The first churches in my life, part 2

I ‘graduated’ from the Methodist primary Sunday School at the age of 11, with memories I’ll share in another post. The next step would have been to move on to their secondary school age section, but this met at the church in Palmerston Road, which was more than a mile away (more than a mile away!) and would have involved crossing some major roads to get there. So instead I tried the group at our parish church, which turned out to be St John the Baptist & St James the Great, Tottenham.

This was only half a mile away, and involved crossing an even more major road, but for some reason was felt to be preferable. This extraordinary building – like no other church I’ve ever known – was built in 1939 and designed by Seeley and Paget. We knew it as St John the Baptist: again, I don’t know any other church with a paired dedication to St James the Great. Where does this come from, I wonder?

My experience of Sunday School here was disappointing and short-lived. I was 11 years old, a shy and wimpy kid, in a small group where I was the only boy together with six girls. This did not appeal at the time. The curate (of course!) who led the group was probably one of those young clergy who, like me much later, thought working with children, pre-teens and youth generally was “not his special gift”. At any rate, he didn’t inspire me with enthusiasm. With hindsight I can see the aim of the group must have been to prepare us for Confirmation, since we were being encouraged to learn the Apostles’ Creed by heart, and read St John’s Gospel. I didn’t succeed with either of these at the time. And incidentally, I’ve never been sure about the predilection for encouraging religious seekers to read John. It’s such an odd book. Long before you get on to any of the stories you know about Jesus already (of which, frankly, there are precious few in the whole thing, anyway) you have to wade through verses and verses of mystical Greek philosophy and metaphysics. (OK, I like John better now, but I still think Mark would be a better gospel to give to people wanting to know what Jesus was about.)

Apart from this, most of what we were ‘exploring’ in our sessions was St Paul’s Missionary Journeys, from the Acts of the Apostles. Perhaps they were in vogue at the time, or part of some curriculum for 11-year olds, because later that year we were covering the same ground in RE lessons at school. And both were equally boring. It has remained one of life’s great mysteries to me, how anyone telling these stories, surely some of the greatest and most exciting adventures in history, can make them dull? Was it something to do with the maps?

I mean, I love maps, always have. But somehow these particular tiny maps, always out of context and always in black and white, did little to impart the excitement or stir the imagination. They looked like they were only about pouring facts into jug-shaped heads, rather than firing God-shaped hearts with excitement, and passion for God.

So within a very few weeks I became a Sunday School drop-out. I think I have a memory of the curate coming round to visit and “follow me up”, an occasion of acute embarrassment for all the family. It was no use. I was gone from formal church for the next decade.

Except for… Yes, there is one other church which features in these memories, and that is the old parish church of All Saints’, Edmonton, which I attended every Ascension Day for the next seven years.

The secondary school I joined in September 1960 was the Latymer School: the local grammar school, but bearing the same name as the more prestigious (and fee-paying) Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith. The founding benefactor of both was a London city merchant named Edward Latymer, who on his death in 1624 left a bequest for education. Most of this bequest went to the people of Hammersmith, but a part of it was designated, according to Wikipedia, ‘to fund the education and livelihoods of “eight poore boys of Edmonton” with a doublet, a pair of breeches, a shirt, a pair of woolen stockings and shoes distributed biannually on Ascension Day and All Saints’ Day.’ It was widely believed in Edmonton that the twice-yearly handout included half a pint of ale for each boy, as well as the clothing; but both had lapsed by the time I was a scholar there. What remained was Founder’s Day on Ascension Day, when the whole school walked to the parish church for a morning service of thanksgiving, and then were granted a half day’s holiday. Long before I became a regular churchgoer, or knew what the Ascension was, I acquired a lasting affection for the day. Ale or no ale.

Apart from these church encounters, and the uniformly boring RE lessons (not helped by the fact that our regular teacher was off sick for most of the first two years), my main experience of the Christian faith for seven years was daily school assembly. Our headmaster was an ordained man, the Reverend Dr Leonard Jones. The school’s daily act of worship consisted of a hymn, a Bible reading, and a prayer, often one of the Collects for Morning Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer. No attempt to preach, or convert, or interest, or entertain; no suggestion that you might not believe what you were hearing and singing. In other words, probably the best of all possible ways to present the Anglican version of the Christian faith.

