Sunday, 25 October 2009

So I did sit and eat.

I realised, talking to Kathryn last night, that it would be a matter of when I decide to receive Communion, rather than if.

Put like that it didn't make much sense to wait. What would I wait for? Being ready? Being worthy? Isn't that somewhat missing the point? If a dear friend sees that you're hungry and invites you in for a meal, you don't stand around on the doorstep with your coat on, wondering if they really mean it.

I'd like to write that it was a profoundly moving experience, that there was some shift in perspective at that moment. That would be dishonest. It didn't feel all that different from my more usual going up and receiving a blessing, except that the wafer stuck to my teeth. I had the same feeling of slightly nervous apprehension beforehand, the same creeping focus on one moment and one moment only and forgetting everything but the presence of God, the same pounding heart afterward. I'd like to compare all the various sensations and ideas and thoughts, take things apart and analyze them until I can find out how this is actually any different, but I can't observe from a neutral position. There is no double-blind test for sacrament. It's as gloriously mundane as every other part of this sacramental world.

And yet... I can say I feel a little lighter, somehow, more buoyant. There's a great deal of relief in just giving in. There was no wondering afterward whether I should have taken part, no throbbing regret about not being able to trust, no wrestling with myself over whether I'd done the right thing. That much, at least, was easy, and I almost wonder what I waited so long for.

That's how I feel now, anyway. It will be interesting to see how I feel in a few days.

Thursday, 22 October 2009


I had a rather lovely chat with Gentle Vicar today.

I explained some of my background -- the difficult, semi-nomadic childhood, the spiritual barrenness of my first experiences with Christianity, the venture into Judaism, some of the factors that made me re-examine Christianity.

We spoke of the changes at Nearest Church over the last little while. Six years ago it was a Forward in Faith parish, complete with flying bishops and no females allowed in the sanctuary. Now it is far more inclusive.

We spoke of many things -- of serving the community, of Creeds, of scriptural authority. It's clear that Gentle Vicar is my kind of heretic! I especially respect that he was willing to come out and say "I don't always know what I believe about X" instead of skirting around the issue with a more general "many people struggle with X". It takes a certain courage to be honest and vulnerable when faced with someone who will in all likelihood pick apart any discrepancies in what you say.

And he said, "What about the Eucharist?" and so I explained pretty much all of my last post on the subject. And I said I was willing to change my mind, but from my current perspective I don't want to take Communion until a) I am allowed according to what the Church says and b) I am in a situation where it is offered unconditionally. We spoke of what "member in good standing of a Trinitarian church" actually means (answer: nearly anything if you want to be technical) and why I'm not willing to fudge on that. We spoke of what is printed in the service sheet compared to what actually happens. We spoke of the messages it sends to others if I take communion or if I don't.

Gentle Vicar doesn't turn anyone away, whether they are baptised or not, confirmed or not, or have three heads, and doesn't give a fig what canon law says about it.

He noted that I had just said, earlier in our conversation, that within the C of E confirmation is not required. Baptised children are allowed communion; I would not be fudging, by my own standards of what the church thinks it allows. I'd be an edge case in many congregants' minds, but not in canon law.

So I'm at a point where my only quibble is that the offer of welcome is not made more explicit. Given the history at Nearest Church (and I've had some hints about this from others I've spoken to, as well) I think I trust Gentle Vicar to know when to take a softly, softly approach and when to do something rash like changing the wording of the notice in the service booklet.

Being an edge case in the mind of most congregants, but not in canon law, means if I don't take Communion I appear to support the status quo, and if I do take it I appear to push the boundaries... I am in a position that is the opposite of where I thought I was. Of course, this isn't actually about what anyone else thinks, and 99% of them absolutely will not be paying attention to whether I receive a blessing or something to eat. But I value integrity and consistency of thought and deed; the messages I send and concern for what others think of me are not quite the same thing.

If I want to send the message that Communion is available to anyone who wants it, I should partake if I feel drawn to do so. Anything else is holding myself hostage from God until the Church does what I want, in much the same way as some parts of the Church attempt to hold God hostage. I can sit on my thumbs thinking up a thousand reasons why I'm not worthy, or throw myself on the Divine mercy and grace without which life would be hopeless.

