Monday, 29 June 2009

Bits and Pieces

Photo copyright Nick Wright 2009

I have a problem, but not the usual problem I have with blog posts. Usually I am scrabbling around trying to come up with something to write about. Today I am so overwhelmed with topics, I can't quite decide what to leave out. It's now our last week in England, and looking back at the three months or so since we left Dunedin, I suppose I have put 5 or 10 % of the things that have happened to us onto Available Light. There are some fairly minor but still remarkable things I might have commented on: in Spain for example, on the Camino there are drinking fountains all over the place. One of them has two taps. One dispenses water, the other wine: good, rich, fruity, deep red, Spanish wine in unlimited quantities and absolutely free. In Hong Kong there is a pet shop where I saw for sale a toucan and large trays of wriggling live maggots. There are some other things of more significance.

On our last day on Iona I was privileged to help scatter the ashes of Clemency's Aunt Joan and Uncle Mervyn. These were people I had met in Wellington many years ago and who had a deep love of Scotland in general and Iona in particular. They had died some 12 years ago, and now, their daughter, Sue, had brought their ashes to Iona for this last act of love and commitment. At about 5 in the afternoon we climbed to the cairn which marks the top of Dun I, the highest point on the island. There was a rainstorm which cleared as we began our ascent but squalls revisited as we climbed. At the top, the rain finally lifted and the brightest, most distinct rainbow I have seen in my life appeared. I said the Church of England service of commitment of ashes and opened the urns. A strong wind pulled the ashes out and they drifted out over the land so beloved of Mervyn and Joan. The rainbow faded just as we finished and began our descent. It was one of the most memorable moments of my life.

A few days later we visited Swainsley, the country home of Clemency's ancestors, the Wardles. The house had long ago left the family, but on the off chance we called in anyway and were warmly and generously greeted by Sharon and Peter, the present owners. Swainsley is not a stately home but rather a large Victorian gentleman's residence; at about 35 rooms it is roughly the size of Olveston or Larnach's castle. Sir Thomas Wardle who once owned it was an intriguing man: an industrialist but also an engineer and a friend of many of the Pre Raphaelites, he was something of a rennaisance man. His country house showed this. It was built not as a demonstration of wealth and prestige but as a comfortable family base in his much beloved Manifold Valley. The present owners love Swainsley and "get it". They have restored and developed the place with a great deal of taste and tact. Once it had 2000 acres of grounds but now has a more manageable 22, which demonstrate just the right balance of wilderness and domestication. We spent a very enjoyable 3 hours there.

I could speak of the Norfolk coast, or Butterton in Staffordshire, or the Victoria and Albert Museum or the morning service at Holy Trinity Brompton, or the Buddhist take on mindfulness, or a somewhat perplexing experience of deja vu I had in Newcastle Upon Tyne, but I wont. What I want to think about rather, is something more general. Over the past three months I have made three journeys: an outer pilgrimage in Spain and England, Italy and France; a journey into the Anglican church; and a journey into myself. The outer journey I have already alluded to here, so won't bore you any further with the details. The other two.... well... I will write of over the next few days, as computer time and and the limits of personal reserve allow.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Encountering Iona

Columba landed in Iona in 563. He had recently left Ireland after a dispute over a psalter had got out of hand and led to a pitched battle in which many men were killed. Filled with guilt and remorse, he was determined to work for the Lord by converting the pagan Picts and Gaels who inhabited the west coast of Scotland. So he arrived, on the stony beach of what is now Columba Bay and set to work to build a monastery as a base for his evangelical operations. The Island is small and the soil thin. It only rises a few hundred feet above sea level but it is riven with cliffs and crags and rocky outcrops. In winter the wind reaches 70 mph and there is rain all the year round. He prayed, built his community, prayed, collected a library of holy books and prayed. He became known as a holy man and many miracles were attributed to him; consequently, he was trusted by the Pictish chieftains and became arbiter and diplomat between them. His evangelical efforts were wildly successful.

When I followed his trail 1400 years later, all traces of his occupation were gone. There is a cross dating from the 9th century and the shells of some buildings from medieval times. There is a cluster of small houses, some a few hundred years old but all of them extensively rennovated and developed in the 19th and 20th centuries. The modern Iona Community has sensitively restored the medieval abbey buildings, and added to them.

We arrived, like everyone else, on a ferry boat and stayed about a 2km walk from the ferry. Our host was a lovely young woman from Mosgiel who was partner to one of the local farmers, and who had recently restored their farmhouse and now let it out as a B&B. It was warm, quaint and very well appointed. On our first day we saw all the old buildings -quite an easy task - and then walked across the island from one side to the other. The next day we walked from one end of the island to the other, ending in Columba Bay where we sat on the stony beach in company with tough, horned highland ewes and their lambs. It was a wild place to arrive at, and it seemed a strange place to begin a mission.

I thought of the way our own church does things: getting motions passed in synod, gathering money, finding personnel and getting them trained and certified, making sure everything is done according to the canons and to the five fold mission statement. If we were going to convert the Picts I doubt that we would dump a few blokes on a stony beach on a bit of Island that no-one really wanted and leave them there to get on with it. We would at least need to see the budget projections first. But really, Columba's way was the only way to build something lasting. He landed and encountered this beautiful but desolate place and could only proceed by coming to terms with the ferocity of his environment and by utter dependence on God. His mission was grounded in the real world of the Picts, and on the holiness which comes from repeated, daily, disciplined prayer. To sit on the stones at the north end of Iona was to be brought face to face with the bedrock of the faith. Strip away all the accretions: all the synods and buildings and books of canon law and this is what you start with: the surf rolling over the rounded marble pebbles and the wind howling up the bay. That is, we start with God and the earth which is the outworking of his continual creative presence.

