Wednesday, 30 September 2009


Term has started so I've been busier than during the summer.

I'm settling into the house alright. The excess furniture has been moved around enough that we can live with it. Sharing my home with Sweetie and with Intrepid Anthropologist is a joy. We have our wobbles, and our disagreements, and so far we have managed to negotiate them with warmth, respect and generosity.

My finances are very poor at present. The plan is to get some teaching work locally, which will eventually enable me to abandon my time-hungry commute to the Wilds of North London where I currently teach two evenings per week; once that happens I can get even more teaching locally. At the rates I charge it should be possible to live on relatively few hours of "work" in terms of contact time, but building up a class of students is likely to take a few years. Everything is word-of-mouth in this business.

In the meantime I am trying to keep my spending low. That's hard when my biggest expense is rent and my current income doesn't cover it! I am very thankful that Sweetie is supportive and generous; he has been making up the gaps. That isn't always comfortable but it is a better alternative than trying to do office work (which would destroy my mental health in about two months), assuming I could even get such a job in the current economic climate.

Something I have thought about before and want to explore again in more depth is the idea of creating a sort of artificial stipendiary situation. I would like to live with more security and a higher standard of living than I did as a student, but I'm well aware of lifestyle creep, the ease with which one can spend more and more and more and then end up needing a higher and higher salary to support that spending. I don't want to be on that treadmill. I know I tend to be a bit of a spendthrift, impulsive about buying things for myself or others if I have the money to hand, and so it seems that perhaps the best way to do this would be to limit the portion of my income that I can access easily. The rest could be donated to charity, or perhaps held in an interest-bearing account and the interest donated (I have ethical concerns about usury and need to research this more), or simply spent on others when I see they are in need.

There are some obvious benefits of attempting to live this way, of un-hitching my spending from my work. One would be that as long as I was earning enough to cover my stipend I could do my work without having to worry about whether it would be efficient financially. I could participate in voluntary collaborative projects more freely, without worrying about whether it would impact my paid teaching work. I could take on students who otherwise could not have lessons. I could choose one-off projects based on whether I like them, rather than constantly needing to assess whether they pay enough.

Another major benefit of this type of working pattern would be a certain amount of financial simplicity. I don't mean just the fact that I wouldn't have a lot of spending money and so wouldn't be able to buy too many shiny things... though that is definitely a factor. But as a freelance musician, my actual earned income is always going to be scattered, hit-and-miss. If you've always had a regular salary (at least while you've had regular outgoings) you might not realise how difficult this can be: I can't predict from one month to the next how much money I will have. This is not comfortable. I think it does contribute somewhat to my tendency to spendthriftiness, actually: if there is something I need or want and I do have the cash to get it, I tend to purchase right away because I know I may not have the funds later. Knowing how much I have to spend, even if it's only a little, seems pretty attractive. Even if I were not inclined to give away my spare money, I would need to do some sort of income-leveling exercise anyway.

But I think the real benefit to imposing a structure like this will be that when I find that someone else really needs money I won't be thinking "darn, I could have done without that book I bought last week if I'd known so-and-so didn't have the money for such-and-such" but should be able to be more generous. Maybe that would also be achievable by much more mindful spending on my part, and of course there will still be conflicts (easy example: Person A needs some educational material and Person B needs shoes that fit but I've already spent it all on train tickets for Person C to go visit an ill family member), but the hard thinking about what I actually need vs what I want, and how to balance that against the needs of others, will already have been done.

For now this is all pie in the sky, and it will remain so until I am earning more sustainable amounts on a regular basis. In the meantime I am trying to keep spending low and also to keep track of what I do spend so that I have some sort of guideline as to what is reasonable. I'm also thinking about the logistics, about how much I sensibly need to save before I can just give the rest away, about how much I might try to donate even now. I'm thinking about whether it would make more sense to allocate funds as I usually spend them -- impulsively, based on what comes to my attention -- or whether it would be better to make a commitment to a cause over the long term (something like short-term, interest-free loans for local families having trouble). Perhaps a little of both is the obvious answer there.

