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  • When the music stops...

    It was cluster pulpit swap day today, so when the music stopped, we all rushed to find another church to preach in... or some such.  Some such actually.  It was all fixed up months ago when yours truly as resident organised person ("you did such a good job last time") worked out who hadn't previously preached where in this arrangement and how to split four ministers from three churches between five services over four churches without anyone preaching twice!  We did it (by missing one service, which one of my folk covered, at the only church that still has two services every week and which doesn't have a minister to offer into the shuffle).

    The reality was that three out of four ministers ended up attending a servcie at which one of the others preached, but also had to preach an 'away' fixture. (Is this starting to sound like one of those logic puzzles... Revd Black didn't preach at Salem who use the RSV and BHB...).

    My visit to D+2 went well enough in the end - though I was amused by one of the GB parents who clearly didn't grasp I'm a minister who told me I'd done well!  Intriguingly, both myself and the minister from D+6 (who came to us) found ourselves nervous about the away preaches - why was that?  Is it a good thing?  In some ways, yes, I think it is.

    We had a great turn out this afternoon, and as I was pressing buttons for PowerPoint (they gave up on Impress) I got a very different view of procedings, as well as giving my usual button presser a week off.  For a while I found myself envying my colleague's adjective rich language, how she painted word pictures that really came alive, whilst I just deliver it pretty straight.  But only for a while.  Somewhere along the line, I have learned that my style is my style, and that there are plenty of people who can relate to it.  It's just enriching to get some variety - either way round.

    Although three out of four ministers had to do a double shift today, we also had the blessing of taking in rather than only giving out.  It is always good to visit other fellowships, if only because they help you to see your own afresh.  For me, it felt a bit odd standing in a church on a Sunday rather than a school hall - rarely do I lead worship in church buildings any more.  For others I guess it was the size or age of congregation, the time or style of service that was unusual. 

    Hopefully next time someone else will do the logic puzzle (which actually isn't that tricky) and next time the music stops we'll all once more have a novel experience of the wonderful diversity that is the Honey Nut Cluster we are.  (Did I tell you we serve clustered creams with our tea on these occasions....? sorry.)

  • Comic Book Characters (Never Grow Old)

    Still thinking about A C Underwood's implied reader...

    I have now read seven chapters of this book.  One thing that has struck me is how each chapter seems to be, roughly, here's a description of what happened, now here're are some examples of the fine Baptist fellows involved.  As I ended each chapter I've wondered why it's presented like this.  What kind of reader needs to hear how Mr X came of common stock, was largely uneducated but taught himself Hebrew, Latin and Greek by the time he was seven, married advantageously and lived happily ever after in the service of the Baptist cause?  Yes, I have merged several characters, but I keep getting the feeling that I'm reading the exploits of Biggles or Dan Dare or Roy Rogers (hence the post title, borrowed from the Elton John song 'Roy Rodgers').  I seem to recall reading somewhere recently that The Eagle and  Boy's Own were orginally published by some church or parachurch organisation, and included stories of Biblical heroes designed to inspire disicpleship in boys.  The little pen portraits and tales of spiritual daring-do feel as if it would take little to transform them into strip cartoons or radio adventure serials - especially the delightful bit I found on page 186 about William Gadsby, "How he came to baptize a sometime Fellow of Worcester College, Oxford, will be told in our next chapter.'  I can almost hear the radio announcer saying 'tune in again next week for the next exciting installment of William Gadsby special agent.'

    Assuming that this is a fair (i.e. justified) reading of the book so far, what does it say about the implied reader?  It seems to that the reader is male, and young; it also seems to suggest that he perhaps needs heroes or role models.  Perhaps the privations of war mean that his education was cut short or in some measure inadequate; no matter there were plenty of similarly uneducated young men who were called into God's work.  Perhaps he has grown up with a diet of radio or film heroes, maybe he did read the exploits of Dan Dare of whoever; well here are real life heroes whose exploits are just as exciting.  Perhaps he wonders if he is really up to his calling; here are men fulfilling theirs.

