A lack of moderation


Frank Bridge 1879-1941

I wish I could remember the quote, or even the source, but I have a clear memory of reading in a biography of Enoch Powell that he found church music dangerously affecting, so had to stop listening to it. He had been a supporter of St Peter’s, Wolverhampton, and its great musical tradition.

He’s right. For me, music in general, and organ music in particular, is dangerous indeed.

Thursday is my usual day off. I spent the morning exploring organ music I’d had for decades but never looked at. I know and play the first, third and fifth of Six Organ Pieces by Frank Bridge, written variously between 1901 and 1912, but for whatever reason I’ve never looked at the second, fourth and sixth. Until today.

I am almost overwhelmed by the fourth, Andante con moto. Why? Never having heard or played it before, it’s not because it reminds me of events or times or places or people.

It’s not difficult. It’s in D flat major, 5 flats, a key that I find very comfortable—the disposition of the black notes suits the anatomy of my hands beautifully. It’s a key with lovely warm feel to it, and lovely and warm sum up the piece too, for it’s not sad or sighing or astringent or unsettling. Wagner is there, unquestionably—I hear him in other Bridge pieces too—in the chord progressions and the discord resolutions, or lack of them.

So wherein lies the danger?

It melts my shell. It leaves me unprotected. It removes me from time and place – ec stasis, ecstasy. I want more and more. It’s a drug, an addiction. I would do almost anything for a fix of more of the same, to stay in that place of delight. It creates dependency. It paralyzes. It intoxicates. It enchants.

I am not good at moderation.

Cathedrals: Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum

28A recent report from the C of E tells us that cathedrals are “amazing” places doing awesome things. Leaving aside the inflation of language that I so deplore, it occurs to me to wonder how well ordinary churches would do if they had access to at least half the resources thrown at cathedrals.

One of my churches is about the size of a small cathedral, such as Derby, Birmingham, Carlisle. It is staffed not by several paid clergy, paid musicians, paid administrators, paid finance directors, paid fabric managers etc—none of these—but by one third of a Vicar—that is, girls and boys, me (only a third of me because I have two other churches, one almost as big). That’s it. End of. Its regular congregation is about 30 who give of their time, energy and resources generously and sacrificially.

Of course, I don’t begrudge the cathedrals their worldly success, and I’m not in the least envious. Not at all. Not one iota. It’s important for the C of E to serve, as cathedrals undoubtedly do, the people who already have so much. Ministering to the middle classes is what the C of E is for, after all. (On first typing that last sentence my autocorrect had not middle classes, but idle classes. I should have left it.)

I have a cunning plan.

In order that cathedrals might be even more successful, I propose that without further shilly-shallying at least half the parish churches in the country should be closed—I’m quite happy to make the decisions—so that even more funds can be directed to cathedrals to help them do even better.

Furthermore, the clergy of the churches that will under the Monkhouse plan be closed can be redeployed in Diocesan offices thinking up more initiatives and demands to dump on the fewer and fewer parochial clergy that are left. This will result in an all-round increase in job satisfaction and wellbeing.

My final thought on this matter concerns the press release announcing to the world this great joy, and all similar spin. It’s taken me a long time—dunce that I am—to realise what they call to mind. They are like media reports from Pyongyang. Similarities don’t stop there, of course, for it’s well known amongst North Korean cognoscenti that Kim Jong-il’s birth took place on a mountainside and was heralded by inter alia a bright star appearing in the sky.

I’ll get my coat. And my P45.

Dr Wadely

FWWSince 2003 we’ve moved house six times. Six downsizings, with sheet music a casualty. Once I got over the initial shock of ditching music that I thought in my pride I’d learn one day, I got into the swing of things and worked on the principle that if I hadn’t learnt it over the last twenty years when my eyesight and hearing were good, I wasn’t going to master it now. That rule has served me well in other contexts too. Don’t worry, musicians, I gave it all to good homes.

