluded chapel

History is now and England.

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Through the unknown, unremembered gate

When the last of earth left to discover

Is that which was the beginning;

At the source of the longest river

The voice of the hidden waterfall

And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for

But heard, half-heard, in the stillness

Between two waves of the sea.

Quick now, here, now, always—

A condition of complete simplicity

(Costing not less than everything)

And all shall be well and

All manner of thing shall be well

When the tongues of flames are in-folded

Into the crowned knot of fire

And the fire and the rose are one.

The unspoken image, borrowed from Donne’s ‘Valediction Forbidding Mourning‘ is a compass. The Quartets are full of circular images, the blood, the stars, the seasons, sex and death, everything created moves in circles. The compass draws a circle that ends at his beginning, for him near the Mississippi or, for his ancestors, East Coker where Eliot is actually buried. But it is not just that death is a sort of beginning for the faithful, but that when we understand our end then we will understand our beginning and the rest of what follows - the shape of the circle gives away its centre. How we understand our end - our death and our point if you like, for every moment is also an end understood in relation to the centre - characterizes our entire existence: ‘Lord let me know mine end’. This is the very root of vocation. Our calling, the drawing of Love comes from our end as we achieve the person God has given us to be. Here this calling is a new beginning as a priest. The calling has ever been with you though.

For Eliot this vocation is bound up in language as he is attempting to articulate the relationship of the soul with God. Reality never stops, it constantly changes, and so therefore does our need to rearticulate and rediscover that relationship with God. Every point of the circle, every moment of life, has a tangent that is immediate to the divine, but we cannot bear very much reality and our lives and our words fall short of capturing the divine. Every step then is a movement towards death, Eliot is thinking of Charles I and the civil war as he is in Little Gidding but the illegible stone is the grave of us all who pass away in time. But his point is that the tradition preserves these actions and they continue to live with us - history and canon mean a lot to Eliot. But even more than this because every moment is in touch with God - remember the image is a compass and so every point of the circle is connected to the still point at the centre - every moment touches transcendence, the divine life. Eliot finds God in love and death - the rose and the yew tree, the rose symbolizing love in the garden of Burnt Norton with Emily, and the yew tree of the generations of life and death in East Coker, the village of his ancestors. Each are moments in time, but each take hold of eternity. But this is not dualistic - there is not time and eternity - we cannot get rid of time. Time gives us a pattern of timeless moments, it is every moment. Eternity crouches alongside us waiting to sweep us off our feet. So while light fails on an a winter’s afternoon - three images of the movement of time, light, season, time of day, History is now and England - eternity is there hidden in the midst of time. This then gives us an image for ordination - while light fails on an autumn afternoon in an English church, not much dissimilar to where Eliot is kneeling - in the dance of time, God is present, History is now and England. The calling is in time but also out of time as the compass branches up and back to the centre of the circle, touching every point. God is calling you Now and Here.

Notice then how the line taken from the Cloud of Unknowing, With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling, breaks out of the verse, standing alone, physically representing the in-breaking of transcendence, of the love that moves the sun and other stars, and it is achieved by the voice of this calling, the divine word that speaks into creation in the beginning and calls each of us to our vocation, to our end which is also our beginning.

The calling of priesthood then is a call for exploration, to discover again and again the divine activity in every moment, that gives shape to the whole from the garden of Eden to the New City. And to understand that journey, as the journey of each soul, to be a pattern, a constellation of moments, that touch the divine life as they pass through the gate, (“I am the gate, if anyone enters through me she shall be saved”.) the gate which is the hinge of the compass. This is what Eliade refers to as ille tempore - a sort of return to mythic times of closeness with God - God with us - described by Eliot in Edenic terms but redolent with the love experienced at Burnt Norton with Emily, the innocence of children in love in a garden, refigured as the drop away between waves at the Dry Salvages of Massachusetts; reading between the lines to find the real meaning. And as love and death are by nature simple they cost everything that we have. Such is the case with priesthood. As Paul writes - if there is no resurrection then we of all people are most to be pitied. Ordination seizes our complete commitment, whether we like it or not, otherwise the forces of doubt and resentment will be overwhelming. My Westcott tutor was right to tell me that I was committing myself to a way of life that few would really understand and value. There are of course ways of being a cool, successful, rich priest, but at the heart of priesthood is a renunciation - costing not less than everything, regarding it as garbage compared to the love of God. But this cost is irrelevant in the light of our end, our beginning. As Julian understands, the wealth of Christ’s victory leaps over all sin and fault, all pain and suffering. Eternity which waits always on the edge of reality promises both its final fulfilment and the full restoration of every moment in the plenitude of God - not to diminish the world’s suffering, after all it is a crowned knot of fire; the crucible of Christ’s passion promises a hallowing of suffering not its erasure; but the fire and the rose are one. Suffering meets love and the final image is of the pieta, where the suffering of Christ is met in the love of Mary (the fire and the rose; also the suffering king), transformed under the pentecostal fire of the Spirit which makes all things new.