If you could choose your own stipend, how would you do it? How would it change your working life if you could be paid enough to live on (but not much more) and be told "Now go do whatever work you think needs doing"? Do you think you'd work more, or less? How would you decide what "enough to live on" actually is? Does this strategy sound at all manageable on an individual level, or does it require big bureaucratic structures? (Remember that I'd have to do most of the paperwork myself anyway!)

If you are already on a stipend, what is the best thing about it? What is the worst? Am I completely bonkers? Oh wait, we all know the answer to that last one.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Hymnody, Psalmody, and knowing your audience

The ordination service yesterday morning at Southwark Cathedral had a few elements that have stuck in my mind.

One was a sung metrical setting of the Nicene Creed. Of course this made me happy; I can sing creeds, and believe them, because of the augmentation of the possible that seems to get through my thick skull when I sing or chant instead of speaking. I struggled with the lack of music dots in front of me but the tune used was easy to pick up, and I was very glad to be able to sing it.

The other was the choice of recessional hymn. It was Siya Hamba, with the Zulu words first, followed by several verses of English. I learned that song in the 1990s and know it quite well, but I didn't think it was a good choice for the occasion. The message of the song is appropriate enough, but there are other things to consider. The congregation contained a higher-than-usual number of people who probably don't spend a lot of time in church, and definitely a lot of people who probably do not know that song or be comfortable singing along with syncopated rhythms in a foreign language (there may well have been some Zulu speakers in the audience but I suspect not very many). It's difficult to recess in a seemly and dignified manner to a song that really feels more like you should be dancing. It isn't the easiest song to accompany on the pipe organ - the organist did a very good job, but it isn't exactly idiomatic writing for that instrument. On the other hand, the repetition of the words meant that anyone who has learned the song probably does remember it reasonably easily.

I like a lot of West Gallery music. This is mostly metrical psalmody -- that is, psalmody translated such that it has rhyme and meter. Thus a typical doxology, "Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost" etc might be sung as follows in 8686 meter:

To Father, Son and Holy Ghost
The God whom we adore,
Be glory; as it was, is now
And shall be evermore.

or like this in 8888:

To Father, Son and Holy Ghost
The God whom earth and heav'n adore,
Be glory; as it was of old,
Is now, and shall be evermore.

There are various different translations flying around the internet. I linked to one in this post in May but it seems to be broken now, but the wikipedia article has external links to a number of metrical psalters.

West Gallery music is wonderful; it was written by amateurs for amateurs, performed by real people who had other work to do, not just professionals. The theology is generally good (hard to go wrong with psalmody) and it reflects folk music traditions of the time.

This has got me thinking... hymnody these days is not always in a wonderful state. Nick Baines has blogged about this in some depth. We can't just freeze hymnody in time and only use what has been written before: that way lies irrelevance. Nor must we embrace everything new just because it is new: some of it will be theologically or musically inappropriate.

As I see it there are two main problems with some of the modern hymnody being written; the words and the music. That sounds like a sweeping condemnation of everything new, and it isn't meant to be! However, much of what is new includes bad poetry or sloppy theology, and just because words are written with Christian intent does not mean they should be sung. Similarly, just because some piece of music is written with worship in mind or appeals to a particular group or is appropriate for one setting does not mean it is appropriate for congregational hymnody. I feel choosing music that people can participate in and relate to is an important part of good liturgy.

