Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Boundaries of Remembrance

It was inevitable that this year would see an increased emphasis on remembrance as we marked the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War earlier this year. The monuments, memorials and most of all the commemorations on Remembrance Sunday are all part of the way our nation came to terms with its terrible death toll of between 7 & 800,000 (depending on which records are used). It's a staggering loss of life, and yet only a fraction of the number of people killed overall in the 14-18 conflict.

Armistice Day itself (11 Nov) was adopted as a public holiday by several nations, but in the UK, the outbreak of World War 2 led to the moving of the commemoration to the nearest Sunday - it was less disruptive to war production (which has its own irony). That is where the main ceremony has stayed since, although 11/11 has acquired a greater significance in recent years. That has led to some confusion. For example, here in Morecambe we had the main town ceremony on Sunday with over 1,000 people present and many organisations taking part. However, people were still asking about what was happening on 11/11 at the cenotaph with a sense of disappointment that it was not a major event. But for those of us there on Sunday, it would feel strange to be back doing the same thing again so soon.

It begs the question as to whether we need a new national consensus on which day we should use, and where remembrance begins and ends. Some people have argued that the UK should have a Bank Holiday between August and Christmas, perhaps relocating one of the holidays in May. One option might be to use 11/11. If we did that, then all UK ceremonies could take place on Armistice Day and there would be no parallel ceremonies or repetition. Our remembrance would be focussed on the one significant date when the guns fell silent.

It's also interesting which conflicts get included and which don't. Prior to 1914, relatively few war memorials were made. There is a very rare Crimean War memorial in my home town of Beeston. And I suspect that many people miss the fact that our church building contains a Boer War Memorial:

Boer War memorial in Holy Trinity, Poulton-le-Sands (Morecambe Parish Church)

It's interesting that a war that ended at the start of the 20th century with over 20,000 British and allied dead (there were similar scale losses in Crimea) ends up being almost completely overlooked. Possibly it's due to there being some lasting unease about the conduct and legacy of parts of that campaign.

Of course the important thing is not the physical memorial, but the knowledge and appreciation of the cost and destructiveness of war. When memorials say 'lest we forget', it's a sobering reminder that the tragedy of bereavement represented by each name was repeated thousands and thousands of times up an down the country, and that should be all the motivation we need to inspire us to work ceaselessly for peace and reconciliation.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Poppies and T-shirts

We have just entered that time of year when debates and articles begin about wearing poppies around Remembrance Sunday / Armistice Day. One of the shifts in recent years has been the fact that everyone on TV is expected to wear a poppy for at least a 3 week period, and anyone failing to do so is pressured off camera and criticised if they go on camera without the requisite item. ITV newsreader Charlene White got racist and sexist abuse for not wearing one last year. In fact she doesn't object to wearing them altogether, and explains the choices she made here.

The culture around poppies has changed, so that they have become the criterion by which respect is judged. Failure to wear a poppy has become almost synonymous with disrespect. Although I do, in fact, wear a red poppy for a few days, I have a problem with the quick judgments people jump to.

I found an interesting parallel with another very different story about T-shirts, wittily described on the Beaker Folk blog. David Cameron apparently declined to wear a pro-feminism T-shirt, whereas Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband did so (look out for the misprint in the report!). This was seen as a great sign that Cameron lacked commitment to promoting equality for women. It may well be that he does lack that commitment, but to judge him by his choice of shirt seems a rather superficial assessment. Likewise wearing a "this is what a feminist looks like" T-shirt hardly makes you a champion of equality - anyone can do that.

So maybe we need to be a bit cautious jumping to conclusions about people who decline to wear a red poppy. Some will prefer to wear a white one, to show their commitment to peace and reconciliation - which, after all, is a commitment at the heart of the prayers we use on Remembrance Sunday. Some will feel that the poppy has become rather closely associated with a kind of patriotism that they can't go along with. Still others will wish to exercise the choice as to how they show respect, and not be dictated to by convention. What we can't assume is that we know what's going on in the hearts of those who don't (and those who do) wear poppies. The important question is whether we appreciate the cost and tragedy of conflict and are committed to do all in our power to work for peace and reconciliation in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. 

