Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Opera at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama

A BOGOF deal was on offer last night at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, as two short operas I had never heard of were performed: Debussy's 'L'Enfant Prodigue' and Donizetti's 'Francesca di Foix'.

The story of 'L'Enfant Prodigue' is a reworking of the parable of the prodigal son, but told through the eyes of the mother. The biblical story is entirely male - the father and two sons and a servant are the only characters that appear. The opera takes a more female approach  - the mother grieving for her lost son, and when he returns she pleads with her husband to take him back. It struck me that this reworking could only be written by a Catholic librettist for whom the figure of Mary, the mediatrix, is central. The relationship between mother and son appeals very deeply to the human psyche (Freud had much to say about it), and who could not be moved by the tender reuniting of mother and son. The parable, on the other hand, reveals something of the nature of God as Father which the opera (perhaps deliberately) avoids. Yes, the characters in the opera end by giving thanks to God - 'The Eternal One' - at the end, but essentially the story is about human love, forgiveness and redemption rather than the eternal love of a heavenly Father. Musically, as an early work of Debussy it was more reminiscent of Chabrier and Bizet.

In complete contrast the second opera by Donizetti was set in the chicest of chic clothes store - think of Armani or Prada - with the characters dressed in a curious mixture of high blown 16th century long dresses, tights and puffed sleeves and 21st century Italian suits. The plot has as much substance as a soufflé, but is full of wit and delight. It concerns a jealous husband who keeps his wife under lock and key for fear of other men. The rest is too silly to mention. But the production fizzed with energy and life, moving from the 'House of Valois' (aka Armani) to the (Tennis) Court of Valois. The original plot actually specifies a hunt scene followed by a jousting tournament.

The Donizetti was as shallow as the Debussy was deep - but for all that I enjoyed them both immensely. One was food for the soul and the other a 'zabligione' for the senses.

Friday, 18 October 2013

The 'P' word v. the 'F' word

I'm interested that there is so much attention paid to whether or not Andrew Mitchell used the word 'pleb', and not to his adverbial use - as he admitted himself - of the 'f***' word: "Aren't you supposed to f***ing help us?" The word 'plebeian', as anyone with a classical Latin background (patrician perhaps) will know, means common, vulgar, boorish, undistinguished and unrefined. To use it is to demote someone to a lower class - and the British are still obsessed by class. I find the 'f***' word much more offensive, and ironically it is often a sign of a limited vocabulary. Perhaps Mr Mitchell is not the well-educated patrician he would like to be.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Ten Years at St John's

Ten years ago, when we first moved into the Rectory, the garden was a wilderness and the house had the appearance of  a dingy parish meeting  room. There was much decoration to do and we set to with  determination and energy and within 3 weeks had made a real difference. The garden took longer, but after about a year it was possible to see the possibilities at least.

There was a sense in the church that people were tired after 18 months’ without an incumbent, but were ready to move on to something new. One of the things I quickly discovered was that it was easy to introduce new ideas, but much harder to let old practices go. In many ways the garden was a helpful picture: there is a limit to how many new plants you can put in before you have to move or get rid of the old. Another lesson was the importance of digging the ground before planting. To me, this was a picture of the importance of prayer in the life of the church: just as the ground must be dug over and prepared before things can be planted successfully, so the church must pray in order to see new ventures grow successfully and fruitfully.

I started a weekly Sunday afternoon prayer time, which then moved to a Saturday morning. For two or three years or so this was, I believe, an important factor in the church moving forward. After a time the numbers dwindled, and it was relaunched as a monthly prayer breakfast. This continued for another 2 years or so, and then stopped. Digging the ground is hard back-breaking work, and sometimes quite boring, but it has to be done; in the same way prayer for the life of the church can seem hard work or dull, but it must be there. The practice of a regular prayer meeting for the church needs to be revived.

What has happened during the last 10 years? People have come and gone. I reckon that nearly 90 members of the church have joined St John’s in the last 10 years, which balances those who have moved or died (60 have died, and others have moved away or simply stopped coming). Going by the number of newcomers’ cards filled in, we have welcomed more than 160 people in this period, but by no means all of them become regular committed members. Likewise, we have baptised about 420 children (which represents perhaps 200 families), but only about a quarter have maintained regular contact with the church. This gives grounds for both concern – why do we lose three-quarters? – but also hope – this is still a significant area of numerical growth in the church.  During the last 10 years about 160 adults and young people have taken part in some form of discipleship course: Alpha and Youth Alpha, Saints at Prayer and Worktalk, and many took part in the ‘Glorious’ day in 2011 when we looked at growing in the Spirit. Average attendance at worship in 2004 was 183 adults and 63 children. This has gone up and down over the years but in 2012 stood at 163 adults and 49 children. In an age when churchgoing generally is declining and patterns of attendance have changed  this is an encouraging statistic.
Linda's priesting
During my time at St John’s I’ve been blessed with three dynamic curates who have all contributed new ideas to the life of the church: Simon Stocks launched the ‘Worktalk’ course in 2005 to help people relate work and faith, and in 2006 ‘Dad’s Together’ for fathers of recently baptised children. Several men became committed church members through that group. Linda Fletcher was very energetic in her leadership of the 750th Anniversary programme, resulting in contact with 1000 households in the parish; she also helped plan and lead the ‘Glorious’ Day in 2011, and did much to encourage the young people, with the formation of the Friday youth group. Sue Thomas has started up a new ‘Life Group’ for people who want to explore the spiritual life in a deeper way.