A particular casualty was Messiaen and ‘forearm smash’ stuff. The surprise is that I kept it so long, for years ago after learning Dieu parmi nous I worked out that mastering one Messiaen piece took about the same time as learning at least ten by anyone else, so it was a bit of a no-brainer really.

One benefit of the great chucking out has been the discovery of gems I forgot I had. Wadely gems, in particular: ‘Three Short and Easy Postludes’. Short they may be, but easy? Well, not particularly so. I learnt them, then I looked online for more, and found three more short and easy postludes – or maybe preludes (so that’s six now). These are easier, almost sightreadable—kind of FRCO test standard, maybe a bit more demanding.

Of course, the reason I take to them is the Carlisle connexion. Wadely was organist at Carlisle cathedral for fifty years, retiring in 1960. I never knew him, for I didn’t start lessons there until 1963 with his successor. By that time, the organ had been modified, but the basic sounds were as he knew them: Willis choruses underpinned by a 32 foot metal open, early (1907) Arthur Harrison soft stuff and a huge Tuba (organ anoraks will know what I’m talking about). When I’m playing the Wadely pieces I feel a certain affinity with them through having reasonably clear ideas of what sounds he expected. His pieces are similar to, but I think better than, Stanford’s preludes and postludes which, apart from the last one in D minor, are overrated.

2386291210_de213538b0_zThe music is beautifully written. Like Bairstow, eight years his senior, he preferred flat keys to sharp keys. Like Bairstow, there is that use of progressions, discords and suspensions that gives a gentle, plaintive, yearning feel, redolent of the Edwardian era. Like Bairstow, he calls upon the full resources of a large organ for choral accompaniment. Wadely’s tunes have gone right into my brain, with dratted earworms that I can’t get rid of.

They are pieces of real quality. His successor’s successor, Jeremy Suter, recorded a CD of his choral music sung by the cathedral choir. It’s good stuff. There are lovely miniatures and a couple of very fine extended anthems: There shall be signs in the sun and There shall come forth a rod. All this, and the Communion Service in F minor, are every bit as good as Stanford or Charles Wood. The Carlisle chant book, as you’d expect, has lots of Wadely, only a few of which have found their way into published collections. Given that he was a pupil of Stanford at the Royal College of Music, am I too fanciful to hear a bit of Brahms now and then?

I wonder what might have come of Wadely if he’d moved somewhere less remote than the Border city. He was active in the wider musical scene of the area and his output includes many works for schools and secular choirs, so maybe having carved out that niche for himself he was content. He lived on Brampton Road, one of the posher parts of the city, and became a musical doyen of a substantial part of northern England. In his heyday his nearest colleagues would have been Armes, Dykes Bower then Conrad Eden at Durham, Bairstow then Jackson at York, Cook at Leeds and I suppose Goss Custard at Liverpool. Different days altogether.

Apart from the Suter CD there are no recordings as far I know, so I’m inclined to make one on the St Modwen’s organ here in Burton, perhaps also with works by some of his contemporaries (Bridge, Dyson for example).


Not the console FWW knew, but many of the sounds the same

I saw the great man once at a performance of Messiaen’s La Nativité du Seigneur by Philip Dore in St Cuthbert’s, Carlisle. I was in my early teens and he was in his eighties, a small stooped figure who by invitation gave a vote of thanks. He added that Messiaen’s music was not to his taste. Can’t say I’m surprised—it’s less and less to mine.

Even in my youth, after his retirement, Wadely’s name was spoken in hushed tones in Carlisle. To this day the Carlisle Music Festival’s F W Wadely Trophy proudly adorns victors’ shelves. Those were the days when cathedral organists were aristocracy, even in Carlisle. So to finish with, here’s a jewel overheard during a conversation between two Carlisle musicians (imagine the flat vowels, properly enunciated consonants, and tinges of Scots and Geordie that make up the Carlisle accent):

First musician, in reflective mood: “You know, Stravinsky was born the same year as Dr Wadely” (he was always Dr Wadely).

Longish pause.

Second musician, similarly reflective: “Aye, is that a fact?” Another pause. “Whatever happened to Stravinsky?”