I have wandered, blindly most of the time, and ended here: about as far from home as I can get; but I have also made another journey, to the centre of what I have faith (ie trust) in. At the centre of faith it is equally rocky and sparse and desolate; but it is also equally rich in promise and the hope of new life.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Another Set of Surprises

Me at Walsingham. The fountain behind me is not the Holy Well.

I spent most of the morning in a cafe at the railway station in Wymondham (pronounced 'windom'. Proud winner of UK Station Of The Year, 2005) with my brother discussing meditation. Guhyavajra has been teaching meditation for several decades now, and there is a lot I have to learn from him. Then this afternoon I took a long ride through Norfolk, past villages with wonderful names (Great and Little Snoring, Swaffham, Pudding Norton...) to Walsingham.

I had already been to Lindisfarne, Iona and Mother Julian's Cell. Next week I will go to Canterbury, so Walsingham completes the round of British pilgrimage sites I had intended to visit. I am, as most who know me will tell you, from the Protestant end of the Anglican spectrum and Devotion to Our Lady has never featured greatly in my personal spiritual practice. I knew that the modern Anglican shrine was a twentieth century reinterpretation of the cult that had been destroyed by Henry VIII, and to be quite frank, I wasn't expecting much from this centre of Anglo Catholic devotion. Like all of us, I live in the tangled web of my own presuppositions, but in the couse of the day, three things happened to surprise me.

Firstly, a ribald conversation with my brother, the details of which I will spare you, but which ended with an aha moment for me, and I'm sorry to offend your sensibilities by talking of this: even snot is a part of creation, and therefore comes from God and therefore participates in the divine substance. My own sense of revulsion is just that: my own and it originates with me. Now this may not seem to you to be a great revelation, and even if it was, you'd probably prefer me to keep it to myself, but it was the thought I was toying with as I entered Walsingham, and in an odd way it prepared me for the full frontal assault on my own limited prejudices
which was to follow.

Secondly, I was surprised by the village of Walsingham, which must be one of the best preserved Tudor villages in the country. Despite the vandalism of Henry, the roundheads and the reformers, the village remains much as it was, and with a strong sense of vitality and life that is completely contemporary. There is a sense that in this place there is something bigger than Henry and bigger than the various half truths which periodically proclaim themselves to be ultimate and strive to take over the church.

Thirdly I was surprised the beauty and sanctity of the shrine itself, which has been built with great dignity and harmony. We arrived just as a ceremony of sprinkling was taking place. An ancient well was discovered in the 1930s during the reconstruction of the shrine and now, twice a week, a rite of sprinkling is carried out. As an act of commitment to Christ and in hope of restoration and healing, we were led to the well, invited to drink its waters, signed with the cross and sprinkled in remembrance of our baptismal waters and of the Living Water. I found it profoundly moving. I spent time in the reproduction of Richeldis' house, sitting before the statue of Our Lady, and realised something I should have realised decades ago. The cult of Mary is about Incarnation! Of course! How stupid of me not to have known this! The Word could not become flesh without Mary.

Just as the Abbey on Iona is a twentieth century reinterpretation of the monasticism and spirituality of Columba, the modern cult of Walsingham is, on the face of it, a completely contemporary phenomenon, but there is more to it than a group of Anglo Catholics hankering after some past glory. Clemency's illustrious ancestor, Sir Thomas Wardle once tried to change the Manifold River. The river disappears through sink holes every summer, leaving the riverbed dry. Sir Thomas thought he would plug the sinkholes with concrete and allow the local farmers to enjoy the benefits of the river water all year round. In the Autumn, after the first rains, the rising underground water of the Manifold exploded through the concrete, blasting it out of the way with a noise that could be heard for 20 miles in every direction. In much the same way, the spiritual power of Walsingham can't be suppressed or contained. After centuries of neglect and despite the physical destruction of the infrastructure of the shrine, in the 1930s the water bursts out of the ground - in the case of the well, quite literally. I found it easy to pray in this lovely place. The stillness and sanctity soaked in and came with me when I left. Of all the holy sites I have seen so far, Walsingham was the most surprising, and is one to which I will return when and if it is ever possible.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009


There's nothing quite as dull as listening to someone else's breathless account of their holiday, so I'll spare you the details. But we strolled around on Hadrians wall. We went to the Lake District and stayed a night on the shore of Buttermere in a B&B with quaintly creaking floors. We saw Dove Cottage, where Wordsworth lived and wrote many of his most famous poems. We had afternoon tea in Cleater Moor where my grandmother grew up. We visited the lovely town of Kendall and then went to Windermere.

The lake is famous as a background to many poems of the Romantic era, and as the place near which Beatrix Potter lived . Windermere is the name of a lake, and also of the town which is perched on its shore. The town is a medium sized provincial centre and town and lake, both, have the great misfortune of being, of all the lakes, the most easily accessible from the South. We had the great misfortune of being there on a Sunday. People were everywhere. I am told that people in Britain, when visting tourist sites, do not like to move more than 400 yards from their cars, so cars were also everywhere. We didn't stop at Hilltop Farm, Beatrix Potter's residence, because we couldn't: the car park was full and the tiny country lanes for miles around were jammed with traffic - including of course the little bit that we were generating. The little seaside resort of Lakeside had a pound in the slot carpark where we could stay long enough to eat lunch, and Windermere we saw only by leaving the car further out of town than the regulation 400 yards.

