Sunday, November 27, 2011

Thoughts Delivered on Advent Sunday 2011

There are some places in my life that are very important to me. Places where I grew up. Places of which I have special memories. Places which are in themselves milestones along my journey of faith. And many of these places are churches.

The church of St Mary Magdalene, Himbleton, was the church of my rural boyhood and where my father was rector for many a year.

Worcester Cathedral was where I attended school.

St David’s Roman Catholic cathedral in Cardiff, Wales, was three minutes walk from my place of work, and there I would often go to read and pray at lunchtimes.

And there are others, in England, Wales and France. And when I return to these places I always revisit these churches out of a sense of reconnecting with the past and gaining a sense of assurance that these places are still there. And while they are still there then all is well with the world. Even the knowledge from afar that they remain, stone upon stone, can be a source of comfort.

I call these places emotional and traditional anchors. Places that have shaped me and supported me mentally and spiritually over the years, and without which my life would be poorer. And who knows, without them I may not be standing here today.

We all need these anchors, and this is a time of year when that need seems to grow and amplify. Those little traditions, those memories, those objects of solace that make the season between Thanksgiving and Christmas all the more poignant and special.

It may be a family ritual or activity; a food or drink; a card or letter received (I now must include email and text and tweets!) A thought, a piece of music, things shared or things deeply personal.

Should you ask: My favorite Christmas traditions are the putting up of the outdoor lights, and the tree. Always the tree. And sitting before that tree very late on Christmas Eve (or is it very early on Christmas Day?) musing. And my favorite Thanksgiving tradition, in between all that cooking, is watching the National Dog Show!

The power of these traditional anchors at this time of year cannot be under-estimated, and certainly never undervalued. Which is one reason the marketers and retailers bombard us with their own versions of a traditional holiday season. Yet theirs is a different set of values. And theirs is a different season.

We call this season Advent. Literally adventus. The Coming. Four weeks of anticipation when traditionally… Well, what tradition?

For approaching Advent with a fresh and open mind we may experience a shock to the system. For there are no notes of comfort here, neither gentle assurance and harmony – but rather a sense of disturbance and even discord.

Isaiah sets the tone this morning with a clear appeal for God to begin a campaign of volatile disruption.

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence…

Wait a second! There was no mention of that in the Macy’s Day Parade! And yet Isaiah continues:

We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. Imagine writing that on the inside of a Christmas card!

St Mark’s Gospel takes up the very same theme:

The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Whatever happened to a White Christmas?

The scriptures that lead us from Advent Sunday through Christmas are always at variance with the holiday culture and expectations that we have created, and with which we have wrapped this most powerful of celebrations. Yet we protect our traditional anchors, forgetting that they are human products, not God’s. And they are temporary.

I began by mentioning a few churches that have nurtured me in different ways. The prelude to this morning’s gospel reading was the scene where one of Jesus’ disciples comments on the beauty of the temple building, and received a stinging reply:

Do you see these great buildings? They will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down.

So much for Jesus and tradition!

Traditions and the rituals and ways that bind us together as communities and families, and which comfort us as individuals, have their place and value. Life would be a desolate experience without them, but with regard to the work of God they must be put into limited context. For God often chooses to act untraditionally and unconventionally. And the Incarnation is a prime example.

The prayer of Advent is the prayer of Isaiah. It is the prayer of St Paul. It is also the prayer of Jesus. I is a two-fold prayer.

We join in that two-fold prayer at this time of year. We pray for God to act and come among us. And we pray that we are ready when that happens.

This is a very untraditional season indeed!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

What's in a word?

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the news that tomorrow, Advent Sunday, our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters will worship using the reformed Roman Missal. Now we Anglican Communion members are not strangers to liturgical reform (most of it ghastly) but this official policy from the other bank of the Tiber is more than interesting.

Returning to the original text of the (apparently previously hastily translated) Latin mass is the major sales pitch of the Vatican. OK. Good intention. And some of the product is, in the opinion of one who detests much of the bland Anglican rites, quite excellent. In particular, the response to the priestly greeting:

The Lord be with you.

Is now.

And with your spirit.

To me this is a far more attractive response than the bland 1970s line that we have suffered to this day:

And also with you.

