Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Parish Magazine Item for October


From The Rectory


For the last few weeks, our sermon series has been from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes.

You can catch up with any of our sermons online at: warbletonchurch.org.uk/sermons-talks/ and the Filter function allows you to search by Bible book. It has been a profound experience to ponder this ancient book’s meaning again. Its message seemed timely in the light of the Covid pandemic because in it The Preacher searches for meaning and significance in the light of death and the unpredictability of life.

The refrain which rings from its pages is “Vapour! Vapour! All is vapour.” In other words, life is short. Like a fleeting breath or a puff of smoke. It is quickly gone. And like a breath, life can’t be fully grasped. It slips through our fingers and eludes us. There’s so much that we can’t completely understand or control. The Preacher teaches us honesty and humility.


Although it’s sometimes strange and difficult, much of the value of the book lies in the fact that it takes a long hard look at the world as it really is. There are no quick or glib answers here – not even religious or spiritual sounding ones. Life isn’t a crossword puzzle that can be neatly solved. Even though we have God’s Word, we don’t have all the answers. Often there is injustice and pain. In many places wickedness holds sway. Sometimes God’s purposes are hard to see.


Although we live in this fog, the Preacher claims that joy is possible even in the mist. This comes not by escaping or denying the vaporous nature of life, but by receiving God’s gift of satisfaction in our toil. We do well to rejoice in all the good things that God gives us, but not to pin our hopes on them. We should hold onto our stuff lightly. Rather than grasping after the wind, we need open hands to receive God’s generosity. We get into trouble when we imagine that people or things can give us ultimate control, or significance, or security. We tend to make good things into god things, to take the gifts and forget the Giver. The Bible would call this idolatry and would say that idols will always disappoint.


We can’t see the whole picture, but we can see enough to take the next step with God in faith. We are to revere God and obey his commandments. 


The book of Ecclesiastes shows us very clearly the broken, fallen nature of our world. And it promises that God sees and cares. He will bring every action into judgement. We strive for a better more godly world, but we can’t straighten everything out. The cosmos is twisted out of shape by sin, and the flaw runs through our own hearts too. We need a Saviour. Left to ourselves, we can’t build Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant lands. We must look to the New Jerusalem, the city whose architect and builder is God, which will come down out of heaven from God: his new, renewed creation. The Preacher disabuses us of utopian dreams that we might embrace a more solid hope.


The Preacher in the book of Ecclesiastes seems to be great King Solomon who was famed for his wisdom, but he points us to the Lord Jesus, the ultimate king, whom the New Testament calls one greater than Solomon. Jesus has overcome death for us and in him are found all the treasures of the wisdom and knowledge of God. We cannot shepherd the wind, but we can trust The Good Shepherd who commands the wind, “Quiet! Be Still!”. May we rejoice and rest in Him.


Sunday, September 05, 2021

Ecclesiastes 7: An Outline

Ecclesiastes 7 (p672)

Introduction: Biblical wisdom

If all is foggy vapour, wisdom or escapism?

I. Four ways to be wise:

(1)   Embrace suffering (vv1-6)


(2)   Resist temptation (vv7-10)

4 particular temptations we’re to watch out for:

(a)   Extortion / bribery (v7)

(b)   Impatience / pride (v8)

(c)    Anger / hastiness (v9)

(d)   Nostalgia (v10)


(3)   Fear God (vv11-18)


(4)   Acknowledge limitations (v19-end)


II. But you can’t be perfectly Wise (vv23-25)


III. So look to God’s Wise Man (v28)


Audio sermon here 

Saturday, September 04, 2021


 Imagine someone with a hugely enlarged right bicep. Some of his other features are normal, some are withered. 

We are in danger of becoming or creating such monsters. 

Often our education system rewards one set of skills which is useful for passing exams. People easily become science or arts people, into numbers or words. And we tend to emphasise analytical thinking. 

There is a feedback loop when we find something relatively easy or we have a bit of success: we make progress in that thing and so its easier for us to do it better or faster than others and this can bring praise, success and recognition. We can even invest our identity in that thing: I'm the clever one, the sporty one, the musical one, the funny one, the artistic one. It is easy for us to never try or to neglect other things. We imagine that those things we've never really tried are impossible for us. "Oh, I can't sing / play / throw a ball." 

Our work can compound this. If we use one particular skill all day every day for three years, that's like getting a PhD in say, solving problems by making spreadsheets. And if you are very good with a hammer, or the hammer is the only tool you have, you might be tempted to treat everything like a nail. 

I'm all for strong right biceps, but it might do us well to consider whether or not we might be a bit lopsided or top heavy. It might be good for us to try going for a walk or using our other hand, rather than just batting everything with that strong right arm.

Friday, September 03, 2021

Nature poetry

 This afternoon I picked up my second hand copy of Ode To The Countryside: Poems to Celebrate the British Landscape (National Trust), which intriguingly has a page torn out. What might the inscription have been?

Anyway, if writing the introduction to such a book, I don't think you should feel the need to tell us that nature poetry only really flourished for a century or so and is rarely amongst the greatest to have been written. I'm not sure that it's right that a focus on the local and the particular is likely to set a limit to its greatness. Might not much of the point be to see infinity in the ordinary?

Better, perhaps, the reflection that turning to poetry or the land can stretch us and give us space to think and see afresh.


 Interestingly, Cleese suggests getting feedback on four things about your writing:

(1) Were you bored?

(2) Where could you not understand what was going on?

(3) Where did you not find things credible?

(4) Was there anything you found emotionally confusing?

Cleese says that readers will probably suggest fixes and he suggests that unless the reader is also a writer you should smile and nod politely and completely ignore the advice. The object of the exercise is to identify the problems you have to work on, not to get solutions. 

When assessing suggestions, you need to avoid ego. Don't ask who is right. Ask which idea is better. 

The best time to get feedback is when your idea is sufficiently clear to benefit from someone else's judgement. If you wait until the project is "finished" you may waste a lot of time. 

Did my sermon work?

 Cleese says that the great thing about writing comedy is that you know if the writing has worked or not. Did they laugh?

It is much harder to know if the sermon worked.

You could ask for some feedback. You probably should. But the question is not really did people like the sermon. Or even did they think it benefited them. 

By their congregations shall ye know them. 

What shall I preach on Sunday?

 Well, the good news of Jesus from the Bible, of course. 

But which text? What is the unit? Which of the lectionary readings? One or more? How many readings are you going to have and will you mention them all?

The great thing for the preacher is that he never starts with a totally blank page. He starts with a text. 

And I am tempted to spend too long on deciding what that text will be. 

Much better, in my experience, to have a starting point, a plan, rather than to start with the whole Bible. 