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Family and War - Walter's Story

The recent commemorations prompted me to jot down what I knew of my own family's experience of the first World War. The first was what I know of my grandma's first husband; this is the story of her second - my grandfather.

Walter Henry Peatman was 10 years old when he heard the news that his father Henry had died as a result of a farming accident. Falling from the top of a wagon, Henry had hit his head, and although he initially revived enough to travel home, he died that evening. Life was hard and money was short for the large family and Walter was the eldest son. He stopped going to school and got some work on a farm near his home in Ropsley in Lincolnshire. His first job was poorly paid, even by the standards of the day but another farmer had more sympathy and took him on for twice what he had been earning.

It was a world where class structure was firm, and deference was expected. A labourer could lose his job for not showing respect by doffing his cap to his landowner. Losing your job usually meant losing your home, as many labourers lived in tied cottages. Walter had even heard of men losing their jobs and homes because their children had failed to pay the respect deemed necessary to their so-called superiors.

In 1906 he took the huge decision to emigrate to Canada. He sailed steerage class, which took bout a week, and the subsequent train journey across Canada took 3 days. I understand he initially settled in Regina, Saskatchewan eventually living in a small town called Francis, about 40 miles south east of Regina. We know that because that is the address he gave on his attestation paper to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force on 17th January 1916. He always spoke warmly of Canada, as it had offered him opportunities the class-structure of England would have prevented.  A tattoo of a maple leaf on his arm was the enduring evidence of his attachment.

Walter was my grandad, although I (and everyone else, including his mates at the pub) always called him Pop. He, like many veterans of the horror of the Great War, very rarely said anything about his experiences of the trenches. My dad remembers asking him if he killed any Germans. He simply said "I don't know. I shot at a few". We once asked him about 'going over the top'. He wasn't a man who exaggerated or boasted, but he told us he went over 11 times. The odds of surviving that must be slim, although I once read some Canadian attacks had lower casualty rates. Perhaps he benefitted from that. He also once told me of a card game going on in a dug-out. He went down the trench line to the latrine. When he came back, the dug-out wasn't there; it had been hit by a shell.

War has its lasting effects, and Pop was once caught in a trench collapse. The terror of being completely covered and trapped in the dark meant he subsequently struggled to sleep in the dark when he came home. He told of how when he first came home, he left a light on in his room at night, and gradually used less and less light until he had cured himself of fear of the dark. What other terrors filled his dreams we'll never know.

When Pop emigrated, he probably didn't have much expectation returning to England to visit his family - it was a long and expensive journey. However, the war meant he was in Europe, so he went back to Lincolnshire after the war, intending to return to Canada. That was where he met a young widow with two children, who came from Nottingham, but was staying with people from his village who she had got to know when they came to town to sell produce. She (my grandma) wouldn't agree to sailing back to Canada. My dad says she referred to the sinking of the Titanic as having placed that fear in her mind. So they married and eventually settled in Chilwell, near Nottingham, which is why my dad hasn't got a Canadian accent and I exist.

In the late 80s, when I visited the Somme, I found a section of preserved trenches which were part of the Canadian line. I've no idea if this was part of a section where Pop served, but it somehow made it all feel a little more real, and not just a family story. It also made me want to trace his steps, insofar as that's possible. One day I'd love to go to Canada and see if I can find where he lived over there, and at least visit the towns he lived in and see what they are like today.

For a person of that era, Pop fitted in a lot of excitement, travel, action and danger in those first 30-odd years of his life. He spent the rest of them (he lived to 91) in and around Nottingham, mostly in Chilwell. Maybe he was ready for a quiet life.

Monday, August 04, 2014

The Story of Horace Heath

Horace Heath was my grandma's first husband. He's not my grandfather, as he died on 24th March 1918, serving on the Western Front. I understand Horace was a baker in Nottingham, and he initially served in the Army Service Corps. By the time he died, however, he was in the Royal Irish Rifles. caught up in the German counter-offensive of 1918, which commenced on 21 March, often known as the Second Battle of the Somme.