St. John’s reflects the naturally cautious conservatism of the parish of Old Coulsdon and so some of the early changes I introduced were seen as quite radical: the introduction of the NIV bible and the Common Lectionary at the 8 am service (at least one person appealed to the argument ‘if it’s been good enough for 400 years why change it now?’); and discontinuing the practice of lay communion ministers robing to administer communion (an earlier discussion in the PCC had resulted in one member suffering a fatal heart attack).

In 2004 we launched the present pattern of 9.30 services with ‘Worship Together’ on the 2nd Sunday of the month replacing the old ‘Parade Service’.  The Parade had been held at 10 am, in a throw back to the days when Matins was at 11 and the Parade preceded it. This resulted in great confusion for new people and visitors who arrived at 9.30 expecting a service, and then went away. As a form of worship, the Parade Service had run out of steam, and many church members simply didn’t attend any service on that Sunday. So when we introduced ‘Worship Together’ we made sure that it was seen as a service for the whole church, including the uniformed groups as well. It proved very popular with all ages, and was a helpful introduction to the church for those who would not want to come to a service of holy communion. I was not, however, prepared for the outcry from a small number of people about dropping the singing of the National Anthem at every Worship Together. ‘How will the young people learn the National Anthem if we don’t sing it every month?’ Well, I was not brought up to sing it every month, but I managed to learn it easily enough. I was surprised how long that little matter rumbled on for. The world didn’t come to an end, and I didn’t lose much sleep over it.

At the service for my induction and licensing I had requested some more contemporary songs to be sung. I was told that people didn’t know them, so I suggested a group of singers get together to learn them and sing them before the service. The reaction was so positive that the group continued under the name of the Celebration Singers for several years, ably led by Janette Collins, until her retirement. The group was able to introduce a whole new repertoire of more contemporary worship songs which, by and large, were quickly picked up and enjoyed by the congregation. My style of leading worship has always been to use liturgy in a relaxed way that emphasises the joy and gladness of worshipping in God’s presence. Several people commented that this was like a breath of fresh air. After that initial input of new music and a different style, our worship – at the 9.30 parish communion at least – has reached a plateau from which we will only move if we are able to find a regular music leader, and small group of singers and other musicians. When we lost our regular organist in 2008 we relied on CDs as backing tracks, which have allowed us to use some contemporary worship music as well as the traditional hymns, but they are not ideal in helping to give a good lead.

Messy Church
The biggest area of growth in the last few years has been in Messy Church and the Family Service.  The seed that grew into Messy Church was planted in September 2006 when we started prayer walking for three months on the Tollers Estate. From that, a small morning meeting in the community room started in 2009 when one or two mums came along with their children to chat with a couple of our church members. In September 2010 the group had outgrown the community room and moved into the church under the name ‘After School Group’. John and Thelma Carrol lead it for that first year and it grew and grew. The following year it was decided to relaunch the group under the banner of ‘Messy Church’ with a dedicated and dynamic leadership group, helped by members of the Mothers’ Union who provide the teas. Now it’s quite common to have 40 or even 50 children plus adults on a Tuesday afternoon.

Family Service
When I first arrived at St John’s the Family Service drew about a dozen people once a month. I decided to invest my time and energy in that service and made sure I was at every one, along with those who helped – Freddie Loh and John Burchell, and the curates. We saw steady growth at that service so that when we introduced a twice-monthly pattern in 2012 we were regularly having 90 to 100 children and adults every time. What is particularly encouraging is the number of dads that come to the service – more than to our other services. The ethos of the service could be described as ‘having fun in our Father’s presence’. The interactive and informal nature, though still using some liturgical elements, appeals to adults and children alike. For those who have little or no church background, the format and timing of the service make it very popular, and it is a good ‘stepping stone’ into the church for people who have had children baptised.

The introduction of a simple thing like serving refreshments after the Family Service have helped to make it feel like a proper congregation, not just a service that people may or may not come to.  Refreshments after every 9.30 service are an idea that we introduced soon after I arrived, and that has certainly helped to make St John’s feel a friendly community to be part of.