Consecutive preaching through a book of the Bible is undoubtedly the best norm for following the argument and intention of the inspired writer. 

How long should the passage for this week be? Inevitably this is guess work. You might only know after you've preached your next too sermons. Get some help from other sermon series or commentaries which will offer outlines of the book. I am probably tempted  to make the sections too long for fear that I won't have enough to say, but it doesn't matter too much. Hopefully my sermon series will be better the second time I preach through this book. 

But sooner rather than later get to work on the actual preaching rather than worrying about what to preach! Pick a section and go for it. 

Panic early

 Writing on creativity for writers and others, Cleese suggests panicking early. If you really fear you might get to the deadline without any good work, it will energise you. You are unlikely to go off and have a nap. Panic will force you to sit at your computer. 

And then the key is just to start. Make some notes. Write anything. Don't just stare at the blank page.  

Getting stuck

 I've been reading Cleese on creativity and thinking about preaching. 

It is interesting that he says that writing with Graham Chapman they would sometimes get frustrated when they might work for a morning or a day without coming up with anything really good. And yet they consistently found that by Friday night they had fifteen to eighteen minutes worth of good material. 

Cleese argues that getting discouraged is just a waste of time. The fallow periods (a bit like an empty fork returning to the plate) are just part of the process and we have to work through them and keep going. Normally good work happens if you persevere. 

Enemies of creativity

Cleese argues (in Creativity: a short and cheerful guide, Hutchinson / Penguin, 2020) that interruptions are the greatest enemy of creativity. 

Research suggests that it might take eight minutes to regain focus after an interruption and twenty minutes to get back into a kind of deep flow. 

Of course there are external interruptions: phone calls, notifications, unannounced visitors, noises off. But there are also internal interruptions: you remember something to add to your to do list or you worry you may have left the gas on. Writing down these unwanted thoughts might help you to move on from them for the time being. 

You need to give yourself time and space if you are to do your best work in a timely manner. What are your strategies going to be? How do you turn off those notifications? Can you find a suitable work space? Is the 7am - 8am slot the best for uninterrupted thinking? Is some time blocked out in the week for this essential work?

Cleese suggests that the worst possible internal interruption comes from fear of going wrong. Maybe this idea is rubbish and the work will be terrible. He argues that if you are going to be really creative, you must suspend this thought. Ground-breaking research, new work, means setting off to explore without knowing the destination. Possibly you will get lost or end up in the wrong place. Or you might find America. You won't know until you get there. Even if you go down the "wrong" track, something usable might emerge from it. Maybe the idea isn't wholly bad. You need to live with uncertainty and confusion for a time. At one stage of the process, there are no bad ideas. The ideas need to be clarified and then assessed. Perhaps you need to start again, or maybe there's something worth keeping and working with in there. After this analysis, it might be back to creative mode and so on. Draft 17 might be good. 

For creative work, what you are looking for is a degree of focus (I am working on this) and also a degree of openness (what am I going to say or do about it). If your thoughts wander too far, you need to try to bring them back to what you are supposed to be doing but also to allow them to think about it.   

Don't solve the passage!

 I have been reading a bit more of John Cleese on creativity (A short and cheerful guide, Hutchinson / Penguin 2020) and I think it has further application to bible study and preaching. 

Cleese lauds the power of the unconscious (or maybe semi-conscious) brain. As well as deliberate analytical logical thinking, there is a slower way of thinking which ruminates or plays. This involves an openness and enjoyment which does not feel a pressure too quickly to solve things. 

Cleese suggests that decisions are often best left to the last possible moment. That way you might get new information or new ideas. 

Your sermon of course need to be ready by the time you preach it. And you need to leave yourself enough time to make sure you are really ready. An idea / approach is not enough. You need to think about how you will preach and apply the message. 

But those of us trained in sentence flow diagrams, one main point and headings might be tempted to read the text only in one analytical mode and to solve it too quickly, I think. We might do well to train ourselves to live with some uncertainty about what this text means, how its going to apply and how I'll communicate it. Our sermons may then be more engaging and creative, less formulaic. Perhaps even more true to the whole spirit of the text. 

We all want to get our sermon ready, done. I sometimes go into my day off without really knowing my approach to the sermon and it can be an anxious distraction. But I do find that I can nevertheless do some good thinking about it in the shower, when out for a walk or driving or in bed, even if I might like to put the sermon prep brain to rest for a while. 

All this is one reason why I think its always best to read the text a few times on a Monday (or as soon as possible after your last sermon). Even if you don't manage to do any great work on the text, the mental wheels can perhaps begin to turn and the passage can gestate. A sermon might grow while the farmer sleeps, he knows not how. 

Thursday, September 02, 2021

On book buying

 My wife will no doubt agree that my book buying is totally healthy. All the books we have we need. We can afford. The piles on the shelves and on the floor are fine, essential, even. They're an investment. The kids will appreciate their legacy. But let's just imagine for a moment that there could be a dark side to book buying. What could it be?

(1) Certainly there is something impulsive, even compulsive about it. There is a lack of wisdom and patience. Is this the best book for me now? A cooling off period might do me good. After a week of mature reflection, I might not think this book is really worth my time, money and space just at the moment. 

(2) And then there is something about lack of diligence, lack of follow through. Reader, I confess to you that I have not read every word of all the books that I have. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but many of the books I already own are good and worthy. I could find help and enjoyment in them if I had not been distracted. It would do me good to go back to some of the volumes on my shelves or in my half-read piles before adding to them, 

(3) And there is something about what I think this book might give me, or appear to give me. Maybe this book will solve my problems. Or help me to be witty or interesting.... One might even say that I am almost building a physical fortress of books. They surround me on many sides as I write. But these books are not a sure defence. 

We could imagine these things. But of course I don't have a problem. Oh, there's the Amazon delivery man - again! 

Monday, August 30, 2021

Orme on The Reformation

There was a trend of increased respect for the monarchy (p349) and growing devotion to Christ (p350f). 

Literacy, text and printing were of course key (p351f). The rise of classical Latin meant medieval Latin was looked down upon. 

The role of indulgences (p354)

The Lord's Prayer and The Apostles' Creed were now learnt in English. The Ave Maria was dropped and the Ten Commandments were to be learnt. A protestant writer envisaged people never having learnt the Lord's Prayer in English and being relieved when Mary restored the Latin. 

Increasing emphasis on understanding and downgrading of ceremonial and imagery (p356)

Decreasing role for saints and pilgrimages (p360). Curtailment of festivals (p361) 

Claiming there was a shortage of fish, in 1538, dairy products were allowed during fasts. 

Edwardian focus on Bible reading, Sunday observance and works of charity. 