He is remembered at the Pozières memorial and cemetery, which commemorates the casualties from that battle. You can view the Commonwealth War Graves Commission entry for Horace online here, which gives his parents' names and address and also my grandma's name and her address at the time. The houses aren't there anymore. Ireton Cottages are gone with all the older housing there, although Ireton Street still exists, and Sherwin Walk is close to where Sherwin Street used to be (just off Huntingdon Street).

No-one from my family had ever been out to the cemetery until I visited in the summer of 1989. I camped near the Thiepval memorial to the 1916 Somme casualties, and then set about trying to find Horace (with no internet, of course). I had a regiment and a date of death to go on, but needed more information.

One location recommended to me was Deville Wood (known as Devils Wood to the soldiers) where South African troops were engaged in a bloody battle for control. Here the forest had regrown, but the undulation of the ground clearly showed the trench lines decades later. There was also an English-speaking visitors centre where I was directed to the memorial I was looking for. I felt a twinge of discomfort at seeing the (then) new museum had been opened by P.W. Botha - one of the last leaders of South Africa under apartheid. However, the memorial there commemorates some 10,000 South African casualties from the Great War.

Pozières is a large cemetery, surrounded by walls with plaques commemorating many more casualties than the graveyard contains. It's on the road from Albert to Bapaume. Horace isn't remembered on a gravestone, but on one of the wall plaques. It was a very strange and memorable experience to visit, read the entry with my grandma's name in it, and know I was the first from the family to have made the journey. I also remember a vivid weird feeling when it occurred to me that if he hadn't died, I wouldn't exist. Grandma married again (another blog post worth there!) and my dad was the youngest child from that second marriage.

Horace's two children ( my dad's half brother and sister) were still alive in the summer of '89, although Auntie Doll died only 3 months later. They had last seen their father as small children, waving him off at the railway station. It was very special to take them photographs of the plaque and the entry in the book of remembrance. They were, of course, overwhelmed and showed me some of the embroidered postcards he sent back, along with his medals and the little bits of information they had about him.

Out there are millions of stories like this, remembered in fading photos and little boxes of memorabilia. Perhaps it's through those that we get closest to the people who lived and died in the reality of the trenches.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Ecclesiastical Family Trees

Forward in Faith, the traditionalist catholic organisation has made a statement about what it expects in a future C of E where there are female bishops. You can read it here. There is a commitment within the new legislation that there will be provision for those who do not recognise the ministry of women priests and bishops.

However, it gets complicated...

Once we have women who are bishops, they will be authorised to officiate at services in roles currently not open to women. They will ordain people - men and women. However, if your beliefs are that a woman cannot be a bishop, then those ordinations are not valid. That means that gender will no longer be a visible signifier of whether an ordination to the priesthood is valid in the eyes of a traditionalist.

It gets messier..

If women bishops preside at or even share in the ordination (or consecration) of a male bishop then that would create problems for traditionalists for that male bishop's future ministry. The FiF statement implies that even male bishops involved in such an ordination would be problematic if they were then involved in the ordination of a bishop intended to be acceptable to traditionalists.

What I don't know is how someone confirmed by a woman would be viewed by FiF. Presumably the confirmation wouldn't be seen as valid either, although they could presumably receive communion in a FiF as people desirous of being confirmed.

I'm not even clear on my own 'status' as a priest in the eyes of purists. I was ordained deacon and priest before 1994, but I was involved in the first ordinations of women as priests in 1994. Priests join with the bishop in laying on hands and praying at the point of ordination, and I was privileged to be invited to do so on two occasions. That doesn't seem to have been a problem to colleagues in the past, but it may be for some.

What all this points to is that the future is going to be complicated. Will future generations of those who wish to minister to traditionalists need a kind of family tree, in order to demonstrate that their ordination is acceptable? It'll be messy, that's for sure. This is the Church of England, after all.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Springwatch, Chris Packham and Christianity

Something caught my eye, whilst quickly flicking through the Radio Times (24-30 May 2014). Chris Packham is quoted blaming Christianity for the decline of species:

"Christianity doesn't help: we're made in God's image so everything is there to be exploited by us. It doesn't help people's attitudes" (page 26)

It's unlikely that Chris will ever read this blog post, but I thought it needed a reply. Chris appears to regard Christian belief/theology as instrumental in generating attitudes which disregard the environmental consequences of our actions.

