Three vignettes of the natural world, seen recently:
The north side of the Chantries, viewed from Pewley Down, is covered in a multiplicity of green. There are the almost black-green yew trees which seem to boast about their age with the darkness of their leaves; yet even they are showing the freshness of spring as new life breaks out. The beech trees, which by mid summer dominate the area with their shade, now are showing the lightest of green leaves. The elder trees display a green that seems almost synthetic in its brilliance. Yet amidst all that, a copper beech tree stands out with claret-red leaves. As I gaze, the word “sacrament” comes to mind. The copper beech is not telling the green to be more red; rather, the greenness of the other trees is better displayed by the contrast. In part, a sacrament is something that is holy in itself, yet also enhances the worthwhile-ness of what surrounds it. The sacrament of the Eucharist points to the holiness of everyday eating, sharing, and being in communion.
Walking to the cathedral by a back route, I pass a hedgerow that is untended. In the midst of the different bushes that are vying for the best places in the sun, there is a patch of wild roses, simple yellow flowers in bloom, perhaps only for one week. If you pass by next week, you will probably only see a tangle of branches and shoots. The brief span of this flowering is another aspect of ‘sacrament’: holiness often shows itself only for a moment. The curtain is drawn back briefly for us to glimpse heaven, which is always around us but only briefly visible.
Walking on Pewley Down I see the grass is beginning to flourish. This is not lawn grass, but a mix of bold stems, competing to grow tall, to produce their seeds, and to have them scattered wide. I can’t see this yet – it’s too early in the summer. But, from memory, I know what the Down will look like in a few months time. For now, I can see potential – another aspect of being sacramental. In Baptism, for example, we delight not only in the vulnerable infant being baptised, but also in the joy of their unlimited potential as a new child of God. The same is true of Marriage – a wedding day being a great day of celebration, and a declaration of the enormous potential that lies within a life-long pilgrimage of a committed couple.
Sacraments are not merely the rituals of the Church; they are about qualities of life to which we are all called.
Blog entries 1 - 5 of 16
The world is charged with the grandeur of God
Posted 20th of May 2013 by Robert Cotton. Filed under Prayer and Worship
Three vignettes of the natural world, seen recently:
Posted 16th of May 2013 by Robert Cotton. Filed under Community activities
found it hard to tell, during the lecture on Monday evening in Holy Trinity,
which was the most moving anecdote. Caro
Howell, the Director of the Foundling Museum, was inspirational as she
recounted the story of the founding of the Foundling Hospital in London in
1740. Thomas Coram, in reaction to
dreadful scenes of babies being abandoned in the streets of London by mothers
unable to cope, spent 17 years seeking resources and permissions to establish
the first Foundling Hospital in England.
The tradition of caring for foundlings was widespread in the late middle
ages across Europe (perhaps because Roman Catholic nuns and monks had the time,
space and will to do this), but in protestant England there was no
equivalent. Coram eventually succeeded,
in the face of aristocratic indifference, partly because of friendships with
two great artists: Hogarth and Handel. By
the time the hospital was built, it had the first public art gallery and
regular performances in the chapel of Messiahwith Handel conducting. The Foundling
Hospital soon became the place to be
seen – which itself is a cautionary tale about the need for philanthropists to
be determined and patient.
From the day the hospital was opened it was full, and so a careful selection procedure was required. The story about how the governors chose which babies to accept (and which not) was heart rending. Mothers could not leave the child but had to present the baby in person. The mother drew a ball from a sack – a black ball meant that the mother had immediately to take the child away (after the anguish of having come to the hospital in the first place, then to be rejected in a moment must have been awful); a white ball meant the child was accepted, provided it passed the medical; a red ball meant it was on the waiting list for that day (but the implication was that this child needed another child to be rejected – a terrible win/lose situation).
Hard-hearted though this appears, far worse was to come in the few years that the Government took over the hospital. Their policy was to accept all children. But many came with highly infectious diseases, or because the child was about to die anyway (and the hospital therefore would have to pay for the funeral); and some scoundrels scoured the countryside looking for babies to take to the hospital (they did this as they were paid a fee for transport – but then might abandon the babies in the hedgerows). Government interference in the free running of charities has much to answer for.
There were many such moving tales in Caro Howell’s lecture on the history of the hospital. But as director of the Foundling Museum now she continues the tradition of ensuring that artists help us understand and contribute to care for needy children. The exhibition Exchange, details of which are below, begins next month. Caro told us about one of the good deeds that this exhibition might make happen: but, rather than spoil the excitement, I wonder whether you might like to visit the exhibition yourself and see it in action. We will see whether there is interest in arranging a parish visit during the summer. I encourage you to look at their website.