I’m still convinced that the plain words of the Bible, good traditional hymns, and the words of the liturgy, are the most powerful ways we have of communicating the faith, and teaching what it is. That seems an unfashionable idea these days. But it’s a part of my own life and faith journey that I am forever grateful for.

Watching If… again after nearly 50 years

I watched Lindsay Anderson’s If… when it came out in 1968, in one of the cinemas in Oxford, with my undergraduate friends. I loved it. When you’re young, and your world is heady with Flower Power and the Summer of Love and the protest songs of Dylan and the student unrest of ‘68, which all promised such great new things – what’s not to love about a film like If…?

Our teenage heroes, raging with existential questions and hormones, are sixth-formers suffering under the tyranny of tradition and authority at their hidebound school. Its culture is represented by the spineless housemaster who gives permission to the senior prefects or ‘whips’, to carry out sadistic beatings, because, well, anything for a quiet life, while his sexually unsatisfied wife roams naked through the boys’ dormitories; the chaplain preaching violent militarism and leading the military parades; the wannabe trendy headmaster, mouthing platitudes about progress and privilege in the cause of service. Our heroes steal a motorbike and ride to a transport cafe where they meet The Girl. This leads to a scene of naked romping and love-making on the floor, (probably a fantasy?) to the accompaniment of the Sanctus from the Missa Luba. They finally strike a blow during an exercise of the Officer Training Corps, when they’ve found some live ammunition, and shoot the Chaplain. Because, as they agreed in one of their vodka-fuelled discussions, “one man can change the world with a bullet in the right place”.

Here the film becomes (probably?) a surreal fantasy, as the headmaster makes them apologise to the Chaplain, who appears lying in a drawer in his study. Our heroes are punished by being made to clear out a forgotten old storage space. Here they find a supply of weapons and ammunition that’s just been abandoned there, obviously. They climb to the school rooftops on Founder’s Day, set fire to the Chapel, and let loose a hail of bullets upon the fleeing school and guests. The Girl turns out to be a dead shot, killing the headmaster with a pistol bullet between the eyes.

If… has been described variously as the 12th, 16th, or 9th best British film of all time. Cinematically, that may be true; I couldn’t say. And it’s fun to watch, not least for old time’s sake. It feels like we’ve shared so much of our lives together.

But I’ve also got to say that watching If… again after nearly 50 years left me kind of lukewarm and disappointed. All of that rebellion and revolution and change that it dreams of, and seems to promise: what does it actually amount to? These lads are not oppressed and under-privileged. They are the privileged elite, enjoying education at one of the country’s leading private schools (fees £634 per annum, the headmaster proudly tells them). They’re not going to stand in line in the dole queue. They are the ones who, when traditional morality is thrown out of the window, will go on to be the Bullingdon Club, the bankers and financiers and CEOs and landlords and politicians, still at the top 50 years later, with an even bigger gap between them and us oiks below them.

So, pardon me if I’m not really cheering them on as they massacre their hated enemies down in the school quadrangle. Instead, I’m secretly hoping they’ll be shot down and the whole place be blown up. And that the nation will decide, in light of the massacre, that elite private schools, and films about them, are a blight on a free society that we have suffered way too long.

Perhaps that’s the message of the film after all? But if it is, it’s a message we surely haven’t understood, and 50 years on our society is even more divided and more unequal than it was back in 1968.

(If… is currently available on Netflix UK)

Cynophobia

This post comes with a confession, and an apology to all my pet-loving friends. Please do not hate me, or unfriend me, after what you are about to read.

The fact is, I have never liked dogs. It would be truer to say, I have always disliked dogs. It is only with the most concentrated effort that I can even imagine how anyone can bear to share their space with a dog, let alone love one. I know this makes me a seriously defective human being (see Genesis chapter 1). But it’s just the way I am. I would like to say, it’s the way God made me (if it’s even possible for God to make seriously defective human beings?) … but I don’t think I’m going to change at this point in my life. Sorry, and all.

