Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Matthew 7:12

It was one of those almost insignificant moments - those that occur all the time out here in our fragile community. I was driving home early evening. It was dark, and raining. I was in no hurry as I passed along Main Street, Bridgehampton. Yet I stood on my brakes as a man crossed the road some thirty feet in front of me. He was dressed in black. And as he slowly walked to the safety of the sidewalk outside of Bobby Van's restaurant I silently cursed the fact (and it is a cultural fact) that city people wear black when there is no funeral. And then, in my headlight, I caught a flash of white around his neck-line.

Damn it all. He was a priest!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sunday Evening Musings

It was one of those things, saying something which brought back a flash of memories. Talking to Kate I said something along the lines of, “If you don’t eat now you might be hungry at midnight.” And immediately I was distracted by thoughts and memories of what we used to call the “Midnight Feast.”

Rewind some (oh my!) forty five years. I was in the third form at Kings, and a “day-bug.” We of the fifty percent of the school who were day boys would learn of the culture and traditions of the boarders, which included the time-honoured ritual of the Midnight Feast. It would involve secreted food from the school house pantry, augmented by crisps (U.S. Potato chips) and pop (U.S. Soda) bought at the tuck shop. We, us day-bugs, would hear of such feasts after the event, usually whispered with triumph by their participants at morning prayers or along the back row of the Latin class on Monday – always the first lesson.

So those of us who had the burden of living at home had to surely create our own version of this rebellious meal. Yet we could not do so together. Instead we depended on our own siblings. And our own resources.

Remember that for a schoolboy in those days, and how I hate that phrase (once I thought it the phrase of my parents’ generation,) midnight was late. And I mean late, seriously late. The hour almost took upon itself a aura of mysticism – plus the challenge of staying up so late, an act of rebellion in itself.

My younger brother David was not too sure, but the prospect of pop and crisps (and whatever else I had managed to procure. One time there was cheddar cheese, I think) would persuade him. And I would somehow stay awake until 11.55, and then wake him to sleepily drink and munch. The food was irrelevant. The act was deliciously subversive. And hiding the packets of Walker’s crisps and the empty bottle of Corona lemonade, I felt equal to those snotty boarders who boasted of their rites.


This is a quite beautiful part of the world at this time of year, but as always I am aware that different people appreciate our God-blessed portion of creation in ways that are (let’s just say) disconnected with reality. I was walking Labradors 2, 3 and 4 this afternoon when such neighbors drove past. They always admire the dogs, but ot this occasion they were rushing “To meet people. To squeeze the last drop out of the Hamptons before the season ends. And there's a chance we might get invited to join N club”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. But then Bertie dragged me into the woods to do his business, and reminded me that these social climbing people are full of the same.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Who?

Anyone who knows me can testify to the fact that my tastes in music are diverse and often eccentric. Setting aside my love of classical and choral music for a moment, and even country, let’s talk about rock and pop. I was moulded by the super-bands of the 1970s: Led Zeppelin, Yes, ELP and the like. Then I explored many musical directions except punk. I never liked punk. I still don’t. Come the 1980s and 90s I still somehow kept pace with the explosion of commercial music that was played on the radio. I was conscientiously challenged by U2. I puzzled over the Manic Street Preachers. I winced at Bjork and was bored by Neil Young. I was amazed that Genesis were still playing, and wondered whatever happened to Blondie?

Imagine my consternation therefore when I read this week that the American band R.E.M. were finally hanging up their instruments and retiring. Why was I concerned? Because with hand on heart I can honestly say that I had never heard of them. Not only that – the news networks and commentaries were constantly playing extracts from their more popular tracks, and I could not pretend that any of them, not even one, sounded familiar. They received Grammy and Brit awards, and released fifteen albums. How did I miss them? I really must stay in more…

Sunday, September 18, 2011

If the shoe fits, wear it. (Russian Proverb)

The last time I wore these shoes was in late July, 2001, at a ceremonial passing out parade at Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, UK. I forget the guest of honour inspecting the young cadets, shortly to be commissioned naval officers. A Belgian royal I think, but it matters not. What mattered today was that for the first time in ten years I cleaned these shoes, buffing them until they gleamed, bulled the toe-caps, and wore them again. And how wonderfully comfortable they were!