And I know that there are rumours of rumours about the substitution of “consubstantial” for “of one being” (with the Father) but to be honest, as one of the tradition that still insists on singing “Lights abode, celestial Salem” I simply defer. But within this revised Eucharistic canon I have one huge objection.

In the re-translated prayer of consecration the Lord now takes the chalice. Not the cup or the cup of wine, but the chalice. Linguistically this is acceptable, and to satisfy purists, correct. The word we use in English has a Latin root: calicem. Parallel in Greek is kalyx. In common usage in Europe, primarily through old and middle French, the word continued. Its meaning. A drinking cup. Nothing more, nothing less.

The problem with literally bringing calicem into the modern mass revision is that for at least 1700 years it has culturally referred to a special, even bejeweled cup. Historical baggage. Certainly not the type and style of cup that lies at the root of the Eucharist, and which the Lord took in his hand that holy Thursday.

Drink this, all of you…

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

And like a thousand other commanders on a thousand other battlefields, I wait for the dawn. Jean-Luc Picard. Captain. USS Enterprise.

Heavens above! A Star Trek headline? Yet it is an excellent line, with more than a hint of Shakespeare from an undervalued Star Trek film, Nemesis (2002). The one that was made when, to be honest, the stories were tired.

It is an apt banner to describe how many must surely feel as the annual feast of Thanksgiving nears. In under less than forty–eight hours the majority of Americans, home and abroad, will sit down to a Thanksgiving dinner. Turkey, potatoes, pumpkin pie, and so on. Because it’s traditional, isn’t it? Yes it is, but not universally so. The accepted Thanksgiving traditions and foods may apply to the eastern seaboard and the mid-west, but try to apply that menu to Cajun Country, or better still, Southern California, and they would laugh in your face! What they consider to be tradition is so far removed from the east, as is the west. Obviously.

Whatever meals are planned for this coming Thursday seem to create a strong sense of stress and panic. Have I got this? And that? Will I have time for this? Will they like it? Don’t we have to..? How on earth do you …? And so on.

Over the last two days I’ve seen all of these deep and personal questions expressed, not only on the faces in my local supermarket, but also in the comments overheard. Such as:

So we do yams. What the hell do they look like?
These are raw. How do we get a cooked turkey?
Can someone in his store help me with my list?

I must stress that this sample of comments (and I have a dozen others) do not reflect local people, but those who dare to venture out of their urban environment (let the reader understand.)

Yet even the more balanced and educated members of our community are anxious about the Thanksgiving feast. They ought not to be. A meal prepared with care and served with love ought to be the theme of this extraordinary feast. Without stress. After all, what we endure in the kitchen is hardly the battlefield of survival that early settlers had to suffer. Yet they had hope. Why don’t we?

A New Bishop in New York!

But what is the Gregory Peck thing?!

Bishop Coadjutor-Elect the Rev. Canon Andrew Dietsche addresses convention delegates from Episcopal Diocese of New York on Vimeo.

Monday, November 21, 2011


Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

So ascribed the older Books of Common Prayer to last Sunday. The words first appeared in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, translating directly from the Latin Missal, "Excita, quæsumus," and the 1662 rubric insisted, sorry - insists that this collect "shall always be used upon the Sunday next before Advent.” It is a prayer deeply engrained in countless generations of Anglicans the world over, but now, sadly being lost to posterity as we bow to other trends. In modern liturgy it is rare. It makes no appearance in the turgid and so unimaginative 1979 Prayer Book of the American Church. It has even been relegated to a post-communion prayer in the Church of England’s Common Worship. (Further note: Instructions state that this collect may be used on this Sunday at Morning or Evening Prayer. Really.)

I’m not suggesting that “Stir-up Sunday” can ever reclaim the cultural and culinary associations that it had in my boyhood and early stirrings of religious faith. To begin with, most people these days do not bake puddings or cakes for Christmas, and most of these most wouldn’t have a clue how to anyway! But surely, as Anglicans, we can reclaim our ground.

The seemingly concrete title now given to this Sunday, that of Christ the King, has a dubious and political pedigree. In 1925 Pope Pius the Eleventh (actually an excellent man, priest and thinker extraordinaire) decided to re-entitle the Sunday before All Saints’ Day as a piece of Church propaganda, to counter-act the growing fascism in Italy and Germany. It was a liturgical attempt to say: Christ is the one true authority. Yet few paid any attention.