Marvellous, quite marvellous.

Frederick William Wadely, born Kidderminster 1882, died Carlisle 1970.

Postscript: I’ve just seen that Ian Hare recorded two Wadely postludes (which set?) on this CD.

In Flanders fields


Poppy seeds – natural narcotics

A Vicar is in bother for reportedly banning Onward Christian Soldiers on Remembrance Sunday (he didn’t actually – see here – but why let facts confuse the issue?). Other ministerial bêtes noires include Jerusalem (And did those feet, not the other one), I vow to thee my country, and O valiant hearts.

I won’t ban any of them. I like Onward Christian soldiers. It’s a great tune, and the words and images that so offend the PC brigade don’t offend me. We need to be more assertive—how can others have respect for people if they don’t stand up for what they believe? How can we have meaningful theological dialogue if all we believe in is Jesus is my sentimental lover, chocolate, pet services and holding stones?

I vow to thee is my least favourite of this lot. The words are daft. All very stiff upper lip and Bertie Wooster but meaningless piffle. The tune is not one of Holst’s jewels and its span of over an octave makes it difficult to sing. But if people want it they can have it. Maybe one of the reasons I dislike it is the image it conjures up in my mind’s eye of the horsey set in their Barbours and jodhpurs and Alice bands and jolly hockey sticks. And that’s just the blokes.

And did those feet is wonderful sing. The music is real quality, as you’d expect from Parry. But what about Blake’s words? How to describe them? For starters, they don’t mean what most people think they mean. The dark satanic mills have nothing to do with the mill towns of the north—the poem predates them. They almost certainly refer to the institutions that attempt to brainwash people into being Orwellian slaves of the establishment: anything that keeps the rich man in his castle and the poor man tugging his forelock by the gate. In other words, the Church of England and the degree mills of Oxford and Cambridge. Despite being employed by one and a graduate of the tech college on the edge of the Fens, I’m inclined to think Blake was on to something. Or perhaps on something.

And did those feet in ancient time, walk upon England’s mountains green? No they didn’t. And was the holy Lamb of God on England’s pleasant pastures seen? No he wasn’t. And did the Countenance Divine, shine forth upon our clouded hills? No it didn’t. And was Jerusalem builded here, among these dark Satanic Mills? Absolutely not, so gird up your loins, no point waiting for the powers that be to do it; let’s do it ourselves—and the second verse tells us how.

It’s deeply radical and breathtakingly subversive. We need it at least as much now as they did then. Revolution, Comrades. Next time you see Toby and Tristram and Tasmin and Jocasta with their scrubbed faces and telephone number bonuses belting out Jerusalem, have a good laugh. (In Dublin I suppose it would be Ultan, Fiachna, Fionnula, and Derbhla, but they wouldn’t be belting out that hymn and Remembrance Sunday has an altogether different feel.)*

As for O valiant hearts, it’s incredibly moving. There’s no other hymn that for me expresses the stupidity of war in general and WWI in particular: the stubborn pride of military leaders, their callous duping of recruits, the pointless deaths. Never mind the questionable theology (if I banned hymns for that reason there’d be precious few left). Why does this affect me so? Maybe it’s the time Arkwright’s poem was written, 1919. Maybe it’s Harris’s music, Edwardianism dripping from every note. If you’ve read Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth you might have seen in the text a piece of music by Vera’s brother Edward written I suppose about 1913 with a similar yearning feel.

I’ve always had O valiant hearts at my Remembrance Day services, and always will. It makes me angry and tearful in equal measure, so I have it as the offertory hymn when I go the altar to receive the gifts—which takes my mind off things. This time of year is difficult enough for Vicars with All Souls and Remembrance, and I really don’t need a blow upon a bruise to remind me of the deaths of young people who had their lives in front of them.

The only hymns I really can’t bear are: (1) There is a green hill – terrible theology; (2) All things B and B – words fail me; (3) the middle two verses of Once in royal – Christian children should never be mild and seldom obedient. I’m more inclined to ban tunes than words. But when our generation is dead and gone, nobody will know hymns at all. They are simply not sung any more at schools, other than some posh ones. Funerals and weddings often opt for canned music. They just want a CD of favourite tunes. I’ve stopped caring I’m afraid.