...but only say the word and I shall be healed.

Sunday, 18 October 2009


This morning I played the organ for one of the hymns at Nearest Church. I had help. Networking Organist handled all the complicated stuff with stops, because the organ has been undergoing repairs lately and I've lost track of which bits work and which bits don't and I'm not quick enough yet to adapt mid-phrase if I realise something is wrong.

It went well.

It's sort of preparation for a few weeks from now, when Networking Organist isn't going to be there and I'm meant to play for the entire service.

Then I went off to Leafy Suburb Church for their Harvest Evensong.

Harvest Evensong at Leafy Suburb Church last autumn was my first ever Evensong.

This evening the vicar asked if I'd like to do a reading. So I said yes, and had a look at the readings, and went for the New Testament one. The Old Testament one was a lovely bit of Deuteronomy but the bit about the strong hand and the outstretched arm always makes me think of Pesach and it was a bit dissonant somehow. So I read Philippians 4:4-9.

A year ago you would not have convinced me that I would be reading bits of the New Testament aloud to other people in the context of a church service.

I am very, very tired. And I have that not-sure-if-I'm-flying-or-falling feeling again, but it feels okay because I also feel very much held in the palm of God's hand. There's a lightness, a freedom to it, a sort of ticklish feeling.

Some of the words keep coming back.

Let your gentleness be known to everyone.

This is what I referred to yesterday in proclaiming the Gospel by deed and word. I'm not not NOT one for in-your-face pushy evangelism. Partly that's because I have such an uneasy relationship with scripture myself. Partly that's because I don't think it's necessary.

I do think it's possible to make the Gospel known by our words, without going all Bible-quoting at people. If I had to distill my understanding of the Gospel I'd whittle it down to "God loves everyone." And I think making that known through our words means speaking with love and care, even when we have to address hard truths. I have in mind a friend who I think manages to do this better than most, so that I think she must have spent quite some time learning it. It seems to me that she is always ready to point out something good in a situation, always looking for that which can be encouraged and expanded upon. She does not make pointless platitudes; she does not shy away from difficult questions for herself or others and yet she never seems to be attacking. I don't know if this is because of her commitment to truth or her commitment to kindness but I admire it greatly.

Making the Gospel known by our deeds, I'm sure I've discussed before, but I'll have another crack at it. If the Really Short Version is "God loves everyone" then the way to make that known is to treat people with love.

That is a very tall order. It is a very serious invitation.

I have to stop and sleep soon. But it seems to me that to treat people with love is a whole lot easier if you actually feel love for them. And how do you learn to feel love for people you might dislike, might feel threatened by?

I fail at this every day. But when I do manage it, it's because I remember that God created everything, and start looking for what is good r Godly in a person. I might only get as far as 'this is a human being created by God and so deserves my respect and care'. I might not get as far as that.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

That does seem to help. Apparently the "think about" is translation from Greek which could also be "take account of". Take account of what is true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, praiseworthy. Count your blessings, in other words.

Not bad advice.

I like that St Paul in his letters addresses people as "beloved" (or this translation uses that term). I love sitting in church and being addressed as "beloved" -- once or twice it has been a very stark reminder that I needed to hear. I discovered, today, that I also love reading that, speaking aloud to everyone there and realising that I am reading to people I love, on some level. Leafy Suburb Church is maybe a very easy place for that to happen because I do care very much for some of the people there, but it felt bigger than that. In English culture we don't like to use these terms of endearment, of familiarity, or admit that we might love anyone. There's this stiff upper lip to maintain, you know. But within the liturgy it is sort of okay... I like that.

I am wittering. It is time to sleep.

Goodnight, beloved.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Sacrament and Inclusion and Eucharist, oh my!

I have been trying to think of a name for Nearest Church, now that I've decided they're as good a group of people as any with whom to throw in my lot.

I've been thinking a lot in recent months and weeks about the Eucharist.

My understanding of sacrament is that God's blessing is everywhere, and what humans call sacrament is just something that we do to become more aware of it. There isn't anything amazing about bread and wine...or rather, there is, but it isn't more amazing than a beetle or water or every single unthinking breath taken by every human on this planet. The entire world is sacramental.

