Monday, 24 December 2012

On the cusp of Christmas

In just over one and a half hours we will be reach Christmas Day, in the midst of the celebration of our midnight mass in Dunoon.

So a very happy Christmas to all - and a peaceful New Year to follow!

God bless you all.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Episcopalian? What's that?

A reformed church, dating back to 1560, then 1689 in the Scottish conflict over bishops and authority. A reluctantly juring denomination from the early 19th century, linked with qualified English charges in a tense parallel system with Presbyterianism.

Why are we surprised that this description doesn't do much to draw people into a church?

Let's try again.

A church that is accepting of people regardless of their gender, race, sexuality, educational background, nationality and any other discriminator. A church that believes God's love is for all, as modelled by Jesus of Nazareth 2000 years ago. A church that believes this is just as relevant today as it was then.

Might work a little better.

But shouldn't we make sure that, as a church, we able to live up to that. In all we do? That fits with the informed way that we are centred on scripture, the faithful way that we believe we are inspired by the Holy Spirit. That fits with being a progressive church that wishes to be relevant in the 21st century with some sort of integrity.

To be truly inclusive on gender, sexuality and all might upset some other Christians, including Anglicans. But integrity, faith and being centred on scripture sometimes mean that you have to upset people.

What would Jesus do?

Advent 2 whizzes by

The slightly strange time that is the end of Advent is wending its way into view. There is a perception that clergy are very busy at this time of year. This is true, certainly for those who have a lot of school assembles and Christmas parties in homes and institutions. It's also true for those who have lots of churches, each wanting its own range of carol services and special events. In fact it's true for all clergy who a trying to visit, catch up, prepare and all the rest of it. Never mind the Christmas shopping, cards and the 'normal' parts of this time of the year.

But that's true at all times of the year - there is always 'ministry' to be done, and it can never be finished and there is always something else to do. Theologically, all ministry is God's and we just share in trying to deliver some of this in our place and our time. The outcomes are not ours, they are God's.

So why so much busyness? Why do we put the pressure on ourselves to achieve all these things? Priests, ministers, lay leaders - all those who have a part in this?

It is a shared ministry - we have our part, God will do his part too.

But it doesn't hurt to take the pressure off, to try and find some Advent space as well as the busyness of it all. The ministry will still be there to be done, it will be there to be shared whatever we do. And God will be there in it, acting through all those who share.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Dances with Twitter

The balance of local, regional, national and global matters is a tricky one.

I've been following Twitter a bit closer than usual for the past few days/weeks, just to see what I see.  There is chatter, affirmation, occasional howls of derision or anger, and lots of immediate reflection on what people are encountering.  I love the witty ones (@RevRichardColes is a bit of a winner) and those that make me stop and think.

Links to blogs (, or images (, or news items(@skynewsbreak etc.) are well worth following for a click or two: I suppose it's like dropping yourself into the consciousness of hundreds of other people as they look at the world and reflect how they feel about it, filtered or otherwise.

My own tweets tend to be locked in the local.  The weather, bit of ministry, things that are happening to me. Tentative replies to others' tweets I sometimes try, and sometime get a response or a conversation.  I suspect one has to commit much more time to Twitter to really, really take off.  I have a mere 800 or so tweets and a mere 200 or so followers.  It's a long way until I end up as a 'verified identity,' I suspect.

The local nature of my tweets is also because of the local focus of life.  Ministry is inevitably rooted in the place where you are (I think I blogged about trying to be present recently), and the people that you are with. And if ministry is taking up your energy and attention, then attempts to relate on social media will be local.

Does that mean that Leveson, or Syria, or Stuart Hall, or George Osborne, or even @Pontiflex are being ignored?  Far from it: I read the tweets of others who have analysed and responded, linked and reacted.  Twitter can act as a social conscience, without a doubt.

This Advent: another resolution.  Tweets on every scale, every week if possible.

Footnote: I've consciously noticed three 'verified identities' this week (public figures as chosen by Twitter): the Pope, Nicky Gumbel and Mike Russell.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Advent beginnings...

Today was our third Advent Sunday in Cowal and Bute - they seem to be passing with alarming rapidity!

The split of charges struck me strongly today.  Both Dunoon and Rothesay had their worship, one a sung eucharist, the other mattins (or morning prayer, not sure which was chosen).  One I led the worshippers, celebrated the eucharist, preached, shared fellowship and the pains and joys of the congegation.  The other was led by another member of the worship team, some miles away over the sea.  I have no idea who came, or what they sang, or what it felt like.  I know the gist of the sermon (I e-mailed some copy) but otherwise, it was unknown.

A helpful email came, saying that things had been OK. But otherwise, one half of my ministry has started a new year without me knowing much about it.