    In a totally mischivous moment, I imagined Underwood handing out to his students posters of the 75/76 Baptist worthies (here) to pin up on their bedroom walls rather than Hollywood pinups, so that these great and good men might become their heroes. 

    Bonnie Tyler (yup, there's no limit to my lowbrow references today!) in one of her songs asks


    Where have all the good men gone
    And where are all the gods?
    Where’s the street-wise Hercules
    To fight the rising odds?

    Isn’t there a white knight upon a fiery steed?
    Late at night I toss and I turn and I dream of what I need

    I need a hero
    I'm holding out for at hero 'till the end of the night
    He's gotta be strong
    And he's gotta be fast
    And he's gotta be fresh from the fight



    OK, this is a girly song, about a hero to sweep her away on his white horse, but might it not be a question that haunts Underwood's readers?  Who are the heroes they can emulate as they enter the brave new world of post war Britain?


    How much this is me going off on some total flight of fancy, I'm not sure.  I just sense that if I am to 'create' a mental picture of the implied reader, I need to get my head around why Underwood includes all these vignettes.  Maybe there is something that rings true in the Elton John song...

    And Roy Rogers is riding tonight
    Returning to our silver screens
    Comic book characters never grow old
    Evergreen heroes whose stories were told
    Oh the great sequin cowboy who sings of the plains
    Of roundups and rustlers and home on the range
    Turn on the t.v., shut out the lights
    Roy rogers is riding tonight


    The characters described by Underwood are all long dead and largely forgotten - but the mystery is that as he describes them, they take on the 'comic book quality' of ageless heroes designed to inspire a fresh generation of young men to service in the Baptist cause.

    No doubt some clever perosn has written a worthy tome on this in relation to the Bible and how we imagined the characters we read of.  And yes, it's going off at a tangent from what I'm meant to thinking about.  But it is interesting.


    Oh, and just in case you ever wondered, Colman's mustard was founded by a Baptist (as was Chiver's jam (Hartley's was Methodist)) - important things to know next time you're in the supermarket!!

  • Implication and Imagination

    This stuff about my research - so be warned.

    I am undertaking as exercise to read some Baptist histories published at various points in C20 to try to establish (a) the trajectory and (b) the implied reader.  This is quite important for my (eventual) thesis because critical reading of history is something I've never really done before, and I suspect many other people don't either.  The two - trajectory and implied reader - are not mutually exclusive and I am, this far, enjoying myself reading A C Underwood's History of the English Baptists published in 1947 (I know, I need to get out more).

    What I am finding though, is that I ask questions of the text, and find partial answers as I recall events in wider history and/or my own experience that I also build up imaginary people for both writer and reader.

    My imagined reader is an earnest young man in his early twenties (the age my father would have been when the book was published).  This young man left school at 14 and either he or a close relative saw active service in World War II.  Maybe, he or a relative was a conscientious objector.  Maybe he lost a brother or a friend in the war.  Maybe his little sister was evacuated to the country.  As rationing continues and he tries to make sense of all that has happened, he finds himself training for Baptist ministry and presented with this book of history to read.  He comes from a solid Baptist background, a chapel that still expounds a broadly Calvinist message, and where the little red Sankey book used evey Sunday contains such delights as 'there is a fountain filled with blood' [check it out!].  Like men of his era, he is suspicious of the Roman Catholics who meet for Latin masses and, in the wake of Auschwitz, wonders what attitude he should take towards Judaism.  Patriotism is strong, the King is a good, devout Christian leader, there are hopes for a new world order - and he is given this newly published book to read.  What does he make of it?