But I recognise that though I believe God is in everything, I don't always manage to see God in all things. To this end, I practise. I pray because I want to praise God, thank God for the plenty of the world, and indeed to ask that God's blessing be upon those I care for. But I also pray because structured prayer makes my unstructured prayers come more easily. Regular engagement with God through, for example, sung psalmody makes my other work more prayerful. We get better at things if we repeat them. We get better at things if we practise.

And so it is with sacrament. Again, this is just my understanding, just my view through a scratched and cracked lens: the world is holy, but we don't see it as such. We are all entirely dependent on God, but we somehow forget that.

That's nothing new and people forgot it 2000 years ago, too. I struggle mightily with ideas around Incarnation, I am not always certain of Jesus' divinity. In fact, most of the time I'm not convinced.

Despite all my doubts, the message of the Last Supper seems pretty loud and clear to me. In context, bread and wine were the usual fare, but still of religious significance. Baruch atah HaShem, Elohenu Melech ha-Olam, b'rei p'ri hagafen: Blessed are You, O Lord, Master of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine. Baruch atah HaShem, Elohenu Melech ha-olam, hamotzi lechem min ha'aretz: Blessed are You, O Lord, Master of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.

That's about God creating everything that is: ha-Olam is usually translated as the Universe, but it's more literally something like "the all" or "the whole" or "the everything". That's about manna from heaven even as we wander in the wilderness.

At the Last Supper, Christ said "do this in remembrance of me". If I suspend my disbelief and accept, for the sake of argument, that Christ really is God... then why would He say that? Maybe if people had forgotten, despite the words being right there in their mouths, that God made everything and provides all that we have.

That wasn't the really shocking part. The shocking part was the bit about the blood. Drinking blood is a Big Major No-No in Judaism... Leviticus is quite explicit. My understanding is that it was associated with idolatry, and idolatry is Right Out. Drinking and eating humans was perhaps the most shocking thing you could ask a group of faithful Jews to do. "Take, eat: this is my body, broken for you."... bread brought forth from the earth. "This is my blood, shed for you."... the fruit of the vine, created by God.

Can you see where I am going with this? That Last Supper was a very powerful way of saying, "Hey, listen up! God created and God provides!" And the surrounding events, the incarnation and crucifixion and resurrection, show that God loves so much that God provides Godself. If you're a semi-pantheist like me, you might see that already, in apples falling from a tree or in dazzling sunlight or in Bach. And you might cling to that in times of despair, you might try to cultivate that hope in yourself and use it to comfort others.

Far be it from me to second-guess what God is trying to do. I don't have that authority. But I also have to make decisions every moment about what to do next, and I do have to guess what is right, I do have to try to gather information and weigh up the options and then do the next thing in the hope that I either got it right or will be forgiven. And so do you. And in so doing, you interpret... but I digress, as usual.

So I see Communion as this sacrament, this thing people do, to remind themselves that God is God and God is With Us. And I'm not sure whether this is a sacrament ordained by God... but the part of me that sings thinks so. The part of me that reasons thinks that if it is, that doesn't exclude my views of the entire world as sacramental, because God doesn't exclude.

Therein lies one of my difficulties. For, you see, the official position of the Church of England seems to be that this sacrament is only open to those who make a commitment. I know some of you reading this go against that, and welcome everyone to the table, baptised or not, confirmed or not, and I applaud you. But in the large majority of churches and in what I can find of official documentation, the stance is this:

Baptized persons who are communicant members of other Churches which subscribe to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and are in good standing in their own Church shall be admitted to Communion in accordance with Canon B 15A. (from General Notes on Communion, Common Worship)

I'm not going to go dig out Canon B 15A because the above is already legalistic enough. I've blogged about this before. The message sent is "You can have God's grace but only if you believe certain things." Technically by those rules I could go and receive Communion, as I did when I was a child. But the fact that I am included if I fudge things a bit does not make it a less exclusionary message.