There were people everywhere: big burly guys with shaved heads, all scrubbed up and wearing clean white T Shirts, being dragged reluctantly around by their girlfriends; middle aged people in matching fairisle jerseys; pushchairs and walking sticks and ladies with blue rinses. They were eating icecreams and pies covered in mushy peas and going for rides on the steamer and fitting it all in before dashing off for Liverpool and Manchester and Middlesbrourgh later in the afternoon. Everywhere were shops and enterprises oriented to processing these visits and which didn't seem to sit happily with the serene beauty all around. The business of frantic relaxation covered the landscape like a scab. We left and after a somewhat tense encounter with Manchester's motorway system, ended the day in the Peak District, on the Staffordshire side of the border, in a little hotel in the Manifold Valley, and here was another of this trip's surprises.

I had never much heard of the Peaks District, before I found myself in it: one of the most beautiful places I have visited in my life. It has rivers and caves and woodlands. It has ancient hills and crags. It has tiny narrow roads bordered with drystone walls and trees. It has villages, each one more jaw droppingly beautiful than the last. I ran out of superlatives and discovered the real meaning of some cliches. Pretty. Rustic. Charming. Picturesque. Unspoiled. It has people. Given the number of villages, the population density must be quite high, but the folk around here don't seem to have plundered and despoiled this landscape they way they have at Windermere. In New Zealand we use the word unspoiled to mean untouched by humans; bearing no discernible mark of human habitation or intervention. Here it means something else. It means a landscape whose cultural artefacts are in keeping with the environment in which they are found. The houses are built of local materials. They fit the countours of the hills and add to, not detract from the natural beauty of the place. The villages and farms were shaped long before anyone imagined a motor car, and they are fitted to the needs of people, not the needs of traffic. They are humanly sized, humanly grouped together and relate to each other in a way which fosters community. Houses are built for the climate and they are built to last. The whole environment, a cultural artefact though it is, still seems natural and still feeds the soul in a way which the stucco and neon excrescences festering around the tourist spots can never do. The land is occupied. It is densely built on and intensively worked, but it is unspoiled.

It is this connection with the land which first hit me with such force on Iona. There is something deeply spiritual in the connection, reflected in the fact that every village finds it necessary to construct and preserve a large church, even when the villagers are not themselves believers. It is there in the erection of crosses and standing stones and shrines. Villages and districts find it necessary to develop folk practices (such as Derbyshire's Well Dressing) which celebrates this earthy spirituality. This connection with place is somewhere near the heart of Anglicanism at its best. The trick is, I guess, to nurture this connection and not let it get overrun by the plastic facade which long ago killed off Blackpool and is in the process of strangling Windermere, and will smother the Anglican church if we let it.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Carlisle Cathedral

I'd like to write a bit more about Iona but need to take a detour first. At the moment we are in Carlisle, Clemency's birthplace. There is a castle, a real one, and a magnificent cathedral and a maze of tiny streets opening onto a market square. It is all quite picturesque, although dreary and careworn at the same time: this is a working city, not a tourist oriented museum. We have looked at the street where Clemency was born and the vicarage (now a Buddhist centre. These Buddhists are everywhere!) where she grew up. And we have looked at the cathedral.

Carlisle has a smallish cathedral, built in the late eleventh century to serve, alongside the castle, as a demonstration of Norman power. It has been overrun by the Scots on numerous occasions, and been subject to the indignities which various reform movements have inflicted on the church. Nevertheless, it is more completely original than most other cathedrals I have seen. The bulk of it is still the eleventh century original and not some late addition or alteration. Miraculously, some superb stained glass and some wonderful wall paintings survived both the zealotry of the reforming idiots of the sixteenth century and the bombsights of the Luftwaffe. There are beautiful objects from all the ages of the church from William the Conqueror until now. There is a lot going on there. I picked up a pamphlet for a very interesting lookking contemporary cafe service, and they have their ministry of contemplative prayer well developed. The cathedral is a contemporary place of worship but its fabric demonstrates a continuity as a place of prayer that dates back 900 years. Many of the other cathedrals have not had such an easy history. The reformers were more thorough, and Henry VIII more rapacious, and the 'improvers' more persuasive. Westminster Abbey, for example was used a a stables by Cromwell's men; the medieval choir stalls were ripped out and used as firewood; the exquisite wall paintings were defaced and whitewashed; statuary was either removed or smashed. The Abbey was a wreck until the 19th century when it was restored, not to what it was, but to what the restorers imagined it should have been like. The result is a beautiful building whose shell is Medieval but whose soul and purpose is Victorian. Westminster Abbey is not so much a place of prayer as a celebratory monument to Englishness - as expressed in the English language and the English royal family - and to the greatness of the British Empire. In comparison, Carlisle's monastic foundations still shine through. To enter it and to pray in it is to be connected to all that history and to the hopes and aspirations of the men and women who kept the faith down through the years.