* thanks to my friend Eric for the names. He’s good at that sort of thing.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

John McCrae, May 1915

Saints and souls

800px-Votive-candlesHomily for All Saints and All Souls

Colossians 1: 15-20. Matthew 5: 1-12

Today’s gospel, the Beatitudes, takes on a startling immediacy in The Message. I shall read it to you.

You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your tether. With less of you there is more of God. You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you. You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought. You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat. You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for. You’re blessed when you get your inner world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world. You’re blessed when you show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family. You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or spread lies about you to discredit me. It means that the truth is too close for comfort, and they are uncomfortable. Be glad when that happens, for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets have always been in that kind of trouble.

This is how to be a saint. It’s not about piety and being seen to do the right thing. It’s about persistence, carrying through, determination, self-knowledge. It’s about disturbing the comfortable and not being swayed from the cause of right. It’s about being real and authentic, and giving your self away.

I’m not keen on saints. They’re too perfect. The nearest thing to saints I’ve come across are those who live with the most awful grinding problems day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, yet still manage to keep their heads above water, if only just, smiling and glad to be alive.

Prophet Micah says do justly, be merciful, walk with humility. Humility is the key. Prophet Stanley says Micah is right, because one day you’ll be dead – and it could be very soon. Live life to the full. Those who do that, who use their gifts and lives to make the world a better place are saints in his book.

If you want to be remembered as a saint, you’ve no chance. If you don’t care how you’re remembered other than as someone who did their best, then you might be—if that matters which it shouldn’t. It’s trite to say that every saint has a past and every sinner a future, but its true. Prophet Stanley goes further and says that you’ve no chance of living life to the full unless you’ve cocked up in the past. Often. And learnt from it. The words of the hymn we shall sing in a few minutes—we feebly struggle, they in glory shine—are wrong. They shine, and we shall shine, because they and we have feebly struggled, and are feebly struggling.

As I say, humility is the key. Humus, earth. Feet planted firmly on the earth, living in the here and now, not in some la-la-land of your imagination, or someone else’s imagination, or of how things used to be when you were young and vicars knew how to be vicars. Earthed. We are creatures of this earth. From the earth we come and to the earth we return.

In Colossians we hear of the cosmic Christ, present at the moment of creation with the creative force. Begotten of his Father before all worlds. The Christ that comes to show us the way, who in the Greek comes to save not just you, not just me, not just humanity, but the cosmos. The Christ, that is the anointed one, the Messiah, who is always and everywhere present.

We are creatures of the cosmos. The Christ is of the cosmos, always and everywhere. We come into being as biology gathers up particles and atoms and molecules into what you see when you stand with no clothes on in front of the mirror. A frightful sight, I know. And when you pop your clogs you disintegrate as molecules and atoms and particles return to the cosmos for reuse. It’s the same for everybody and everything. Always was, always will be.

Think about that. Some might say it’s a kind of reincarnation. Whatever. Certainly, nothing is wasted. But however you look at it, people come, people go, but particles, atoms, molecules remain. Importantly for today, we are never not in the presence of the particles, atoms, and molecules of those we mourn. The particles, atoms and molecules that constituted them are all around us. We are never not in the presence of those whom we remember today.

We are never not in their presence, and they are never not in ours.

Their names will be read out. Candles will be lit. What do we think we’re doing? Praying for their safe crossing across the sea of purgatory? Well, if you like. That doesn’t float my boat though. There might be some kind of reckoning in which we see ourselves for what we really are, naked, rather than as what we in our delusional pride think we are, but I doubt that a few scrappy mutterings on days like today will make much difference.

No. What today’s about is us, not them. Reading out names and lighting candles is about our coming to terms with loss. Today’s ceremonies are intense. And so they jolly well should be. Our love for the dead was—and is—intense. Our grief is—should be—intense and painful.