Clerical marriage. Clergy as royal official with an increased legal role. Fewer alternatives to the parish church / clergy. 

The altar became a table. It has traditionally been called "God's board". 

Evening usually what we would call the afternoon! 

Reform of lectionaries (p372)

1552 removal of idea of consecration? (p381)

Water in the font to be changed once a month (p383)

1549, baby still to be dripped in baptismal water three times as before but could be dipped in case of weakness 

Confirmation at any age but child must know and understand the catechism (p384) 

The practice of sending cakes to absent friends (p387)

Robert Johnson was presiding at Communion in 1573. He ran out of wine and served some unconsecrated wine. He died in prison (p389) 

1559 prayer book - the laudable science of music, modest and distinct

Young light folk excluded from rogations (p391) 

The role of printing in communication and uniformity (p391f)

Clergy still known as Sir Marc etc. until about 1600 as Shakespeare's plays show

Imagery now just the royal coat of arms!

"Most of all, seating provided continuity between the old services and the new ones. It must have offered reassurance. The owner of a seat enjoyed comfort, personal space, and a secure place both in church and community according to his or her status. The Reformers aimed to change what happened in people's heads, but wisely avoided interfering with what they did with their bottoms." (p398)

Life Events in Medieval English Churches

 One medieval child who was not baptised until the age of 12 was known as Pagan, but baptism on the day of birth became normal. The principal Godparent would normally name the child after himself, sometimes leading families to have John 2 and 3. One could not marry one's Godparents children. Baptisms also included exorcism, salt put in the mouth, the sign of the cross on head, breast and hand. The priests saliva was applied to the child's ears and nostrils. Oil and wax were added to the water which might be warmed with a red hot poker or even fire underneath. The priest breathed on the water three times in the shape of a cross. The water was renewed once a week but noble families could expect fresh water. The priest would hold the child's hand. Boys were held in the right hand, girls in the left. Baptism was by immersion three times facing different directions including downwards. The priest asked the baby if he wanted to be baptised and the Godparents answered "I do" on the child's behalf. The child would be dressed in a white cloth which must be returned to church later. He must be brought to confirmation with all godly haste. Parents were given other helpful advice like keeping the child from water, fire, horses foot and hounds tooth until the age of 7 and not to share a bed with the child until he could say "lie further away".

Only after the Reformation was confirmation delayed to a minimum age, of at least seven. Children were generally confirmed whenever a Bishop was available in medieval England. Some diocese required it to take place within a year or three of baptism and its delay was generally lamented. The call to delay confirmation until adolescence is rare.

Confirmation was sometimes called being "bishoped".

For medieval confirmation, you will need a sponsor, but avoid someone you might want to marry. Bring a bandage which will be wrapped around your chrismed forehead. Then go to the priest who will wash you and burn it. The Bishop might confirm you in the open air, but take care if the does it from horseback and there is a crowd.

In medieval marriage services, wives to be promised to be buxom, but this meant obedient, not buxom, in some forms, bonny and buxom in bed and board - bonair meaning courteous. Men would symbolically give cash to their wives and were expected to be able to make provision for them in case they died. 

Marriages could take place at any age. On typical ages, see p324

A private marriage vow whether consummated or not was considered binding. Marriage required consent and understanding and non-church weddings were often disputed and the church wanted to regularise and regulate. 

About 16% of adults in the 1680s were unmarried. 

It was customary to watch with a corpse, but this could include drinking, singing, dancing and even wrestling. 

"a medieval church was almost as much a place of the dead as it was of the living" (p348) 

The season and the year in medieval English churches

 Nicholas Orme, Going to Church, p259, a picture shows people's dogs following them to church 

Lengths of candle and wick might be stretched around the church to represent the church - similarly people could be measured with wax and the wax offered at a shrine for a sick person

Wax images of animals might be burnt to invoke a blessing on them

The Saturday before Ash Wednesday was sometimes known as Egg Saturday, as people used up their eggs before Lent 

Palm Sunday processions might include boy singers in wigs and beards to represent the prophets

After each verse of Gloria, laus, at honor cakes or breads with flowers might be thrown down from a gallery, scaffolding, tower or other high place in the church with the boys scrambling for them 

Men would be shorn or shaved before Easter Communion 

Margery Kempe gained written permission from the Archbishop of Canterbury to communicate every Sunday  

Two clerks or boys held a houseling trowel under each communicant's mouth to catch any crumbs. Wafers were placed directly into the mouth and a Londoner who took it in his hands was reported for disobedience. The wafer was washed down with unconsecrated wine. 

From Anglo-Saxon times it was customary to take one's Easter fare of meat, cheese, milk or eggs to church to be blessed and sprinkled with holy water. 

Church fundraising medieval style: from 1200 in Hocktide, on the Monday after Easter the women of the parish would capture the men and charge them a fee to be released. The next day the men did the same to the women. Proceeds to church funds.

The holidays of Rogationtide and Pentecost were a great time for a riot / protest. Food was running short. Roads were relatively dry (see p296)

Nicholas Orme on the day and the week in medieval English churches

 Rubrics were so called because they were in red. 

The Office readings included history and doctrine and less Bible (p208)

The canon or prayer of consecration was sometimes said quietly as a mark of its holiness or even in silence on the grounds that it was personal to the priest and this avoided disrespect from his listeners (p215)

Only the priest normally took communion even if other priests were present, except on Easter day when all were required to communicate. 

Some important people may have wanted to participate in processions with the clergy to mark their status but lesser people were involved only as punishments. 

Priests were warned to say the services in church. It was a major sin to say them in a chamber or garden. 

Priests could normally only celebrate one mass a day. Exceptions were allowed at Christmas and Easter. 

"A parish clergyman was, to a significant extent, a chantry priest: almost as much as those who were so called. His general responsibilities complemented, not replaced, the practice of praying for the departed." (p224)

Augustine claimed that being present at mass meant one would have the food one needed for the day, freedom from loss of eyesight, protection from sudden death and delay of onset of old age. Angels would count your steps to and from mass. 

Mass did not require any congregation nor any congregational participation, except someone (a clerk) to say responses and assist. 

Hugh Latimer's words to be used at aspersions (a reminder of baptism and Christ's blood) p236. Similarly on giving out of bread / "cake" after the service see p246

Bishops could require notices of excommunication etc. Those who poached in the bishop's deer park were censured across the diocese. 

Thomas Becon satirised the excitement at the elevation of the host imaging people shouting out for the priest to hold it up higher / people in front to bend down so that he could see his maker (p244) 

Some clergy were reported for not preaching for a whole year, or for three or four years. "clerical preaching was not common, even in the mid sixteenth century" (p249)

One clergyman complained that if a Bishop came people flocked to hear him preach and did not mind if he admonished their sins, but they would not accept it from their priest 

Men would sometimes go off in a corner during the sermon to talk with women or play with their purses, keys or knives. 