My first reaction is that Christians are being credited with an awful lot of influence. We're in the midst of a debate about whether Britain is a Christian country, and whether churches/faith communities should have schools, chaplains in hospitals etc. Many would question whether many people really do hold any Christian belief in a way that influences decisions, such as Chris Packham would suggest.

However, in cases where belief influences people, it is true that it can work both ways. One body of thought has held that humans were give dominion over creation, and that meant they could essentially do what they liked. My own hunch is that is largely a retrospective justification from the industrial age.

There is, however, a much more scary way of thinking that carries a "Christian" badge. Christians (often fundamentalists) who hold a so-called "end-time" theology regard this material world as a temporary provision before it all comes to an end and the "saved" (i.e. those who believe the same as they do) can live in heaven. That means that it doesn't really matter how much oil we burn, as it will all be over soon. Environmentalism is, therefore, a complete waste of time and effort. It's a theology very agreeable to oil companies and climate-change deniers.

My problem with Chris Packham's comment is that it completely disregarded the role many Christians play in preserving the environment in the UK and overseas. Many Christians understand the 'dominion' they are given in terms of stewardship, not ownership. If you have any notion of a divine origin for the world, then humanity is accountable for how its resources are stewarded and used. As Psalm 24:1 puts it "the earth is the Lord's and all that is in it". A thankful response for the privilege of sharing the wonders of this world should surely be to look after it, and to ensure others can enjoy it too.

Furthermore, it's clear that environmental damage in one part of the world can have ramifications in distant locations. Being considerate of the neighbour you live next door to is no longer a sufficient understanding of what a neighbour is. It's not enough simply to care for the person on your street; our decisions need to take into account our global neighbours. Our connectedness increases the size of our neighbourhood, and the resources we consume are too often exploited on the doorsteps of people much more vulnerable than we are. By challenging that, we express our care for our fellow human beings.

So, how does that work out in action that achieves anything? Here in the UK, there is Christian Ecology Link, we have a Church of England initiative called "Shrinking the footprint", and ancient churchyards are being turned into mini nature reserves. Meanwhile, many Christian relief and development agencies are working hard on environmental issues, ranging from climate change to water supplies, biodiversity projects, soil erosion, and many more.

So, Chris, I am sorry for the Christians who think that being given responsibility for the earth means they can do what they like. I'm not convinced that's what's driving most environmental destruction that concerns you. I think we all know that's got more to do with money. But I hope you can see from theology and from practical action around the world that we're not all like that, and we never have been.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Resurrection and Rev

At least one person asked for a final blog post on Rev, and the final episode has now gone out, so here goes. If you haven't seen it yet, feel free to stop reading now.

To make a series about a vicar who didn't fit the classic TV types was an interesting move. As I said in my previous post, it seemed to have the effect of engaging a lot of people - both clergy who saw the parallels with their own experience of ministry (their own or colleagues they have know) and those beyond the church who warmed to a genuinely human vicar. It also portrayed him struggling with the challenges of a city parish, the pressures of the institutional church, the characters you get in a congregation, and his own battles of faith. 

Of course, it had to use caricature and stereotype for comic effect, yet they were just that little bit closer to the truth than many sit-coms. Colin was a classic case - lots of churches have a kind of Colin, a rough diamond who can't quite turn things round, but somehow has a deep connection with the place. In fact Rev wasn't really a sit-com at all - I'm not sure what the right term is, but it was both funny and poignant, rather like M*A*S*H operated for a much earlier generation of TV viewers.

There were some clever dramatic devices. I don't know of any clergy who have been literally dumped out of a taxi in the middle of nowhere by a senior staff member, but I suspect some fellow clergy know the emotional, if not the physical experience. A conversation that the person in authority wanted to end, not having really listened in the first place, and it was all settled without anything really being settled at all. 

I also suspect incidents that alienated some viewers were the very things that endeared the series to others. The lapses in behaviour, swearing, making mistakes, and general vulnerability all made Adam more approachable, yet they also attacked the idealised picture that a lot of people have about clergy (and some clergy have about themselves). And then there was 'the kiss'. Social networks got very active after that episode, and even Alison Graham in the Radio Times - hardly a squeamish type - described her profound degree of upset. Adam stopped being the kind of vicar she wanted, who represented a Church she didn't belong to and a faith she didn't hold, but which she wanted to be there.

