Wednesday, January 21, 2015

On cooking, baking - and custard creams

I've been thinking about food. Or, to be more accurate, I've been thinking about cooking and baking and how I feel about these activities - and about the fact that this morning I spent about an hour reading a recipe book. (I was given a pile of wonderful Ottolenghi books for Christmas; they're already full of paper markers and a list to tell me where exciting-looking things are.) It is perhaps a clue to my attitude that I then felt compelled to clean the bath - for a small inner voice told me that I'd been wasting time, sitting in my cosy living-room looking at the birds on the snowy feeder and reading about food. And cooking.

I love food. I'm what you would well call fussy, in that I like interesting and well-cooked food, and that there are things I body-swerve with increasing dedication: cream, fatty foods, shellfish, anything that will lie weightily in my digestive system long after I'd prefer to have forgotten about it. My mother, and now my sister, have long mocked my preference for green tea. But because I love good food, I try to produce same - and on the whole I would say I succeed. The creation on the right is one I recently enjoyed - venison fillet accompanied by freekeh pilaff and garlic yogurt - and I usually say that no-one who likes eating should be incapable of producing a decent meal.

But even after almost 44 years of being responsible for making the meals in my own home, I still feel it's not really me. I have the sense that I'm a sort of dilettante cook, playing at it without having acquired the basic skills or even the right equipment. Baking is even worse. My closest pal throws pastry together without a thought and uses it to entertain my grandchildren; she may never know (unless she reads this) how much awe I hold her in for this simple act. My Christmas cake is the best I've ever eaten, but since I stopped making children's birthday cakes it's the only cake I ever make - and more or less the only cake I eat, come to that.

So when I refer to myself as a Domestic Goddess, you should know that I do so in the spirit of deepest irony. Cooking - and the odd bit of baking - gets fitted in round the rest of my life even if the results are totally toothsome, and there's always this feeling that I'm in the same boat as the monkeys writing a Shakespeare play. Or something. My attitude to eating, I've decided, has hardened over the years. I shall never again, for example, eat a pizza - because you have to climb a Munro to use up the resulting calories. And I shall leave you with one final, devastating truth:

Life is too short to eat a custard cream.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

A kind of madness ...

It's a sort of madness, I suppose. This need to be out of doors, preferably away from streets and cars and - if I'm honest - other people. This compulsion to walk fast enough, far enough, or maybe high enough to be tired, to warm up, to feel hungry.

Yesterday was not one in which I could accomplish this - a trip over the water to an appointment in Greenock and a subsequently late lunch meant that daylight had almost gone, and the rain was battering down once more. But today?

Not as promising as you might think. We drove out of Dunoon into a blizzard; the hill where we planned to walk couldn't be seen. But there was a glimmer further west, the merest hint of blue in the sky. I felt all would be well. And it was. Actually, we had one or two fierce snow showers in our faces as we walked, and an arboretum wasn't exactly a sensible place to start in the aftermath of a gale. There were branches and twigs all over the track; four conifers had fallen in a straight line, each one miraculously not hitting any of the trees among which they toppled; one huge eucalyptus was down while another swayed at a crazy angle. We could hear the wind roaring through the tree-tops, and there were alarming creaks all around. There were two daunting moments when we had to duck under half-fallen trees on the track. (One, two, three ... Why? What will that do? ... Make sure we have no survivor guilt.) But then we reached the lookout point, and the sun was out. It was quite sheltered, and the tall deciduous conifers to the left of the picture were swaying in unison as if conducted. My shadow, and that of the lone tree beside me, were clear on the far side of a small gorge - you can tell how far by the tiny figure beside the tree, which is yours truly.

By the time we got home it was 2.30pm. We'd eaten nothing since 9am. I felt legless with hunger. But I felt so much better than I have for days. It's a sort of madness, but it's my madness.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Snuffing out the candles

 We are in the season of Epiphany. Today I took down the (moulting) tree, put the decorations back in the loft, looked out at the rain, noted that the gloom of early morning had moved imperceptibly into the gloom of early evening, and reflected. I reflected on the past fortnight or so, in which the raging energy brought on by the pronouncement of the Bishops (read back - the links are all there) had been dissipated in singing beautiful music and soothed by the magic of Christmas.