The story of these shoes goes back a little further. They were one of three pairs of officers shoes issued to me in 1988 on joining the Royal Navy as the assistant chaplain in HMS RALEIGH, the place of entry and basic training for all ratings (US: Enlisted personnel.) I say three pairs. Two remain, and I must turn my attention, my polish, brushes and cloth to one other pair. The third pair, alas, is no longer in my possession. Together with sundry items of uniform, a camera, a radio and an inscribed Zippo lighter in a grip bag these shoes now live in the realm of Neptune at the bottom of the Adriatic Sea, following an incident during a helicopter transfer in 1992. Still, two out of three ain’t bad!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Pictorial: Walking through Wetlands

After the heaviness of the weekend's remembrances, and all the liturgical preparation that that involved, it was good to take time on Monday to return to the wetland trail on the island of North Haven, about six miles to the north of home. A warm afternoon, with insects buzzing and cicadas singing - and fish surfacing in the larger tidal pools. Even with tree damage from the recent tropical storm, which meant I had to leave the path on many an occasion and detour through brambles and thick undergrowth (and in one place even walk through shallow water!) the walk only took a little over an hour. I'm planning a return visit to explore some of the less accessible parts - by kayak!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sermon Delivered on September 11th, 2011

On the TV, the radio, in the papers, on the internet and all over the blogosphere, at home, at mealtimes, in bars and offices, in coffee or water cooler conversations, the painful question is still asked:

Where were you on the morning of September 11th, 2001?

My story is very unexciting. I was on the beach that morning, ten years ago. With my family and two dogs. It was a beautiful morning, as most of us remember. Breathtaking, in fact. Things seemed to be going well. You recall I had begun parish ministry on September 1st, and it was very early days for me.

That was a morning when all seemed simple and at peace.

Where were you?

All of you have your story to tell. About where you were, what you were doing, and how you heard the news that day.

Some of you, I know, were in Manhattan, close at hand. Others at a distance. Still others, like me, heard the news on the radio, or saw it on TV.

And of course there are thousands who cannot answer the question – but we know where they were. They were in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, or the four hijacked planes.

And they were also on the scene immediately after the attacks, and in the weeks and months that followed. How many first responders and rescue or recovery workers had their lives shortened by the toxic environment in which they toiled, and have subsequently died?

That morning ten years ago we witnessed catastrophic devastation, carried out by human beings on human beings. Countless lives were torn apart, and it has been said that the world will never be the same again. I don’t know about that, but it is natural enough to believe that no-one else has known the destruction and mutilation that we have experienced. How?

Because even a brief glance at the pages of history will make us realize that the attacks of September 11th 2001 are only unique because they are in recent memory. They are more real because we have seen them, and because we remember them.

And because of that living experience, one that was poisonously violent, we hurt even more, and we question even more.

Why? Why did it happen, and how do we respond ten years on as people of faith – Christians who somehow believe that God loves the world.

Our response is critical – not just as individuals, but as the Church. How do we respond in the face of raw evil?

A few weeks after the attacks I found myself at the site where the towers had stood. Beware the smell, people had warned me – but the most powerful smell that day was coming from the fried onions and hotdogs being served by countless vendors. And God bless them for being there!

It was an unexpectedly numbing experience, simply to stand there at a short distance from where recovery teams were working. I wanted to feel something, see mental images, hear words, be spiritual. But nothing came. I couldn’t be spiritual, such was the overwhelming sense of horror and death.

And it is at times such as that that traditional prayers, prayers committed to heart and memory since childhood, are at their best. For they speak when we cannot speak. They express what we cannot express, and they carry us when we cannot spiritually walk any further.

Thy kingdom come;
thy will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.

At one moment those words seemed tepid consolation in the face of such sacrilege, but the next moment, as I was walking away I knew that nothing could be further from the truth. You see, read the correct way, which I believe was the intention of Jesus when he taught his disciples that prayer, those words have the power to look evil in the face, and defeat it.

Oh, we can render the prayer passive and sentimental if we understand it to be some form of assurance that everything will be all right in the end because we have this vague notion that God will wave a magic wand and make it so.

But that prayer is not saying that at all. It is a prayer of engagement – engagement with God and engagement with the world. And it is within that relationship, that dynamic of faith, that evil can and will be defeated.

For if we say that we are praying for God’s will to be done, then we are the ones who have to make that happen. And that means confronting all those parts of creation that are clearly not in accord with God’s expressed purposes of love, justice and hope.