I'd like to see the final series in its entirety again, as I want to spot the point where they start using the passion narrative - the story leading up to and describing the crucifixion of Jesus - as the template for what happens. There's a kiss, a washing of hands, and following rejection by all his friends, a cross-carrying and time of darkness. In the midst of that there's a vision of a Jesus-type character (played by Liam Neeson). 

The in-between days from then are a kind of hell as Adam encounters his former parishioners, and starts to go through a breakdown. The Archdeacon explores possible job moves, coming out with a classic line implying chaplaincy might be an easier option (it isn't, believe me). And despite all Adam's desire to run from the church, no other career option appears to be either viable or desirable. He has no heart for an interview, and the temp job at the newsagent only faces him with his old congregation. Eventually all he can do is curl up in bed. The prayers of the other characters are heard for the first time, too. The Archdeacon's prayer sounding like the Pharisee in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-collector was a classic, and everyone except Alex tried to justify themselves.

As in the Biblical account, the women stay active, and it's through them, especially Adam's wife Alex, that the 'resurrection' of Easter morning gets organised, along with the much-delayed baptism of their child. I rather liked the ending, although I know some people didn't. The church had closed, Adam was no longer to be their vicar, there was no going back, and the future was uncertain. Just like the resurrection in the New Testament. We don't witness any conversations of reconciliation (other than Alex forgiving Ellie for the kiss), but Nigel, the archdeacon and members of the church are all there around the brazier and the font.

Comedy can sometimes do the profound better than any drama. just think of Comic Relief, Blackadder 4, or the aforementioned M*A*S*H. It can create a different kind of connection with the characters that means that when it gets serious, it really gets to us. Rev managed to do that, whilst holding up a mirror to us about our beliefs, ideals and prejudices. It asked us about the authenticity of the person we present to the wider world, and that's why it was both uncomfortable but compelling viewing.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Getting Upset About 'Rev'

After yesterday's edition of Rev, there was a flurry of tweets, expressing sadness and disappointment about it. Avoiding spoilers, suffice it to say the episode highlighted many of Adam's weaknesses, both in personal relationships and in misjudging a situation. My question is why did people (especially fans thus far) get so upset?

Rev has acquired quite a following amongst clergy, and I suspect it's because the series breaks out of the mould of depicting the type of vicar character you get in Dad's Army, or played by Derek Nimmo. Adam seems a lot closer to reality and seems to share a lot of the dilemmas modern clergy face. The series is also devastatingly well-observed in its depiction of 'types' one encounters in the ministry. One flaw I am aware of is that all the female clergy have not been very positive examples (but then no-one comes out that well!)

Despite his mistakes, I think a lot of people developed a lot of empathy for Adam, and to some extent placed their hopes in him to convey a more positive and contemporary image of the ministry. This has clearly extended well beyond clergy who share Adam's style or churchmanship. I can only presume, therefore,  that the sadness and disappointment that came through from some on social networks was because people felt let down. Adam had failed them, or maybe the series had betrayed them. The empathy was strong enough for people to feel got at, threatened, or let down because of Adam.

I think we need a bit of a reality check:

  1. Rev is a TV comedy. By its nature, comedy exaggerates and accentuates foibles, flaws and idiosyncrasies of the people it depicts. Miranda isn't a 'real' shopkeeper, many Home Guard were much more conscientious, capable and competent than Dad's Army, and so on. Just because the comic versions mess things up doesn't necessarily mean that 'real' ones do or did. It's comedy and it's fiction, but it draws on reality and stretches and distorts it to bring out the humour.
  2. The show isn't a piece of Church of England PR; it's a TV show on the BBC. We can't expect the BBC to do our publicity for us - if we're worried people might get the 'wrong idea' of clergy from Rev, we need to get on with living out our vocations as well as we can.
  3. A sitcom isn't a theology essay. I've seen people discussing Adam's prayers and the lack of references to God in the ecclesiastical conversations. As I have said, it's a comedy, so why should it be accurate. Of course there is an implied theology in the writing, but to be fair all too many 'real' meetings that I have been to about church policy, strategy and finance have made little or no reference to God, so that seemed quite realistic
  4. The reality for clergy is that we will let people down. We can't do everything, or meet all of the expectations people have of us. Adam does this in what are sometimes spectacular and larger-than-life ways, but the experience is real enough. It's not always easy to watch, but we know the feeling, albeit on a smaller scale (usually).
  5. Having said all of this, I suspect that Rev has made one TV clerge more accessible and easier to relate to than many fictional versions. Part of the reaction last night resulted from the fact that it's closer to reality than many, to the point that emotionally people felt it as real, even if rationally they knew it wasn't.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Women Priests