It took two later Popes, John the Twenty-Third and Paul the Sixth, to move the intention to the Sunday before Advent, and so it remains.

If I had a problem with the notion of Christ the King (see previous post and sermon) then I would not be able to call myself a Christian. Yet I ask of my Church, that Catholic but reformed church that is called Anglican, that we do not abandon our liturgical roots too quickly. It seems that all too easily our rich heritage and continuity is being sacrificed in favour of a faux rapprochement with the Roman Church.

But I write as a hypocrite. I bought all my ingredients on Sunday, but they remain in the packets. They have not been stirred. Yet!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

My thoughts delivered on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, 2011

It may not have happened exactly the way in which I tell it, but there is the story of a rich industrialist in 19th century northern England who literally bought his way up and into society. From nowhere and his own family poverty he built his textile business, and developed a vast even international business empire, trading in fine cloth and raw materials with Europe and the United States. Yet doing so at the expense of others.

Whereas a minority of English industrialists and entrepreneurs of that age were enlightened and respectful of their workforces, this man was in the majority. Conditions in his factories were dangerously appalling and the wages he paid were a pittance. And so his fortunes grew.

I said that he bought his way into society. He certainly did, buying a three hundred acre estate and country house complete with matching accessories. Stables, lakes, ornamental gardens and a chapel. A very old chapel which predated the main house by many centuries, and in need of repair.

He was not necessarily a religious man, but felt the need to restore this place of worship, and so the stonework and the roof were re-pointed as new. And he was told that the interior needed similar attention. An authority on medieval churches made a visit, and recommended that the recent whitewash be removed to expose the original stone. This man agreed to this, and slowly the work was carried out. Then one day the craftsmen called for the man, saying their work was completed. He came to the church and looked at the wall high above the chancel. There, now uncovered, was a fresco of the Last Judgment.

And the man’s instructions? Paint it over. I preferred the whitewash.

I wonder why he said that?

Paintings of the Last Judgment in churches normally date from the late Medieval period, say the twelfth through fourteenth centuries. They’re also referred to as Doom Paintings.

Each one is different, but most follow a distinct pattern and formula. Christ is central. And this is a regal Christ, an enthroned Christ. Sitting in judgment. And each hand is raised over two separate groups of people, left and right. Either to welcome them into the gates of Heaven, or dismiss them to the Hellsmouth.

These days we dismiss such graphic notions as being simplistic, and a product of their own generations. That they were, and how terrifying they must have been to the illiterate worshipper and passer-by. The perfect warning that unless a person behaved then they would be judged. And what a judgment it would be! The perfect way also of keeping religious order in the Church and political order in society at large.

One such doom painting was a part of my theological training in Salisbury, England. I would attend public speaking tutorials with a voice coach in the large parish church of St Thomas, about half a mile from the cathedral and the seminary. Those were the days when seminarians were put through the rigors of voice projection and elocution, disciplines nowadays sadly ignored. And as I would face east with my back to the imaginary congregation and read parts of the Eucharistic prayer, above my head Christ in glory was judging, to his left and right. And it became part of my prayer, because I knew that if my tutor judged me inaudible or lacking in diction, I would have to start all over again!

As an aside the Doom Painting was also capable of humor and politicization. That particular fresco in Salisbury reflected well the often bitter rivalry between the senior parish church of the town and the cathedral. Of those being welcomed into heaven numerous local townsmen and benefactors would have been identifiable, whereas in the line of those descending into hell there are three bishops!

On the Sunday now entitled Christ the King there is still a danger, still a temptation that we revert to such a medieval picture of the one we ordinarily worship as Lord and Savior. A Christ in glory, a Christus Rex who at the end of all ages will order us, left and right into our allocated places in eternity. And it is a neat and tidy faith, this one, of which there is not only a remnant of medievalism, but also a recent resurgence in belief among those who not only see everything in black and white, but also have found it necessary to bring the sentiments of the Doom Painting into the present day. They can’t wait for eternity, so they start the judgment process now.

But the other danger, the other temptation, is to dismiss completely the idea of judgment. For we are judged by Christ. Not by a Christ who sits on a decorated seat but by a Christ who is crucified.

Next Sunday, Advent Sunday, is the Church’s New Year. The seasons begin again, and we begin to prepare to celebrate the incarnation of God in the feast of Christmas.