I think in the current cultural environment, finding a common denominator for musical language is going to be a big challenge. We aren't anywhere near as limited by geography in our exposure to various traditions, and the last half-century has seen a shift away from music as a participatory activity to one of passive consumption. This means that your average congregation might include traditionally-trained classical musicians like myself with little exposure outside of their specialist genre (and very eclectic exposure within it), people who listen to or perform pop music of a particular time period or genre, people who listen to or perform "alternative" music from a number of distinctive genres, and people who are experts in a variety of folk traditions. The variety is huge! The music participation people may have encountered in school or elsewhere is also more varied than I understand it was ten or fifteen years ago in this country. None of those are in and of themselves negative things, but they mean that finding music the whole congregation can participate in is quite a challenge. The resources available for professionals or amateurs to lead the musical portions of worship are also highly variable. And there are going to be issues around disability and inclusion, and also literacy.

I don't think all these issues can be addressed by any one hymn or hymn-writer or hymnal: support for some of these issues is better handled at a local level by people who can sensitively and skilfully assess the situation and come up with creative solutions. But I do think it's important to keep them in mind.

To this end, I would consider the following when writing music for communal worship:

My understanding is that most congregations do not wish to rehearse their hymnody before services. They may be led by a choir of singers (of varying skill) or by instruments, but hymnody ideally also needs to be suitable for occasional offices when the choir may not be available. Most congregants aren't going to hear these hymns more often than during church services, so the melodies need to be memorable. Many congregants don't sing in daily life and so the melodies need to be singable by people who perhaps lack confidence in their singing.

A sort of via negativa list of things that make hymnody difficult for me:
-very disjunct melodies with large or awkward leaps
-too much syncopation, especially in situations where others are obviously not familiar with it and the accompaniment (if any) does not have a strong beat
-hymn tunes that are so long that I cannot remember them unless I have music dots to look at -- I'm okay if I can hear it once or twice through before we start singing, but most of the time you only get a line and I'm not so good at remembering and following at the same time.
-languages I don't understand, especially if they start the hymn or it's difficult to hear how others are executing vowels and consonants
-melodies set too high or two low for a comfortable singing range

This means an ideal hymn tune, among other things, will have a repetitive melody with reasonably predictable notes and rhythms. That in turn lends itself to metrical text.

I think I probably need to stick to tried-and-true texts, at least at first. I'm not a poet and I'm certainly not a trained theologian, and I would veer too easily into cringe-worthy words or dodgy theology if I attempted to write my own words without a lot of guidance from people more knowledgeable than I am. For me the obvious place to start is with psalmody -- it has been around for a few thousand years, after all. But the traditional metrical psalters are not suitable for a modern congregation: the language is seen as archaic by some and will simply be strange to those who don't speak English as their first language. I need to stick to modern translations. I'm not a translator, so I need to use others' work here.

Thankfully Dale A Schoening, a United Methodist minister in Iowa, has published a bunch of these and also some metrical canticles with an alternative copyright arrangement. I haven't read them yet to check for awkward language or syllabic stress, and there are several missing, but it's a good start. He's also stated the meter used for each and even suggested some tunes.

I need to develop some of this further, I think, but I'm quite tired now and need to stop here.

Back to Church Sunday

Yesterday the C of E had "Back to Church Sunday" in many churches.

It's rather fitting that I spent it celebrating the ordination and first Eucharist of someone who has had a profound influence on my own return to church and indeed to Christianity. When I met this woman for the first time, I was still hurting too much from my own experiences to see what Christianity can be, but her actions as long as I've known her have painted a very challenging and compelling picture of what is possible.

I still don't know whether I'd call myself Christian, but I've been told a number of times now that my beliefs are more Christian than not. Would that my actions could also match this description, or at least the best spirit of it!

The services were beautiful, not in a "that's really pretty" sort of way (though there was plenty of aesthetic beauty about) but spiritually moving. It was wonderful to attend the ordination in the morning as a member of the congregation, and an honour and a joy to sing in the choir for the Eucharist in the evening.

So, yes. Deacon Friend is now also a priest. Since I've started associating with so many clergy online, Priest Friend really won't narrow things down, so I shall from now on refer to her here as Ambassador for Compassion.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Church Search: enough already.