So to Iona. The island is a little lump of rock off the coast of Scotland. Or really, off the coast of an island off the coast of Scotland. It is impossible to know what it would have been like originally, as it was already long occupied when Columba arrived in the sixth century. The landscape is flat and bleak and the weather if foul. Nevertheless it became the driving force of British Christianity for several centuries. Now, it has some remnants of its long history dotted over it, but like Westminster Abbey, these are largely 19th and 20th century buildings inside shells which are, partially anyway, medieval. The work of the Abbey community, begun in the middle of the 20th century is spectacularly successful, but it remains spiritual response to the issues of the 20th Century. I went to Iona expecting to encounter the Abbey and all it has to offer, but instead encountered the landscape and the weather. Bleak, harsh, beautiful and life changing.

Friday, 19 June 2009

On the Road to Iona

This trip has been full of surprises. One surprise is that Iona has proven to be the point of it all. It is an astonishing place, and one which has affected me in ways I might take a very long time to explain to myself, let alone to anybody else. I'll write something about it later.

We had a look at Cambridge, and then left Norwich and drove north early this week in Chronos time, but about ten years ago in Kairos time. First stop was Durham, with its huge and lovely cathedral and its quaint old city spread over the banks of a river and its university with students noisily bustling about the place everywhere you look. Then it was Lindisfarne. The holy island is just off the main road, and is approached via a causeway when the tide allows it. We got to the causeway at exactly the right time. It was dry enough to drive on, and there was a silvery mist obliterating the bounday between sea and sky. Sea birds flew and swam. People stopped to look and stayed looking, it was so ethereally lovely. And then we drove onto the place where Aidan had sailed from Iona about 1200 years ago to bring the Gospel to the pagan English. We walked around and looked and photographed things and knew ourselves to be in the presence of something we couldn't quite identify but knew to be inexpressibly old and purposeful and completely, utterly other. It is a holy place. Then Scotland.

My ancestors are Scottish, so I shouldn't be surprised that I instantly loved Scotland. Edinburgh had the sort of rain which sets people off on urination metaphors and we got a 60 (SIXTY!)pound parking ticket for being 6 (SIX!) minutes late back to the parking meter, and the traffic north over the Forth Bridge moved at 4 mph but I loved it. I had never realised how beautiful it was going to be. Narrow roads with trees meeting overhead, fields with a thousand shades of green, big ginger Highland Cattle, little inky tarns and big silvery lochs. It was all so different from New Zealand in every way but I could understand at once why the Scots would look at Otago, and nod and say 'of course.' We stayed the night at Oban in a cute little hotel which Clemency's cousin Sue had chosen on account of its name: the Kelvin Hotel. I took photos of the sunset at about 10:30 pm woke with the sun at 3:30 am and then after breakfast we sailed for Iona.

A ferry that is about the size of the ones that ply the Cook Straight leaves Oban several times a day for various Hebridean Islands. Mull is the nearest and the passage takes about 40 minutes. It is a vast landscape, and again, I had not expected this sense of size and space. The sounds and bays and reaches are large. The mountains are high and stretch in layers into the far distance. On Mull we got off at a village called Craignuir and caught the bus for Fionnphort. The bus was large and modern and the road was only inches wider than its body. We passed over tiny arched stone bridges where there was less than a foot clearance on either side. The driver earned his money and my applause for the hour long journey. On each side of us the hills towered up, covered in fern and in soft, green, springy, mossy turf that looked verdant but which was actually such poor pasture that the highland cattle and deer were only sparsely dotted over them. Fionnphort is a bit bigger than Craignuir, but not much. There was a smaller ferry, and a few hundred yards over a flat calm sound was Iona. I could see the abbey and the ancient houses and the low hills rising. I made a journey of a few minutes and a whole series of cogs inside my head that had been purposefuly but differently turning for years suddenly all lined up. Remind me to tell you about it sometime.

Saturday, 13 June 2009


The house above is Abbey House, Cambridge. It is the oldest inhabited residential building in Cambridge, and also, reputedly, the most haunted. My brother Murray was involved in restoring it a few years ago and for a few months lived in it. On several occasions he had encounters with some of the house's non corporeal inhabitants, as did all of the members of his building crew. Some heard music playing late at night. Some saw a white woman, a small dog and/or a disembodied head moving eerily around the house. Some had encounters with objects which moved on their own, or lights which turned on and off independently of the switches. Some found it interesting. Many found it very scary indeed. Today Murray showed us around the house, and we saw none of that spooky stuff. We just saw a lovely old building with a somewhat random floor plan and floors and ceilings which are never, but never quite plumb. There is an old bakery and a wonderful six seater long drop toilet. It is all set in a very gracious and very large garden and it is home to a semi monastic Buddhist community.

It was interesting to see Abbey House so soon after visiting the cell of Julian of Norwich. Everyone who visits Mother Julian's cell comments on the spiritual atmosphere of her small room. I have been wondering what it is that makes one place feel holy, and another place feel as though it is full of malevolent presences. Is it a matter of subjective impressions or is there really some sort of independently existing psychic residue left in a place that can be sensed by subsequent visitors? I can appreciate that the physical dimensions and proportions of a building can have a strong emotional impact on people. We went to evensong in the chapel of Kings College Cambridge today, for example, and were bowled over by all that space enclosed in glass and a tracery of stone; the building is designed to do precisely that. But Mother Julian's cell is just a small oblong room with no real distinguishing features. Why should it affect people so?