A new, site-specific commission from acclaimed British ceramic artist Clare Twomey gives visitors to the Foundling Museum the opportunity to take home a unique work of art, but only on condition they carry out a specific good deed.
Inspired by the acts of exchange and charity implicit in the Foundling Hospital story, Twomey has worked with children in care, former pupils of the Foundling Hospital School, local residents and members of the public to devise over 1000 individual good deeds. Placed between the base of a cup and its saucer, these instructions are revealed only when a cup is selected. In order to keep the cup, one must agree to complete the good deed; otherwise the cup must be replaced.
As the exhibition unfurls, the good deeds will be revealed. Uniform rows of identical cups will gradually transform as the unique, individual deeds are revealed on the saucers below. Beyond the walls of the Foundling, the cups will be dispersed; acting as mementos of good deeds done and an encouragement to do more for others.
Invitation and inspiration
Posted 14th of May 2013 by Robert Cotton. Filed under News
some stage during a rather energetic Sunday, I began to have a new picture of
the sculpture that we might commission for outside Holy Trinity. I have floated this suggestion in my
reflective paper after my sabbatical “On the front foot”. This paper is available on the website, and
your comments or endorsements will be very welcome. Under the heading “Public
presence” I ask us to consider how we might make the outside Holy Trinity
Church convey more clearly a message of welcome and inclusion.
Perhaps the new picture began to emerge during the commissioning of the PCC, when we prayed for all those holding office for the coming year. I was very moved to see the line of 25 dedicated volunteers standing at the front of church, ready to guide and lead our parish, bringing a great variety of talent. Equally moving was the moment when we celebrated the girl choristers receiving their medals: 18 talented young girls who have, with their families, brought such a lot to our worship in the last few years. My sermon was about “feeling the space, and filling the space”: we are called both to be hospitable (providing safe space for others), and also to be creative (filling the space with experiences of transformation and transcendence). Invitation and inspiration go together: we beckon people in to meet with God on their journey.
So, some time in the midst of this service, I started to want to place two statues outside Holy Trinity, facing the High Street. One could be a figure standing alongside a cross: the cross indicates the centre of our faith, the figure indicates that we are called to follow (and so could be in the form of a pilgrim). As I dream about this statue, I wonder how the figure could relate to the cross: should the pilgrim be leaning against the cross? Or gazing at the cross? Or sitting, tired, below the cross? Or standing, holding the cross, as if it were a staff for the journey? Each of these postures would capture something of how we as disciples relate to Christ.
But the novelty that occurred for me on Sunday was to wonder about a second figure. After all, in one of the best loved stories of the resurrection, it is two people who make the journey to Emmaus – and the unrecognised risen Lord interrupts the conversation (or is it argument?) between the two of them. I am now toying with the suggestion of placing a second figure outside the gates and railings – climbing the steps, holding out a hand which beckons those on the High Street to embark on the journey to the cross themselves. The figure would not only be pointing the way, but also would be lending a helping hand to those who make the journey. The message would partly be “I can’t do this without you. Please come and join in too”.
Now, let me make it clear: we have yet to decide to pursue such an artistic commission; there has not yet been any discussion about the form of the work of art (IF we decided to go ahead) and I have no idea whether the heritage lobby would accept this sort of proposal. So, at the moment, I am only playing with ideas, all of which come out of wanting to convey in physical form the message of discipleship. I recently quoted a wonderful verse from Isaiah which has the voice of God addressing us: “This is the way; walk in it”. In the dedication of the PCC, and in the awarding of medals to the choristers, we embodied that in our worship this Sunday. I am wondering how we can embody that same message, in physical form, not only inside but also outside our church.
Hearing the beat and joining in
Posted 7th of May 2013 by Robert Cotton. Filed under Community activities
was a fantastic day in the life of Holy Trinity Church. Paul and Carolyn Graham had the imaginative
idea of hosting a Folk Festival inside Holy Trinity (such music being their
passion). They brought together an
impressive group of musicians who played to well over 400 people throughout the
afternoon and evening. Refreshments were
served, and the event raised over £1000.
There was a great group of helpers and supporters. Impressively, there was a wide range of
people who have never come inside HT before, had travelled from as far as
Bristol, or who had never been to such an event in a church before. The mood, whenever I dropped in, was very
attentive and positive.