I went to choir practice at Nearest Church on Friday. It was a very modest affair, but all day Saturday I found myself looking forward to one of the pieces, and thinking "Can I really be bothered to go to Church-by-the-Station tomorrow as planned?" and in the end I decided that if I felt that strongly about it I may as well go to Nearest Church.

So I did that. I sang in the choir, and it wasn't spectacular but it was meaningful. I finally heard the vicar preach and I liked what he had to say even if some of how he said it was awkward.

Afterward there was a congregational meeting. I went along to observe.

I liked what I saw. The generosity and openness of Networking Organist appear to be endemic in this group of people.

The meeting was basically a look at some of the activities of the last few years and a bit of a brainstorming session about how people could contribute to further development of their "mission" and what they need in order to do so. It will be interesting to see what the follow-through from the meeting is like in terms of practical projects, but the work they've done in the last three years is significant. They seem to have a strong commitment to ensuring that the church really does serve the whole community in a welcoming and non-judgmental way, no strings attached, and from what I can tell are fairly successful in doing so. The idea that we should care for others regardless of their beliefs or background is one I value and I'm glad to have found a group of people who appear to share that value. I was also very impressed with the way the vicar and others handled things when one or two people seemed to be derailing the conversation toward a sort of blame game; I tend to have something of l'esprit d'escalier in such situations.

I'm not giving up on some involvement at Church-by-the-Station: I think there is work there that needs to be done and I may be the right person to do some of it. But I think Nearest Church is a community better aligned with my own values, and I find myself wanting to nourish and expand on what is already happening there.

Afterward, washing up teacups, I had a conversation which... which I can't talk about here, again. But I was told things in confidence which I had not expected, I was trusted by someone who doesn't know me well, because of the things I had said, the information I had volunteered first. It was affirming and challenging at once. I had not realised my words would make a difference in that way.

An awful lot else has been going on, too.

One week from today, Deacon Friend will become Priest Friend. Since I seem to know a fair few clergy these days, that label won't really narrow it down; I'll have to find another name for her on this blog. I went down to Leafy Suburb Church to sing in their Evensong service today; this made for rather a lot of singing in one day but was well worth it. I'll be there singing again next week for her first Eucharist (yes, the same day she is ordained a priest... something to do with conference dates I think). But if you'd spare a prayer for her and her loved ones, and for the other ordinands, I'd appreciate it. While you're at it a kind word for the vicar there (who has not been well) and her husband (who was injured in a fall a few days ago) wouldn't go amiss!

My stepmum isn't entirely well; one of those minor illnesses that in the old and unhealthy becomes more serious has left her with acute asthma.

Soon one of my compositions will be performed in public for the first time. I am hoping it will be well-received. Can't say more than that without breaking anonymity.

This time last year you would not have convinced me that I would be attending Christian services weekly (sometimes more), or looking for a church to call 'home', or getting to the point where not saying the Creed is starting to feel sillier than saying it would feel wrong...

I feel like everything is shifting, like I can't quite get a handhold. I'm not sure whether I'm falling or flying. I'm not sure whether it matters.

Sweetie is home and I am going to bed.

Oh, that.

I realised something today.

My experiences with my stepdad, who was a minister, were not happy ones. He was emotionally, physically and sexually abusive toward me. I don't like to talk about the specifics much and I struggle with saying anything about it here as it's a complex issue and I don't want to make him out to be a monster. He's not a monster. He's a human being. Which is scary and hard and difficult, but it's true.

Because my stepdad was a minister an awful lot of my experience of church was filtered through him. I've known for some time that this was one of the reasons I did not get on well with Christianity and with church. I didn't exactly have a positive role model.

I was thinking today about organ playing, which it looks like I'll be learning to do much better, and about my mum's organ playing. And I realised that my mother, working as an organist at the church where I was baptised, was sexually abused by a member of clergy there. I don't remember when I found out about this, but I must have been quite young as I don't remember not knowing. I remember knowing it was wrong and shouldn't have happened, but I don't remember not knowing it had happened.