And I have been consolidating something I've known for a long time. It's a long time since I stopped thinking that the gospel accounts of the Nativity are literal truth, half a century or more since I realised that in fact the gospels are full of what a student of literature recognises as the hallmarks of a fictional account. (Think of all that direct speech, for starters). And over the years I've heard sermons that have, in their way, dealt with that - pointed out relevance, invited us to think. And I've thought.

Now, as the rain batters on my study window, I can see clearly what it does, all this magic. I don't care that the stories of the shepherds, the angels, the Magi (and Eliot's wonderful poem about them) - I don't care that they can't possibly be true in the way that it's true that I was born in Glasgow. I don't want them changed in any way, for they are perfect. They are perfect poems that contain a truth that inspires, and they are best absorbed as poems, enhanced by art and music and beauty.

And what does this truth inspire me to? I suppose in one way you could say that it inspired me to become a damned nuisance. It certainly knocked me off a comfortable path and set me climbing the spiritual equivalent of the Aonach Eagach, on a ridge walk that I'm still clambering along more than forty years later. It's exciting, it's bound only by trust and love and balance, and that's how I want it to remain.

What does not inspire is a set of rules. Dogma and authoritarianism aren't very thrilling either. Dry politicking within ecclesiastical structures leaves me cold, and people - men, usually - telling me what can and cannot be done because of history and prejudice will tend to set me off on yet another mountain, to sustain the metaphor.

So what about all the beauty and mystery and the stories that tell us of Love incarnate and inspire us to love justice and truth and our neighbours as ourselves? I can't imagine that our bishops, for example, haven't had a bit of that for themselves this Christmas. None of them, after all, is as old as I am - surely they're not blasé about the mysteries they dispense? Does none of it do something to rekindle the fire that, presumably, used to burn in them?

Because in the end, that 's what it does, this season we've just had. It rekindles a fire. Dangerous element, fire - but warming and wonderful. Gives you courage. Gives you passion. I have heard at least one of our bishops preach with passion - but a new image has just presented itself to me, and it seems horribly apt.

Bishop's mitre as candle snuffer.

Icon, anyone?

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Crisis? What crisis?

In what has been described as the biggest crisis to engulf it in living memory, over 50 Scottish Episcopalian Church (SEC) clergy – around one in six – have signed a letter condemning the stance of their bishops over same-sex marriage.

 Gosh. Two pieces in the paper - The Herald, even - in one week. Almost as good as the SNP ... But I get ahead of myself. Normally the Scottish Episcopal Church doesn't generate much news, but what the Bishops' Statement on Equal Marriage started in Wednesday's paper rumbled on into the weekend with a new story, the tale of an insurrection in the ranks.

 It's this word 'crisis' that interests me. For a start, it's a crisis that hasn't engulfed an awful lot of the worshippers that turned out this morning - the conversations I've had on the subject could be numbered on the fingers of one hand, and these were all with interested parties or senior clergy. But I know all about it, I've been part of the process that - surprisingly - ended up in this odd place, and I simply don't feel it's a crisis. Quite the reverse.

The fact that a good number of clergy - and, as the paper points out, a good proportion of those serving the church - have seen fit to think for themselves and say No, this is not what we think right, and have felt sufficiently confident in their own minds to stand up and be counted, this is not a crisis. This is a high point. This is exciting. This is the SEC doing what its own publicity says it does. 

When I posted the letter here the other day, I said I was proud of the signatories. I'm still proud. And I'm proud to belong to a church that numbers such people among its leaders. I'm thrilled that suddenly we're talking about the elephant in the room, and that conversations - real conversations, not this ridiculously neutered Cascade malarkey - are beginning to happen in real life, in churches, in sitting rooms, and not just on social media. We're showing that our faith can actually inform our decisions, guide our words, make us brave. We're showing that we can think for ourselves, as mature Christians who recognise that a great historical mistake is in danger of being perpetuated.

What I'm looking for now is some brave leadership from the top, from the Bishops who are supposed to provide a focus for this thoughtful and courageous process. It's still not too late for these men to recover some moral authority by showing some of the courage that their priests and lay leaders have demonstrated. 

And then the papers can stop talking about crisis and talk about joy instead. 