Some of it is expectation and memory. We expect to be inspired by Julian or to be frightened by Abbey House, so we are. We remember the Revelations of divine Love or the spooky stories and they colour how we perceive the space but this doesn't explain the members of Murray's company who didn't previously know of the house's reputation but nevertheless experienced some wierd things. It doesn't explain one other odd phenomenon. The members of the community who inhabit Abbey House, are, by and large, completely unafraid of the ghosts. There is even some affection for them and a hope that they will find resolutions to whatever conflicts there are which bind them to this old house. As the level of fear surrounding the ghosts has decreased, so has the ghostly activity.

My own opinion is that there can be a sort of psychic imprint left on a place by previous events. In a house as old as Abbey house, the events the house has hosted will be large in number, and some of them will have been traumatic. There has built up, over the years, a sort of shadow connected with these events. Conversely, the tiny room beside St. Julian's church was home to a very strong consciousness who had more than the usual reserves of stillness and of good will towards her fellows. She was a prayerful woman, and after her death many other prayerful people visited that site to sit, and worship and wish their fellows well. The shadow of all this good will and spiritual intention remains as well. The positive (for want of a better word) energy of Mother Julian's cell thus multiplies and grows as people are inspired by it and add to it. It seems that the negative (for want of a better word) energies of Abbey House are frightening to many people, and the fear in turn adds to the shadow which hangs over the place. When there is no fear, and where people are focused on wholeness and purposeful about attaining it, the shadow begins to lighten until (who knows?) it disappears altogether.

In the end, it's impossible to really know the extent to which the responses to these two interesting places are based on some level of objectively real presence which adheres to the places themselves or whether the responses are entirely subjective phenomena located in the minds of the observers. It's unknowable and also perhaps irrelevant beside another great truth which these buildings demonstrate to be true, whether or not the phenomena of these places is entirely subjective or not: it seems that perfect love really does cast out all fear. That in absolute reality... neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

Friday, 12 June 2009

Another England

The day we left London there was a tube strike. A dispute over a couple of sacked drivers meant an overground train, two buses and an hour and a half to get from Putney to Liverpool St. Station. It only took that long for the second train of the morning to get us halfway up the country, and into a part of England where tube strikes are something that happens to someone else on a planet far far away.

Norwich is bigger than Dunedin but smaller than Christchurch. We aren't actually staying in Norwich but just outside it where every village has a church: the old ones have square towers because they are Norman; the really old ones have round towers because they are Saxon. We are staying in a tiny cottage nestling in manicured parkland in what was once the glebe of an 18th century rectory. At the end of the drive is a church (square tower) and underneath the drive is, apparently, a plague pit. When the plague hit, more years ago than anyone can remember, the villagers of Hardingham realised that the village was a decidedly dodgy place to live, and moved all the houses away to form three new villages, leaving the church and rectory alone with the newly dug pit containing most of their friends and relatives. This is a place with serious amounts of history lying about everywhere. Like under our feet for example. People's conversations here include the plague years and the civil war and the Norman conquests and the Viking raids and the bombers of the Luftwaffe. The four horsemen of the apocalypse have galloped through here with monotonous regularity. And yet all is still and serene and there are several dozen varieties of birds and even more dozen shades of green in the countryside all around. There is a rich deep sense of spirituality which comes from constantly facing life in light and shadow over a very long time.

It is there in the Norman cathedral which feels like a place of daily worship in a way which Westminster Abbey simply does not. It is there especially in the little room where Mother Julian of Norwich lived and prayed for most of her adult life.

The tiny church of St. Julian was bombed in 1942 and Mother Julian's adjoining cell with it, but both were rebuilt in the early 1950s so that it is possible to sit exactly where she lived. This little holy place is open to the public and free. There are meditation stools and a bench to sit on, and votive candles continually burning before a crucifix. There is a window out into the same garden where the citizens of Norwich came, to sit outside her cell and ask the holy mother for her wise counsel.

'If there be anywhere on earth [where] a lover of God is always kept safe from falling, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown me. But this was shown: that in falling and rising again we are always kept in the same precious love.'


'He did not say, You will never have a rough passage, you will never be over-strained, you will never feel uncomfortable, but he did say You will never be overcome. '

There is a tiny window into the church where she listened to the mass being said through the wall. There is that small space where she slept and ate and sat to write the Revelations of Divine Love, the first book ever to be written in the English language by a woman. Her living space is small but beautiful and somehow deeply powerful. Like the city of Norwich. Like this ancient landscape. Like the simple Gospel truth of death and resurrection which has faced bombs and disease and invasion and thrived through them all.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Old and New

Days have been full. I've made a good contact with the World Centre for Christian Meditation, been to a wide range of London churches, had lunch in CS Lewis' favourite Oxford pub and managed to see some of the sights. This morning we went to Reading, expressly to see a bit of embroidery. Clemency's great grandmother, Lady Elizabeth Wardle was the founder of the Leeke Embroidery Guild, and in 1886, along with 34 other embroiderers had constructed a faithful copy of the Bayeux tapestry. This object had been the stuff of family stories for as long as anybody can remember, well, back until 1886 at least. For reasons I won't bore you with, the tapestry was no longer in Leeke but in Reading, and seeing as we were more or less in the neighbourhood, we thought we might just as well go and take a look. We found the Reading museum, easy enough, there's not a lot else in the town, and Clemency introduced herself at the front desk. They were quite pleased to see us. Delighted, in fact. Thrilled, even. We went upstairs and there it was, wrapped around the walls of the whole wing it had all to itself: the museum's major attraction. We walked slowly around, taking in the detail which the ladies of the Leeke Embroidery Guild had copied with a great deal of exactness from life sized photographic patterns, and word spread amongst the staff that lady Elizabeth's great granddaughter was in the building, and the curator, named (what else?) Rupert was hastily summoned from some other part of the city to rush over and discuss the finer points needlework and invading England. World famous in Reading! For an hour, anyway.