What does ordination mean? It means kneeling in a church, where prayer has been valid, stepping into the river of a tradition, with every intention of guiding it to its re-incarnate future discovered in the will of God. It means discovering in this time the brush of eternity that graces every moment and hearing the vocation of God and God’s church. It means submitting to the cost of everything in faithfulness to the end that shapes our entire history. It means recognising the constellations of God’s activity in the world and teaching others to pay attention to these heavenly movements. It means following the path drawn by God, and listening to the voice of that calling. It means being brave to the point of death (which is every moment) and faithful to the love of God, discovered in all its many forms in this passing world. Most of all it is the call to take up the historical remembrance of the death and resurrection of Christ, sharing the gift of love under the sign of suffering, and proclaiming the presence of eternity in the midst of us.

ugh. 2.42am. Where does all the time between 12 and 2am disappear?

Friday, 7 September 2012

A Week in the Life of a Curate Day 4


The phone is ringing and I wake up at 8.45am, Roaring returning the favour of last night's call. It's just as well though otherwise I might never have woken. The entire morning is out of kilter. The booze bear has savaged me. I'm a lot poorer, my skin has aged 3 years, and I look terrible. I attempt restoration with an eye-stick I reserve for emergencies, while my partner in crime scuttles out and across the park to enjoy his holiday. I make it to playgroup feeling like Jack Whitehall in Bad Education. Fortunately I have a very sympathetic co-leader who gives me German aspirin with miraculous effects and when followed by 2 coffees and a biscuit I'm back to form. We rattle through the songs, guitar playing a bit clumsy and voice as gravelly and weedy as a Welsh driveway. Afterwards I take the Sunday School leader back to my house and put on CBeebies for her blonde twins - straight out of a Roald Dahl book - perched attentively on the sofa, while we go through the Kids' Club's plan.

Then I take a brief nap. Praise the Lord. On the way back to church I pop into a few restaurants hoping for vouchers and prizes and it's all very friendly. It's irritating this begging tour of every business in the area every year, but it does mean you do get to know everyone in the neighbourhood, which is handy and quite nice. Most of the rest of the day is taken up with emails and admin. Arranging someone to fix the house, sending photos to a local newsletter and Time Out, a coffee appointment, trying to sort out funeral arrangements for a parishioner who died in prison, putting up an even larger poster with our service times in the porch, as an elderly priest peering in claimed he couldn't make them out last Saturday (the only day the church is shut - apparently also unable to check the website or the Church Times). The vicar tells amusing stories about being in America, chortling that on his flight back he met a man in the first class lounge complaining that he couldn't get a copy of The Guardian.

After evening prayer I haul our white vestments home and change quickly to head out to Bromley for a choir rehearsal for Roaring's first mass. I change my mind when I'm at the bus stop and miss a bus. Then decide I should go and it will be fun and get the next one to Victoria. I'm reading a book on Tragedy and Theology which is due for a review by the end of last month. The traffic is appalling and I just miss a train which means I won't stand a chance of getting there less than half an hour late. Despondent, I go and buy a Whopper meal which both cheers me up and makes me more miserable. The vestments languish accusingly on the floor casting aspersions on my priesthood and general fitness as a human being. I bus back reading 'East Coker', a manual on transcending the London gloom, then fall asleep on the couch.

