Monday, 16 October 2017

Long tails

I’m a Methodist. In our denomination (I expect it’s the same in yours) any of us who hold a responsibility must undergo regular checks and training as part of our Safeguarding procedural requirements to keep children and vulnerable adults protected from harm. The many (unsurprising to those 0f us who’ve attended church a long time) revelations of abuse perpetrated within a church or other institutional context make it absolutely essential to have such Safeguarding measures in place.

But there are some aspects of it that cause me unease. 

One is that our emphasis is on detecting and dealing with perpetrators, and protecting vulnerable individuals from them, rather than on strengthening the individuals to make them less vulnerable to abuse. This is in keeping with the present trends of approach to the problem of rape culture (prevalent in most societies of the world). In the past, the approach to protecting vulnerable individuals against rape culture has been to encourage those individuals to cower out of sight of predators - to dress modestly lest their clothing invite attack, to stay at home at night lest being out late should invite attack, to lower the eyes and behave submissively lest boldness be misinterpreted as invitation, to avoid intoxicants lest drunkenness render one unable to detect attack and defend oneself against it. Etc. The current movement to re-focus attention on the perpetrator - teaching sexual aggressors that other people are not commodities for their opportunism under any circumstances, is long over-due.

But there is a third way that I think is under-emphasised. Not catching perpetrators, not teaching the vulnerable to be good in the hope of escaping predation - but helping the vulnerable to be both vocal and strong. We are not good at that.

To pay attention to our children’s reluctance to be in the presence of certain adults, to allow our children to refuse unwanted kisses and embraces from adults (aunts/uncles, grandparents, family friends etc), to encourage our children to believe they can be courteously assertive and protective of their personal dignity; this is still lacking. The approach of strong authorities leaping to their defence to detect and remove predators actually enhances weakness and vulnerability. Oh, what would I do without big strong you there to protect me?

Another aspect of Safeguarding, as it really is, that concerns me is the matter of untidy consequences left lying about all over the place to trip us up. Experiences with long tails.

What if it is the institution itself that has made an individual vulnerable and damaged his/her mental health? What if the individuals delivering the Safeguarding training bear a strong resemblance to the perpetrators and have many characteristics in common?

In every institution I’ve come across, from the family up and out, it is the whistle-blowers who are punished. “Don’t rock the boat,” as my mother used to say. When, as a teenage care assistant, I saw across the garden the priest run his hands up the leg of the attractive resident of the nursing home, and saw her discomfort and bewilderment, I knew better than to tell the nuns who ran the place. Actually, it didn't occur to me. In the 1970s, that’s what girls were for. I didn't know abuse was abuse, and I strongly suspect the same is true of the Jimmy Saviles and Rolf Harrises of this world. We are to a great extent products of our times and our society.

I know more than one excellent teacher who has been bullied into mental breakdown within the professional structure of public (and private) education, then made to sign a vow of silence in return for the handout standing between them and destitution.

Edward Snowden, David Kelly, Chelsea Manning – these and no doubt countless silenced individuals – bear witness to the reluctance within the political institution to take responsibility. Hushing things up is how institutions invariably deal with their own wrongdoing.

But, what do we do with these long tails? With the unacknowledged hurt, the still aching scars of those whom the system has wounded but who for one reason or another still wish to operate within it? Those who, for example, still feel the imperative to preach the Gospel and make common cause with the Christian faithful, but whose souls bear the thumbprint of institutional ineptitude or worse?

What do we do with the long tails? Is it always only about being tidy and authoritarian? Will we never progress to the place where the people of God organise into a circle not a pyramid, where the voices of the anawim (the little ones, the lowly, the poor and marginalised) are no longer silenced and disregarded? Will we never find a way to get past shame as the principle tool of control? Will we never realise that control is not a worthwhile aspiration in the first place? Healing is better.

And how do I deal with the long tails in my own life? I don’t know. I don’t know.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Thinking about a very busy man

A few months ago a friend I rarely see crossed paths with me, and began to say how nice it would be to meet up. The opening words used were “I know how busy you are, but . . .”

I had (not rudely I hope) to counter that description. “I’m not at all busy,” I replied. The friend in question has a full life with many responsibilities. Her time is already committed. I think it unlikely in reality we will take time to drink tea together often, not because she is “busy” but because she is responsible, and she has given her time to people she loves who need help and who she feels deserve her commitment. I also know she is fond of me. I don’t mind that we so rarely see each other; I understand very well how women prioritise their time – family first – it’s true of me too, except I leave spaces the size of the Nevada desert in mine or else I disintegrate. I’m not busy. I spend a lot of time alone, a lot of time thinking.