Then it was back to London, and down to the docklands where a whole other city exists. Where Dickens' notorious dockland slums once festered is now a huge chrome and glass 21st century city with underground shopping malls and great post modern buildings and a high tech no need for a driver light railway system called the DLR. It was a world away from the guys in red coats and tin helmets waving swords at each other, or from the Leeke Embroidery Guild. Somehow it seemed to have nothing at all to do with that other, famous London, but there it is, filled with people in suits yakking on cell phones and getting my people to talk to your people and do lunch.

And it was all a world away from the British Maritime museum and the Royal Observatory where we went next. In a park where someone has got the proportions exactly right is a huge complex of buildings containing old boats and various bits and pieces which were once attached to them. Admiral Nelson's uniform is there, complete with bullet holes, and a 1930s aluminium speedboat with an aircraft engine which can do 118 mph, and more swords than you can shake a stick at, unless you happened to be particularly good at stick shaking. There's a straight line on the ground to show you where 0 degrees of longitude is, and a laser which shines the line straight up into the sky just in case you wanted to know and it was too dark to see the ground. Then came the best bit of the day.

Instead of taking the tube back to the city we caught a boat down the Thames to Waterloo Station. A big fast boat that looked like the only thing stopping it doing 118 mph was the fear that if it did, someone would hang it from the roof of the maritime museum. There was a coffee stall, and comfy seats and hardly anybody on board so you could wander round and ooh and ahh to your heart's content.

Tomorrow it's Norwich and some very serious discussion on life the universe and everything with my brother. We'll go by train if I can't find a boat going in that direction.

Monday, 8 June 2009


Today we caught the tube across the city to Walthamstow to attend church in the parish where my friend Tony Cant ministers. Walthamstow, deep in the East end of London is a parish with four centres, and St. Luke's in the High street is one of them. Sort of. There is no real centre at St. Lukes if you make the mistake of thinking of church centres as buildings. There is a congregation, which meets in a house on Wednesday evenings for worship, instruction and Holy Communion. On Sundays they have a stall in the local farmers' market selling cheap but excellent fair trade coffee and cake. Tony manages the market and spends his Sunday morning helping people erect tents, minding the shop while stall holders nip out for a quick smoke, and making sure the whole thing runs smoothly. For an hour, while the market is running, a dozen or so people gather in a nearby cafe to read the Bible and eat a leisurely brunch and chat. It's church, Jim, but not as we know it. There is a public pastoral presence, an act of really useful ministry to the Walthamstow community and a visible witness to Christ which greatly exceeds that which might be expected if the dozen or so members of St. Lukes sat in an old gray stone building somewhere and sang hymns. They have some money to spend: the cash raised by selling their old church. They're thinking a community house might be nice. It's inspiring to see what a small congregation of ordinary folk can do if they take the fetters off.

We caught the bus back into the city. The front seat upstairs gives a grandstand view and the pace is leisurely enough to see what is going on. We prefer it to the tube where you pop down into the darkness, rattle and hum for a few minutes and pop up somewhere else with no real sense of how the beginning and the end of the journey are connected. One of the things we saw was the Kingsway International Christian centre, in Waltham Forest. It was about 1:30 pm and one congregation was leaving the church to make room for the next one to get in. Literally hundreds of people were slowly pressing either in or out of the building. I couldn't see any white faces. People were dressed in suits and ties and in brightly coloured East African garb.

In the evening we went to Holy Trinity Brompton. This famous church, the originator of the Alpha course is in Brompton Road, just down the street from Harrods in one of London's most exclusive suburbs. The church was pretty full for the 7:00 pm informal evening worship, the 7th service of the day. The two overwhelming impressions I had of the worship were of how well resourced the church is, and how LOUD it was. Everything in the church, sound system, audio visual set up, publications, seating, furnishings was of very good quality and was well maintained. The service began with the expected 25 minutes of rock music which dealt with the problem of congregational chit chit by simply playing over the top of it. Nicky Gumbell spoke briefly and introduced a group of people attending an international alpha conference who each spoke briefly of the great success of Alpha in their home country. One of the many clergy on the parish team gave a simple but well structured and intelligent address, and there was a period of prayer during which an altar call was made. Probably, if I was living in London and in search of a congregation to belong to, HTB would not be my first choice, but I'm awfully glad it's there and doing the things it does. The attendance figures for the Diocese of London have risen by about 25% over the past few years entirely because of Alpha. HTB has a policy of adopting and revitalising dying London churches by supplying them with the resources they need for growth: money, congregational members and leadership. The influence of Alpha and the missional programmes of HTB itself are having a huge impact on the international church. It would be hard to think of another single church which has had as great an effect on the world wide church as Holy Trinity Brompton. HTB can only do this work because it is large and, in every sense of the word, rich.