I don't believe those things, or I don't think I believe them the way the larger church community would have me believe them, and so I go up for a blessing. I can appreciate that it is also important for people to have some way of identifying that they belong, some rite of passage, some way of making their commitment clear: but I don't think that should be a higher priority than hospitality, welcome, and the reflection in liturgical action of free access to grace! When did our identity as "believers" get more important than our mission to love the world on God's behalf? Lord, have mercy...

I go up for a blessing. I don't hold the belief that such a blessing is any less sacramental than taking Communion would be. There isn't some sort of hierarchy of sacrament here, not from God's point of view, and if the Church would like to imply otherwise I say the Church is wrong. I get... nervous, for lack of a better word. I don't feel dread, as such, but certainly an element of awe. My heart pounds. I often shake a little afterward. I don't identify that reaction as an indication of innate holiness or sacredness, but rather a result of my very human senses being susceptible to the focus on that part of the liturgy. The entire service is built around that moment, and that affects me even if I don't eat the bread and drink the wine. The ground is no more sacred than any other, but the fact that everyone is there to notice it makes all of us notice more easily.

I go up for a blessing. But I'd like to take Communion. I think that experience might, if nothing else, help me to understand Christian belief better than I currently do, on a level which no amount of rational thought will make clear.

I think I'd like to take Communion every week. When I was growing up, it wasn't part of our tradition to have it every week, and my experiences of church at that time were very much tangled together with experiences of upheaval. The treatment I had from my stepdad would be considered mild by many social workers but nonetheless, I was terrified of him. Because of that terror, that fear, I couldn't accept the messages of hope and forgiveness he preached on Sunday mornings. I certainly couldn't be anything other than numb to most of the liturgy. Only some of the music got through. I think if Communion is going to help me, if Communion is going to make me more able to proclaim the Gospel (summary: God Loves All) in deed and in word (more on that in another post!), it has a better chance of doing so if it's regular. I don't know -- for God, anything is possible -- but I suspect that I need the continuity, the consistency. There's a lot of damage to undo, still.

But I can't have that, locally and officially, unless I make a commitment.

I have no problem with making a commitment to love and serve God to the best of my ability. There doesn't seem to be any other sensible way to live! I was acting, at least in part, on that commitment when I left church, when I spent my years exploring Judaism, when I visited with the Unitarians, and indeed in my more recent involvement with Christianity.

I do have a problem with taking communion where it isn't offered freely to all who wish to receive. I recognise that the Church is doing what it thinks best, but I am deeply uneasy that if I were to partake, it would be seen as an endorsement of a policy which I find exclusive and misguided. I don't know if doing that is serving God, no matter how great my need might seem. I also don't know that my need is so very great, if I'm already capable of seeing sacrament elsewhere.

Gentle Vicar, the priest in charge at Nearest Church, is.... well, very kindly. We've spoken in passing a few times, and one of those conversations was indeed about welcome and generosity and grace, among other things. He'll be going on sabbatical in a few weeks and returning just before Lent. Today I made an appointment to go and talk to him before he goes away.

I hope I don't cry. I pray I don't chicken out and talk about something else instead.

I wish he weren't going, because I could really do with some guidance over the next few months, and as warm and welcoming as the community at Nearest Church is, I'm not sure any of them would read this and have any idea what I'm talking about. I'm sure they'd be supportive, but it's kindof vicar territory, really. But I hope he'll be able to tell me more about confirmation/reception/whatever in this diocese. I think that is eventually something I will want to explore further. Certainly some sort of prayerful study with other people is something I'd like to get involved in.

A long time ago, long before I started attending church or praying the Office or blogging here, Ambassador for Compassion suggested that perhaps spiritual direction might be appropriate for me. Advice from AfC is always something I take seriously, since so much of her previous advice for me has been so very, very good, even if I've been unable to recognise it at the time.

I've not mentioned it here previously, but I did get in touch with someone from my diocese about it; that wasn't the right route as most of the diocese is not really in London, so I got in touch with the good folks at SPIDIR who have recommended someone to me. I haven't met her yet. I have no idea what to expect. I have no idea what I want. But I have an appointment to meet her in the not-too-distant future... and I know that she sings. That gives me some hope.