Friday, December 19, 2014

Waiting for the dawn

The longest night is very close now. The dark comes before we know it, and lasts so long. On these western fringes our fires burn small – pinpricks of light in the wide darkness. The warmth of summer, the plenty of autumn – these are memories. Food is hoarded against the midwinter feasting, and after that we will hunger a little.
If we look to the north, we see only the night. Further west there is the wide restless sea – and nothing. In the southern sky, there is a bright star with a lesser in attendance. But it is to the east that we look, the eastern sky where the rim of light will grow, the distant lands where, long ago already, something wonderful happened. More wonderful still: it happens again and again, coming to assuage our darkness at the year’s turning, bringing light to the hidden places of our hearts, promising us that we have not been forgotten.
It is dark now, but it will be light. The child will bring it. Come, Lord Jesus.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

A letter to the Bishops

The following letter speaks for itself. I am proud of the signatories, and proud to add my name by posting it here.

Dear Bishops of the Scottish Episcopal Church,

We read with dismay the Guidance for Clergy and Lay Readers in the light of the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Act 2014.

We appreciate that we are bound by the law, and that until our canons are changed, we cannot legally perform same-sex marriages. However, we are disappointed by both the timing and the tone of the document. We have been urged by you to enter into ‘cascade conversations’ in a spirit of open and sensitive listening with people of all views on this matter. This document only makes this process much harder for us, even impossible for some. Far from acknowledging the reality of differing experience and views in the church, it gives the impression of a definitive answer to the question we have yet to discuss or debate. The document ought to make it clear that the restrictions it describes may be temporary, if the church decides to change its canons. Because of the confusion created by this document, we now believe that such canonical change should be decided in Synod as soon as possible.

But we were especially dismayed by the section of the document which refers to clergy, lay readers, and ordinands, should they be in a same-sex relationship and wish to be married. In particular, we find the warnings to ordinands, both currently training and those who might be training in the future, to be unrepresentative of the generous and communal characteristics of the Scottish Episcopal Church. Even though our church has not yet agreed to solemnise same-sex marriages, they will nevertheless become a civil institution which we will recognise like everyone else under the law. It is our firm belief therefore that any prohibition on obtaining a civil marriage is outwith the moral and canonical authority of a bishop.

We acknowledge that this process is one which creates anxiety for all church leaders, and bishops in particular. We empathise with the difficult situation that you as bishops are in, and reaffirm our desire to support you in your leadership of our church, and as fellow members of it.

Nevertheless, some of us are now uncomfortable about solemnising marriages at all until such time as all can be treated equally, and all of us will continue to feel morally compromised in our ministries, and wish to make clear our continuing commitment to affirm and support all people in our church, and to recognise and rejoice in all marriages, of whatever sexual orientation, as true signs of the love of God in Christ.

Yours sincerely,
Revd Carrie Applegath,
Revd Philip Blackledge,
Revd Maurice Houston,
Revd Canon John McLuckie,
Revd Canon Ian Paton,
Revd Kate Reynolds,
Revd Martin Robson,
Revd Malcolm Aldcroft,
Dr Darlene Bird (lay reader),
Revd Jim Benton-Evans,
Revd Cedric L. Blakey,
Revd Andrew Bowyer,
Revd Canon Bill Brockie,
Revd Tony Bryer,
Revd Steve Butler,
Revd Christine Barclay,
Revd Lynsay M Downes,
Revd Markus Dünzkofer,
Revd Canon Anne Dyer,
Revd Janet Dyer,
Revd Jennifer Edie,
Revd John L Evans,
Revd Samantha Ferguson,
The Revd Canon Zachary Fleetwood,
Kennedy Fraser,
Revd Kirstin Freeman,
Revd Frances Forshaw,
Revd Ruth Green,
Revd Bob Gould,
Very Revd Kelvin Holdsworth,
Revd Ruth Innes,
Revd Ken Webb,
Rev’d Canon Mel Langille,
Revd Kenny Macaulay,
Revd Simon Mackenzie,
Revd Duncan MacLaren,
Very Revd Nikki McNelly,
Very Revd Jim Mein,
Revd Nicola Moll,
Revd Bryan Owen,
Revd Canon Clifford Piper,
Revd Donald Reid,
Revd Colin Reed,
Revd Canon John Richardson,
Revd Malcolm Richardson,
The Revd Gareth J M Saunders,
Very Revd Alison J Simpson,
Very Revd Andrew Swift,
Kate Sainsbury (lay reader),
Patsy Thomson (lay reader),
Prof Revd Annalu Waller

Long ago, in a universe far away ...

I have been thinking I ought to write to the College of Bishops about that pronouncement that is now all over yesterday's Herald, quite apart from anywhere else, but my exhibitionist side actually prefers to ruminate here, where anyone can see it and no-one can decide to interpret it in their own way in private. Strangely, it was learning of the death of Bishop Michael Hare-Duke that stirred up the memories that, it seems to me, make this latest situation so absurd.