The highlights of what I heard and saw include:
- · people saying “wow!” as they delighted in the talents of the musicians, especially some of the teenage performers
- · people saying “you must go inside and hear XYZ” – having the confidence to praise and to encourage others to join in
- · performers sitting below the cross (that hangs above the podium) – the arms of the cross seemingly outstretched in blessing on the whole event
- · Paul telling me that when he came to clear up he did not have to pick up any bottles; the audience was shown respect and hospitality, they behaved accordingly
Everyone saying “we must do it again”.
I feel really buoyed up by this. Risks were taken; delight was shared. As this is how churches have been used over the centuries, I looked again today at a book by Eamonn Duffy “The voices of Morebath” which describes the life of a village in Devon in the middle of the 16th century. Though this period covers the turbulence of the English Reformation, the vicar was in post for about 30 years and there are accurate records and accounts giving us a detailed picture of village life. As was common for many villages, there were two main sources of income for the church: “Parish Ales” and “Church Sheep”. A Parish Ale was a bit like the Folk Festival from last weekend, with a bit of Farmer’s Market and a Traidcraft stall added on. If the village did not have a parish room, this event (based largely on the brewing of ale) took place in the nave of the church itself. Church Sheep were allocated to villagers (or parishioners, these names being co-terminous) who tended them throughout the year and, at shearing time, returned the wool to the church. This is a bit like a living version of the Parable of the Talents: each person is entrusted with potential; what is required from each is imagination and risk-taking as well as patience and effort.
Apparently, two German tourists, attracted by the music, hesitated to enter at the church door: “is this really a church?” Once they accepted that, they asked “are we allowed to come in?” I think that seeing beer on sale practically blew their minds. But I am reminded that the story of the Burning Bush tells us that God is not merely transcendent, beyond, high above or to be found in deep dark silence. God is present in the music of our lives. Our response is to allow the music to set us on fire; we will glow but we will not be consumed.
Are virtues measurable?
Posted 4th of May 2013 by Robert Cotton. Filed under News
the OFSTED inspection at Holy Trinity Junior School is over. We receive the report in about two weeks time
so there is little to say until then, apart from to reflect on how tough and
all absorbing the process of inspection is.
At least it was quick – the phone call alerting us to this came at 1300
on Wednesday; the inspectors left the school at 1600 on Friday. Wham bam!
And not much “thank you” throughout the 48 hours.
So this sort of inspection feels like a stereotypical example of an audit experience: emotionally uninvolved questioners arriving with pre-set questions and ready formed opinions (aka prejudices), ticking boxes, querying procedures, searching for evidence, and the final report will largely highlight mistakes and weaknesses. Such a description is not limited, nor meant to be critical of, OFSTED alone. The audit culture is a common enough part of many people’s lives today. It is easy to contrast this with what I would call the “virtue culture” which is characterised by confidence in the worthwhileness of the people and the goals involved in, say, education; we pursue virtues because they are recognised as good in themselves (without having to be measured and judged against external criteria); it is accepted that virtues take time to grow, cannot be forced, and often lead in unexpected directions. As governors we have sought for years NOT to see these two cultures as polar opposites: we have tried to combine the values of both. Simply trusting a good teacher to get on with her/his job is unacceptable, for both children or teacher can benefit from some examination of progress and attainment. But the pain I am currently feeling (having experienced a new-style OFSTED inspection this week) is partly rooted in a sense that the audit culture is swamping the virtue culture.
All of this is being played out in the Church of England too as the push towards “Church Growth” increases. Scarce resources have to be allocated: which type of ministry do you support? What sort of parish has a future? One approach is not to dare to ask such questions – the time for this has passed, though there are still “leaders” in the church who reluctantly engage with this conversation. Another approach is simply to reinforce success – though it is worth asking “is that approach coherent with what Jesus did?” and “how deep rooted is success or is it merely a matter of current appearances?” A more subtle approach is required, but that means that you have to develop better criteria, which opens the door to the audit culture. I am not scared of a bit of this in church life but what begins as a useful tool can become a master. 90 years ago Heisenberg gave the scientific community his Uncertainty Principle which says, in lay terms: the observer affects what is measured. But now we need to be careful that this is not extended to “the process damages what is measured”.
So, I am sure you can tell that I am feeling a bit bruised and battered by this inspection. But this has to be faced for, within the Church of England, there are urgent questions that need answering. If we don’t find a way of recognising virtues and identifying potential, scarce resources may be wasted, and decline may become established. It would be easy to quip “answers on the back of a postcard, please”. But postcard-sized answers are snap judgements, which is a way of colluding with the audit culture. Creating a school/parish of excellence takes time, talent, confidence and skill that cannot be encapsulated so succinctly.