What better time to remind ourselves that the king whom we worship and adore was the antithesis of the glorious messiah. Because Christ was crowned, reached his kingship, the moment he was nailed to a wooden cross. There was no golden throne, no mighty warrior, no conquering king - but there was judgment all right. Then and now.

For when we look at the crucifixion, we are judged. Do we see the Son of God hanging there? Or do we turn away. Paint it over. Perhaps the judgment is too strong. We therefore choose to whitewash over the way of the cross.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Of Iron Ladies, Time-Travellers and ...

A brief post after reading that the film industry of Hollywood intends to write produce, direct and publish movies on two subjects dear to my heart. Margaret Thatcher (now Baroness Thatcher) and Dr Who. Both are subjects that many people either love or hate.

The American movie cultus has a strong tradition of re-writing history for popularist reasons. Telling lies, in other words, to project onto screens in order to sell productions to an unworldly, and generally uneducated, mass market. The twisting of the events of the Second World War, and the blatant untruths created about Allied intelligence communities (the classic example being the story of the Enigma machine) might now be projected onto the depiction of 1980s Britain under (then) Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Much as I applaud the talents of Meryl Streep, I fear the worst when it comes to this film.

I think the same, yet differently about Dr Who. In the BBC cult science fiction series that began in November 1963, the anti-hero is an enigmatic, clumsy and awkward time-traveling character who nevertheless always manages to save a planet, a species or the very universe. How will Hollywood portray him and the half-century of television that nurtured generations? I truly dread to think. Only one word comes to mind.

(From behind the sofa, of course!)


Wednesday, November 16, 2011


Of local news is last evening’s damaging fire in the East Hampton Market, a grocery store with a fairly long pedigree under a few assorted kennel names! And it was about 7:00 pm. Sirens heard everywhere, even in our house some four miles away (but not in Kay’s kitchen, a block away, as she was concentrating on the cooking!)

A shame. A good source for quality meats and the sort of grocery items that come and go in more mainstream places. Bisto gravy granules, for example, dear to my pantry!

Yet reading the online reports from the East Hampton Star, the local rag, I am amazed. Quote:

East Hampton Fire Chief Ray Harden said in a press release that about 100 fire volunteers in all responded and that the fire was quickly brought under control.

One hundred volunteers. Quite amazing, possibly commendable, but sensational, considering that that is over half the number of firefighters that attended the fire at Windsor Castle in 1992. Yet the Market was more about produce than paintings, sausages not stained windows and antique staircases. Remarkable.

Of equal remark was the report that five of those volunteer firefighters were hospitalized for minor injuries, but thankfully released.

I am not writing as an armchair observer. I stake a claim as a qualified and suffering Royal Navy firefighter. Even as a Chaplain. I have lost count of the times when, before joining a ship or squadron, I have been cold, wet and tired while being a part of a (training) three-man hose team, or coordinating the same. I have fought exercise fires on decks, in and around aircraft, and in (often very) confined spaces. And those exercise fires were real and hot. I know how to put on a “Fearnought” suit wearing a blindfold, and help my buddy do the same. Then take it off and do it again. And again. I know about air tanks, regulators, the timing and why. And even in exercise I have felt fear before jets of flame.

What on earth was in the East Hampton Market?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


I had the beginnings of an article on a 7-11 sandwich ready, but when the latest issue of Cucina Italiana arrived in the mail box this morning I knew immediately that was going to change. To begin with it provided the menu for this evening’s dinner, but it also reminded me of my great frustration when it comes to food and Christmas Eve. A beautifully illustrated series of pages suggesting a seven-course menu, the Feast of the Seven Fishes, was the highlight of the magazine. A series of courses that I would ordinarily drool over – until, that is reality kicks in.

Sadly, Christmas Eve for me is not a time to relax and enjoy food, no matter how excellent that food is. Returning home after the early children’s pageant I am mentally, and perhaps physically, preparing for the late Choral Eucharist. To put it crudely (and I’m fairly sure that Hippolytus, Cranmer or Dix never used this vernacular) it’s a “Big One.” A very traditional liturgy that satisfies the Christmas desires of a hundred and fifty people. Candles, carols, choir and communion. That’s a great combination in worship, and every year I hope and pray that the congregants, many of whom are satiated with much food and wine, take away something more than a nice piece of tradition. I trust that they do – and that the Lord works through the biblical stories and these marvelous church events! But anticipating this service does my anticipatory stomach no good at all!