Our response must be spiritual, rooted in the scriptures in which this God has revealed a divine intention; our response must also be political, and economic, and where needs demand, use robust military force.

Faced with another great evil in another age, certainly a far greater evil, that of Nazi Germany, the imprisoned pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote these words when so many people felt deepest despair at what was happening to the world:

The essence of optimism is that it takes no account of the present, but it is a source of inspiration, of vitality and hope where others have resigned; it enables a man to hold his head high, to claim the future for himself and not to abandon it to hell.

Today we have remembered the dead of ten years ago. All over the nation, and in other nations, this is a day of grief for thousands as they are once again reminded of their loss.

But in faith and Christian optimism we have to do so much more than look back. In that faith we now look to tomorrow, and the day after, and the year after. In God’s name we cannot, we will not, abandon the future to hell.

Thy kingdom come.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

A Composer's Rest

St Wulstan’s Roman Catholic Church is a hidden jewel in the crown that is the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire. Blink as you drive west on the A449 and you will miss it, situated as it is on the downward slope to the left of the road. It’s a beautiful building in itself, and even the more valuable as it continues to be a vibrant parish church for those of the Roman tradition, but the main reason for the frequency of visitors is that it is where Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) is buried. It may come as a surprise to some that the quintessential English composer was not an Anglican (and to be sure that would have raised some social eyebrows during Elgar’s life) but that only adds to the enigma of the man and his music. Not that he was religious in the traditional sense of the word. After the initial lukewarm public response to The Dream of Gerontius in 1900 he was quoted as saying, “"I always knew God was against art..." continuing, "I have allowed my heart to open once - it is now shut against every religious feeling...”

Elgar is buried next to his wife Caroline Alice who died fourteen years before him. She died in the springtime and he wrote in his journal:

“The place she chose long years ago is too sweet – the blossoms are white all round and the illimitable plain, with all the hills and churches in the distance which were hers from childhood, looks just the same – inscrutable and unchanging.”

It is quite a remarkable view as the eye travels to and over the Severn flood plain, with Bredon Hill to the south-east and the undulating fields of Worcestershire rippling as far as the eye can see. But unchanging? Superficially perhaps, until one travels across that countryside and experiences the rural poverty and decay on the one hand, and on the other the neglect of village community life by affluent town people buying up picture postcard cottages. And the churches that were Lady Elgar’s from childhood are now three quarters empty, except at Harvest and Christmas, and sharing a vicar with as many as ten other parishes.

Sometimes I like to turn a hundred and eighty degrees and look up at the higher view. Now the Malvern Hills haven’t changed one bit!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


At least that was what the locals used to call today, the day after Labor Day. The day when all the summer visitors, owners and renters alike, would take to the highway and return to their urban lives and lifestyles, leaving the East End in semi-rural peace. I suppose it was once like that, and I know a few people who used to make a ritual of lining up on the Montauk Highway on this day to wave goodbye to our seasonal visitors. But today much of this has disappeared into mythology. Although traffic was lighter and more polite, there remained a disproportionate surfeit of Mercedes and auto brands above, enough to suggest that our city cultural investors were delaying their departure. Last minute, it seems, for some. Typing this I can hear the noise of private aircraft warming up at East Hampton airport as the last of the crachach (a graphic Welsh word, a thousand times older in years than even the families of America’s oldest money) leave environmentally for their next stage. God bless.

+ + + + + + +

Today was a good day to clear out my office, and that I did. With rubbish bags standing by I delved into corners of closets and drawers that had remained untouched even during my time, and unearthed some remarkable trash. Predominantly paperwork, forms and minutes. Huge files of dated diocesan and national church dictates and discussion documents. Instructions on parochial business practice. Reporting policy, and the correct format for doing so in 1989. Needless to say I filled all my bags, even with parish vestry minutes of ten years. Let’s face it – who reads them? Who needs them?

Consequently there are wonderful gaps in my shelves that I am already filling with books and carefully filed study papers. It is a change that ought to have taken place a long time ago. The business of administration belongs to staff and vestry, not the priest. What was the Rector’s office is now to be known as the Study.

Himbleton St Mary Magdalene

This is a pictorial post, as to tell the history of this rural parish church would be a mammoth undertaking. Simply put, the building is an ancient architectural hybrid, with a 12th century wall, 14th century carvings, and additions and revisions in the 13th, 15th, 16th, 17th and – you get the picture. There is also the possibility that the font is older than even the earliest stonework, but that cannot be accurately proven.