We travelled home in the twilight, watching from the top front of the bus as the pink sun made patterns on buildings old and new, knowing that the church in London is alive and well. In the economically hard pressed East End and in stylish Knightsbridge; in a congregation of 500 and one of 12 we had seen the Holy Spirit at work. At Walthamstow and Brompton people are seeing ministry flourish because they have offered themselves to God; particularly the bit he can really make something out of: their imaginations.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Home Thoughts From Abroad

My grandfather, who I think had never been out of the South Island, always called England "home". Certainly it is home for Clemency and for nostalgic reasons, we entered it as she had left, 47 years ago, by ship. There was a fast train to Lille and then a slow one to Calais. After a bit of trouble finding the wharf - it was a public holiday in France and nothing, but nothing was working - we sat on the windy deck of a roll on roll off ferry, talking to a nice couple who were camino veterans and scanning the horizon for any sign of white cliffs. And there they were. White, and, no doubt about it, cliffs. For Clemency it was a powerful moment. She cried and sang Land of Hope and Glory. I thought of the reason she had never been back: that she had given most of her adult life to working for the Anglican Church on a stipend that made overseas travel utterly impossible. I thought of the fate and state of the wider church, and by comparison, of the wonderful support of our own parish, which had enabled this homecoming. For me seeing the White Cliffs was something of an anticlimax. They looked, very ordinary. Very familiar. Like... well... home.

After a taxi ride with an Italian driver who, in a very thick accent, loudly bemoaned the fate of England and blamed it all, without the least trace of irony, on all the bloody foreigners, we sat in another slow train, taking in some miracles. Like the fact that we could understand the conversations around us. Like the genteel English politeness of all the announcements. Shortly we will be arriving in Little Puddlehampton and Throckvale Common. Please mind the step as you leave the train. And marvelling at how familiar it all looked. I have read ten thousand books set in this countryside. I have seen all these hills and forests and croplands in a thousand films. I have watched The Avengers and The Professionals and Inspector Morse solve crimes amongst most of the villages we pass through. My intellectual furniture has been arranged by CS Lewis and John Fowles and AS Byatt who have set it all up in an irreducibly English way.

We were met at Waterloo station by Nick who led us into the maze of the underground and through places whose names are as familiar to me as Pahiatua or Upper Hutt. Granted, there was some initial surprise that it wasn't all laid out exactly as it is on the Monopoly board, but there is the strangest, strongest sense of homecoming about London. I need this as I try to refind a place in the church which grew in these islands.

England, and it's church are wonderful and bizarre. I saw the changing of the guard at Buckingham palace. Grown men in red coats and preposterous hats stamping and shouting at each other, and marching about blowing trumpets. It was pure Monty Python. A pom standing behind me said, Isn't this spectacular? He was quite serious. I went to evensong in St. Paul's and was disconcerted to find the statues of the saints, familiar from so many continental churches, replaced by Victorian generals and politicians. The exquisite beauty of the choir seemed a little hollow in this wonderful building as I thought of it as spirituality harnessed for the purposes of the empire on which the sun never set. The ritual of the church, seen in that light was as silly as that of the palace. But then, yesterday, another evensong, this time in Westminster Abbey. Providentially I sat in front of a man with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Abbey which he was imparting to the American tourist seated next to him. For 40 minutes he explained why the generals and why the ornate memorials to long forgotten flunkies of Victoria's government. We listened to an anthem by Henry Purcell who had been organist at the Abbey nearly 400 years before, and a dim light began to break. Began, note. I've got a long way to go before I can begin to understand the household cavalry.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Veni Sancte Spiritus

I didn't take any photos of worship at Taize. Cameras are not encouraged, and neither is talking. The community church isn't a spectacle or a show to be recorded and ticked off on one's inner checklist of must do experiences. It is not a place to meet and greet your chums. It is a place to be still enough to to lose your amnesia; to recall, no matter how dimly, the great truth we all keep forgetting: Emmanuel, God is with us. The church, like everything else at Taize is simple and functional. It is huge, a concrete building that reminds me of a school gymnasium. There are no seats, only a thin industrial felt covering glued to the gently sloping concrete floor. Benches and steps are provided around the edges for those unable to sit for too long on the floor, and there are a few low prayer stools. It sounds spartan, but it doesn't feel that way. The walls are sprayed with some sort of thick material to aid the acoustics and there is a display of cloth and candles at the business end which, with the subdued lighting, gives a very pleasant calm interior. Colours are yellow and orange and red, the colours of fire and the Holy Spirit. There is room for a couple of thousand to sit on the floor, and there are roller doors which open up more space if need be. People come to the services up to 45 minutes early, to get a preferred position, and just to be still in the prayer soaked space. As the bells peal to announce the service, the church fills. Young people are never entirely still of course, but it is almost eerie to be where a thousand teenagers in one space fall silent of their own accord as they enter. The brothers walk calmly in and occupy their position in the middle of the congregation, and then, more or less on time, the service starts. And here is the first big surprise of Taize.

No one is on display. No one. There is no-one standing at the front leading. No-one gives a sermon. There is no super-pastor and no rock group cavorting behind a phalanx of chrome mike stands. A panel on the wall gives the number of the chant to be sung, a single electronic keyboard picks out the tune, and a thousand voices pick it up and carry it for as long as it seems right to do so. Somewhere, in the body of the church, soloists overlay the chant with intricate melodies, but no-one sees who the singers are. It is not random or disordered. After a few services the liturgical pattern is easily discerned: an invocation of the Holy Spirit; praise; a Bible reading, usually in two or three languages; a response; ten minutes or so of silence; intercession and praise. Almost all of the service, including the intercessions, is sung. After the service the brothers station themselves discreetly around the church for counselling and prayer ministry; some wearing purple stoles as they hear confessions. On some occasions a cross is placed in the centre of the nave and young people queue for an hour for a chance to pray with their heads against it. There are no sideshow histrionics or flopping around on the floor but there are many, many lives that are not the same on the way out as they were on the way in. We were present for the mass on Pentecost morning, and even there the simply vested priest spent a minimal time behind the altar. I knew that Brother Alois was the head of the community but I only figured out on the last day we were there which one he was. No one is on show. Not the prior, not the priests, not the brothers, not the people. No one.