Then today I read the minister’s letter in the church magazine of a nearby congregation. It expressed the intention of inviting another minister to preach in their church, adding that they could ask but “he is a very busy man.”

I thought about him, brought to mind his name and his face. I met him once. I noticed his kindness, his reflectiveness, the way he stopped to examine a thought that troubled him, his gentle (but real) enthusiasm. We were in a one-day course at which I was the lone representative of a particular strand of study - the one he’d come to teach as it happened. So I had the privilege of a while in his company, learning from him one-on-one. We sat close together to apply our attention to his laptop where the necessary information was. It is not easy for me to learn from a teacher, because the consciousness of their spirit looms so large for me that it obliterates the material I’m meant to be learning. Almost everything I know I learned by myself or just living alongside and observing. But that particular man was patient and quiet, and I was able to learn from him. I liked his presence; I found him peaceable. 

I thought about the letter in the church magazine that summed him up as “a very busy man”.

Two of my family are letter-cutters in a monumental masonry. I imagined them, at the end of that man’s life, carefully drawing out and cutting his name – into slate, or granite perhaps – and adding the dates of his life below it, and then under that the inscription, “He was a very busy man.” And I wondered if that’s what he would have wanted.

The freedom of simplicity has to be guarded very jealously. Times and seasons, events and moods, ebb and flow in our lives, and the retreat of every ebb tide (in our social climate of consumerism and mass-production) leaves its debris on our beach, the gadgets and garments, the bric-à-brac and baubles, belonging to this mood or that interest while its tide was in flow mode. Keeping one’s house in order is a patient, constant task. Like gardening with its pruning and weeding. For one’s environment to be beautiful, wholesome and clean, it is essential for it to have few objects, and those lovingly and faithfully curated.

It’s much the same with time. Especially if you are a maker – a writer, and artist, a composer, a philosopher, a pray-er or preacher. And if you are a practitioner – a healer, a musician, a worker in wood or clay, iron, glass, cloth or stone. Also if you are a doula, a parent, a companion, a spouse, a friend. One has to guard against the accumulation of debris washing up on the incoming tides of time. It is a patient, ongoing work, the maintenance of freedom, peace and space - and with them the flexibility to respond and to listen. But unless you do it the quality of what you can offer atrophies. “Busy” becomes “shallow” in the long run. And it leads to dishonesty too, I’ve noticed, because it brings guilt in its train. Accumulation creates problems.

1 Thessalonians 4.11. This is still the richest advice. “Make it your aspiration to live quietly, working with your hands just as we told you. That way you will be worth respecting and you won’t be a drain on anybody.” My paraphrase of a variety of translations.

It would not be acceptable to me to imagine my daughter, focused and careful, cutting the words “She . . .  was . . .  so . . . busy . . .” into my gravestone (though in parenthesis – I won’t be having one; my ashes will be scattered after my cremation by the crematorium staff; no memorial left behind). But “She . . . lived . . . quietly . . .” would do okay.

I have time. And if you need me – though you probably don’t – I have time for you. I’m not busy.

Thursday, 21 September 2017


I looked up a book by Alison Freer, published in May 2015 and called How To Get Dressed, recommended on Anuschka Rees’s blog The Curated Closet. I like that title, but loved its previous name, Into Mind.

How To Get Dressed, as a title, also amused me. Thinking it showed promising signs of humour, I checked it out. If you include the sub-title, its full moniker is How To Get Dressed: A Costume Designer’s Secrets For Making Your Clothes Look, Fit, and Feel Amazing. I don’t know why the “and” lost its capital, but let’s not lose sleep over that.

Arriving on Amazon, what I found was a completely different book by Annie Ramsay, published in March 2016 and called (including its subtitle) How To Get Dressed: A Costume Designer’s Secrets For Looking Fit, Slim and Amazing in Your Clothes, self-published on Amazon’s Create Space.

The breathtaking cheek of that plagiarism!!!! How could she do that?

In the time-frame of the same week, I was puzzled by my failure to find a particular line in a worship song we were singing. It said: Till He returns or calls me home - here in the power of Christ I’ll stand. “But where’s the bit,” I wondered, bewildered, that says When he shall come with trumpet sound, oh, may I then in him be found?”

Turns out I had mentally conflated Hillsong’s 2012 song about Christ alone; cornerstone with the 2002 song by Keith Getty and Stuart TownendIn Christ alone - which speaks of Christ as our cornerstone. My hope is built on nothing less, Hillsong's lyrics begin; Getty/Townend'sIn Christ alone my hope is found. Even the tunes are eerily similar. I should say at the very least Hillsong's guys owe Getty and Townsend a drink. This rendition follows one on from the other for handy comparison. Well, hey - I like them both.