So, one of the stories of my cynophobia goes like this.


The Methodist Sunday School was an extension and outreach work, run from what used to be Bowes Road Methodist Church. There’s still a church on that site, but it’s now something that looks like an imaginative contemporary community church called Trinity at Bowes. Since that main church building was a couple of miles from the neighbourhood where I lived, the church leaders had decided to run this Sunday School annexe in a small meeting room above the Co-op Shop at the end of Chequers Way. There was always a strong link between the Methodist Church and the Co-operative Movement, so it seems fitting.

The access to this meeting room was through a gate at the back of the store, after which you had to climb a metal staircase with those kinds of grille-like stairs, through the gaps in which you could look down and see the ground hundreds of feet below. So it seemed to 9 or 10-year old me. The secret, of course, was Don’t Look Down. This was maybe the first lesson you had to learn from the Sunday School.

But there was an even greater terror involved in getting there, and it was compounded by the fact that I was responsible for taking my sister Sally to Sunday School, and bringing her safely home. We would turn left out of our front garden gate, walk to the end of Empire Avenue, cross Pasteur Gardens and on down Chequers Way. The first part of this was just the same familiar way we walked to school each day, between the ages of 5 and 11. Then we’d cross over Tile Kiln Lane, and continue past Jack’s the grocer and the Post Office, over Pymmes Brook, and past the Metal Box Factory that always seemed so huge.

It was on the first part of Chequers Way, the hill going down to Tile Kiln Lane, that the danger lay. On a quiet Sunday afternoon, when there was little traffic and no people about, you were bound to encounter the Cerberus who was set there to guard the way, and prevent anyone from passing. There a little alleyway ran between two houses, leading to the gardens and garages behind. As we walked past it, on the other side of the road, this monstrous small dog would see us, and run out barking. It was obvious that it was out for our blood, would pursue us, bear us to the ground and tear our throats out.

My Cunning Plan to avoid this fate was about as successful as you would expect. Instead of walking down on the opposite side of the road to the dog, which gave it a wider field of vision in which to spot us, we would cross over to the same side. When we reached the alley we would peep round the wall to see if the dog was in sight, and dart across before it could see us. But the dog did see us. It ran out barking and chased after us. We ran, terrified, down the rest of the hill, hoping that when we crossed the lane, it would give up its pursuit.

I was nearly four years older than Sally, and could run faster, especially with a dog behind me. I reached the edge of the pavement, didn’t stop to look or listen, leaped into the road, heedless of anything but canine homicide, and crossed to the other side. There I stopped and looked back. My little sister, much more obedient to the Highway Code (Stop. Look right. Look left. Look right again.) was standing at the kerb. With the dog at her side, attempting to lick her knees.

“COME ON! COME ON!” I yelled. But she wouldn’t come on. She had been commanded not to cross the road unless her big brother was holding her hand to keep her safe. It was clearly not going to be possible to leave her standing there while I went on to Sunday School, in the hope she would still be there, uneaten, when I returned. In what felt like one of the bravest things I had ever done, I crossed the road again, took Sally’s hand, and dragged her back with me to safety. The dog, I suppose, shook its head and went back home.

We never tried that Cunning Plan again, and it’s more than likely I resorted to the alternative strategy of always thinking of a new excuse for Not Going to Sunday School Today. But I promised in my last post that this is a story of something I learned about myself. I suppose what I learned was Shame. I learned that I was really a coward who would sacrifice others, even those who looked to me for protection, to save myself. Nearly sixty years later I would like to hope that, even if and when I’m still afraid, I would now try to help and save other people in danger. But I’m not too confident about that, and am rather grateful that I’ve never been in a situation of having to find out.