I manage to pull myself together a little later and put in an hour's cycle while watching Bletchley Park and reading an LRB article on The Sorrows of Young Werther. Both are very good. I sing through Roaring's music and then watch episodes of New Girl and Bad Education. I read the paper but it never feels worthwhile in the evening. It's a relief to have The Times today and Ann Treneman's sketch is excellent as usual. Almost as good as yesterday's Mrs Cameron's Diary, which is the very pinnacle of journalism. Productivity wise, not a great day. I resolve to be more useful tomorrow. Go to bed with The Neigbour and his Irish chapter (he is half Irish) - his alzheimic grandmother's last advice: "whatever you do, son, don't marry a Catholic." Eyes shut. 2:26am.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

A Week in the Life of a Curate, Day 3


Pottering out of bed this morning, the ritual of tea, papers, prayers &c. begins as normal until a text reminds me I was supposed to be in Kensington Gardens with my running buddy. He has a real job so we meet in the park at 7am, which is horrendous at least until you're back and in the shower. The unusual service for the school has distracted me and I missed our date. He forgives me but, although I enjoyed half an hour more sleep (otherwise a 6.30am wake up), I'm pretty irritated. I try and run at least twice a week and having someone to go with is helpful. We have agreed to do the Grizzly next year and he's sent me information on a 200mile week long race called "The Dragon's back" in the welsh mountains, which looks "interesting". A letter arrives from an estate agent (these are very regular) saying that they've just rented a 2 bedroom house in my street for £900 a week. I briefly fantasize about moving in with the vicar and renting the house. A very quick way to more than triple my salary...  Meanwhile the gas board are digging up the street and have decided to begin their work immediately in front of my kitchen. My recently planted flowers will probably die from the dust, if general neglect does not finish them first. I read another articulation of guilt, anger and shame by Hughes, learn briefly about the marginal revolution in economics, and then head to church. The service is actually very nice - I quite like Common Worship morning prayer and we have a couple of hymns which give it a lift; our new organist is very amenable. The homily is brief but seems to go down well. I'm finding it easier to take in a sentence at a glance and keep my eyes up.

Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells of the early Christian communities, on the one hand fearful of persecution, on the other hand growing quickly and taking the name of ‘Christian’ for the first time.  We also hear of how these early Christians took this social and religious identity seriously, giving what they could for the relief of their fellow Christians in other places. It should give us pause to think that here we are so far removed from Turkey and the Middle East, and two millennia later, yet carrying on this same name, “Christian” - as Christianity and latterly the Middle East have come to West London. But what does it mean for a school to call itself ‘Christian’ and ‘Church of England’?

We live in an age that hates institutions. Membership of the Conservative Party has fallen in the last 60 years from 3 million to 175 thousand. The RSPCB now has more members than all the parties together.  With the new social media people feel little need to belong to anything serious beyond casually ‘liking’ and ‘following’ a celebrity or show. We are so far from making the life and death commitments of the early church that our only point of contact with this seriousness-of-life is the terrifying news reels from Syria, which seem unimaginable, a different world. This is hardly to be regretted, but I’m reminded of those snarky comments you hear about the middling banalities of the English - that ‘they’re always willing to admire anything so long as they can queue up’; that ‘an Englishman thinks he is being virtuous when he is only being uncomfortable’; that ‘the English think incompetence is the same thing as sincerity’.  And yet the last two years, the wedding, the jubilee, and most of all the Olympics and Paralympics, has touched a passion for deeper solidarity and belief, some genuine shared cultural identity in Team GB, that is a recognisable good. People talking on the tube? National pride instead of self-deprecation? And London, now a glorious picture of success, hospitality, openness, energy? The weather may bring us back down, but for now at least we bask in a delightful Indian summer.  

What gave the early Church its enthusiasm and enough energy to blow it across the known world within two generations was the discovery of a shared sense of purpose, solidarity founded on the belief of God’s unconquerable love.  A universal message of reconciliation, peace and charity in a truth that sort to communicate a message of hope in the darkness of poverty and suffering. The Church of England is the Church of this realm. This is a position of privilege but it should not be a position of control and exclusion. It is called to serve this country with those same values of solidarity, hospitality, openness and generosity experienced in London this Summer, welcoming all, being present for everyone. As a Church of England school we have an opportunity at the start of this term to foster these values. To push the sense of pride, collaboration and friendliness between old friends and newcomers, as well as the individual excellence that earned our medals. 

