Churchyard ornithology

What with the swift boxes being colonised by a typically aggressive pair of great tits and the incursion of a sparrow-hawk, trying to snatch a house sparrow from the roost in the hawthorn bush near to the door, there was much to notice this morning. Disturbing the marauding bird of prey I succumbed to sentimentality and threw a small pebble in its direction at its temporary station on the church roof. My lob had the desired effect, driving it back into the air, but also into the path of an angry pair of carrion crows, who then chased it off, making my gesture redundant.

Oh, yes first brimstone spotted yesterday!

Books of the Year

That is one of the things I hate most about the Newspapers on the run up to Christmas, but I am tempted to do a very short belated version for January but one which is about books read rather than published, but only covers this Winter

The Railway Man, by Eric Lomax, which I fear will not translate to film however stellar the cast.

The Science Delusion, by Curtis White, who takes a witty swing against the pretensions of hubristic scientists from the perspective of a commitment to the insights of Romanticism.

The Experience of God, by David Bentley Hart, a rich concoction of philosophy, theology, religious studies and irony, in which most of the debate between atheists and theists is revealed to be a gun fight between straw men.

The Secret Agent, by Joseph Conrad, an anatomy of terrorism which I should have read when I studied( attended) A level English Classes.

Dark Matter, by Michelle Paver, which is a boy’s own MR James story with ice-bergs.

The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, by Caspar Henderson, which is about peculiar but enchanting creatures, such as barrel sponges and humans and what they might signify.

Christmas Dinner with rice anybody?

On Wednesday I joined the Age Activity Centre in Tooting for lunch, which turned out to be a hugely enjoyable and inspiring event. We have had a small extension of this amazing centre meeting in the hall every Tuesday morning, which so far has failed to attract more than half a dozen regular attenders.

I was surprised therefore, after a short walk and bus journey, to walk into a large hall and find a gathering of over 100 people chatting away and excited about the meal which was about to be served. Most people were from the Carribean and a very impassioned conversation went on over lunch about the use of the term small islander to belittle, but the mood of the lunch was celebratory and familial. I was warmly greeted and delighted to be able to stay long enough to be invited to say the blessing after the meal, which charmingly included a prayer for God’s Providence upon the raffle of prizes donated by Harrods.

The dinner was great too and along with turkey, roast potatoes, and the accursed sprouts, included tasty rice and salad. I was rebuked by Cynthia opposite for not eating all my greens so it really did feel just like a family Christmas.

Our parish link with Zimbabwe

This afternoon I attended a meeting with representatives from other parishes which have links with parishers in Zimbabwe and members of the MU, convened by the Bishop of Kingston, where we were able to meet  the Bishop of Matabeleland, Cleophas Longa, and hear about the situation faced there by our fellow Anglicans.

The 5 years of coalition came to an end in July leading to another uncertain era for the country- already 700 foreign companies have pulled out of the capital Harare and another 100 from Bulawayo, the chief city of Matabeleland. Our diocese struggles to raise enough money to keep going due to the low level of giving by church members, but our situation hardly compares with a diocese which is forced to sell some of its precious cattle to pay the stipends of its clergy.

When David Pollendine came to visit us on Sunday he said how important it is that the Street Pastorsa know they are prayed for. This is probably even more vital for our link parish in Zimbabwe, so this Christmas time do please find a moment to remember Fr Issells Ngwenya and his parish of the Holy Family.

Congratulations to Geraldine Alexander on her first play, Amygdala.

Many of you will remember Geraldine from her stunning performance, with Jasper Britton, in last year’s Arts Festival, when they performed  love scenes from Shakespeare’s plays, back to back.

While that provided a roller-coaster ride of delicacy, passion, tragedy and grace, her first original play is darker in tone, and deals more exclusively with the trouble that love can cause. A three hander it hinges on the 3 way relationship between a repressed psychiatrist and two of his clients, a traumatised mother and her lover. I won’t give the exact plot away because it still runs at ‘the print room’ in Bayswater until the 14th, but it is brilliantly acted and most of the writing is sharp and convincing. A story that could easily have become a melodrama also resists being a tragedy and it handles the subject of love with great subtelty.

On not noticing the wild beasts and why the desert may be busier than you think.