The grief will of course have different hues. Loss of a spouse, loss of a parent, loss of a son or daughter, loss of a friend: different shades of intensity. Recent loss, distant loss: different shades of intensity. Different people have different feelings today, and cope differently. You can’t judge another person’s grief by the standards of your own. Susan and I know that full well.

As well as all this, there’s something else, and this comment comes from deep within me. When somebody dies we lose not just them, but also part of ourselves. That is particularly so with the loss of someone younger than us. We have had ripped from us the emotions we projected onto that person. In my case, I wish I had been more like Hugh in his fearlessness, so I saw him as making up for my own inadequacy. We have had ripped from us the plans we tentatively made. No chance now of driving with him from Denver to Las Vegas. Loss of potential, waste of life, destruction of dreams. All this we must grieve—for them and for us.

Finally, I ask you particularly today to remember a group of people often forgotten. Remember women who have lost embryos through miscarriage or induced abortion. Pregnancy, however brief, changes a woman. It is not widely known that fetal cells invade the mother in the first week of pregnancy—before she knows—and change her ever so subtly. The notion that her body is the hers to do with as she likes is biologically questionable. The loss of an embryo should never be trivialized, and we should treat women who have suffered such loss with utmost compassion and tenderness. There are countless numbers of them, many of our nearest and dearest.

When you light candles, remember that you’re lighting them for yourself as much as for the dead. And remember that they are never not in our presence.

What’s the church for?

censer-incense-burner-01Having to write something every month for the Church magazine always comes as a shock, even though I’m kind of expecting it. This is for November. There’s nothing new.

Attendance figures published recently show that, despite the emphasis on evangelism and the money thrown at new initiatives, C of E attendance continues in freefall. The Christian message is insufficiently compelling to cause people to stop and think.

Today’s young people see the church as negative. It condemns sex before marriage, for example—an immediate turn off for a huge swathe of the population who think nothing of it (neither do I, but I’m not supposed to say so). It gets its knickers in a twist about sexuality generally, about which the Bible says very little, and yet appears deaf to the plight of the poor, the oppressed, the abused—about which injustices the Bible says a very great deal. It is, let’s face it, a leisure activity for prosperous middle-aged and elderly. “Oh, you go to church on Sundays, do you? We go hiking.”

Modern people increasingly don’t believe Christianity is true. Maybe they are don’t hear a convincing version, even if they bothered to go searching—but why should they? Everything that the church used to provide say 50 years ago—companionship, solidarity, friendships, a sense of self-worth, comfort, a listening ear—are now to be had from hobby groups, sport, counselling, self-help groups, and so on, without having to grovel for being miserable sinners—which is what the church generally has you do as soon as you’ve sat down from a good sing. People don’t see themselves as sinners. They work hard, they love their families, they do their best for their neighbours, they try to stay out of the clutches of the law, and they, entirely understandably, say “I’m not a sinner”. And to cap it all, the church is portrayed as being utterly hypocritical. Just look at the contrast between what it says about child abuse, and what it actually does–or rather doesn’t do if reports are to be believed.

As for the faith, most people see it as life-denying and over-regulated. This is criminal. The mission Jesus gave the apostles was simply to teach others what he taught them. He made few if any statements about how to get to heaven, but rather showed us how to live here on earth, and he said this was heaven. He taught in parables so that listeners could come to their own conclusions. Despite this, neurotic church people have made it all into a school register, good attendance and gold-stars being rewarded with Nectar points for the afterlife. We make his love too narrow by false limits of our own; and we magnify his strictness with a zeal he will not own. No wonder people dismiss church.

In the film Chocolat there are two visions of church. The first is cold, gloomy, repressive, and governed by yesterday’s people who oppress and control. Then, the wind blows open its doors. God the disturber exposes unhappiness and hypocrisy hiding behind judgmental pomposity. ‘Church’ that was an oppressor becomes a liberator.