We also celebrated 150 years of this historic school this summer, a testament to the faith and hard work of generations - teachers and staff who believed in the Church’s ministry of education and pastoral care, children who were shaped and grew out of these values. Building on what has gone before, let’s continue to foster the legacy of team GB and the deserved reputation of a great world city. This means not turning in on ourselves in fear like those early Christians after the death of St Stephen; but supporting one another joyfully like those in Antioch, who in seeing the needs of others gave, ‘each according to their ability’.

After the service a colleague and I head over to the estate coffee morning. It's largely an event for housewives and the elderly, fuelled by gossip, caffeine and the admiration of each other's houses. Most of the chatter today is about holidays so it has a slight back-to-school feel. When I first arrived these things were hard work. It's mostly small talk with occasional narrow-mindedness and complaints about how people in the area 'can't even speak English'. As you get to know the people though it actually becomes really quite fun and you pick up on the internal politics and class struggles of eyebrow raising and posture. Today we are graced with a veritable banquet, which neatly becomes lunch.

Stella is at the house cleaning when I get back so I hit the roof for some sun before heading down to watch the beginning of Prime Minister's Questions. He looks harried and while it would be almost impossible for the opposition not to come off better, Miliband is now looking a little more like a politician and less the gawky, bolshy school boy. Having said that I suspect if an election were held tomorrow no one would bother voting: 'shat on by Tories, shovelled up by Labor. And here I am... perhaps the last island of beauty in the world...'. Perhaps.

It's the children's confirmation class in the afternoon so I spend some time thinking of how to explain the Bible to 9 year olds and devise some games to get them to learn the books and how they fit together. The class actually goes really well; it's a lot more fun than I expect and most of the knowledge is there even if it's not always tied together very well. You always get funny and amusing tangents from kids and although they have real trouble saying "Deuteronomy" they are quite insightful about subjectivity and how the same thing seems different with different eyes. The vicar has returned having had a particularly good holiday and is in fine form.

After a speedy evening prayer I head off to meet a fellow Roman curate in King's Cross. I've found a sherry bar in a nice little courtyard which is marvellous. Roaring would most certainly approve with her frequent trips to Malaga. My comrade prefers cocktails however so we go next door first for a pair of French 75s each. The staff condescend because we don't choose their own cocktails. After a large sherry we go for steaks found on google maps, where the staff condescend because they think they're very fashionable. The steak is the bloodiest I've had and comes on a big board. Unfortunately the board is too big for the table and my plate is pushed right to the edge. Disaster occurs when the plate flips steak on to my lap and plate, loudly, on to the floor. "Would you like a new plate sir?" The staff condescend further and I cover my shame with a red wine filter. After a brief interlude involving mojitos we end up St Pancras hotel where the staff turn condescension into an art, though to be fair we are a little rowdy and it's past midnight. They do, however, provide delicious snacks with our drinks. My fellow lush has missed his last train and comes back to the house for a final glass of wine. At 4am I call Roaring to see how her retreat is going. She is pleased to hear from me and I drift off to sleep sometime following...

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

A Week in the Life of a Curate, Day 2


The beginning of the day reads as yesterday. I bled out of bed at 7.25am somewhere between amoeba and jellyfish on the evolutionary scale. For some reason I don't get tired at night but look and feel every lost second in the morning. Being a simple and very immediate creature I haven't learned to curb my late nights, regardless of the fact that they are usually unproductive (e.g. watching Total Recall). Anyway my lost time meant I forgot my poem and economic idea which annoyed me periodically the rest of the day. I am wholly and obsessively a creature of routine. The exciting development, however, was that news has returned with the cabinet reshuffle so the Guardian was mildly less full of nonsense. Polly and George, however, did appear, but so did the delightful Hadley Freeman so it wasn't a total disaster.

Anyway, I struggled into church just after ten as playgroup began. This is an hour and a half of gossip over babies and coffee with a ten minute guitar session in the middle. We don't do Christian songs which I'm convinced is right. It's not why people come and insisting on 'worship' in everything gives the impression that the church should only be doing church. Since school hadn't started some alumni turned up which was most delightful and my blues version of Down in the Jungle was surpassed only by the hopping bunnies and snapping crocodiles.