One parishioner was called before a church court for calling out, "Leave off thy preaching for it is not worth a fart." 

Nicholas Orme on the medieval English church congregation

 Church attendance figures were not normally recorded until the mid 19th C though from at least the 13th C, incumbents and churchwardens would have an idea of the number of Easter Communicants since they had to provide for them. Easter communion (after confession) was compulsory for all those after the age of puberty (thought of as 12 for a girl and 14 for a boy). 

Some people wanted to get their church-going out of the way and preferred an early mass to the main mid-morning one. So called "Glutton Masses" would allow those who had attended to spend the rest of the day eating and drinking. 

The early 16th C Duke of Buckingham had a long bridge built from his castle to the church. 

The chamberlain of a lord might be sent ahead of him to church to prepare his pew with cushion, carpet, curtain, beads (rosary) and book. 

As well as craft guilds etc. there were also "companies" of maidens, young men and wives. 

Schoolboys were urged to kneel in church, not to whisper or tell stories or cross their legs as this was slovenly and could bring ill luck. Congregations were told to be silent and devout, to say prayers or other devotions. Children should not run around tumultuously in churchyards or other places near churches. 

In 1429 the parishioners of Coverham in Yorkshire were bringing swords, bows, arrows and staves to church. They left such a stack of them in the porch that it was hard to enter. 

Meredydd Wynne, a gentleman of North Wales in the time of Henry VII lived not far from the church but when attending he would leave guards at home and post a watchman on a near by hill journeying flanked by 20 archers. 

Disturbances could be caused in church by the restless walking around etc., gossips, quarrellers and the resentful calling out etc. (pp168f) 

One man contemptuously washed his hands in the font and have holy bread to his dog. 

Men seem generally not to have uncovered their heads in church, only at the elevation of the wafer. 

It was the practice to receive unconsecrated bread and wine after communion. 

At least since the 14th C, it was common to bow at the name of Jesus since Paul had said "at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow"

Kneel in English could mean a brief genuflection or getting down on both knees. 

On making the sign of the cross see p176.

Tyndale complained that the people cross themselves with a legion of crosses behind and before, on their very arses and heels and soles of their feet (p177) 

The priest would kiss his assistants, the altar, the consecrated chalice and the pax at the mass. 

One writer could say in 1554, "who could, twenty years ago, say the Lord's Prayer in English?" It was better known in Latin. 

People expressed their scepticism in picturesque ways: There is more good in a cask of ale than in the four gospels. Matins and evensong are no better than the rumbling of tubs or the mass of a bad priest than the sound of a barking dog. I would as soon see the consecration of a pudding as a mass or as soon be buried under an oak as in a Christian cemetery. When you see my soul hung on a hedge, cast stones at it.  

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Church buildings and churchyards in medieval England

 (See below for previous blogposts on consecration and seating). 

Nicholas Orme, Going to Church in Medieval England, chapter 3.

Churches faced east where possible. This was the ancient and universal custom. The connection with the sun rising in the east, the location of Jerusalem and Jesus ascending to the east of his disciples may be later rationalisations (p93). 

Altars were only normally placed right against the east wall from the 13th C (p93).

The notion of the Real Presence made it desirable that the act of consecration should be visible but also secluded and holy (p94, 138)

Despite the decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, it was common until the Reformation for English churches to display a consecrated wafer hanging in a pyx for veneration (p97) 

People increasingly wanted to be buried within the church. The patron, rectors and vicars had the right to burial in the chancel. (p99). Some incumbents or churchwardens charged fees for internal burials. St Laurence Reading expected a further 8d for closing a grave! (p99)

"Squints", windows for looking from the transepts to the chancel sometimes existed (p101)

Churches were locked at night. Sometimes parish clerks were required to sleep in them. In Louth, they were only to leave after dark is the vicar needed one of them to visit the sick (p105)

Bridges from castles / noble houses to churches became fashionable in the 14th C (p106)

Cockerels in spires represented watchfulness (p107)

Towers might be used as strongholds or places of refuge and might have some fortifications (p107)

Clergy taking the sacrament to the sick would take a hand bell with them (p107)

Bells would be named, e.g for Jesus or the saints or with nicknames, Singer, Dancer. They would be consecrated by the bishop with water, chrism and incense. See prayer used on p108. Bells might ring an hour before the 7am service and then at 15 minute intervals (p109). They would also serve as a signal to get up and go to bed (curfew, cover your fire). Bells were thought to deter demons and were often rung during storms. 

Some churches had an image of The Sunday Christ, wounded by tools and games by those who neglected the sabbath for work or play (p111). 

Some church porches might have windows and fireplaces (p117). 

Weapons, dogs and hunting birds were sometimes brought to church, though this was discouraged (p129). Sometimes dogs came on their own accord and it was quipped that they were sent away because they brought no monetary offerings. Some churches employed dog-whippers. (p130)

Church authorities did not necessarily approve of the use of churches for secular purposes. Courts might be held in them and probate granted. Arbitration, peace-making and teaching were thought appropriate. Dancing, games and drinking to raise money for the church were discouraged. Bread, wine and cheese were sometimes served after baptisms and weddings or on feast days. Some respectable trading was sometimes allowed. Sometimes there were plays. These more secular activities increasingly moved to a church house or guildhall. 

Writers might feel the need to discourage sex in the church or churchyard. It was said one couple who fornicated under the altar were welded together and could only be released after prayers were said for their freedom (p137). 

Those walking through the churchyard should pray. They might recieve as many years off purgatory as their were bodies in the churchyard. 

Violent bloodshed was held to be a contamination and could lead to the suspension of services until cleansing by the bishop. 

Prostitutes in London could not be burried in their churchyard and had their own "single women's churchyard" (p134) Still born children were also rejected but midwives sometimes baptised them or fathers might burry them at night without permission (p134) 

Dancing, dishonest / spectacular games, wrestling, Sunday markets and the pasturing of animals were variously forbidden in churchyards (p136). 

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Seating in the medieval church

 In nine pages (p120ff) Nicholas Orme tells us more than we could possibly imagine about this difficult and controversial subject (Going to church in medieval England). 

