Monday, May 31, 2010

Elizabeth's song

The babe leaps in my womb.
and the Spirit has filled all my soul:
blessed are you among women,
and blessed the fruit of your womb!
And why is it granted to me
that the mother of my Lord should come?
For behold, when your voice came to me
the babe in my womb leaped for joy.
And blessed is she who believed
that the word of the Lord would in her
find fulfilment and dwell among men.

on the day in which the church remembers Mary's visit to Elizabeth.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

New baby, new poem

It's funny how a phone ringing in the night can have you lucid and wide-awake in seconds, especially when it's news of the safe arrival of a new grandson. James McGregor McIntosh was born in the wee hours of this morning - yes, it's been a long day: you don't really slip back into sleep after such news! - and I've been looking at his photos and thinking of the great mystery of life and birth. A new baby is somehow much more mysterious than the child he will become - all that potential, all that personality waiting to unfold but for now held in the precious bud that is a newborn infant.

I've posted a poem I wrote this afternoon here, thinking of it as a conversation with his brother Alan, who is, of course, far too young to worry about such ideas just yet. But I sense that he is still trailing traces of the clouds of glory that he might just recognise in his new wee brother.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Church must have ...?

I've been taking part in what one commenter dubbed a blogalogue over on Jim Gordon's excellent blog, and feel driven to do a little exploring among some of the distinctive features of my own brand of Christian practice - or maybe, more accurately, among my feelings about them.

Not having been brought up an Episcopalian, I was captivated at first by the experience of singing in the incense-tinged, lovely acoustic of the Cathedral of The Isles, Cumbrae. At first there was no belief, just the music, the beauty, the silence in the spaces, the wisdom of the old Dean, George Douglas. Belief came unsought - and I have always considered that these first factors produced the open-ness of the soul that made belief possible. A sense of mystery, of otherness, of possibility - and for me, an experience quite unlike anything in my Presbyterian upbringing.

So from this period, I would perhaps have said that for me, the things I had to have in my church life were beautiful music, preferably Byrd or Tallis, preferably with me involved in the singing of it; the 1970 liturgy - or even the Prayer Book; incense at the Eucharist; preaching of the highest order (but in 10 minute doses), and silence - profound silence. No chat before or after the service, no children, but high seriousness of purpose and demeanour. And certainly never, ever, a happy-clappy worship song - and note the pejorative description.

Things change as we grow older, and in the intervening 36 years since my confirmation I've come to realise a thing or two. For example, I understand more about my attitude to music. I'm still completely spoiled by having really good organ music when I'm in church (it helps if you marry the really good organist), but we haven't had a regular choir in 20 years and I now know (a) that singing with a good group is a huge privilege but (b) that I can worship with music just as well from the body of the congregation. But if the organist is incompetent at leading the congregation - and some well-qualified organists are terrible - or if the congregational singing is of the baying/dragging/out-of-tune variety, I'd rather go to a said service.

I'd chuck out big chunks of Victorian stuff from the hymn book these days, having discovered the power to move of some modern songs - though some of them would move me right out of the door. So despite my hair-tingling recollection of the first time I sang Let all mortal flesh keep silence, my list of absolute must-haves in music has altered over the years. Similarly, I've learned to place more store by modern liturgical language, though I still love the psalms in their prayer-book version. And Compline as found in the prayer book is a joy - especially if you throw in plainsong - though one I rarely experience. So I guess I'd go for set liturgy as a must-have, but a variety of language, as long as it is beautiful and poetic. And the central must-have of all is the communion, that meeting-point of heaven and earth, beyond rational explanation.

So what's left? Incense and silence. Silence is easy. I love it. I need gaps for things to happen in - gaps in intercessions, between readings, in the middle of the Eucharistic prayers, before a service. Yes. Let's keep silence. And incense? We had glorious incense today, Pentecost, but it has become a rare treat for high days and holidays. I think that's fine too - but the mystery of the symbolism and the antiquity of the ritual seem to me to provide a bridge between past and present, earth and heaven, humanity and God. I wouldn't turn from ecumenism for the sake of incense, but it'd be a missing element, a regret for something lost.