The jollyness was all cut short by a distressed visitor. The most disturbing thing about the parish is the number of entrapped women, some very visible, some less so. The most horrifying examples are the beggars on Edgware Road that are moved about by gangs, given injuries and have babies passed between them. This is a very direct form of slavery that is difficult to walk past. There is also the infamous Sussex Gardens, destination of the curb crawler, littered with 'vice'-cards and prostitutes, also often trapped in inescapable situations. Finally, however, there is another class, a couple of which I have had long conversations with in the last week. These are kept women. In some cases there are complications with visas, sometimes they have become financially completely reliant on some man, sometimes children are involved, sometimes heartbreak and manipulation. These women can be easily threatened with eviction, with being cut off, abandoned, and in some cases face extortion and violence. The vagaries of life can throw them between first class flights and outright imprisonment. Anger, depression, misery are all too evident. I am looking into what more I can do; there are some shelters and charities available, but often these situations are bound up with invisible ties in carefully constructed cages.

The life of clergy is necessarily ironic. This is not cynicism but often you are forced to shift from the utter seriousness of human misery to the banal or frivolous. So the shift to the business of the car park and administration is frustrating but inescapable. Mugs and stuffed horses will not order themselves, nor will classes for children for a Confirmation service that is really much sooner than is practical. Equally urgent was the task of putting together a Mattins service for the school staff tomorrow and a blessing for the children's first week at school on Sunday. Our faithful administrator was on hand to proof, print and staple but putting services together and formatting takes longer than you might expect.

Lunch had me back on the roof with a pizza before a 10 minute power nap, hoping to dream up a sermon for tomorrow morning. Back in the office the service sheet is finished; some colleagues email suggestions for a title of an edited collection due to be published next year. The back-log list of things I haven't done increases and I begin to feel quite stressed. I've been doing some work for a trust for the past few years and the accounts are due, I've a funeral to arrange, and begging letters for prizes from the local restaurants. On top of this I have an adult confirmation class tonight and a sermon to write for the morning. I finally get through to the stables who are on track for the end of the month, say evening prayer and get to Waitrose for catechesis snacks.

After scrambling to tidy the house the confirmation class goes quite smoothly, though I worry that I am talking a lot. The subject is the Bible and I explain something of how the canon was formed, the Four senses of Scripture, dealing with problematic texts and how we read the Bible, how it can help and how we orient ourselves as Christians by engaging with the stories. At times I wonder whether my own horizons have so fused with Scripture, after years of reading narrative theology that the class will think I'm mad. It is clear that they find Scripture hard to relate to. I surprise myself by realising how much I value Scripture as an encouragement and an orienting force in my life. Dangerous admissions for a liberal! The group is forcefully honest, which is fantastic, but they will not accept easy answers or empty platitudes. There is a real sense of wanting to make sense of what faith is about.

They are gone by 10pm and I change gears to write the school staff sermon listening to Chopin Nocturnes. It comes relatively quickly, having been sporadically on my mind for the past 24 hours. The staff are not always enthusiastic about church so I try and keep it brief and engaging. Will see how it goes tomorrow. I have not gone beyond snacks so I'm hungry going to bed but I'm pleased to have bought a Lynx Final Edition deodorant, which amuses me.

I slip into bed at 1.34am.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

A Week in the Life of a Curate

This is a little experiment. I’m quite often surprised, and made anxious, by the curiosity people have when you tell them you’re a curate. You’ll often get a muted question to test the water and then, very often, you’ll get the “so what do you actually do all day?” question. In no other career would you get this - can you imagine someone asking a lawyer, or a banker, or a civil servant? No. And I have no idea what they do do all day. This gives away the fact that actually people really do think that it’s basically a one-day-a-week job with a few cups of tea and old darlings between mattins and evensong. (And that’s if they’ve had the benefit of an Oxbridge education where they read those words on the chapel noticeboard, or if Daddy lives in a Cathedral close somewhere rural and nice.) Whenever I’m asked this question my mind goes blank. Partly this is the blind panic that is induced by a question that seems to ask me to justify my existence, partly it’s because so much of my week is inherently forgettable, partly I think it’s because I’m scatty and while I have just about learned to cope with multi-tasking, asking me to remember what I’ve done afterwards is simply one thing too many. So, anyway, being the first week in September, in the transition between the Summer lull and the back-to-school frenzy, I thought I’d take a look at what I get done in a day and assess whether my life is actually worthwhile.