It was twenty years ago today that the first women were ordained priests - the first service being in Bristol. A few weeks later during 1994, I had the privilege of sharing in that 'first batch' of ordinations both at Southwell Minster and especially at Debbie's in Coventry Diocese. For many of the women in that first cohort it was the end of a long wait. Some had been deacons since 1987, most had been deacons for more than a year (generally male deacons are ordained priest after a year). A significant number had been deaconesses for quite a period before that (deaconess was an authorised and licensed lay ministry for women before ordination was open to them.)

Despite having been a strong proponent of the change (I was a member of the Movement for the Ordination of Women at theological college) the prospect of celebrating it brings mixed feelings. First of all, the logical consequence of women priests was women bishops. We have yet to get there, although the indications from General Synod are that the new fast-tracked legislation should go through to permit women to be ordained and appointed as bishops in the Church of England from sometime in 2015. 

Second, the settlement that came out of the key vote in 1992 left the church with an mess. In order to get the vote through and keep everyone on board, it allowed parishes to refuse to accept the ministry of a woman as their incumbent or to preside at holy communion. In effect that made their ordination as priests a matter of opinion. Yet at the same time the Church of England was saying that they were legally and canonically ordained. We even have the strange scenario of traditionalist bishops licensing women priests to serve in parishes and administer sacraments that they [the bishop] themselves would not receive. The unavoidable conclusion is that institutionally the church failed to make ordained women truly equal to their male counterparts. 

So you can see it's a mess. Whatever side of the debate you sit, I think we can all agree on that, and I'm not sure I feel ready to celebrate when there seems to be so much unfinished business around.

The awkward question now is whether this mess will be further complicated when women become bishops. The wording of motions and legislation is tedious, but if a [woman] Diocesan bishop is not genuinely the bishop of a Diocese, then that immediately undermines her office. However, if some arrangements are not made for those who object, the legislation may fail, and there will certainly be an almighty row. 

I don't have an answer. I'm just not ready for a party.

Sunday, March 02, 2014


A lot of older people in Morecambe come from Yorkshire. In its heyday, it was the resort of choice for Bradford, and the only direct train service to anywhere other than Lancaster still goes to Leeds. However, I meet a lot of people who have lived in this area all their lives, known round here as sandgrown'uns. [Not sure about spelling and punctuation, but you get the idea.]

What these people don't realise is just how weird it is for a Midlander like me to live here. It's not the people, or the accent, or the dialect; it's the sea. Every time I walk for 5 mins to the end of my road I find a small beach, and everything in me says that's wrong. Allow me to explain.

When you live in the Midlands, the sea is a day trip away. From Nottingham, the coast of choice is usually Lincolnshire - Skegness, Mablethorpe, Sutton-on-Sea, Ingoldmells, etc. It's about 80-90 miles and even with modern road improvements it's a good couple of hours. My family liked trying other options, so long drives to Caister, Bude and even Pembrokeshire filled the late 60s and early 70s for me. Wherever we went, the first glimpse of the sea was a competition in the car, and that was the only sea I usually saw - on a couple of holidays each year.

So each day when I go up to the promenade, even after nearly 5 years here, I'm still excited and surprised to see Morecambe Bay. As sea views go, it's one of the best with its tides, its fantastic sunsets and the views of the Lake District in the distance. Every time I see it, something in me wonders if it will soon be time to 'go home', followed by the very happy thought that home is only a few minutes' walk away.