So I suppose I arrive at a situation where I want to share conversation, fellowship, love with Christians from other traditions, but need my own traditions of worship on a regular basis, complete with the Eucharist. Presumably this is what keeps us in our various ruinous buildings, each in our own small corner, struggling to find clergy and cash. And yes, this is diversity rather than division, but maintained at a cost that might finish us all off. And that would be sad, no?

Friday, May 21, 2010

New poem on Orkney

I've written a new poem, based on my experience in Orkney. I know I need to read and study some more poetry - there's a bit of a desert in my brain right now, born of excessive busyness - but this suggested itself in the form of a sort of incantation.

You can read Touching the past here

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Holy Trinity church
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
For the past year Holy Trinity Dunoon has been without a priest. As I write, our new priest is supervising the process of stuffing his life into a removal van in preparation for moving here. I know this because of Facebook - I even know that he began feeding the removers cups of tea at an early hour. Good old Facebook, and good old Blogger: we get to know people we've only spoken to for five minutes.

But do we? There is the comforting recognition of shared interests, of course, not the least being an interest in Web 2.0 communication. But despite this, there is a feeling of anticipation that is at once joyful and apprehensive. For a church does not stay alive for a year without a great deal of work from the congregation, people who have had to sublimate their various antipathies in the interests of the common good, people who have had to step far out of their comfort zones, Marys who have turned into Marthas and vice-versa.

The arrival of a new priest should not, of course, mean that all cooperation and hard work ceases forthwith while we all revert to tearing each other's hair out. But there is this sense of handing over the authority to make decisions from a group to one person whom at the moment we barely know. I've been trying to find analogies - is it like when you send your four-year-old to school for the first time? Or when your kids leave home? For this church is ours - maybe more ours than it's been in all the 36 years I've worshipped here. We've made huge decisions about rot and repairs, we've made huge efforts over money and our future, we've held our breath to know if someone would be appointed here or if we'd be stuck with visiting clergy (lovely, but not the same) for ever. And yes, we've felt ownership.

A new priest arrives with so much hope invested in them (I'm using this neutral if sloppy pronoun on purpose) - for growth, for care of souls, for care of our tired spirits. It is that hope which renders us all - priest and people alike - vulnerable as the four-year-old I postulated earlier. No wonder there are nerves on both sides of the equation.

Meanwhile, however, the future looks bright; the Rectory is in better nick than it's been in the whole of my time here and maybe ever (double glazing, for a start), and there's going to be a family living in it. So here's to all of us - and if you're the praying type, spare us a prayer!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Touching the ancestors

Henge and marker stone
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
The recent lack of posting on this blog has been largely because I was away on holiday in Orkney, and though I've been posting photos over on flickr I haven't got round to writing about it.

This was my first visit to Orkney, and came about partly because Mr B had a notion to do a bit of ancestor-hunting on the island of Shapinsay. In the event, we left the Shapinsay trip till our last day in the expectation of sun - a wise move, as it turned out. But before that day I'd already fallen in love with somewhere unlike anywhere I'd ever been. The usual transformation of landscapes brought about by changing light was there, of course, but it was the landscape itself that caught me: these smooth, rolling fields, the low hills backed in the distance by the dark lumps of the mountains on Hoy, the standing stones everywhere, from the huge henge of the Ring of Brodgar (photo) to the random pair we saw in someone's garden, the ancient stone houses of Skara Brae, still with their stone furniture intact.

To the south, there were more recent relics in the Churchill Barriers with their scuttled ships and the Italian Chapel built by the prisoners of war who were working on the barriers. But on the same day as we visited the chapel we also visited the extraordinary Tomb of the Eagles, where we were handed neolithic objects to examine and where I hauled myself on a trolley (such as was used in the movie "The Great Escape") down a low tunnel into the 5,000-year-old tomb on the shore and got stuck on the way back out because the uphill slope brought said trolley to a halt. Because the site here is not under the control of Historic Scotland there are few restrictions - we were told to follow the arrows and if we found ourselves opening a gate we were on the wrong track! There was no-one with us at either house or tomb, and the loneliness and sense of thin-ness was palpable.