No wonder I tend to automatically be fearful of male clergy.

I've since encountered some wonderful female clergy, and in getting to know local churches I have been sometimes nervous about the fact that they are mostly led by male clergy but on meeting the clergy concerned I have not felt threatened or frightened.

It will be interesting to observe how this develops.

I've had a long day and lots of other significant stuff has happened and I feel kindof shell-shocked.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

It's never quite simple, is it?

Went to Nearest Church again today.

The vicar was away and there were no smells but still bells. I'd never seen Communion by Extension before so it was interesting from that point of view. The sermon was given by the reader again -- I still haven't heard the vicar preach. But it was, while academic and erudite, a message of inclusion and hope.

I had a long chat with Networking Organist. Again. He does rather like to talk.

I can't go into a whole lot of detail here without destroying anonymity. But the situation at Nearest Church is not straightforward, and neither is the situation at Church-by-the-Station. Both are going through changes and transitions right now and nothing is stable.

Networking Organist has been generous and supportive, and has made clear on a number of occasions that I am welcome to make use of the resources at Nearest Church for my own education regardless of whether I end up in regular worship there. He also understands that I will get involved in the music wherever I end up and that it is important to me that I do not simply end up doing that as another part of my professional portfolio. He said, and I quote, "Any church you attend will find a way to use your musical skills, but I think you need to find your voice and develop your own role." I'm floored.

We spoke of the ways that might happen, and some of the obstacles to it at Nearest Church and elsewhere, and he reminded me again that I don't have to make any hasty decisions.

The path that seemed open last week, that of being involved musically at both churches, is looking clearer now. There is work for me to do at both. It remains to be seen whether Church-by-the-Station will be supportive.

Loving the world II: Your Money or Your Life?

Back on Nick Baines' blog one of the things that gets discussed in comments is how to act to improve the world. There's no real end to that discussion, the world is complex and we all have much to learn.

One of the things that always springs to my mind is that, locally or globally, money talks. Donating money to worthy charities is one way to channel resources to where they are most needed; another is to try to be aware of our spending. The latter is fraught with difficulty; the complexity of international markets is such that I can't always tell, for example, the working conditions of the people who made the food I'm eating or the clothes I'm wearing. I consider it my responsibility to try to be aware of this where possible; it's a lot easier now than it used to be, with "Fairly Traded" labelling and the ability to research labour policies of various companies online, but keeping track of the information for every purchase I make is still impossible. At some point I just have to accept that the money I spend is not always going to go toward improving the world and may actually cause harm.

But there's a falseness to a model in which I track my financial outgoings but not my words or actions, which may have nothing to do with money. If I donate money to worthy charities and only buy the most scrupulously ethically sourced goods, but earn my living by exploiting others, what is the good of my ethical spending habits? If I earn a pittance and spend very little, so doing only a very small amount of damage with my financial power, but I speak and act with hatred, fear and loathing for all I meet, what good is my restraint?

On the flip side of that, it takes more than money and physical goods to make a positive difference in the world. Our family had some difficult times growing up but I was never seriously at any risk of being homeless and any time I went to bed hungry it was a punishment, not a result of not having enough food. I have never had to seriously wonder where my next meal will come from! And yet until a few years ago I was painfully unhappy. I don't think the positive difference people made in my life is negated because it didn't cost them much money, or any money in some cases. I am deeply grateful that some people realised that throwing money at my negative situation was not going to change it, and instead did things that were actually helpful.