Sometimes there was little or no seating. Some people were desperate to sit in the chancel, others were keen to exclude them. The church often tried to reserve it for the clergy, but it lost that battle. Patrons and some great persons thought they had a right to sit there. Choirs would sit there in due course. People wanted a better view. Or some privacy. Or comfort. Or assistance with standing and kneeling. Or even warmth. You may have had to / been able to bring your own seat. Or pay to sit in one. People fought over their seats. Or took one another to court over the subject. Did the seating, like the church, belong to the Rector, or not? Was it part of the church building? Sometimes seats were linked to dwellings. Normally seating was according to rank. Churchwardens had the power to assign seating. You might be able to move to a better vacated seat, but you might have to pay extra for the upgrade. Often men and women sat separately, but people would sometimes sit with their families and servants. Sometimes children and servants would sit together. Sometimes seating seems only to have been provided for women. People sometimes wanted to be buried near their seat. Once people had seats, they weren't meant to stand up without reason or wander about. Seating was of course conducive to nice long sermons. 

How to consecrate a medieval church building

 These rites date from Anglo-Saxon times and consecration was required by the papal legate to England in 1237. 

You are going to need a bishop. He and his entourage should circle the building three times singing prayers. Sand should be sprinkled on the floor in the form of a saltire cross linking the four corners of the church. Inside, the bishop and his staff should write Greek letters along one diagonal and Roman along another, showing that the church is founded on the written Word of God. Sprinkle with holy water. Crosses of chrism oil should be applied in twelve places. Bless the high altar and place relics within it. 

PS. Your church will also need a name, in the form of dedication, which the bishop must approve e.g. The Trinity, Christ, Mary, one or more of the saints or All Saints. Peter, Andrew and Michael would be popular choices, but you might go for a local favourite such as Cuthbert, Botolph or Petroc, depending on where you live, or occasionally the founder. You should probably get a statue of said saint for the high altar. You could also consider a banner. You are going to want to observe the saint's day as a patronal festival. 

Going To Church in Medieval England, Nicholas Orme, p85ff

The staff of the medieval church

 As described by Nicholas Orme in Going to Church in Medieval England chapter two. 

There were all sorts of clergy, secular and religious. Deans, abbots, priors and monks. Bishops, priests, deacons and sub-deacons. Prebends. Rectors. Vicars. Canons. Chaplains. Chantry / mass priests. Curates. Archdeacons. Rural deans. 

There were also assistants to the clergy, lay clerks / sacristans / sextons / suffragans / workmen etc. Psalmists (from the age of seven); acolytes (from the age of fourteen). It was thought pretty essential for every clergy to have an assistant. Who else would sprinkle the people with holy water (this distinctive became a term for the priest's helper) or say the responses? They would lock and unlock the church, prepare the altar, ring the bell etc. 

Candidates for the priesthood would be examined by the archdeacon or some other official. They must be twenty four years old, of legitimate birth, free status and without serious injury. They should be able to make out and pronounce the Latin services (and ideally understand them) and be able to sing. And they must have a "title" showing they have some job or role which will give means of support. 

Lack of clerical learning was often lamented but on the other hand shining learning and dark life was thought a disgraceful detraction. Simple literacy and a humble heart might be much more acceptable and profitable. Many of the saints were illiterate but the Holy Spirit had given them grace to answer many difficult questions and to be a help to the people. Common sense and experience of life were very valuable. 

"Reason dictates that rectors and vicars existed who were conscientious, helpful, and popular." However, evidence for this is hard to find. Records exist of a few especially holy clergy but it is mainly those who were complained about who have left a record.

Inductions were normally by the rural dean.

Celibacy developed gradually and was difficult to enforce. For hundreds of years every church coundil would complain about this or seek to regulate it. Sons would often act as apprentices and could expect to inherit the living. 

Clergy were sometimes enabled to attend school or university (drawing on tithes etc. as absentees by way of a scholarship) and were sometimes expected to provide some training or schooling. 

Clergy held their posts for life and this was often a problem when clergy became ill or infirm. Some bishops provided hospitals for the clergy. It became common to be able to retire with a pension of 1/3 of the benefice income, where a clergyman could be supported out of the other 2/3.

At St Neot, Cornwall, the Vicar became a leper in 1314 so the Vicarage was divided into two and a stand in was brought in to live in the other half of the vicarage and perform the duties of the vicar!

"Rectors" had absolute "rule" of their parishes, the cure of souls and all the rights of the benefice. The clergy counted as the first estate and were therefore addressed with titles of honour "Sir Marc" etc. as if they were knights or "Master" or "Doctor" if they were graduates.

Rectors were originally responsible for the upkeep of the church and clergy house and provision of robes and books, candles etc. This was gradually transferred to the parish, first the nave and then the chancel.

Parish choirs became increasingly important with the development of polyphony, often with the employment of lay director. Boy trebles and adult basses allowed two octaves of "pricksong" to be sung. Organs were sometimes introduced to provide music besides the singing, not to accompany it.

The role of proctors / keepers of the church store / church reeves / church masters / kirk-masters / high wardens or churchwardens began to develop, chosen by the people for a year or two. The two wardens might be assisted by four, eight or another number of men.

Gherit van der Goude thought a woman could assist the priest if no man were available, and rarely this took place but it was a matter of complaint. Women could sometimes be patrons or church wardens. They often assisted with washing linen etc.

Going To Church in Medieval England - Introduction and Origins of the Parish


Nicholas Orme’s Going to Church in Medieval England (Yale University Press, 2021) does not prosecute any particular thesis but tries to describe church buildings and what went on in them (ministers and their functions and how lay people received them at church) from the time of St Augustine of Canterbury (about AD 597) to Elizabeth I (1559). A host a fascinating details are revealed.  

One of the most important things to realise about Going to Church in Medieval England is how little we know about it. For example, before 1400, we don't know what time services started or how long they lasted. Women are much less visible than men and apart from baptisms and some boys serving at the altar etc. children are largely invisible.

We should beware arguments from silence. We sometimes read about what some people thought ought to have happened rather than what was actually going on. Some practices varied considerably. But Orme’s way of telling the story tends to reveal significant continuities. Much that we recognise today is very ancient.

The earliest English churches were monasteries and minsters (the words share the same origin). (p7ff) Clergy and people would sometimes have to travel considerable distances. The parish system evolved naturally and was consolidated and regulated. Ideas still familiar today such as glebe land emerge early. The rights of owners of churches and patrons began to be limited, bishops having to approve appointments of clergy, for example. After 1200, parishes tended to be combined into viable economic units which could support a priest, a practice which continues today. (Some places were extra-parochial or could be held in common between two parishes). 