Long long ago, when I was very young and had only been a member of the SEC for 5 years, I was chosen to be one of the two lay representatives from Argyll and The Isles to sit on the Provincial Synod. This relatively small body met annually in Perth, and it was with some trepidation that I travelled there that first year (it was 1978, the day Pope John Paul 2 was elected) to find that I was the youngest person in the Synod and hadn't a clue what was expected of me.  I remember spending many hours debating the language of the New Liturgy - what is now the 1982 Liturgy and itself regarded as positively old hat. As the years passed - during which the Provincial Synod abolished itself and the RCC and I vanished from the wider church and concentrated on my day job - I became aware of what was going on and who was who in the hierarchy - and one of the most interesting of the bishops was Bishop Michael, the poet and thinker who did so much to shape the 1982 Liturgy.

But to my point. One of the first issues I recall being involved in voting about was The Remarriage in Church of Divorced Persons. This gave rise to much heated discussion and seemed a Very Important Matter Indeed. And then there were women. In the run-up to this particular Synod my husband answered a phone-call (I was out). The conversation ran thus:
"May I speak to Christine, please?"
"I'm sorry, she's out. Who's calling?"
"It's George."
(Suspiciously) "George who?"
(Plaintive)"George the bishop."
"Oh. Hello. She's not here."
"Give her a message, will you? For God's sake tell her not to vote for women priests."
"Oh. Right. I'll tell her."

And he did. At the Synod the next week, a lovely older woman (maybe the age I am now) told me I was the kind of woman who ought to be ordained. I didn't know whether to be gratified or horrified. Her son became one of our bishops, incidentally, but he is no longer with us.

It should be painfully obvious why I'm telling these anecdotes. I'm now older than any of the current diocesan bishops, and have a far longer memory than to be able to let their current burst of ill-placed authoritarianism pass without asking them what in all seriousness they think they're at. If it weren't so serious, so damaging to people I care about and the institution I still, after all the years and all the setbacks, care about also, I'd laugh. I'd laugh the way I do when I hear small children playing - "Let's make it that you're the mummy and I'm the daddy"... "Let's make it sound as if we can actually tell people what to do/think/believe."

I'm sorry. We're adult Christians. We've learned about justice, compassion, equality, fairness - not to mention common sense. And long ago, Bishop Michael Hare-Duke exemplified these qualities to a very young, very inexperienced new Christian. The last time I met him was some 7 years ago - at the first Provincial conversation about the status and experiences of gay Christians. We were both much older - but he at least hadn't changed.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A letter to Jim Murphy MP

The following open letter from me to Jim Murphy, newly-elected leader of The Labour Party in Scotland, appeared in today's Sunday Herald:

Dear Mr Murphy

As someone who successfully taught English in the state sector for my entire career, both in Glasgow and in Dunoon, and whose sons attended the local comprehensive,  I think I can claim to have a pretty good idea about teaching and learning in secondary schools in Scotland. Right from the early days when a young Johann Lamont sat in the front row of my classroom to the day I retired, I was aware of the excellent work being done by my colleagues, often under desperately trying situations. 

These situations were brought about, not by their lack of ability, but by the attitude towards education of too many of their pupils - an attitude shaped and reinforced by that of their parents, who were either hostile to teachers or uninterested as long as they could get on with their own lives. The behaviour of these pupils frequently disrupted the learning of the more interested with the inevitable effect on the quality of the experience and the final outcomes.

How do you think it makes teachers like me feel to read that you are eager to ensure that “state school pupils in deprived areas should have access to teachers in the independent sector”? (Sunday Herald, 07/12/14) We have always known that there are good and poor teachers in private schools, just as there are in every school in the land. In fact, we have also long been aware that a poor teacher is less likely to have his weaknesses exposed in an independent school, where parental pressure tends to ensure an ethos of industry. 

Before you launch your attack on the private sector, think carefully about the effect your ill-considered remarks have on the thousands of hard-working teachers in the state sector, and consider more carefully the target of your plans. Your words are more likely to have the effect of further diminishing the enthusiasm for the importance of school of any parents who listen to you.

I was a member of the Labour party for many years, but this revival of class envy at the expense of my contribution to society is just one of the factors that will ensure I will never be a member again.


Christine McIntosh