It’s the start of the week. i wake up in my own bed, alone. It’s 7am. Listen to Radio 4, make a cup of tea and tidy the kitchen. I like to start the week leftwing so the Guardian arrives through the letterbox. After Special K and coffee I say the morning office, getting the readings of an app because I’ve lost my lectionary. I manage to do about 30 minutes weights, though I’m in a reluctant phase because I haven’t watched enough action movies and the Olympics are a distant memory. During this time I read my poem of the day which is ‘The Minotaur’, one of Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters. While I’m reading it I’m listening to Katie Perry. The ‘Economic Idea’ of the day today is ‘supply-side economics’ which fits rather ill with Jackie Astley, Polly Toynbee and George Monbiot, who I suspect are only read by sixth-formers and geography teachers. Have shower and shave. On way into office bump into charming welshman from congregation. We talk about the weather and how beautiful Swansea is when the sun is shining. The rugby hasn’t started yet. Most of the rest of the morning is spent moving large boxes of Sunday School resources around, clearing out a cupboard and laminating posters for our annual festival. This year I have included a marvellous picture of myself on a horse. This might seem somewhat self-aggrandizing. I then sort out parking for a number of builders. The car park is a continual distraction, especially on Monday mornings, but it raises enough money by itself to run a small parish. I then write a brief note of condolence before photocopying notes for next week’s Sunday School leader and the anthem for Roaring’s First Mass on Sunday so I can have a quick practice. After chatting with the administrator and fellow curate over tea, I write the dates for readings in Sunday School and then go home for lunch.

For lunch I have raspberries, granola and low-fat yoghurt. I notice that I have now eaten two foods in Sunday’s Times’ article on how supposedly healthy foods are not good for you. I really don’t understand this - how anyone diets anymore is beyond me - I would have no idea what to eat. I sit in my eerie above my house in my boxer shorts and shirt. The sun is bright but partly behind a tree, lawnmowers and sprinklers hum and whistle on one side, The Neighbour is bustling about in her office below and across the street, while planes cross from left to right towards Heathrow. It is a very pleasant spot. After lunch I phone a lot of people about confirmation classes and Horseman’s Sunday but no one answers. I fire off some emails and hear that the parents are all returning from abroad but the children will be there on Wednesday. More parking. More tea. I suddenly panic when I realise that I haven’t really thought about the start of year school staff service on Wednesday. I decide on Mattins as most of the CoE school staff don’t receive communion, and at that moment the organist walks in and it turns out he can come and play a couple of hymns. Which is nice. All Things Bright and Beautiful? Since the vicar is away I chair the staff meeting and we go through last week and the week to come, with the dawning sense that there is little let up until Christmas now. On the plus side it looks like a lot of champagne this month.
The day finishes with a mass for St Gregory the Great. Afterwards I run home and change before rushing out to the Barbican (tube reading: my friend Mr K’s The Necropolis Boat). One of our choir is in Carousel which finishes in the next week or so. She managed to get some cheap tickets and I go with the director of music’s partner and his friend. The show is fantastic - wonderful singing, great staging and brilliant choreography with a truly moving dance sequence from Billy’s daughter, Louise. The show totally left me cold though with a seeming apology for domestic violence. I looked it up when I got home and found little reference in wikipedia and elsewhere, even the Guardian review, while claiming it deals with the issue head-on underplays the sinister aspect. The most chilling scene is when the dead Billy slaps his daughter’s hand. The daughter claims the slap felt like a kiss, or like nothing at all, which her mother corroborates understandingly. It doesn't hurt if they love you. Contrary to Michael Billington’s review this sentimental scene does sweep the issues of domestic abuse under the carpet, and the easy ending which shortly follows, with Billy seemingly finding redemption without any penitence, reconciliation or amendment, seems a little cheap despite great singing (albeit of a rather sentimental song). The very good recent Porgy and Bess did much to counter the difficult elements of that show so it can be done. Never see Fame. It is a pernicious collection of stereotypes.

Anyway, I made it home, made a fishfinger sandwich with homemade Caesar dressing (totes deliciado) and then watched Total Recall (the original) over an hour of leisurely exercise biking. Then wrote up the diary and ... faff, faff, faff, ... went to bed. 3.52am.

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