Even if most people were within five miles of a parish church, a journey of a couple of miles could be tiresome on a rainy or snowy Sunday or for a baptism or with a body for burial. Some parish churches were in isolated locations. Many chapels developed. Although we associate the word “chapel” with non-conformity today, the word comes from a famous relic, the capella or cloak of St Martin (p35). Some chapels were private, some were chapels of ease and some were devoted to a particular saint. At Guy’s Cliff near Warwick, the romantic chapel formed part of a kind of theme park to the legendary hero (p42). In the 1380s, Lollards showed their contempt for the disused chapel of St Katherine by burning her image to cook their cabbage soup (p39). Bishops might have chapels are places for retired retreat, reading and prayer with the clergy. Chapels might develop on prominent roads or on bridges and offerings might be used for their upkeep. Chapels could offer some independence from the parish priest and its authorities, but the parish was often jealous of its finances and rights. Chapels would sometimes campaign for parish status or rights. It was alleged that in Templeton in Devon graves of fake antiquity had been created to promote burials.

Rivalries between parishes were common. Buildings might compete. When parishioners gathered behind their banners at the cathedral at Pentecost, violence and disorder might ensue.  

Wells, springs, hills, caves, trees and woods were sometimes Christianised and cleansed from their pagan and demonic associations by prayer and fasting by a monk who took up residence for a while.

Crosses were built to proclaim the faith and as a prompt to prayer.

Churchgoing in Britain could be envisaged at least by AD 313 (p5)

Wine sometimes seems to have been hard to come by. The use of water and ale at Communion had to be forbidden. Communion seems often to have been received outside the church building (p25) and taken to the sick. Children were not necessarily excluded from Communion.

Clergy would originally be singing the seven daily services announced by a bell, later consolidated into three groups (p27)

People should avoid eating, drinking and talking during church services (p28)

Sabbath observance sometimes extended from midday on Saturday to dawn on Monday (p28)

It was customary for a man’s second-best animal to be given to the church on his death. (p32)

Tithes were a matter of much dispute and regulation. Until the late 12th C, it was possible to divert tithes from one’s local church to another institution one wated to support. See p34 for a list of crops and animals that could be tithed. People sometimes paid additional “secret tithes” and wills often made provision for “forgotten tithes”. Some tithes continued to be paid in crops and animals until 1836. Penalties for failing to pay tithes could be severe. King Edgar specified that the unpaid tithe should be collected, the defaulter should be left with one tenth and the remaining eight-tenths should be confiscated. (p33)

* * *

The book is enhanced by fifty-nine illustrations and a useful list of the technical terms that abound in church life.

Monday, August 23, 2021

On Becoming a Christian

 In his little book Creativity, John Cleese explains that he didn't join the Cambridge Footlights because he wanted to go into show business. He was studying law and intended to become a lawyer. It was just that the Footlights gang were the nicest, funniest, most interesting, least stuck up mix of people he had ever met and they were such good company.

I wonder if this kind of thing is not an important part in some people becoming Christian and joining the church: there's something special about these people. I want to be with them and be like them and join in with what they're doing. 

Life through death

 For a few weeks now I have been living in the book of Ecclesiastes. With its message of foggy vapour, it tries to teach us that life is but a breath. It is short and elusive. We cannot control the wind. We cannot hold our breath. We cannot understand this misty life. Much is fog to us. And there is much under the sun to cry out against: pain, injustice, futility.  

And this afternoon I attended a funeral online. The dear person who had died had a relatively short life and was often limited to a hospital room, to a bed. She suffered terribly. But those closest to her would say that in the midst of it all, in it, not despite it, partly through it, she found a truthfulness and gratitude, an honesty and an appreciation of grace which only daily dying and a reckoning with death could bring. In the midst of death, there was a true life. A short and painful life, but a life well lived. In a way, the best of lives. 

All of us, in fact, are always only a breath away from eternity. And should that not enable us to live? Should the fleeting nature of life not enable us to be more real, more present? Is not so much of this vain world boasted pomp and show? Should not our mortality deliver us from pretence? 

As the Preacher would say to us, what do wealth, power, success and status really count for when we are but grass which will pass away, flowers that will fade?

Life is only ever through death. 

May God grant us something of the beauty of the one greater than Solomon who was wise enough to trust his heavenly Father and not to worry about yesterday or tomorrow but to live today knowing that he would die. 

If we could only see it, we are weak, mortal, often foolish. But this cruciform life, this death to false selves, false hopes, false gods, is the way to a more glorious, solid, indestructible, everlasting life. 

May we die to sin and self, that we might truly live both now and for ever. 

Creativity in preaching

 I have just picked up John Cleese Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide (Penguin, 2020). And it has set me thinking about creativity in preaching. Cleese writes mainly as a writer, so of course there are obvious cross-overs for those who write or plot their sermons. 

Some of Cleese hints and suggestions will be familiar to the preacher. We are sometimes told to kill our darlings. The thing you most enjoyed in the study does not necessarily belong in this or any sermon. And we are sometimes encouraged to get a second opinion, for example. Preaching groups sometimes exist to give this kind of feedback from time to time.

The preacher, like the writer, can face the fear of the blank page. Or the treadmill of deadlines. This may motivate or paralyse. Both may worry about accuracy, or originality, or boring. Like some writers, some preachers struggle to start, or to finish. Writer and preacher alike want their content to engage and move.  

The dynamic which Cleese describes between tortoise and hare, diligently and doggedly pressing on and inspiration, insight and creativity, will, I think, also strike a chord with experienced preachers.

It seems to me that in our circles we tend to underestimate the importance of creativity in preaching. We can be very formulaic. Follow these steps and the sausage machine will produce the sermon. But it seems to me that in thinking about the big idea, or outline / headings, or applications there are often "aha!" lightbulb moments where one thinks, yes, that'll preach. Understanding and communicating the good news of the scriptures well is something of a creative process. 

Some other older schools of preacher (maybe Spurgeon or Lloyd Jones) might actually remind us of this element of creativity in that they did not spend as much time on an outline of a passage as we typically might. They would emphasise the freedom of the preacher to explore all the richness of the text and could take a verse in a number of legitimate directions. This would be a prayerful decision of the preacher thinking about the needs of his hearers. This is not to say that they neglected the Melodic Line of the text, but they would sometimes play other themes in other keys.  

Cleese also claims that "your thoughts follow your mood". And again I think this is something the preacher might do well to consider. You need not only to prepare your sermon but to prepare yourself. You may even need to prepare yourself to prepare. If you are brooding on that PCC meeting, you are not likely to do your best work in Philippians. Texts too will have their moods, and the preacher will need both to engage with them and perhaps separate himself from them. It is not always right to berate your congregation for the Galatian heresy if they are actually faithful people who are tired in their doing of good rather than near apostates who are at risk of deserting Christ. 

We might do well to think about creative preaching. And some of us might also want to make our sermons more short and cheerful. Our congregations might thank us for it. 

