Thursday, April 25, 2013

Weeping and alleluias

Today I attended the funeral of someone I've known since I was twelve - when I started secondary school, even though we were at different schools, I inherited her copy of Paterson & MacNaughton's Approach to Latin Book 1. Her parents lived two doors from mine, and as I sat listening to the minister talking about the early life that been contiguous on mine I thought of how little she had changed, really, from the girl in the regulation school hat passing our gate of a morning. The west of Scotland can be a small place, really, so it was only mildly surprising that for several years we should be colleagues in Dunoon Grammar school or that Mr B should even more recently have met her every week at the fish van.

There were several things that struck me this morning. The first was the relief that the organ was being played by a decent organist - for this was not the case the last time I was in that church. The second was that it was warm, and the third to notice what a terrific photo was on the front of the service sheet. So far, so good. But it couldn't last. The last funeral I was at took place in the same church, and the same minister did what she did again today. She announced that we were going to pray. She began all right and I thought 'Maybe someone's told her ...' - but no. Suddenly God was being told where the deceased had lived as a child, what school she had attended, what qualifications she had gained. There was the odd attempt to redeem the situation by thanking God for this and that, but then we were back to the life story. It was so far from what was needed - for me anyway - that I gave up any pretence that I might be praying, and instead thought of the person I had known, the laughs over some absurdity in school, the cleverness, the passion we shared about accuracy in language. I don't know how CofS ministers are trained these days, and I'd love someone to tell me why they should think it's all right to tell all this stuff to a God who knows us from our mother's womb and I'd love to know how they can justify inflicting this on people at a funeral - people who might have no church connection other than funerals must get a very odd picture of God indeed.

We sat there, solidly, in rows. No-one said "Amen" to anything. Oh - I did. There was a strange hiatus at the end of the service. Would we still be sitting there as they processed out? Oh good - a man, on his own on the other side of the church leapt to his feet and we all followed. I whispered the Nunc Dimittis to myself as the coffin was carried out. We all peeled out after it.

And outside, in the sun, it felt suddenly like being back at work. We stood there, surrounded by former colleagues, only one of whom is still teaching. We were all dressed more or less as we did for work - I actually wore the black shoes I used to wear for a day on my feet in school. The woman who was always putting her foot in things at staff meetings was doing it again. We all looked older - we are older, dammit, but not old enough to die, not yet. Maybe that's it. Maybe we're never really old enough to die, to miss the sunshine of the long-awaited Spring, to leave the others and go on this last journey alone.

I've just had a conversation on Facebook about this business of eulogies. Apparently in Nova Scotia (Anglican?) churches Canon Law forbids eulogies at funerals. They are seen as focussing on loss and grief and negating Easter hope. I can't help wondering if disguising the eulogy as a prayer would slip past the net, but take the point. However, I have attended funerals that did indeed celebrate both the person and the hope of resurrection, funerals that made no compromises in the face of a largely faithless society, funerals that had mystery and joy and were in no way an ordeal. If anyone's listening, that's what I want.

But I do want one thing, and it's not necessarily a eulogy. I want the Kontakion for the departed, in English, well sung. I doubt there will be live singers around to sing it for me, but get a decent recording and play it at a decent volume. Don't be timid. It says it all - the weeping and the Alleluias. And that's what it's all about, for me. Weeping and alleluias.

Monday, April 15, 2013

A pilgrim church?

What makes a church? The answer, the obvious answer, the answer you know to be the right one, is the people. The community that worships together. That's the church. And it was in that spirit that we met today in the venue shown in the photo, the church hall where, once upon a lifetime, I took the Managing Editor of BBC Online and the CEO of No Tosh Ltd to play with their pals in Toddler Group and Playgroup; where the wife of our last Bishop and I told people of the lively worshipping community on Kilbride Hill and encouraged them to join us and bring their children. It is also the hall where for years we went to vote in elections, outside which I used to stand with a CND badge and a stack of leaflets, picketing all those going in to vote and putting up with the banter of the Tories ... I could go on. It's a place with a lot of memories for me, and today and for the next few months I'm going to acquire a new set as it stands in for Holy Trinity church, about to turn into a building site as the lottery-funded renovation gets going.

Interestingly, the hall, which now belongs to the High Kirk and which they are graciously letting us use as we require, used to be a Scottish Episcopal Mission Church - the Church of St Andrew - so in a sense we were returning, with our 19th Century chalice, to roots that predated even the oldest member of the congregation.

How was it for me, do I hear you ask? Well, despite the fact that most of us resolutely sat in the same relative positions as we do in church - you can see two doing that in the picture, setting the trend - it felt nothing like church as usual. That's not to say it was a negative experience, but it wasn't what I look forward to on a Sunday. In the hilarity that preceded the service, it felt being in a holiday house with a large family as people discovered they had a heater overhead and had to strip off layers of clothing, or dropped hymnbooks and rummaged on the floor to retrieve them. The piano turned out to have a broken damper, throwing Mr B into a gloom, though neither gloom nor busted bit seemed to affect the music which miraculously shut everyone up and produced a tense unignorable silence (thanks, Larkin) before the service began.