Mothers’ Union is another encouraging story: when many MU branches are declining into a group that merely cares for and entertains its own elderly members our branch rediscovered its mission to promote marriage and family life. MU members ran two or three parenting groups, they provide refreshments for our marriage preparation days, they give flowers and gifts to the parents of children being baptised, and they do the teas – no mean feat – for Messy Church. Nicy and Elaine have really led with enthusiasm and commitment, and as a result our MU branch is in good heart.

In 2006 three of our older church members went on a three week short-term placement with Emmanuel International to western Uganda, where they worked with street children in Kasese. As a result of that link we took a group of 10 to Kasese in August 2008, where we linked up with our EI mission partners Alan and Cheryl Parrett. Since then we have maintained the link, and have been able to support the work of Alpha Ministries, working with displaced and orphaned children, and the project working with older children to give them basic training.

Since 2003 the way we communicate has changed dramatically, so now it’s possible to contact the majority of church members by email. Many people who visit St John’s for the first time do so because they have seen the church website, and this has become a much more important way of presenting the church to those outside. I set up a church Facebook page in 2012 on which to show  photos of church life. People respond very positively to joyful images of the church community.

As a way of connecting with the community we launched the Prayer Tent at the Village Fair in July 2008. Up
Prayer Tent
till then we had had a plant stall, but I felt we should be doing something that only the church could do – that is to offer to pray with people, and give them a place in which to pray or express themselves before God.  We have combined children’s activities with a ‘quiet’ prayer corner, and this year we actually walked around the site chatting to people and offering to prayer with them.. It’s a way of engaging with the community that demonstrates God’s love, and it also really encouraged those who were taking part to take a risk for God.

In a parish and a church the size of ours it’s been good to have a dedicated pastoral team with our two SPAs, Jo and Valerie together with our retired hon. curate Gill, who can bring a ministry of care to the elderly and sick. Though I don’t have so much time to do so,  I enjoy visiting people and know that a visit from the rector can be a great encouragement, even if it is brief. A visit from any of our ministry team is significant as it shows we haven’t forgotten people, and they are still connected with the church.  

There is still much to do: essential repairs to the church building, a new heating system, a good projection system. I would like to see the wooden chairs along the side aisles replaced with smart folding chairs; I would like to have smart but secure glass doors to replace the rather forbidding solid oak doors at the main entrance so as to give a more welcoming appearance; I would like to smarten up the sanctuary area of the old church.

In the area of worship and music, I would like to see a regular music leader and worship group, or at least some singers, who could lead and develop our sung worship. I feel we need to restart our regular times of prayer for the church.

We have been unable to keep a PCC secretary in post for any length of time for a number of years, and that needs to be addressed.  We need dedicated and skilled leaders for our young people’s groups. And we need to turn our finances round by encouraging newer members of the church to consider serious regular in proportion to their incomes giving to the church.

I enjoy being a part of this church community. When I’m away I miss it, though, like any family, there are times that are frustrating and hard.

What keeps me going? Back in 2007 I had a week’s retreat at St Beuno’s in North Wales. This is what I wrote in my diary of that week:
My final reflection was on John 21, focussing on the conversation between Jesus and Peter: “Do you love me?” 
“Yes Lord…”
How has Peter shown it? He has only recently denied knowing Jesus. I felt that the repeated command, “Feed my lambs…Take care of my sheep…Feed my sheep,” was Jesus giving Peter the way to show he loved him. “You say you love me, so here is the way to do it.”  ‘Feed…tend…’ – it is to do with building others up, seeking their welfare. That is the way to love, and to love Jesus.

I remember reflecting on this same passage seven years earlier on the Prayer Mountain near Kitui in Kenya. Then, as now, I felt this was what the Lord was saying to me to do. So now, for the second time, I can go from this retreat and put it into practice.

I believe God has called me to be a shepherd to his people here. I trust that he will equip me for as long as it is right to be here, and that when it is time to move on he will show me that as well.

Saturday, 31 August 2013


I was surprised, but relieved, to see parliament vote against military action in Syria. It's right that the government condemns what appears to be the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, though other conventional weapons have done just as much damage and killed more people. I suggest that if our government wants to do something constructive, and to be consider a 'major player' in the international scene that it uses the money that would otherwise have been spent on bombing raids to provide more aid for the thousands of Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries.