The service ends with the brothers walking from the church as unobtrusively and discreetly as they entered. The music and the worship continue, often for an hour or 90 minutes afterwards until everyone has completed their business with God. I know I have attempted "Taize worship" in the past, and been present on many occasions when others have tried to do the same. Nothing I have experienced until now is much of a reflection of what actually happens at Taize, because, as usually happens when imitations are tried, we have all copied the wrong things. It's easy enough to buy books of the music and learn the chants. Used in this way the chants can enhance the worship we usually offer, but we have missed the point. Boy have we missed the point.

During the day I attended a Bible study given by a German brother. He was teaching from the Gospel of Mark, in German and English with a woman giving a simultaneous translation into French. He spoke for an hour every day with no notes because he didn't need them. He wasn't giving a presentation. He was telling us from the heart what had fed him personally. He KNEW this stuff, and because he knew it, every ten minutes or so he told me something I never knew before. He lived the Gospel, and in the same way, in chapel his brothers lived the Gospel. I watched them as they knelt and as they assumed silence. I noticed their posture and their stillness. These were, all of them, men with serious personal spiritual practices. This is the point. At the heart of Taize is worship, and at the heart of the worship is a body of men who pray.

The Taize chants, many of them, function as quite effective mantras. Being in another language, they are inaccessible to the rational mind, they are short enough to be easily remembered and they are rhythmic. A few minutes singing some of them is enough to bring a person to the very edge of meditation. The mind is stilled as the body is stilled and the deep awareness which lies under our false self is temporarily freed to be in the presence of what is. The chants are thus an effective way of praying. But copying the chants and peppering our services with them won't reproduce what is experienced at Taize. To find what thousands of others have found in that vast, holy, concrete place needs the presence a core of people who, by long experience and practice know how to be still before God and who can use the music to release their own stillness for the benefit of others.

The challenge of Taize isn't the challenge to adopt a particular musical style. It is the challenge to a radical openness to the Holy Spirit and to deep, disciplined prayer: during, but mostly before and after the worship. The Kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Come Lord, and open in us the gates of your Kingdom...

Tuesday, 2 June 2009


At Lyon our bodies began to protest at their treatment over the past few weeks. I developed a pain in my right shin. Clemency's feet began to swell. Strange how that works isn't it? When the pressure comes off, the body knows it can shut down and repair some of the damage. The trip to Taize through the Burgundy countryside is stunningly beautiful, and the village of Taize itself is chocolate box perfection; a group of large and immaculately kept old farmhouses gathered round a small, ancient church on a hillside overlooking rolling hills. White cattle, soft green woods, vineyards. You know, perfection. The trip was rendered slightly less wonderful by the growing pain in our lower limbs. On the day after our arrival my left ankle came out in sympathy by producing the worst case of gout I have ever had. I spent the first evening in a wheelchair.The atrocious Taize food didn't help of course, but in reality it was all the inner systems telling me 'time to stop, lad'. Not that I listened, of course. I took anti inflammatories instead. The pills worked a treat and the swelling and pain disappeared within hours, so the body had to switch to plan B - give me such a reaction to the medication that my digestive system was laid waste for two more days. Which all altered my Taize experience somewhat. Made it, perhaps, what God intended.

Taize community is only incidentally related to the village in which it is set. The community facility is huge, and, somewhat basic. In terms of facilities, think youth camp. Think diocesan ministry school in a bad budget year. After more than 30 years of continuous ministry some of the major programmes and much of the housing still takes place in tents. You need to think size as well. I'd guess that the trip to Tent F and then to the church from our room was about a kilometre: tricky on dodgy ankles.There are about a hundred brothers in the community who live I never quite found out where, and in everyday Taize life, they are seldom seen. The entire programme is run by volunteers who give a year of their lives to making one of the world's greatest and most important spiritual centres function. And it does function. Smoothly. Miraculously, even, considering the numbers involved. There an ever changing population of a couple of thousand people constantly present. Most of these are young,and all are housed, fed, and nurtured for the short time they are part of the community. Many go away with their lives changed forever by their experience in the Burgundy countryside. In Tent F, the geriatric wing, there is a programme for those over 30, who number only a few hundred. We all arrive, we are given a room (ours a basic but quite spacious double room with a nice view and a hand basin). We all help with the running of the facility, we attend Bible studies and 'meetings' - small group discussions on a variety of topics. The young people take part in the sorts of activities which youth camps have been doing for years; in Taize's case, more than 30 years, continuously. And we worship.

Not many churches can claim an attendance record of several thousand, three times a day, seven days a week continuously for more than 3 decades. People don't come for the facilities or even the programme. It is the worship which brings people to Taize. I want to say more about the worship later, but for now, I will tell you that God and my body conspired to let me worship, sample all of Taize's life and give me PLENTY of time for reflection. Perfect.