So the good bits? The children had a room for their activities, with a door that shut, meaning they could make all the noise they wanted and have fun. (I think they did too). It was cosy. We felt like a family, perhaps even more than usual - a family on an outing. The calamine-lotion coloured tongue-and-groove boarding and the Virgin Mary blue of the wall miraculously replicated the interior of Holy Trinity's colour scheme, which raised a smile of recognition when I should have been concentrating. And our priest made it all work with an assurance that was in itself reassuring, interestingly.

On the downside, there was the dead acoustic, the feeling of being crowded, the piano accompanying the singing instead of the organ, the lack of visual beauty, the missing sense of the numinous that pervades our church building. I've worshipped plenty of times in a similar kind of venue, and this felt like one of these ad hoc communions for a meeting - jolly, enthusiastic, but lacking.

Once upon a time we were threatened with the loss of our building, the possibility that we might like to think about some modern, town-centre place of worship. This experience gives us the chance to see what it might have been like. I for one am happy beyond words that hard work and circumstance - and the Heritage Lottery Fund - have made it a temporary one. This week, the work begins on our church on the hill, and late yesterday afternoon we returned there to make a recording, the story of which is told elsewhere.

It was exciting - the acoustic, already fine, was wonderfully lively with the exposure of the stone flagged floor. I look forward to going home ...

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

De mortuis

What does someone of mature years who tries to live under/up to a belief-system that encourages compassion say about the passing of Margaret Thatcher? If she's wise, perhaps she says nothing. But if she's not as wise as she might be, is not as Christian as she ought to be and in addition is a blogger, what then? Blog as catharsis has always been a reason to keep writing, and despite my best intentions to think of something else, it keeps coming back to this ... this toothache of an internal dialogue. Besides, the media - social and professional - keep banging on about it; I hear politicians mouthing blandly political platitudes while others leap to condemn any outbursts of unseemly celebration.

So, for what it's worth, my take. I've just caught up on what Russell Brand had to say, and found myself sympathising. But he was a child of the Thatcher years, and I was an adult. I had somehow avoided any interest in politics in my student days, then I'd had a family and stopped thinking at all for a bit (you did that, in these days - your job wasn't kept open for you when you had a baby) - and then Thatcher came along and suddenly I was involved in the single-issue politics of CND and the US Navy Nuclear Submarine base, Site One, in the Holy Loch. We had a Tory MP in Argyll, the hectoring tones of Thatcher were omnipresent, and I have never felt so alienated or disenfranchised in my life as I felt in these days. I met miners at demonstrations, chanted "Maggie Maggie Maggie! Out Out Out!" at EIS rallies, met more veggie anarchists than I knew existed, gave evidence at the trials of Greenham women and was suddenly no longer welcome in the only church I knew.*

She came to Dunoon one day - must have been in 1976, I think - and was outside the baker's as I walked past (no, I didn't shake her hand). Her car passed as I and #1 son were waiting for a bus; she waved, and son treacherously waved back - and yet then I only knew she was a Tory. Presumably she was supporting the local candidate - but I didn't really know, then, what I came to know in the early 80s. And the strange thing is that hearing that voice on the radio the last couple of days brings it all back - even the genius who voiced her Spitting Image puppet evoked the same sick feeling. Not rational, really - gut feelings of the most basic sort. Not arguable, not at all.

So where on earth am I going? The thoughts that crowd in include this: We shall all die. Some of us will grow old first, and some of us will be frail or demented or both. But we shall still be the people we are now, and the people we were before. And, you know, I think I want people to think of me in some putative future as they do now. I've always believed in not patronising old people, just as I don't believe in patronising the young.

Thatcher's last word on her eviction from office by her party was that she would never forgive them. Fine. She was a politician who chose her job and stuck to it ruthlessly, and in the end her fellow-Tories were ruthless in getting rid of her. She set back the cause of women in high office by years - and I can think of other women in politics whom I admire and have admired far in excess of any reluctant admiration Meryl Streep's film might have engendered.

So I can't face even thinking about what the proposed funeral arrangements imply in terms of divisiveness, the reopening of old sores, the effect on people struggling through their lives under the current Tory economies, the cost of policing and the threat to public order. I shall do my best to avoid the media coverage. And I shall try to say as little as possible.

De mortuis nil nisi bonum? Aye, right.

*Everything changes. That too, I'm glad to say.

Friday, April 05, 2013

A pivot into eternity

Sometimes in life there is an epiphany, quite unexpected, quite unsought. So it was this evening, towards the end of a meal that I had enjoyed, sitting at table with the candles lit but the sky outside still a clear, pale, perfect blue. We were listening to Martha Argerich playing the slow movement of Ravel's G major piano concerto, and as a certain cadence which seemed to be a gentle pivot into eternity yielded a gentle trickle of notes on the piano I felt the miracle of a life that could encompass such things.

There are days when life seems very short - even the Beatles sang of it - but in that brevity we are allowed such riches of experience that they seem unfathomable. I felt in that moment of listening that this was an evening piece, this slow movement - that I couldn't imagine listening to it in a morning, and certainly not hearing it in this way. But to analyse that quietly soaring moment would be to dissipate its power, so I shall merely remark its passing, and my gratitude for having encountered it.