But is this level of plagiarism now okay? Perhaps we're back to the days when one scribe copied another, cheerfully expanding and embellishing as he thought fit, such that Paul (did he have poor eyesight?) claims authenticity in Galatians 6.11 with his See what big letters I make as I write to you know with my own hand!

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Of recent times

I don’t mean recent times in the news – xenophobia, threat of nuclear war, the arrogant spread of Mammon’s slime mould converting real resources into the vanity of money at a disheartening rate, the ever-widening gap between rich and poor sticking two fingers up at the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s all there, and it fills me with grief, even despair if I let it. But for now, for my sanity I’ve stepped back from it to look at the small and close-at-hand.

In our garden we’re coming on to “all is safely gathered in” time, blackberries, greengages, apples, pears and beans safely stashed in the freezer. Our beans did so well. We planted only a small row, half a dozen plants along a bed no more than four foot or so, growing up bamboo poles against the balustrade of our little deck (the back door is three foot higher than the garden, so we step out onto a deck, then three steps down to the garden). We’ve been eating them every day for several weeks, and had enough to freeze a few bags as well. We’re onto the last few now.

As well as things to eat, the fir cone harvest (brilliant kindling) has done us proud as well.

Then, in other matters, Our Alice and Hebe went to stay for a few days at Minster in Thanet to learn about making icons – an extra strand they have for some time intended to add to their daily work.

This was the result of a few days’ making:

Otherwise life continues as normal – writing, cooking, painting, stone-cutting, making music, cleaning, talking, thinking, praying – all the things we do. Humans, foxes, crows, badgers, seagulls - and of course, cats.

"For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in complete cat." 

(from Christopher Smart's poem about his cat Jeoffry in Jubilate Agno)

Blessings on your day. xx

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Memories of circular living

I was raised in the Church of England. Our family only rarely attended church during my childhood, when we lived in a small market town in Hertfordshire. We moved from there to a country village nearby when I was eight – and then we began to attend church, principally because my sister (five years older than me) chose to be confirmed as a member of the Church of England. I followed in her footsteps at the age of eleven.

In my late teens I took a weekend and school-holidays job with some Catholic nursing nuns caring for women and children living with a range of conditions and disabilities. With them I (who have never travelled much in my life, so each trip felt significant) went on pilgrimage to Lourdes.

When I finished high school, I went to live for some months with a small community of Anglican monks in the West Country, then returned to live and work with my nuns full-time.

In the meantime I’d applied to go to university, and got a place at York. There I met – and loved – the Poor Clares in Lawrence Street. In those days the influence of Pope John 23rd had encouraged greater openness, so the York Poor Clares had a prayer group every week in the parlour, and I went to that as well as to Mass sometimes. To me, who had in my mid-teens discovered and taken to my heart St Francis of Assisi, this felt very special; I treasured the relationship.

I spent a lot of time at the Roman Catholic chaplaincy of the university, where I met Father Fabian Cowper, an Ampleforth (Benedictine) monk who became a dear and beloved friend. He acted as chaplain for an inter-denominational lay community a group of us began, which lasted a couple of years but foundered on the usual rocks of human frailty. We were not very old.

During those years, at the age of nineteen, I was received into the Catholic Church (by Fabian). I wondered about asking if I might become a Poor Clare, prayed about it, but got married as it happened – and moved far away from York to Hastings, where I raised my family.

When I had a toddler and a new baby (I was then about twenty-three), I found church attendance something of a challenge. My husband had landed a paid Sunday job as an organist in an Anglo-Catholic church – so we worshipped there; but the Mass was formal and long, a difficult context to manage the different requirements of a newborn and a small  - ambulant, curious, determined – girl.

So I relocated to the Methodist Church where my parents-in-law worshipped, in search of help with the little ones. Over time, I put down roots in that church community, and the minister asked if I’d like to become a member. I hesitated. I asked, could I be both a Roman Catholic and a Methodist? The minister said I could – which surprised me; so I agreed, provided I could be a Methodist without turning my back on the Catholic church. It hadn’t occurred to me the man would actually lie to me – and I remember still the shock waves of horror and grief when in the Sunday service he announced that I was transferring from the Roman Catholic Church to the Methodist. I felt so sad; but it was done.