This is an issue I encounter in my own experiences teaching music. I have often said I'd be happy to teach for free, on the grounds that much of what I teach -- I hope -- has no easily quantifiable value. I charge money for my work not because I think that is the value of the work I do, but because I cannot live on air. This is especially challenging when I am faced (as I currently am) with the prospect of potentially promising students who cannot afford my fee, but when I am not yet earning enough to pay my own rent... but I digress. There is another side to it, which is that the majority of my customers (usually parents of my students) think of my services as something they pay a certain amount for. They pay their money and get back, hopefully, a certain outcome. While I cannot guarantee an outcome I am expected to put in a certain amount of work and effort because I am being paid. People are liable to get quite uppity if they pay me and do not think they are getting the agreed-upon results. I find that sometimes, paying students take the commitment of lessons far more seriously than those with whom I've worked out some sort of barter or exchange. Sometimes, people erroneously think that because something costs a certain amount of money, it is actually worth that amount of money. A price tag gives them an illusion of control.

A topic that has led to some discussion of payment for services rendered is that of touch. We live in a world where touch is oft considered sexual and threatening, where a teacher comforting a crying child with a hug could be prosecuted, where it is not normal for many families and friends to touch one another in the course of daily life. I'm not in a position to judge whether this is healthy: I don't think non-consensual touch is a good alternative to the paranoia around touch that we have now. But I would posit that some touch is necessary for most people, that growing up learning to be afraid of touch and associate it only with sex probably leads to unhealthy and unhelpful attitudes in romantic and platonic relationships. It seems that if we do need touch for a sense of connection with others or a sense of being loved, but it is made inaccessible by cultural or personal hang-ups, we might seek some other way of meeting those needs. In light of this, an interesting phenomenon is that of "pampering" services such as massage, facials, and other treatments designed to be relaxing. It seems to me that a lot of these involve touch. Certainly my favourite thing about going to a hairdresser has always been that most wonderful sensation of having someone else wash my hair, which does leave me feeling cared for in a very basic way. Yet that is still not the same as a cuddle with Sweetie, or a hug from a friend. I don't go to a hairdresser regularly, but if I did and we met on the street on a day when I was feeling rotten, I very much doubt we'd hug -- but if I run into some of my friends a hug is very normal. The professional nature of certain relationships constrains touch to strictly defined areas. Touch we pay for is safe, and usually one-sided. We take control of the situation by quantifying it.

Now, I don't advocate that hairdressers, massage therapists et cetera should do their work for free, unless they so choose. It's entirely possible that just as I love teaching in and of itself and care very much for each of my students and express that through the way I teach, someone else might find deep joy and calm in aspects of physical care; neither of us can live on air and I suspect there will always be some demand for such services. I don't necessarily think it is wrong to attempt to meet our needs for touch through paid services, either: better that than through violent, coercive or destructive relationships. But I need a lot of hugs to keep myself ticking over, and I need to give a lot of love, too. Touch interactions where financial remuneration is expected do not seem to have the mutuality or reciprocity that I find very rewarding. I think the tendency to reduce all our interactions to financial transactions is ultimately a giant red herring. The things I prize most are given freely.

Money can be exchanged for goods and services in a lawful market, but that market is not all-encompassing. Love is not marketable. Nobody can pay me so much money that I love them; nobody can pay me to stop loving them.

But just as neglecting the local in favour of international concerns or vice versa is not a sustainable way forward, neglecting the material needs of the world is a cop-out. It may be that more than just financial commitment is necessary, but no amount of warm fuzzy well-wishing can address real poverty. It just isn't enough just to think kind thoughts about the poor or the weak or the sick: we must provide food, shelter, medicine. That costs money.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Loving the world I: Local vs Global.

I've been meaning to write about this for about a week and a half now and haven't managed to sit down and find the time for it. I don't really have the time now, either, to write the polished posts that my brain has been scratching away at. But it's important, so you get imperfect train-of-thought rambling posts instead.

Over on Nick Baines' blog there have been a number of excellent, thought-provoking articles of late. In the comment section I seem to keep brushing up against a number of themes... so I'm going to try to explore some of them in more depth here.