The landlady of our excellent B & B asked us if we'd be likely to return. I think the answer is likely to be yes.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

New blog on the block

There's a new blogger on the Pisky scene. The Revd Andrew Swift arrives in Dunoon this week, and it's high time his aptly named blog, Dances with Midges, appeared on pisky blogrolls. Please pay him a visit and encourage him as he prepares to move to the very heart of midgeland.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Argyll still kicking

The Electoral synod of Argyll and The Isles met yesterday. We should still have been in Oban today, deciding which candidate would become our Bishop, but there were no candidates to hear yesterday, and there is no election today. And I could perhaps have been forgiven for a bit of despair. It's been a long process since September, and we seem no nearer finding a suitable Bishop than we ever were.

But in fact yesterday's meeting was anything but despair-inducing. Without pre-empting the official sources (come on, chaps - what's keeping you?) I feel free to say that the mood yesterday was thoughtful, that our sense of purpose was stronger than ever, that our resolve to find not just any old bishop but someone who would have the special qualities needed for this diocese had deepened. I feel that we have changed over the 36 years I have known Argyll, that the laity are no longer content to sit back and smile indulgently at clerical quirks or leave all the thinking to one of two folks with cut glass accents or titles or both.

It was acknowledged more than once that just as managing a small parish could be a good deal harder than managing a large one, so the demands of running a numerically small diocese were in many ways more challenging than running a large one - and that's before you even begin to consider the ferries, the miles of single-track roads, the weather ... Yes: it takes a special kind of priest to do this, and we shall find one.

The road we chose demonstrates, I think, a profound acceptance of what it means to be a Scottish Episcopalian, and a considerable degree of trust. And after all these weeks of national politics, this felt good.

Stop press (or something): The official wording for what we decided can be found here. If you're too idle to go there, it says this: The Electoral Synod met yesterday (13 May 2010) and adjourned after discussion. The result of this is that the right of election will lapse to the Episcopal Synod, as provided in Canon 4 of the Church’s Code of Canons.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Bere bannocks

I've been on holiday - and though I took my laptop and had wifi in my excellent B&B I was too busy being on holiday to blog about anything. We were in Orkney (on Orkney?) and it was wonderful, and I shall say more about it when I stop watching news programmes and haring about the diocese. But today I want to share a culinary first and a little bit of Orkney with anyone who's interested in easy, wonderful-tasting food.

I made bannocks. Not just ordinary bannocks, but bere bannocks. That's them in the picture, almost ready to take off the griddle which is actually a beautiful pan for making crepes which I bought in Quimper many years ago. I bought a lovely big brown paper sack of bere meal in the shop on Shapinsay during a wonderful day of ancestor-hunting, and the owner of the shop, Thomas Sinclair, offered to have a recipe written out for me when I came by to collect it before we went for the ferry. This is the recipe, and the results were delicious.


1 cup of bere meal
1 cup of plain flour (I used strong white)
1 teaspoon salt
1 heaped teaspoon baking soda
buttermilk to mix (I used a carton which was about the same size as a tall cup)

Mix all ingredients together into a soft dough, and knead thoroughly. Divide into two or three pieces depending on how many/big you want your bannocks to be.
Cook on a griddle till the squishy bit in the middle has just turned firm (I poked to make sure - Mr Sinclair's recipe just said 'cook till done')
Split down the middle and put delicious things on it. (Mr S suggested razor clams, but I had other ideas)

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Sermon: Love one another ...

This is what I preached today. It went down well with many people, but explosively badly with at least one other. It's in this awful bullet-pointed format because that's what I use - there is no ordinary joined-up copy of it on my computer. It's here for the people who don't use Facebook.