In the meantime, I bought some strawberry plants at a table-top sale at Nearest Church today, and I'll be going along for the sacrament of the Fundraising Quiz Night this evening.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Shareholders in humanity -- ethical banking options?

Yes, I know, I know, it's another response to Nick Baines' blog. This time the post was on finances, and the incongruity of the Tory party defending bankers' big bonuses at the same time as proposing a squeeze on the nation's poorest in order to get supposed benefits scammers back to work.

I wrote in comments there:
It may be that there is some kind of scam but I do not perceive it as widespread; even if that perception is in error I suspect that such scamming may be a symptom of a more systemic problem. I think the bankers who are being allowed such astronomical bonuses are the bigger scammers. They’re also much easier to catch, but for the fact that as a society we have allowed ourselves to place so much value and worth in money that our elected politicians are cowed by the threat of these people throwing their toys out of the pram if someone asks them to behave responsibly toward humanity rather than just shareholders.

Of course if I look at it as a systemic problem with the way we assign value and worth, I’m every bit as culpable as the bankers or any real or imagined benefits scammers. Ouch. And so my question for myself, as always, concerns what I can do to mend that, what I must do to re-align my own values and develop integrity so that my thoughts, words and deeds reflect the innate worth of every human being. I don’t have all the answers to that (sorry Kevin!) but I’ll keep trying to learn.

We are all shareholders in humanity.

How, you might ask, am I culpable?

One of the big ways is that I bank at a high street bank. I don't have much in the way of savings, but millions of others who also don't have much are still enabling the bank to lend out our money... probably not all that ethically. I think we've seen well enough in the last two years how unsustainable some lending policies are.

I don't know if there is ever a good ethical case for charging interest on loans; the usury discussion is something for another time. Meanwhile, I'll be having a good look around this website which is provided by EiRIS, and seeing if I can find a better bank.

I'm also interested in your recommendations, if you're in the UK and have banked with an "ethical" bank or credit union.

Once I have any spare money I'll be looking at things like Kiva, Zopa and MyC4.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

National Poetry Day

This is another post that is mostly Nick Baines' fault.

Eighteen Years On

When I was ten
I carried a notebook --
     thin, yellow
     ruled pages curled by
     jostling books and
     red lunch bag.

In it I wrote poetry. I didn't
about quality, cliché, technique.
I didn't
about what people might think.

I just wrote.

Some of that poetry was good
or so I was told
by teachers, grandparents. I hugged
their praise close,
but that wasn't why I wrote.

Our semi-nomadic family
moved on
the notebook was
     among pens
     school books, permission slips
     math tests
I didn't write much after that.

I never found the book but I knew I wrote, once.
I knew that notebook held hopes, dreams, wishes.

I'm twenty-eight now.
I carry
     a notebook
     tear-out sheets
     the best paper I can afford
In it I write
     shopping lists
     concert plans
     directions, maps
     things to
          look up
          cross out.

My notebook holds the
wordy detritus of a worldy life
and today


Had a hard time earlier this week. Everything's going well -- teaching continues to challenge and stretch me, and my students are a delight. I have some performance deadlines which are enough to motivate me to practise but not enough to terrify me, and things are going well at Nearest Church (which I need to find a better name for, but never mind): I'm getting involved, getting challenged, and also still feeling very welcome. Friendships old and new continue to grow and develop. My life is pretty good.

But I've been having a bit of brainhacking, or counselling as many people would call it. I'm dealing with the same issues that sidelined me in 2005, stuff about parents and trust and growing up. Yes, I had three years of therapy before, three years of going once a week to an appointment I mostly dreaded, spending the first half hour getting to the point where I could talk about things in any meaningful way at all and then the next fifteen minutes sobbing and the next five trying to regain enough composure to get up and walk out of the room. Those three years, and a lot of other help besides, got me to the point where I could venture out from under the duvet and actually do things. They got me to a point of functioning in the world again when I had retreated.

They didn't really deal with the reasons for the retreat. And if I want to remain functional -- if I want to keep doing things in the world without being ambushed at some point by uncontrollable anxiety -- I've got to do some work toward looking at some of those issues, painful as they are, at integrating those experiences into who I am now.