One is of the difference between locality and community, and of how far community should be grounded in the local, physical world we live in. I consider myself an active member of many communities, most of which I wouldn't classify as local to Upper Suburbia. Some of them are local to London but do not by any means encompass all Londoners. Some of them are more international. The internet helps a lot, as does telephone and even the postal service, in making it obvious that no matter where I live, I am connected with the rest of the world. And yet, as one commenter noted, we all have to live somewhere, we all shop somewhere and pay taxes somewhere and have our bins collected. Most of us send our children, if we have them, to school relatively locally. Most of us are subject to local laws and by-laws to a certain degree. Try as we might to escape the influence of location, where we live does affect how we live... and if we have a choice, we choose to live somewhere that we feel we can live well.

Taking responsibility for ensuring that where we live continues to be somewhere that is safe and pleasant to live almost always means getting involved on a local level. Here in Upper Suburbia there are a number of residents' associations which help with this, as well as various religious and secular organisations which are more or less locally based. One of the things that has been encouraging to me in my search for a church to attend has been the way that all three of the local churches I've visited seem committed to serving the local community, whether churchgoers or not, in a variety of practical ways.

I think this is good and right and healthy. But I think we ignore the wider world at our peril. Some problems are simply too big to be dealt with at the local level -- human trafficking springs to mind as one example of a problem that requires cooperative efforts between people in various communities in order to make it stop.

Further to the practical aspects of working together on problems that affect all of us there is a moral principle to treat other humans well. Our local actions do affect others... if we dump sewage into a river, someone downstream is going to get sick. We need to remember that we are always upstream of someone, physically and metaphorically. To ignore that is to deny the humanity of others. It seems to me that to willfully harm another for our own benefit when there is some other option is, on some level, to deny that they are children of God, lovingly created in God's own image.

Harming nobody is a very tall order. Keeping track of the interactions of six billion human beings on this planet in order to run a cost/benefit analysis every time I do something is impossible: I just don't have enough data. And doing no harm, even if it were possible, wouldn't be enough. The world around us is wounded. And we must act to heal it. Locally, yes, but also globally.

What does that mean, in practical terms? It means reaching out to people, locally and further afield, paying attention to their needs, and helping meet them if we can. It means not just switching off when we read or listen to the news but asking ourselves what we could do to improve each situation. It means not avoiding that awkward neighbour who smells a bit funny and seems to do nothing but complain, but instead trying to figure out a way to help. It means recognising that young or old, rich or poor, healthy or sick, near or far, we are all in this together and the easiest way through will be to support one another.

Local or global is a false dichotomy. It's all local, and it's all global. The important thing is to act with care and with love.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Water, water everywhere

I'm not going to do the fancy embedding thing but please do go and have a look at the video Ostrich has posted.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Still searching, but I found something interesting along the way

This "finding a church" lark is feeling a bit like having cheap satnav.

Today I went again to Church-by-the-Station. I think I might be starting to lean away from there and toward Nearest Church.

If being told at intervals which paragraph of the service sheet we are on is annoying me on my second visit, it's going to annoy me a lot more after a few months.

Some people were friendly and remembered me from three weeks ago, but many didn't. Maybe there was something else going on... people didn't really seem to linger after the service.

During communion the choir sang an anthem and it was all I could do not to get up and join in. I really do need to be singing in worship, I think. And with that hymn book full of unfamiliar hymns and no copy with notation, I'm not finding that easy. But if that were the only hurdle I would just go and buy a full music copy, or arrive early enough to borrow one.

The sermon was... well, it made me think. It was outlining three things "religion" gives people, or three things God gives people, and it wasn't quite clear which was which at times. The vicar spoke of God giving us our existence, creating all the universe and beyond. He spoke of religious communities and the flawed but devoted way humans can use them as a framework for doing God's will on earth. And he spoke of God's love for humanity, so huge that He gave his Son... this is an idea that I can't quite speak of but I can sing of, I can't quite bring myself to believe the specifics but somehow I know the underlying message of love is true.