The first churches in my life

One of the most influential teachers in my life used to tell the story of how and why he was a firm believer in infant baptism. Both of his parents were somewhere along the agnostic – unbeliever spectrum, one nominally Jewish, one nominally Christian, but neither of them practising their faith with any great conviction. He was born, however, in a time when some infant rite of passage was expected. So they decided that, if their child was a girl they would bring her up as a Jew, and if a boy, they would bring him up as a Christian. So when M was born, he was duly baptized. He always claimed it worked, in spite of his parents’ relatively low level of commitment to the enterprise, because when he was an undergraduate he came to fully-fledged Christian faith, and ended up being ordained and teaching me liturgy and much else besides.

It only goes to show. Though I’m not sure what.

But the story makes me often reflect on my own childhood, and the mysterious and unknown influences of what was done for me or to me. My parents were both of the generation who had enough of religion in their childhood. Dad sang in the choir at St Bartholomew the Great. He enjoyed the singing and the pocket money he earned him, and being able to get the autograph of film stars who occasionally showed up in the congregation, but he never told us much else about the experience. Mum had a pretty difficult childhood and teenage years, much of them spent as a weekday boarder in a children’s home. I don’t remember her ever mentioning church from those years.

But they had me christened, on 23rd October 1949, at our parish church of St Aldhelm in Edmonton. I wasn’t paying much attention at the time. Or at least, don’t remember anything of the experience. But that doesn’t stop me being grateful, and believing like my teacher M that it must have worked.

St Aldhelm’s Church, Edmonton

For some years Mum and Dad sent me and my sister to Sunday School, because that was the way your parents got you out of the house on a Sunday afternoon in the 1950s. There is another story about going to Sunday School and what I learned about myself in the going (rather than the being there). But I’m grateful for what I got from it, too.

And then the other church of my earliest years was St Cuthbert’s Wood Green.

 

St Cuthbert’s Church, Wood Green

This was my earliest experience of public worship, from the days of Church Parade with the Cubs. When I couldn’t think of an excuse for not going, I had to go there once a month, especially after I got to be a Sixer. There was no such thing as Family Service in those days. We got Prayer Book Matins, like it or not. There was, yes, some concession to the fact that children were present in the form of what I suppose was intended to be a child-friendly talk. But we still had the psalms and canticles and the language of the Book of Common Prayer.

How accurate, ever, are memories of when you were 9 or 10 years old, 60 years ago? What I think I remember, is puzzling over the language of those words, and feeling that I was beginning to get some sense of what they were about. And of being aware that what we were doing when we sang and prayed was Serious Stuff, so that I was impatient with my peers who kicked and scuffled under the pews, when we were expected to be somehow reverent about doing that Serious Stuff. I wouldn’t say I have loved Prayer Book Matins ever since. But I love it now, and still think there’s more solid meat and nourishment in it, than there is in most contemporary Services of the Word.

Yes, I am grateful for the first churches in my life. One ‘High’, one ‘Low’, both still seemingly alive and active, describing themselves as vibrant, friendly, inclusive, ethnically diverse, engaged with the local community: all the boxes that churches are supposed to tick.

I pray for them, their priests and congregations, that they may above all still be places where God meets people, and where children, women and men meet God. Even if they’re not paying attention at the time, or not fully understanding what it’s about. Who of us ever is?

What Else I Miss

This morning a happy collection of accidents led us to a very special service at the Cathedral. Our parish church decided not to hold a mid-morning service because they have their Christmas Eve extravaganza of Christingles this afternoon: three sittings, and every one of them packed. Apparently there were other churches in and around Oxford that made similar decisions, so those who wanted to celebrate the Fourth Sunday in Advent, and receive Communion, had to go elsewhere.

As it happened, the Cathedral’s Choral Eucharist was also the first celebration of the Eucharist by Canon Sarah Foot, the Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History, who was ordained priest last Thursday by the Bishop of Dorchester. The Cathedral clearly love her, because they pulled out all the stops to make it a cracking good service.