For me the significance of this holy place is rooted in the twentieth century. It is the church of my boyhood, and where my father was vicar. To this day I continue to return and always breathe in a deep sense of peace and tranquility. And take photographs. My latest I share with you.

SW view with porch and tower.

SE view

Clock tower - and the old clock is working again!

The Woodhouse Window above the side altar dedicated to Our Lady.

Detailed inscription in the Woodhouse Window.

NE view

The Lychgate.

Monday, September 5, 2011

O Lord, open thou our lips.

For reasons best not divulged here I have been in a bit of a funk for some twenty-four hours. Unfair to you, dear reader, in that you know not why, and unfair to my dear family who suffer such moods. Yet this one is over.

The cure for such a clerical condition is now apparently simple. A quarter of a century ago in the years after my ordination the prescription was simply to pray to the Lord for renewed strength. Now, in the era of compulsory analysis, church experts and counselors have entreated the clergy to seek professional help. A confessor. A spiritual advisor. A therapist. Yet I felt no need to sign on such crew.

This morning I went to the church and said my Morning Office, as I try to do most mornings. Yet this morning was different. It was almost subversive, in a way that I cannot describe.

In the Episcopal Church, both the practice (and the knowledge that it’s going on) of the Daily Offices is declining almost to the point of extinction. Their ordination liturgies make no mandate. Even the Book of Common Prayer (1979) is ambiguous. Yet my ordination vows are extant and specific. As an Anglican, still beholden to the instruction of the Church of England, I am bound to say both Morning and Evening Prayer, daily. And in the church when possible. (My italics.)

This morning made a difference. To say that my selfish prayers were answered would be simplistic, but the rest of my day has been focused to the extreme. All because I opened my Prayer Book.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Leaping into action?

I have seen
The old pond
Frog jumping in
And sound of water.
(Sadiqullah Khan)

But today it wasn't in an old pond - the large frog was in my swimming pool. How long it had been there I do not know, but the fact that I have a salt water pool probably helped its survival. Chlorine, on the other hand, would have killed it within minutes, and to think that some people swim in the stuff. He (and I am no authority when it comes to sexing amphibians) was moving quickly, but little match for my deftness with the long-handled pool net. I exaggerate. It took me ten minutes and more than that number of scoops to catch him. But catch him I did, and within the blue mesh of the net he remained quite feisty. What to do? If I released him in the woods he would probably seek out another pool if not mine. So it was clear. Protesting with his back legs, I put him ignominiously in a plastic shopping bag, and drove him the two miles to Sagg Pond. There I tipped him out at the water's edge where after two large hops he waved goodbye ( I'm kidding) and slid into the water.

A satisfactory outcome for the frog, but am I losing my objectivity?

The morning after.

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou all-shaking thunder
Smite flat the thick rotundity o' the world!
(Shakespeare. King Lear. 3.2)

Except I wasn't there. For one who revels in extremes of weather, and who carries a weather radio throughout life, it was most worrying and frustrating to follow Tropical Storm (nee hurricane) Irene from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Reports that did reach us were primarily focused on the urban and inland parts of the tri-state area. That's natural, as that's where most of the people live, and where the storm was at its strongest. From the outset it was clear that Irene was not a storm to be dismissed, and its passing up the eastern seaboard did a great deal of damage to life and limb. We in little Wainscott were spared most of such wrath, and for that we were all grateful.

Yet within our small community there was a mess to clear up, and cables to repair. Dozens of trees were brought down and whole neighborhoods are still without electricity and land line phones. Amusing though it seems, one of the services we could offer as a church is the chance to recharge people's cellphones, and we have done just that for a few people! Most of the roads are now passable, and life is relatively normal again. The storm would have been even the more serious if heavy rain had fallen, but little did so further damage and flooding was avoided. Our steeples were not drench'd and our cocks were not drown'd, this time.

Can anything good come out of a storm such as this? The tree workmen on Main Street thought so this morning. Irene blew down and removed the weakest trunks and limbs, so what remains is safe and strong. So spoke the team leader, chainsaw in hand. And the local beach has been repaired after last winter's storms. Irene undid the deep scouring that wind and waves did last February, and we have a pleasant gradient of sand once more. Until the next storm, that is.