Friday, August 20, 2021

Bernard of Clairvaux

 Today the church remembers Bernard of Clairvaux (died 1153). If you don't have time to read his 86 sermons on (part of) The Song of Songs, you might care to Google the hymns attributed to him:

"O Sacred Head, Now Wounded"

"Jesus the Very Thought of Thee"

"Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts"

It is fascinating to see Bernard praised by both Reformers and Popes. In humanist circles in the 16th and 17th Centuries it became common to refer to The “Mellifluous Doctor” as the last but not the least of the Fathers of the Church. The Reformation is sometimes thought of as a battle over the legacy of Augustine, but a similar point could be made about Bernard when we think of his attitude to Mary, the Crusades, monasticism and justification.

Vinita Hampton Wright reflects that it is impressive that Bernard, a vowed celibate in an age uncomfortable with sex, should take on The Song and find there love, aching desire, yearning which can be fulfilled only ultimately in the satisfaction of divine love. Sex for us is so often bound up with fear, or worship, or mutilation but it should speak to us of a passionate integrity of body and soul which is not so far from the love of God.

Bernard, sermon introduction, On Conversion: "You have come, I believe, to hear the Word of God. I can see no other reason why you should rush here like this! I approve this desire with all my heart, and I rejoice with you in your praiseworthy zeal." Quotes Ps 103:18; 30:5; Ez 18:23; Mt 18:3; 1 Pet 4:6 etc. etc. and exhorts them to obey the word. He seems to have forgotten to start with a joke, funny story or item from the newspaper.

The following are paraphrased / inspired by On Conversion, not necessarily exact / direct quotations:

You can be converted only by the inner voice of God, which is a word of power and magnificence. It is not hard to hear this voice; rather, the difficulty is shutting it out. This voice is a ray of light which shows you yourself, your sin, your inner darkness. This voice, this light, are the Son of God, the Word of the Father, the brightness of his glory.

Preaching to the scholars and students on Paris, he tells them, amongst other things, that God knows all about any rapes they have committed.

One way Bernard thinks of the penalty of sin is to be trapped with yourself for ever with no possibility of improvement.

It is fitting that those who have spurned the delights of the Father's table should long for the swine's husks but find no satisfaction in them

Nothing is more certain in life than death; nothing more uncertain than the hour of death

Do not be complacent even though you belong to the church for the fishermen do not keep all the contents of their nets - the dead fish they throw away.

We will all reap what we sow. Both the righteous and the foolish will be surprised by the abundance of the harvest, good or bad, so let us never think there is any small sin.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Thinking of God


Most of us can’t always be deliberately thinking of God – we’ve got to do other stuff we have to concentrate on.

You don’t want to crash your car because you were contemplating God’s omnipresence.

But having said that, Sunday should affect the whole week.

God is not just to be confined to Quiet Times.

If you drive along with another person, you’re not always completely concentrating only on them – you think about the traffic, the road conditions and the directions – but you are generally aware of their presence with you.

Perhaps you even drive taking into account their preferences and their safety.

Maybe that’s the kind of God-consciousness we could aspire to?

God is always with you and you live before his face.

You should try to be aware of that even while you get on with some of your stuff and it might make a big difference.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

James K. Smith, On The Road With Saint Augustine


James K. Smith, On The Road With Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts (Brazos Press, 2019) hb, 240pp


Metaphors to do with journeys, pilgrimage, exile, refuge and home run through this attempt to travel with and learn from the Bishop of Hippo. Smith literally visited some of the sites associated with Augustine and invites us to come along. The saint is brought into dialogue with literature, contemporary music, existential philosophy, aspects of Smith’s own life and contemporary culture. I was reminded of something of the great influence and legacy of Augustine, and sometimes surprised to find him popping up in places I had not expected or forgotten (e.g. in Sartre and Wilde[1]). The work is an encouragement to go back to the life and work of Augustine. Smith especially emphasised the value of Augustine’s letters and sermons as well as his doctrinal works, although much of the focus here is on the story of The Confessions.


Three chapters provide initial orientation to Augustine and his usefulness to us. Ten further chapters explore the themes of freedom, ambition, sex, friendship, mothers and fathers, justice, story and death.  


Those already familiar with the Augustine and Smith will have heard some of this before. Ideas around loves (what do we love, how and why) and idolatry (what do we use / enjoy, do we exchange God for his gifts and make the good things he gives us into false gods) recur. See p100 for a useful summary relating to sex and promiscuity.


For some reason I stalled about half way through my reading of this book. I can’t recall the first half in any great detail or why I wasn’t immediately compelled to read on. Likely the fault is in me not in the book. The second half I found engaging and profitable.


(Some Protestants might be worried by “prayer” to Monica or by the notion of her praying for us.)


Some favourite moments:


You can leave God / home / parents etc. without actually leaving and getting a bus ticket. Not every prodigal needs a passport (p3)


The human soul is a huge abyss. God knows the number of hairs on our head but it easier to count our hairs than our moods or the workings of our heart (p11, Confessions 4.22, 96)


Henri de Lubac: we are made with a natural desire for the supernatural (The Mystery of the Supernatural) (p49)


Refugee spirituality – not escapism; unsettled but hopeful, tenuous but searching, eager to find the home to which we have never been (p50)


The problems both of ambition and the lack of ambition, and of some criticisms of ambition e.g. of uppity brown women (p77)


Busyness a bastard form of ambition (Eugene Peterson) (p78)


Opposites of ambition not humility but sloth, passivity, timidity, complacency (p78)


Dilletante – one who takes delight (p80)


Lowing our sights if we are ambitious only for attention (to be noticed) or domination (to control) (p83)


The search for personal authenticity - Sartre’s denial of grace / gift, of friendship / we / communal / communion (p124)


“leaving you room but not leaving you” (p136)


The script that guided his way of life was the Scriptures (p167)


Word as sacrament, God’s action (p169) and sacramental fatherhood, love in brokenness (p202f)


The problem of colleges as credential factories, mere escalators to wealth and power (p142) – learning must not only position but transform (p143)


Camus thought we must choose between the world and God and chose the world. Augustine thought that in the incarnation, God had chosen the world (p157)


Identity partly through solidarity and community not only through expressive individualism (p159) – we find an identity by being part of a story with others (p163)


Facing my death is rather different from a theoretical or abstract acceptance of future death (p210)


How to die is really a question of how to live (p211)


Justice chapter – evil is always necessarily inexplicable. There is never a good reason for it. It is always a kind of irrationality / madness.

[1] The Confessions and the City of God topped the list of books Wilde requested in prison (p166). See Wright, Built of Books.

Some advice to a young Christian theological student


I read theology as an undergraduate and since then spent a year with UCCF / RTSF and I have had two stints as a student at a theological college. Now I’m a vicar but I think of myself as a Christian theological student still, of course!