At morning prayer on Tuesday no psalms were set for the day but instead we had the wonderful Benedicite, which is an ancient song of praise in which all the created order, from snows to whales, sing to God in thanks. The human voice which recites it speaks on behalf of all making it an act of liturgical solidarity- we are one with the created order, not a special privileged bit!

It is a beautiful text which originated in the famous Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, which is in fact the Scripture from which Christianity was born. The Benedicite slipped into that translation in the middle of the book of Daniel, but is nowhere to be seen in any extant Hebrew editions, so all those denominations which since the Reformation have mistakenly thought that only the Hebrew texts count have lost a marvellous treasure.

Reciting it got me thinking about our tendency to not notice the animals in the Bible hence another mistake often rightly condemned by external critics of the church, Christianity’s anthropomrphism! A good example is the idea that Jesus’ spell in the wilderness was a kind of spiritual Greta Garbo moment, in which he sought absolute solitude- Jim Crace’s admirable novel, Quarantine makes the same mistake! But what about the wild beasts that get an honourable mention in the gospels; were they allluded to simply to ramp up the sense of menace  , or might that be to remind the reader of the original  inter-species harmony in paradise where Adam names all the beasts as friends and all the prophecies of lamb and lion lying down together when God’s day finally arrives?

In his series of paintings of Jesus in the wilderness Stanley Spencer seems to have had the same intuition- he even pictures Jesus with a docile scorpion in his hand!

Chris Rapley talk.

What with the church lights playing up and the  projector cable going missing it could have been a disaster. But thanks to the skill of a speaker with such a grasp of the subject it all went well. Over 50 people attended and we learned more about why the jet stream keeps wandering back and forth- the reducing gap between the temperatures at the north pole and the equator have set it wobbling- and why politicans seems so disinclined to tackle climate change- the public don’t nag them via their mail bags enough- and why intelligent people side-step the science- its inconvenient big time being just part of the answer!

Listening to Professor Rapley re-inforced my view that we need to rehabilitate the notion of the public intellectual and the public forum. There was so much more substance in what he had to say than ever gets on to the air-waves, and no need to go for BBC’s obligatory balance, whereby someone who is informed has 30 seconds to make a point before someone who isn’t gets a right of reply.

Lovely as it is this means that even the Today programme seems to be an arena for a kind of institutional heckling.

Holiday reading doesn’t have to be crime novels.

On a recent holiday I greatly enjoyed the zest, humour and excitement of some Inspector Montalbano novels, but also profited from a couple of books which were not typical beach fodder: actually they felt totally out of place in such a setting so I read them only on the plane or when sitting in a chair with room to stretch my legs!

Clive Stafford Smith’s ‘Injustice’ is a book that justifies the existence of the word excoriating. It uses the case of Kris Maharaj, who has languished in prison in the USA for decades for a murder which he is hardly likely to have committed, as a hook to examine the faults of that country’s penal system. One which seems to work on the principle that if the police say a man is guilty he is, even if he has alibis, there are much more likely culprits in the exact vicinity at the exact time of the murder,  the defence attorney is incompetent, the judge is crooked, and the jury is high on cocaine!

This account by a man who has spent years working for next to nothing to see that justice is given a chance in a system so cock-eyed is remarkable for its anger, its rationality and its compassion. Smith is rightly passionate, but he never rants.

Tom Holland’s ‘ In the Shadow of the Sword’, is the latest in a his series of historical works re-telling familiar stories with flair and unearthing neglected ones which have had more significance than normally assumed- ‘ Millenium’ was a timely reminder that apocalyptic ideas have always shaped the lives of people. In his latest book, he manages to turn the events of the C5th and C6th into a page -turner. It has been the snobbery of the traditional historical curriculum  which has dismissed this time as marking the end of the glories of the classical world and the beginning of the dismal Middle Ages. Instead Holland reminds us that it was at this point that much of Europe began to take shape, the Byzantine Empire came into being, and Islam became a force in the world. His big idea, which is an important one, is that it was a melting pot in which Roman Law, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Foreign Policy by Superpowers, and the impact of various nomadic peoples all contributed to the development and rise of Islam and the world that followed. It is as riveting as any holiday read, and has far more exciting details than any Dan Brown novel, all of which also happen to be true!