    My imagined writer is a very august college principal, perhaps a tad austere [someone can tell me he was lovely in real life!], whose stduents were somewhat in awe of him.  He is, in my mind's eye [I haven't checked his dates or found any photos] a man in his mid-fifties, tall and straight, formally attired and very scholarly.  He is writing history for a new generation of young men whose lives have been battered by war.  Maybe his own son or nephew was lost.  Maybe he recalled his own experiences last time around.  Being principal of a slightly radical college, obliged to maintain the study of General Baptist origins, he faces a challenging task.  He is sympathetic to the idea of Ananbaptist origins - but his revered source writer, Whitley, is not; he fudges the issue.  He notes both military service and pacifism in Baptist history - which path should he take?  He is an avowed non-conformist and carefully avoids references to the treatment of Catholics under Cromwell.  He, too, is a man of his age.  The embryonic ecumenical movement is viewed with suspicion, the rebuilding of a nation ravaged by war is essential - and he is tasked with writing this text book - how does he approach it?

    My picture of these two men emerges from my research, but the imagined reader inevitably reflects my experience of real men of that generation.  How much is he just my dad translated across a denominational boundary?  Likewise, how much is the collgee principal actually based onreal college lecturers I have known?  Though I'd have to confess, he's more like my old engineering prof than any I met doing theology!  To some extent they are based in the implied reader and author, but they cannot be fully authenticated by quotations - thus they are more than that.

    When Underwood published his book the now obsolete (or not) green Baptist Hymnbook was still 15 years into the future; likewise Vatican II was a long way off and birth of the URC would be almost three decades away.  Underwood would have sat in his study at a nice oak (I suspect) desk with a fountain pen and sheets of foolscap paper, a fire may have burned in the hearth of his study and the housekeeper would have knocked to advise him that tea was served - in a nice china cup of course.  Now I sit at my computer with a pot mug of tea and try to deduce what he was trying to do.  At one level that seems incredibly arrogant, at another impossible.  But I guess I can be pretty certain that both he and I would have one thing in common - we both believe that understanding something of our past is useful in shaping our ministry and mission now. 

    I can't quite envisage anyone in 60 year's time reading this and trying to work out who I was writing this for, nor yet imagining what I am doing right now.  What is intriguing is to try to guss which news stories or issues from 2007 will inform anyone who does try a similar exercise on early 21st century writing though.

    Now... back to chapter 6 of Underwood and more close reading. 

  • Laudate Omnes Gentes, Laudate Dominum

    It's been a hymnody nightmare week, as earlier posts express.  I begin to realise that I know far more hymns and songs than most people I come into contact with, and that the good people of Dibley probably sing a much wider rnage of material than most local churches.  Apart from the refusal to sing BPW 200 at D+2, I've also had conversations with the pianist at a church about 10 miles away to change half the material I'd chosen for them to sing, and most of the tunes on the rest.  This did have a different feel, as his logic was that the congregation would be under 20 and are not strong singers rather than 'I'm not singing/playing that.'  Laudate Omnes Gentes (BPW 19) was a new song too far, it seems, which is a shame as it's easy to learn and being from Taize has a great 'evening' feel to it.

    All this has got me wondering just how large (or small) is the active repetoire of most churches these days.  When SOF runs to almost 1700 items, arguably it should be enormous - in fact on the whole it seems to be tiny.  When this is coupled with the 'newer is automatically better' attitude to music, people even forget what they sang regularly only a year or two back.

    In a typical week, with one service, my lot will sing around seven items - at least three of which will be hymns and two or three will probably be single verse songs; quite often (at least once a month) we sing something that's new to some people, if not all of us.  When we have joint services elsewhere it may be as few as four items.  Over a year I suspect we repeat about 10 items, which gives us an annual repetoire of around 300 different hymns and songs.  What is scary is that that is probably ten times that of some of our near neighbours.  I just wonder which is more typical - and why?

    Laudate Omne Gentes, Laudate Dominum - Praise all people, praise the Lord!  That's really what we are doing whenever we sing - and whatever we sing - just wish it didn't become the gladiatorial arena it so often seems to be.

    Now I really do need to let this go and move on before I get bitter and twisted.

  • In Defence of BPW 200 - An Attempt to Move On!