Here are some things I have found helpful / might say to others / my younger self. Naturally some of this is do as I say not as I did or even do. Maybe something here will be of use to you or those you seek to support.


Pray most days, both about your studies and what you have been learning, and about other things. Pray for other people and for “the real world.”


Read the Bible lots. Read things you are not studying or teaching. Think about it. Read fast and slow, long and short.


Go to church. Learn humbly. Resist the temptation to be in critique mode. Say thank you. Encourage. Serve in some practical way. Help out with Toddlers or make the coffee. Sing. Be quiet.


Don’t show off your new knowledge. A little knowledge is dangerous. You should come to realise how little you know. Rarely does anyone need or want to hear about the original Greek or Hebrew!


But look for opportunities to teach. Having to teach something will really help you to understand it and to expose where you don’t.


It is really worth paying some attention to study skills: how to read and take notes and write an essay and revise etc. Writing essays and passing exams is a bit like a game and you should learn how to play it. You should also actually try to, you know, learn and grow, not just get that First or complete the course satisfactorily.


Few books and good is better than many bad books. Some books deserve to be read slowly, fully and often. Read some old books. Where you can, spend some time in the originals. Summaries of Luther may not do him justice. If your essay is on Nehemiah, read it repeatedly and don’t depend on the Study Guide to Nehemiah.


Some books can be gutted and skimmed. Look at introductions and conclusions, headings, summaries etc. Spend an hour with a book. Which parts if any deserve to be read in greater detail? Quite likely there is a law of diminishing returns.


Try to be aware of useful (and academically respectable) reference works e.g. Bible Dictionaries, Oxford Handbook.


Perhaps consider keeping a note book or blogging or Tweeting. Especially note things to follow up.


It is not at all surprising if you have many unanswered questions. If your liberal tutor beats you in arguments over the dating of Daniel, it does not mean he is right.


Consider your choice of papers carefully. Do you prefer exams or not? Should you try your hand at longer essays / research? What do you already know and where are the gaps? What are your interests? What will be most useful in the long term? If you care about grades, what is likely to be easiest / most successful for you? What could you most easily learn about yourself later and where would you really benefit from a tutor or class? Are you overloading yourself with Greek, Hebrew, lots of technical philosophy and history papers you know nothing about?


If you can, learn languages as well as you can as early as you can. Practice them often and keep them up.


If you are studying at a liberal or secular institution, you might major in subjects that have less spin than others – arguably, e. g. history rather than biblical studies. Will your tutor let you pick any of your tutors? Is there an evangelical you could ask for? Could you pick a subject for the sake of the teacher?


You should expect to do some extra work if your reading list is all liberal. What evangelical scholars could you read? Find a book with a good bibliography / useful footnotes.


Have regard for the tradition of the church. Almost always, someone will have thought about this stuff much better than you before. Some will make the mistake of despising or ignoring this.


Aim for both depth and breadth. Over-specialisation can be a problem in theology. The biblical studies and the systematics department really need on another. The OT people and the NT people need to talk! Philosophy and history would often help. Think about how your studies might join up and relate. Pay some attention to the history of interpretation, doctrine and philosophy. Seek out introductions and overviews. And also think about application. Why are your learning this stuff? What difference will it make to you or to the life of the church?


Consider adopting one or two pet subjects such as a favourite Bible book or theologian.


Don’t underestimate the value of plodding. Lots can be done in half an hour most days.


Build a useful library.


Talk to your pastor. Consider seeking out an older wiser theologian. If you are a first year, a third or fourth year or graduate student could be a great help to you.


Don’t take yourself or your studies too seriously.


You may find lots more helpful stuff via Theology Network (the new name for UCCF's RTSF): https://www.uccfleadershipnetwork.org/network/theology

Save The Parish


You may have seen something of the Save The Parish campaign either online or in the national press.


Let me say to begin with that in many ways I am all for the parish and I sympathise with much of the campaign. I think the local church is really where the action is. And I think it is great that the C of E has a vision for the whole nation, for every blade of grass and for those who don’t yet come to church.


But we would do well to ask: What is the parish? Does it need saving? From what? For what?


There is much that is good about the Church of England and its parish system. But if we were starting from scratch, we probably wouldn’t invent the whole thing quite like this.


One of the main points about the C of E is that it isn’t a blank sheet of paper. It is hundred and hundreds of years of history, some good and some bad, some suitable for the future and some not. We must value and give thanks for our inheritance. We are custodians of a great and various tradition. But we must not be imprisoned by it – or by one understanding of a particular version of it. Sadly, in some places the expensively educated Rector in his mansion next door to his single parish church is a thing of the past.


In some places the parish is in rude good health. In most it faces challenges. In a few places it is in crisis.


The challenges are not just financial. Our buildings are a wonderful blessing, a great witness and a real asset for ministry and mission. But often a burden too. Sometimes they are in the middle of a field miles from the nearest High Street. Being from the 13th Century, some of them need a little work – and skilled stonemasons are less ubiquitous than handy persons or builders who could throw up a value for money building with a loo, small meeting rooms, an office and actual working heating. Sometimes almost every parishioner could sit in the parish church and sadly we don’t often need that. It is next to impossible to close many of our church buildings and even if we could, some would need to be given away rather than making us millions.


Above all, the challenge within and without the church is spiritual. If the parish is to be saved, it can only really be saved by and for Jesus. The church exists to know, love and follow Jesus and to make him known. It is not for us to save the parish church as a museum. If the nation wants to do that, fine, but it must pay for it. Our structures, buildings and finance must be fit for purpose and that means keeping what good we can from the legacy parish system, but also being open to change. Life is much less parochial than it once way. It may be the church must be.


The church only has a future is we have kids and nurture them in the faith, and if we see others won for Christ. Given that many of our committed church members are in their eighties, we can’t just look for natural growth. We need to pray and plan for the miracle of conversion, for new birth. It may be that new wine will burst some old wine skins.  


In most diocese, there is no magic money tree. The cavalry is not coming. If Jesus is to save the parish church, he will must likely do it through us here. There could no doubt be better sharing and mutual support. Diocesan, national and international initiatives can have their place. But it is the clergy and people of the parish who must be and share good news in the parish if these somewhat dry bones are to live. The Word and the Spirit retain their power. We must pray and plan and preach to these dry bones by word and deed, asking that Jesus will be pleased once again to revive church and nation.


The salvation of the church is secure. The gates of hell will not prevail against it. But how and where the C of E parish church will be remains to be seen. If we are to answer these questions, we need to prayerfully revisit the what and why of the parish church with open bibles and open minds.