I remember, at the end of my teens when I became a Catholic, the parish priest of the Anglican church where I grew up (who’d been a close personal friend) asked me why. He felt hurt and sad at my decision. I tried, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to explain. What attracted me to the Catholic church was exactly its catholicity – that I’d be making common cause with people of many different walks of life, aristocrats and peasants, people whose languages I spoke and many I did not – people who could not speak at all but lay twisted in beds and wheelchairs but yet partook of the mystical union of Christ’s perfect body. “Ah,” he said, “the attraction of numbers,” which annoyed me, because that wasn’t what I meant at all. It was the commonality, the sense of one people under God, the connection, that I loved.

In Lourdes, in Rosary Square, I watched the torchlight procession, thousands upon thousands of people bearing their lanterns, a river of moving light streaming down the hillside, their individual faces illumined by the lights they bore as they took their places side by side in the darkness. And they, an international crowd, lifted up their voices as one in the Latin Mass, declaring with one voice “Credo!” – we believe. It wasn’t the size, but the abolition of the barriers that divide us, that drew me to the Catholic church.

Still, by the same token I loved the democratic organization of Methodism – that each person had a voice; or that was the ideal anyway. Over the years I learned it isn’t quite like that. Methodism too has its hierarchies and knows how to silence and marginalize as all human communities do.

The Anabaptists of the Bruderhof also influenced me strongly as a young woman – I spent a lot of time with them when my children were little. Our family almost joined them – went to the brink of doing so; then drew back when we realized the absolute severance they expected, from the families we came from and the friends we’d be leaving behind. They also expected us to uphold the view that homosexuality is a sin; and we would not. Neither would we deny the gifts of the Holy Spirit – of tongues, of healing and so on – nor suppress them. So we didn’t join up; but we loved them and learned a lot. Especially I learned a great deal about how to talk to children – simple and honest and straight, none of this coaxing TV-presenterish cutesiness you see so much of.

And as my family grew up around me, they became a kind of community – a spiritual entity in a way. I believed in human organization in circles, not pyramids. Anarchy, in the sense Gandhi espoused it. No one more important than the other. No one’s needs elevated or preferred.

If anything came up – an expense (musical instruments, sports equipment, a school trip) or a job opportunity and consequent house move, or who would sleep where in the house or whatever – then we considered it together and decided on the basis of the common good. There was leadership. The parents led – me and the children’s father – and how we led was by example. We required of the children nothing we would not accept for ourselves. So for example, if the “adult content” (ha!) of a movie made it unsuitable for children to see, then we took it to mean nobody should be watching it, parents included.

When chores had to be done, we did them together. We considered  the Boys Brigade style of work rota the children’s father grew up with. But I didn’t like that. I think it encourages people to do their allotted task then stop, regardless of what still needs doing. I preferred the monastic system, where you pay attention and notice and take responsibility. So we did that, because it fostered kindness and helping and being alert to the needs of others.

We lived in a house basically too small for our family of five children. Another lesson learned from monasticism is that privacy is our gift to each other – doing things quietly, leaving each other in peace, retiring early at the day’s end. So our home was always filled with peace – as every single visitor remarked. As the children grew, we felt they needed their own rooms (our twins were the last to have that luxury), so we parents slept on the living room floor, or on boards in the attic reached by a step-ladder propped against the wall, or in a garden shed. This is Christian leadership, as we understood it – to give the best and to take the lowest place.

I am not a big fan of out-sourcing childcare, so we accepted the financial challenges of being a one-income family. It taught our children to pray. Each month as the money ran out, we asked them to pray, and they did, and their needs were met.

All troubles, all difficulties, all decisions, we discussed frankly as a whole group; our children’s views were always heard and respected, taken into account.

We never locked our house and much of the time the door stood physically open. Neither did we lock our car, and people often slept in it – we knew by the fag butts they left in the ashtray; and sometimes the overnight inhabitant would borrow the dog-walking coat we kept in the car. All sorts of people lived with us when they fell on hard times, and when we came home we never knew who we’d find in the house. A friend who was a burglar (we met him at the prison chaplaincy meeting we helped to run) confirmed our suspicion that we had nothing worth stealing so it was quite safe to leave the place unlocked.

And I have found this approach to life works very well. To include, to listen, to choose what is humble and lowly. To serve and to help, to respect even the youngest and smallest. To sleep on the floor and give things away, to say “help yourself”, and make nobody a despot or a chief. To have no lord but only Jesus – and him you find always in the company of the lost and the lowliest and the least. It is not a hardship, to live this way. It’s just nice. I like it. And I’m so grateful to the monastics and the Anabaptists who showed me how to do it, by the unassuming example of their self-disciplined and practical love.