Ah yes! Tonight’s rustic Italian menu. Linguine tossed with leek puree and pan-sautéed pancetta and braised asparagus and cherry tomatoes. A new recipe – one to be repeated.

On a different subject. I am slowly reading through a book dedicated to the most northern tip of Cape Cod, an area dear to my heart. In her work The Salt House, Cynthia Huntington describes the history of her relationship with a beach cottage, and one summer’s stay near Provincetown. Her writing, particularly with regard to describing the place and its fauna and flora, is unequalled in quality. Poetically detailed is a phrase that springs to mind. Yet I have a growing, nagging problem with this author. She may be at one with her adopted natural environment, but she shows no sign of relating to or identifying with the people who live in these communities all year, and who have done so for innumerable generations. In fact in places Ms. Huntington is quietly disparaging about the local market and economic needs. Her neighbors (and lover) are fellow-writers and tree sculptors, potters and painters, not store-keepers, farmers, scallop gatherers and tradesmen. She talks of fishermen and park rangers as if they were “little people” doing their job while she continues to write rhapsodically about the water’s edge. How limited. How dull. I see this version of summer visitor on the East End of Long Island. What a shame to know that the Outer Cape contains the same.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

"... not forsaking our own assembling together, as the custom of some is, but exhorting one another, and so much the more

So wrote the author to the Letter to the Hebrews.

To use the tried and tested English description: I’m knackered. I have eaten a delicious meal of grilled steak, pan-roast potatoes, deep fried parsnip chips and portabella mushrooms cooked with feta cheese. A meal to invigorate even the most tired of armies, methinks. But not this soldier. I am sipping the last of a robust merlot, and am ready for a good night’s sleep.

My energy was at peak level when I arrived at the Diocesan Convention (members of the Church of England would refer to this as a Synod) meeting at noon on Friday. A generic hotel in Melville, a concrete corporate conglomerate (don’t you love that deliberate alliteration?) some seventy miles west of here that hosts some pretty big industrial names, and the bland business hotels that cluster around such centers. Our hotel was a Marriott, and enough said about that.

Now, the thing about Diocesan Conventions is that you have to learn to love them, but expect to be physically and emotionally drained when they’re done. The Diocese of Long Island, its delegates assembled under a faux art deco ceiling, convened at 2:00 pm last Friday. Without a present delegate of my own that day, I sat with others on a round table near the front of the huge room. With two, three, occasionally four priests, and their parish lieutenants. And with great conversation new, and strong friendships were forged.

And on the second day of this holy gathering, this Convention, this so un-English synod, we all gravitated to the same table. Without prompt or prior arrangement. When I returned to the hotel early on Saturday morning it was Debra, a diminutive, African-American priest, who greeted me saying, “I’ve reserved the same seats. I thought we needed to sit in the same places.” And she was so right!

Notwithstanding the deliberations and content of Diocesan Convention, I reached an ecclesiastical saturation point at noon on Saturday, hugged my new friends and drove home. And even behind the wheel of my car I felt a certain sadness that I was leaving such people. Persons with whom I had shared more than a table, but conversation, laughter, aside comments and glances, and (we all agreed, except one! Kim?! ) awful coffee. Yes! I was missing them!

Part of my reasoning with some at Convention (and to myself) was that I had to prepare for the parish Annual Meeting the next day. Today, that is, for it has come and gone. And the reaction to this was quietly surprising to me. With the exception of one parish (which will remain nameless. Hi! Christopher!) all people, both clergy and lay, expressed wishes of support that were negative in their roots. For they were effectively saying: So sorry. Good luck. Hope you win! Etc. I was taken aback. It was as if I was, in their estimation, a gladiator being blessed before walking out to face …

And this evening I know that I am blessed. St Ann’s Annual Meeting was, this morning, even despite the Rector, a most wonderful gathering.

Yet the whole series of events has left me… What was that word again? Oh yes. Knackered.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

On The Dunes - a pictorial entry

Making the most of a gorgeous sunny afternoon, and the accessibility of top of the dunes (usually fenced off and out of reach) due to the tons of new sand deposited by recent storms, the rare views of Wainscott Pond were breathtaking!