But the vicar in his sermon did come right out and say that Christianity offers something of God that other religions don't, that Christians have some sort of superior understanding of God or route to salvation and rescue not available elsewhere, and I'm not terribly cool with that, even as I feel so drawn to this faith. I'll go as far as to say Christianity offers me something I haven't found elsewhere, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist: just that I haven't been able to see it. I won't say that salvation is not universal, and that's the logical extension of the idea. I wish I could remember the wording used, maybe I am doing the vicar a disservice here. But I nearly shouted, my objection was so sharp, and some small part of me wonders what would have happened if I had.

And then it got interesting.

A bit of background...I'm not great with creeds, because some of my beliefs don't feel static to me. My belief in the existence of God is very strong, it doesn't matter whether I'm singing or speaking or writing or dancing or nearly asleep, it's just... there. But I struggle with Trinitarian doctrine, I am not convinced of the historical details, I'm not always sure what people even mean by the Holy Spirit (maybe that is what is alive in me when I sing? I hope so). So I usually say some bits of the creed and remain respectfully silent for others. In the Common Worship translation of the Nicene Creed, I usually say the first sentence, then nothing until "We believe in the Holy Spirit".

Today was a bit different. It suddenly seemed terribly important to say "through Him all things were made." So I did, loudly and clearly.

It relates back to what I wrote two weeks ago, the idea that there really isn't anywhere else to go, anyone else to turn to, that whenever we turn to the words of eternal life we are turning to Jesus whether we call it that or not, whether we understand it in that framework or not. Christianity is one framework for relating our lives to something ineffable and universal. That ineffable universal love is the only thing worth living for, but that doesn't mean Christianity is the only way to live in it.

I spent much of the rest of the service praying that the vicar might not have meant what he said, that perhaps I'd misunderstood in my usual defensive manner and really he does already know this on some level, the poor man. But I find it striking how hearing a denial of something I have come to believe made me believe it all the more fiercely, strange how being told something contrary to my strongest hopes seemed to affirm and strengthen them rather than leave them dashed to pieces on the floor.

Afterward I ended up talking to Networking Organist from Nearest Church; his wife attends Church-by-the-Station. This was a lot of talking shop, essentially. I don't want to go into a lot of detail here, but the general gist of it was this:

I need to sing in a choir, and probably to be involved with music provision on a more active level than just turning up and reading alto or tenor in rehearsals.

Nearest Church has a small struggling choir which may sink or swim; Networking Organist cannot build it up on his own. It may be a lost cause: it's a very small parish, a very small congregation, and there are no reliable strong singers. But it may have the seeds of something meaningful. Some of the congregation there sit and listen to the organ postlude, like I always do. Someone there commented on my singing voice the first time I turned up. They are actually at least trying to do some fundraising to get the organ fixed. I have asked what I can bring to the situation that might help.

Church-by-the-Station has a larger, but still small, struggling choir, and the music director (who is competent and energetic) is leaving in January for reasons which are unclear but which suggest that support for music in that congregation is lower than it might be and he is fed up. We talked about some of the politics of this, and particularly the fact that there is no talk of a sort of apprentice or shadow position for someone who would eventually replace the existing music director. That is what is needed, even if it would be unpaid. That is something I might be able to do, but I'm not yet comfortable enough at that church to volunteer to do it. I would want to have a long long chat with the existing music director, and today he had to rush off.

Both of those churches and also Long Walk Church have clergy who are nearing retirement age. In any of the three, things could change drastically in the next five years. Long Walk Church is not easy for me to get to, I want to retain some connection with them but I do not think I can commit to getting there every Sunday morning once the mornings draw in and the cold makes my joints complain more.

I can see myself getting involved in the music at Nearest Church or maybe even some sort of joint choral venture between there and Church-by-the-Station, with some guidance and support from Networking Organist and others.