There is more than one way for Britain to be great - bombing others is not one of them.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Postcard from Shropshire

Staying here in beautiful South Shropshire I've acquired two new interests: geology and birdwatching. We are just round the corner from one of the most important sites in the history of geology - Comley Quarry (see photo), where, in 1888 a professor from Birmingham discovered the first Lower Cambrian fossil, thus being able to date the rocks as Cambrian. This dating apparently set a standard for all other similar rocks. The Quarry isn't much to look at, but it has international significance. Who'd have thought it? This immediate area near Church Stretton has volcanic rocks on one side of the A49 and sedementary rocks on the other. It makes for an interesting landscape.

And my other new interest - birdwatching. I'm not exactly a seasoned 'twitcher' but I've enjoyed watching the local birds through our window and can now identify blue tits, great tits, nuthatches and chaffinches. I spent this morning, as it was raining, photographing them as well. This photo is of a nuthatch.

The south of Shropshire is a wonderful place to visit for hill walking, with easy access from Church Stretton. I can see many benefits in retiring here when it's time. I'm told that a retired bishop with an extensive model railway lives here. The more I read about house prices and the cost of commuting in London rising so quickly, the more I can see the attraction of living somewhere else. That fine if you've got the choice, which I might have when I retire, but it's more worrying for those whose job and family needs them to stay.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Responding to Wagner's 'Ring'

Image for Wagner's Philosophers

It's over a year since I blogged - no time, or nothing to say? A bit of both. However, I've spent the last week, on and off, listening to the arguably the greatest music-drama ever composed: Wagner's 'Ring of the Nibelungen' from the BBC Proms. Whatever you might think about Wagner the man or the musician, there is no doubt that this great tetralogy stands as a monument of human endeavour. Not only did it influence the development of Western music for decades to come, but even the course of human history in the way some of its ideals were hijacked by Hitler for his own wicked purposes.

Though familiar with some of Wagner's music, this was the first time I had listened to to whole 'Ring' as a single event. One runs out of superlatives to describe the performances by Staatskapelle Dresden, under Danial Barenboim, with one of the best cast of singers (in particular Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde, and Bryn Terfel as Wotan, in Die Walküre). Listening to the whole Ring is liked being sucked into a giant maelstrom of ideas, both philosophical and musical.

Wagner was a philosopher all his life, greatly influenced by the German Idealists such as Kant and Hegel, and later Feuerbach. The idea of God (or the gods) being simply a projection of man's ideal is a starting point here, though in Wagner's case the gods are actually less worthy than the humans, being seen to be corrupted by the desire for power, and behaving in a selfish and arbitrary way. There is the theme of freedom through struggle ('Mein Kampf'??), but one in which true freedom allows for the possibility of self-sacrifice - Brünnhilde's immolation in the flames along with her beloved Siegfried. There is the theme of the search for one's mother - Siegfried brought up by the evil dwarf Mime desperately wants to know who his mother was. (I wonder if, when he discovers Brünnhilde, he actually has found a mother-substitute with whom he can fall chastely in love? Shades of Oedipus.) Brünnhilde, for her part sees in Siegfried both a hero/lover and son. Freud would have had a field day with this - not to mention the sibling incest between the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, the father and mother of Siegfried.

Casting its shadow over all these murky relationships is the theme of the corruption of power, and, what Marx would later describe as a critique of capitalism. Alberich, the evil dwarf who has renounced love in favour of power, keeps the Nibelungs as virtual slaves in the underworld as they hammer out the Rhine gold to make the all-powerful ring. That ring contains a curse that blights anyone who takes hold of it - powerfully described by one of the many musical leitmotivs of Wagner. Alberich is the archetypal capitalist who steals the wealth produced by the oppressed workers. (Wagner took a leading role in the revolution of 1848, and had to flee to Switzerland for a time under suspicion from the Prussian authorities.)

It's not surprising to see why Wagner's 'Ring' stirs up such powerful feelings among those who persevere in listening to its entirety. I, for one, couldn't sleep for the multitude of leitmotivs buzzing round my head all night: The Ring, The Sword, The Curse, The Rhine, Valhalla, etc. And now I've been driven to find out more about the philosophical context that Wagner was working in because without that the story on its own doesn't really make much sense - there are so many unanswered questions and inconsistencies such as 'Why doesn't the owner of the ring simply use its power to get rid of everyone else who is threatening them?' I suppose that would be too easy, and there would be no story.

Two less-than-serious footnotes: 'Walhall', the abbreviated form of Walhalla often used in the libretto, is only one letter removed from 'Walsall' in the West Midlands. Not exactly the home of the gods reached by a rainbow bridge.  I couldn't help thinking, as I listened to Act 2 of Götterdämmerung, that the men's chorus singing "Heiahei, heiahoi" was not very far from Disney's Seven Dwarfs - "Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to work we go." You need to keep a sense of humour to avoid becoming a Wagner-worshipper and taking his view of life, the universe and everything too seriously. Nevertheless, this Proms Ring Cycle will be a performance to remember for a long time to come.