• Do you ever think about your tribe?
• What tribe you belong to?
• I want you to think about that now.
• Because you can be sure that your politicians, the people who want you to vote for them this week, have their eyes on you as members of a tribe.
• And they give the tribes names – names you may not even have heard of. Strivers – the aspiring middle classes who want more, better, who are prepared to work all hours to get it.
• Boomers – that’s people like me, all hitting pensionable age, though in our heads we may still be hippies or rockers
• Youth vote – not many of them around, eh?
• Digerati – sounds like an obscure tribe fighting against ancient Rome, but actually first time voters, organizing and being contacted online
• And then of course there’s our tiny tribe of Scottish Piskies
• And larger ones tied to political parties
• And national ones – Scots, English, French, Hungarian …
• And by and large, unless there’s an election on, we tend to mix pretty amicably and not make much of a fuss about our tribes … don’t we?
• And I’ll come back to that idea. Hold on to it.
• The Jewish believers in the reading from Acts were critical of Peter’s actions in eating with uncircumcised men.
• Both circumcision and the dietary laws of the Jews may have begun as common sense for hygiene in a hot country
• But at the time of the Exile in Babylon these laws were extended and firmed up to preserve the unity and the purity of the Jewish people
• So by the first century the Jews felt defined by the laws which the first followers of Christ took on with them into their new faith
• They wanted to maintain their “specialness” – their unique identity
• And here was Peter apparently throwing this uniqueness to the winds, sharing the new faith with all sorts of unsuitable people.
• And Peter tells them his dream.
• Look at how he first answers the voice which has told him “kill and eat”
• “By no means, Lord, for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth”
• Can you hear the tone of voice? Try emphasizing the word “my” – how exclusive, how self-satisfied does that sound?
• Think about how exclusive we can all feel at times … eg -
• Piskies – much better than Presbyterians
• Or think about the fact that there are people, like us, that we never even meet –
• For I found myself saying the other day that these Strivers, these men who spend their lives driving up and down the motorway from Milton Keynes, who hardly see their wives and the families they work so hard to support, who work all hours and make and spend far more than I ever thought of earning –
• I said that I didn’t know anyone like that.
• They are another tribe.
• I was talking then about voting patterns and the electorate
• But I could have been just like the circumcised Christians, couldn’t I? (meaning?)
• So – what is God’s answer to this exclusive behaviour? This exclusive mindset?
• Maybe the answer’s in the second reading:
• A new heaven and a new earth?
• But we have to look at the Gospel for the way to achieve this new earth.
• God has shown the way through the person of Jesus
• God has been glorified in the person of Jesus
• And in turn Jesus is glorified in himself
• And Jesus, glorified by God, with all the authority of God, tells us what to do in this short passage from his last supper with the disciples.
• We cannot follow Jesus on his final journey, we cannot be Jesus
• But we can do this new thing he tells us
• We have to love one another.
• We have to love one another in the way that Jesus loved his disciples.
• Now – remember what I said to hold on to?
• ..that in our own lives we tend to mix amicably and not care too much about the different tribes we belong to?
• The readings today all call us to go further.
• They call us not to the very British politeness that marks our electoral Leaders’ debates
• Not merely to the absence of confrontation – for it is a very British thing to avoid outright confrontation with people we disagree with –
• Not just to be polite to people who are different from us in some way – even if we say what we really think the moment we get away from them (GB)
• Jesus’ words call us not to turn our backs on people who do things differently or have a different lifestyle or background from us
• And right now, Jesus’ words call us not to condone the way our political parties smear their opponents
• Not to condone the way the press smears just about everyone in turn
• Not to let people get on with their own affairs without ever wondering if they need help
• None of these easy options – and I haven’t even mentioned the more extreme “not-to”s like going to war or using Trident missiles or punching people on the face –
• None of these things are what we are called to do.
• No
• We are called to love people
• How much love was there, do you think, in that incident last week?
• When GB described that woman as a bigot and was pilloried for it?
• How much love did the woman show in her complaints?
• How much love did the Sky reporter show for the woman when she tracked her down, told her what Brown had said – on camera?
• How much love did any of us show when we watched Brown’s face fall when he realized what he’d done?
• When we mocked his apology?
• Gosh, we all had fun there, didn’t we – but there wasn’t a lot of love around.
• But we are called to love everyone …
• We are called to love people in such a way that we don’t notice any difference between them and ourselves
• To love them in such a way that we strive to do the best for them in whatever area of need we find them
• To be honest and open in our love, to share not only what we have but also what other people offer us
• To regard nothing as alien or liable to contaminate us
• For God has created us all
• And it is out of that knowledge that we must live, and act – and yes, even vote – even if Christianity is no longer a part of our politicians’ lives
• - even if the Christian message is derided by those who seek power
• We have to live in the way Christ commanded
• We have to love one another
• And in that living, that loving, we shall find ourselves in God’s new creation.
• Amen.