I think Christianity is really quite simple:

  • Every one of us has the divine light within, a bit of the Divine, like a pilot light on a gas stove.
  • All we need to do is let that inner pilot light grow to fill us from the inside. That’s the incarnation. We don’t need to do anything; we just let it happen. We need to stop resisting. O holy child of Bethlehem … be born in us today.
  • As the flame grows it brings to light our egotistical desires and all the vain things that charm us most, then consumes them, often very painfully – that’s the crucifixion …
  • so that we ascend to the heights, unburdened, unshackled, to light the way for others and lightening their burdens. Light as illumination, and lighten as make less heavy,
  • With Jesus as the model, the example, divine humanity. The Word.

That’s it. All the rest—doctrine, dogma, rituals—is poetic window dressing, some of great beauty, but some well past its sell-by date, fit only to be ditched.

During my training I visited a Hindu Temple in Leicester. It quite took my breath away. Lovely smells, colour, activity, devotions soaking the Temple. A family having a blessing here, people preparing a meal over there. Children playing here, adolescents chatting there. Religious bric-à-brac that knows nothing of middle class good taste or the appalling stifling conservation police. Facilities for hospitality, pastoral care, social action, learning and devotion. No moaning about how things used to be “when I was young,” but rather living in messy reality. It’s life affirming. I hope that heaven—if there is one and I ever see it—will be fragrantly chaotic like that Temple.

Is this an unrealistic dream: life that is fragrantly chaotic, open in every respect? Life that is fun? Not simply beauty of craftsmanship, but beauty of the human spirit, open and saying ‘yes’, like Mary was open, saying ‘yes’? We don’t need church—we need to live. Jesus didn’t come to form a new church, he came to show us how to live. He came to abolish religion.

As we prepare for another Christmas, let’s celebrate life abundant, not life resisting; life enabling, not life denying. Sin is life unlived.

Universal discredit

drainWe now find it impossible to live as we have done for the last three years on a single clergy stipend alone, about 25K a year before tax.

We have no dependants, no dog, no repayments. We have only one car (well actually not at present since the back axle is banjax(l)ed, so that’s a few thousand smackers on a replacement vehicule). The point is—and this is a rhetorical question—how do people manage these days? There’s a lot of people earning less than me, without the house, without the expenses, without the non-contributory pension. Maybe unmarried, sorry unpartnered, clergy can manage, but there must still be some clergy families—yes families, not a couple like us—who have to manage on a single stipend.

Or maybe not. Maybe I’m out of touch and all clergy spouses earn. After all, many of today’s clerics are married to doctors, lawyers, and other professionals, reflecting the fact that only romantic idealists would think of clerical life, and you don’t find many of them lurking in places where people run round like blue-arsed flies* doing several jobs in order to feed the family and pay the bills.

This, of course, says a great deal about the institutional church and its view of those at the sharp end of ministry. It surely can’t be long before parish ministry is entirely in the hands of House-for-Duty or retired clergy. I hear that one diocese in the extreme north west of England is tacitly adopting such a policy. This will allow the smaller number of paid clergy to have jobs in diocesan offices thinking fine thoughts and dreaming up initiatives and wheezes to inflict on the volunteers who actually do the work. Imagine, dear reader, telling volunteers what to do. How long before the volunteers tell the apparatchiks where to stick their wheezes? Still, I suppose with fewer paid clergy, stipends can be raised. Maybe not.

But let’s put clergy aside. After all, there soon won’t be any left and I doubt few will mourn their loss.

What about daily life for a huge number of people, including many here in this parish, as prices rise and inflation gathers momentum, the rich getting phenomenally richer while they do not?

What can we do about it? Will a change of government accomplish anything? I doubt it. Will Obi Wan Korbynbi, sitting in his magic money tree counting his leaves, come to the rescue? I doubt it. St Paul’s is hosting a refuge for the homeless this winter, but that’s like sticking an Elastoplast over an abscess—handy enough, but no substitute for the surgeon’s knife.

Comrades, revolution is called for. The trouble with a revolution, though, is that you end up exactly where you started. That’s what revolutions do.

* does any species of Diptera have a blue arse?