    Churches, I have concluded over many years, are very odd entities.  Hymns and hymnody are a perennial nightmare, and lead to organists behaving badly (we all know the old joke) and suggestions by several ministerial colleagues that recourse to violence might actually be justified.  This last week, and the whole heap of nonsense that has arisen over my request that we sing BPW 200 is just one more typical example of churches behaving badly and missing the whole point of why we exist.  That’s not because I don’t take hymnody seriously, on the contrary, I take it VERY seriously.  It is just sad that energy that could go into anything from prayer to feeding starving people is expended on telling preachers they can’t sing this or that song.  For some reason this has got to me enough that I feel the need to defend this old, somewhat twee, theologically imperfect (what isn’t) hymn, not because I want to sing it – I don’t even like it all that much – but because it is far from useless.

    All I have managed to find about the writer, Maria Penstone, was that she was born in Kensington in 1859 and died in St Pancras on  27th December 1910 – a relatively short life very clearly having a Victorian flavour.  Her hymn – usually appearing as a children’s hymn in older hymnals - inevitably reflects the age in which she lived, where life was far more precarious than today.  What Kensington or St Pancras may have been like in those days, I have no idea but it is probably fair to suggest that poverty, disease and death were never far from her experience - even if she had the good fortune to be born into a moneyed family. 

    So, on to the hymn itself…

    God has given us a book full of stories

    Which was made for his people of old

    It begins with the tale of a garden

    And ends with a city of gold


    What I like about this approach to the Bible is that it refers to the whole thing, and has, what I think is a healthy attitude to it – it is a collection of stories (accounts) from the beginning (creation, Genesis) to the end (recreation, Revelation).  It is a book put together for God’s people that speaks of real people and real relationship between creator and creation.  Yes, it’s over simplified; yes it could be read as the Bible arrived neatly packaged in the KJV or whatever, but the idea of ‘stories’ rather than answers or rules is an important one.

    But the best is the story of Jesus

    Of the babe with the ox in the stall

    Of the song that was sung by the angels

    The most beautiful story of all 


    This, for me, is probably the worst verse!  What ox?  There isn’t one in the Bible.  But there are oxen and cute little lambs and fluffy bunnies (OK, not fluffy bunnies) in all our favourite Christmas carols.  Yes, it is mushy, but - and this is the key – it says to me the best story is that of the incarnation, and that wonderful song ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests’ (Luke2: 14, NIVi).  It may be expressed with glittery, tinsel, infant-school nativity language, but it is pointing to something utterly central to our faith.

    There are stories for parents and children

    For the old who are ready to rest,

    But for all who can read them or listen

    The story of Jesus is best


    What I really like here is the clear statement that the Bible is for everyone – young and old, active or retired.  It is a cradle to grave book (ready to rest I assume is a euphemism for nearing death).  Whoever you are, whatever stage of life you’re at, this book is for you – and whether or not you can read (this woman is way ahead of her time on inclusion!) the story of Jesus is the best bit.  One of the objections I received to use of the hymn was the line ‘the old who are ready to rest’ which I was told dismissed and devalued older people as unable to contribute.  When I asked an older people’s specialist, her view was the opposite – how great to be affirmed when you can no longer ‘produce’ or ‘contribute,’ how good to be given permission to lay down responsibilities.  There is, I think, a danger of reading into much to the words of an old hymn; why not just accept that it says the Bible is for everyone – young, old, literate or not.  That’s a good message in my opinion.

    For it tells how he came from the Father

    His far away children to call,

    To bring the lost sheep to their shepherd –

    The most beautiful story of all.


    This hymn does not explicitly mention the cross – but it is a children’s hymn.  In the 19th Century lots of children died quite young, and the image of Jesus coming to call people back to the safety of relationship with God, using a rural image, seems entirely appropriate to me.  In any case, it says all that needs to be said in a positive way.  Children understand concepts of lost and found, they don’t need to be told half a dozen theories of atonement or a whole heap of pious church-talk.  What is the story of Jesus about?  A restored relationship with God.  Can’t argue with that! 

    This utterly verbose post will not be used to replace my sermon, nor will it be passed to the person who ousted the hymn.  What it will hopefully do for me, is to allow me to put down my annoyance and move on.  It will also serve as a reminder that the next time I find myself uncomfortable with someone’s choice of hymns that I need to think very carefully about why.