It's easier this time in some senses, because I am mostly functional. I get out of bed every morning. I practise most days. I don't cancel work, calling in sick because I don't have it in me to leave the house. But it's also harder, because doing these things means I have commitments I want to keep and there isn't always space for me to hide under the duvet if I'm frightened.

On Monday I had my appointment and oh, it hurt but oh, there was progress I think. And then I neatly folded my issues away into one corner of my brain and went off to do my teaching. It wasn't an easy evening of teaching, and on my way home while I was sitting on the Tube praying silently to myself those bastard issues unfolded themselves and I went from mostly calm and collected to being in tears. There is nothing quite as classy as crying on public transport, so of course that made me feel worse, and for a few moments I wondered if I was really losing it all again.

Thankfully, Sweetie was home from work a bit early and when I got in Intrepid Anthropologist had nearly made dinner, and between the two of them I had lots of hugs. And people on the lovely lovely internet sent their own hugs, and some choice words which genuinely helped. I was terribly clingy and insecure but Sweetie was very patient (he really is SO kind). And shortly before I dropped off to sleep I had a very strong feeling of being carried, being prayed for. I don't know if it was these words from a friend that did it,
"Behold, he that keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep...
The Lord will preserve your going out and your coming in
From this time forth, for evermore"

or if there was some other trigger. But I am profoundly grateful, and I have kept coming back to echoes of that feeling over the past few days. It is intensely reassuring.

I'm also wondering how I can ever get things sorted out. I'm aware, you see, that I have a lot of reflection to do. This stuff I'm dealing with in brainhacking overlaps with some of my blogging here in fairly serious ways. There are issues around trust and abandonment and Eucharist and allowing myself to be fed, even if the church appears to be trying to limit access to God's table, and I find myself re-thinking my position on this in some ways which are rather scary to me. There are issues around abuse and intervention and how to respond now to people who once hurt me but no longer have that power, how to honour my parents, how to act in such a way that I have respect for myself without expecting that my actions can mend relationships that are deeply wounded.

Even though I am (moderately) anonymous, I don't know how much of this I can discuss here without maligning people who do not deserve it (and nobody deserves to be maligned). I don't want that to become an excuse for not doing the reflection, but neither do I want to speak ill of anyone. I need to be able to write about my own experiences but I also need to make it clear that these are just my experiences, that I do not have the whole picture and that I know I do not have the whole picture.

That doesn't go into the metrical psalmody from last night, or the stuff that's developing at Nearest Church, or the irony of the first person I went to church with in this country looking for a more inclusive church to attend, or my thoughts about same-gender partnerships and monogamy and my deep frustration that some parts of the church sanction these relationships if and only if they are life-long monogamy of a much higher standard than is expected of heterosexual partnerships. It doesn't touch on the big brown butterfly that flew around all our heads at the Eucharist this past Sunday morning, or the young man now deployed to Afghanistan.

I don't have time to blog it all.

Further updates as events warrant, I guess.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Green Grow'th the Holly

Green grow'th the holly,
So doth the ivy;
Though winter blasts blow ne'er so high,
Green grow'th the holly.

Gay are the flowers,
Hedgerows and ploughlands;
The days grow longer in the sun,
Soft fall the showers.

Full gold the harvest,
Grain for thy labour;
With God must work for daily bread
Else, man, thou starvest.

Fast fall the shed leaves,
Russet and yellow;
But resting buds are snug and safe
Where swung the dead leaves.

Green grow'th the holly,
So doth the ivy;
The God of life can never die,
Hope! saith the holly.

The words are attributed to Henry VIII. I don't know how true that is, I mean, would you argue if he said "We wrote that, We did," when actually you'd written the words?

I'm singing this with Petite Violinist and Shiny Soprano. I couldn't find it on YouTube etc, so I guess we'll have to record it sometime. I wanted to post it here because it illustrates so beautifully the way I see the world. I was going to write "the natural world" but that implies that any of it isn't natural, that the things humans make aren't included.

The God of life can never die.

Do I need to believe more than that?

Right now, I don't think so.