And incidentally it reminded me of What Else I Miss. Because my last post was chiefly about quiet, often almost private prayer in a holy place. I realised this morning that a great deal of what I miss in priestly retirement is also about public worship. I realise that it is quite a while since I have felt I have really ‘met with God’ (whatever that means!) in corporate, public worship. And the things that helped me to have that sense of worship and presence and communion this morning included

  • the beauty of architecture in Christ Church Cathedral (though of course this can’t be essential, as you don’t get quite this quality in most places)
  • really excellent music – by Victoria, Palestrina and Buxtehude (ditto)

but then also some things which you might more reasonably expect in other places, even parish churches, as well:

  • real Anglican liturgy, as decently and reverently done as circumstances allow
  • Bible readings thoughtfully and well read
  • sincere, intelligent and godly preaching
  • hymns you can sing that actually mean something, that express worship and prayer, that teach the faith and give you something to think about, and aren’t the kind of candy floss piffle in the wind that so many modern worship songs are.

We love our parish church where the people have welcomed us so warmly, and we know God has called us to belong here, not least to support and encourage the clergy in their ministry. But I’m thinking that, for my own spiritual health and well-being, I need to plan in regular times when I can get away to the Cathedral or elsewhere to be ‘blessed up’, and to get the sustenance I need for the desert walking in between times.

What I miss

Reading some of the poems of R. S. Thomas, I’m reminded (again!) of some of the things I miss most, now I’m an ex-vicar. This one, among so many others:

Kneeling

Moments of great calm,
kneeling before an altar
of wood in a stone church
in summer, waiting for the God
to speak; the air a staircase
for silence; the sun’s light
ringing me, as though I acted
a great rôle. And the audiences
still; all that close throng
of spirits waiting, as I,
for the message.
Prompt me, God;
but not yet. When I speak,
though it be you who speak
through me, something is lost.
The meaning is in the waiting.

For twenty-five years and eight months, I had the privilege of access to a holy space, a centuries-old church building where I could go twice a day, morning and evening, and pray. More than the privilege: it was my duty and responsibility, so that kept me to the task even when I didn’t feel like it.

I still try and pray every morning and evening, when I can. But it’s not the same, now that I have to make a holy space in my own cluttered ‘den’. Not the same, now that, even if I go along to one of those other ancient holy spaces, I may not find it open, or may have to share it with other people doing other things. It’s not the same.

The Splash of Words

Subtitle: Believing in poetry,

by Mark Oakley

This book has been on my Wish List since the summer. Then I gave up and bought a copy myself: who knows if anyone else would have bought it for me, if not?

(If you’re near Blackwells, they have a £2 off offer on it; Amazon never give much of a discount on Canterbury Press books, so support your local bookshop!)

It’s a timely book; it’s a book I need to read right now, with all of the soul- and heart-and-mind-searching that has come with retirement. All the questions about: What is all this God-stuff about, anyway? Has the Church lost its mind? What the devil does it think it’s doing? (And I probably mean that in its ancient Prince of Darkness sense…) What is God up to, letting us and our religions get in the God-awful state they’re in?

Mark Oakley is Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, and poetry is one of his passions. In this book he collects nearly 30 poems, to each of which he appends a bit of introduction and explanation (but not too much) and a meditation on what it can help us to see about what God is up to, ‘the unignorable intuition that lies at the heart of everything written here, that God is in this world as poetry is in the poem’.

His introductory essay alone is worth the money. It made me laugh and weep and sigh with pleasure. (Also with envy that he’s so brilliant, but that’s another problem.) And want to learn it by heart so I can use it and pretend I thought of it. If you’re an underlining kind of reader, get your pencil ready: there is so much here you want to store up and think and think about.

One of my special favourites, among oh, so many, is his ultimate rejoinder and rebuttal of all those people who have conned us into thinking we must make Christian faith and worship ‘relevant’:

Christians should be poets in residence and their worship should be poetry in play because, at the end of the day, we are not seeking relevance but resonance — not the transient ideas of today that can convince for a time but the truths that address the deepest longings of a human life and a fragile world.

If you follow this blog you can probably expect lots more quotations from this book in days to come. Better yet, go out and buy it for yourself.