It is hard, to try and split yourself between communities, and to try as hard as possible to be fully present in whichever one one is in.  The careful use of language, titles, addresses and phone numbers seems important.  I greatly value the forbearance that both charges have to my absences, increasingly so now that I have wider responsibilities.  They imply that they don't notice. I think that's good.  But it is hard, when you would dearly love to fully belong to each community.

I wonder if the theological reflection from this is something about the nature of God incarnate (for which we now have our Advent wait.)  God, fully present and focused on every community and every individual in those communities.  Yet an infinite God with the scope to be present in every community, with every person. God can do it, with perfection.

But mere humans, even those trying their best, must muddle through as best as possible.

Tomorrow awaits, the second day of Advent, and a journey to try and be present with five communities elsewhere in our diocese, to help them with their future.

God be with us all.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

In the week of the feast of St Andrew

The pressures of modern ministry can be extraordinary. This week has felt like one of those times. My father's funeral was on Monday (not taken by me, thank heavens) and my new duties in the diocese are starting to form. The charges are taking big deeps collective breaths before Advent starts this weekend. And there is just so much to do!

The pressure also comes with trying to support children at home and school, and to let them be 'normal' teenagers, whatever that might be. And My wife and I have to fit in our time and space. It's not an easy task, and it's one that I have seen and heard of as being far too much for people, mere humans, to carry.

So where is God in all this?

In every person in need who phones when answering that phone call is the last thing you want to do, in every sender of an email that makes you want to pull your hair out! In the ferry folk who don't wait for you to nearly get onto that ferry, but set off when you are 200 yards away. God's also in the faithful folk who turn up and keep on turning up. He's also in the colour of the moon, or the frosting of ice on the pine trees in an icy drive. God is everywhere in all we do and all we are.

But it is important to remember that he has always been there, and will always be there, no matter how much work we may do, how many people we may deal with, how many petitions we may sign. God was, and is and will be. Blessed be God. I will try to hold on to that, in the weeks, months and years to come.

Blessed be God.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Two southern provinces and their clergy...

A little while ago the Church of England just failed to pass a measure that (as its principal function) would have allowed women to become bishops in that church (the Anglican provinces of York and Canterbury).  It was nail-bitingly close, and one of the houses just didn't quite make the 2/3 majority needed.

Why care? As a Scottish Episcopal priest, it won't affect life.  We are allowed women bishops up here already.  At that point the complacency ends.  We haven't had one, although there have been attempts (we vote for bishops up here). Staggeringly few women are even in the few senior posts in the church, the deans and the provosts.  Only ever 2 female provosts and one female dean.  Not a particularly good track record.  But it takes years for a change to flow through a church, especially one that is contentious from a theological or traditional view.

I was ordained in England, and have many, many friends in ministry there.  Some of them are wrapped up in the campaign for women's episcopal ministry.  They will be hurting very much this evening.

But the vote was much more subtle than just the straightforward issue of gender justice, as Kelvin points out. The continued issue of maintaining a sanctuary for traditionalists who don't wish to accept the ministry of women bishops has also been rejected.  That was a live issue when I was still in the C of E, and I found myself taking a rather hardline against any compromise, and signing petitions etc. against such measures.  Go and see how green the grass of non-conformism or the ordinariate actually is, I muttered.

But how pyrrhic a victory is rejecting compromise at the expense of delaying female bishops for further years?  It is a hard, hard place that many English clergy will find themselves tomorrow morning.  Many of them have tweeted 'Ashamed to be Anglican,' and rather than pedantically correcting them, I share some sympathy.

Our house in Scotland is equally not in order from a gender justice point of view: no sanctuary for traditionalists, a canonical structure that allows female bishops: and we have still not made it...

And as for the issue of some other moratoria.  We'll let that lie for the moment.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

A virtuous woman...

St Margaret of Scotland.  Saint.  Political refugee.  Englishwoman in Scotland.  Hungarian-rooted Anglo-Saxon.  Wife of a king.

The reading from Proverbs known for 'Who can find a virtuous woman?' is set in the Scottish lectionary.  Rather full of references to home-making and domestic bliss.  Getting her children up 'happy.' Not very PC - to aspire to the good favours of her husband.  I've read it at a funeral or two, but it seems to jar to the modern mind.

But she was a holy, rooted woman, who touched the lives of all those she met for good.  From North to South Queensferry, to Dunfermline where she was queen, she cared for the ordinary people, because God cared for them.

She is universally popular in our churches.  A window from Dunoon on the left, from 1938, and a window on the right from Rothesay from 1907 place her in the affections of these two west coast congregations.    Who can find a virtuous woman?  We seem to have done so...

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Out of Great Silence...

I have a lovely DVD at home, called 'Into Great Silence' filmed in a Carthusian monastery in the Alps.  Nothing really happens in it, just the monks of the place live their lives in silence.  They get to talk on, if I recall, Sunday afternoon.  Sunday afternoons were rather playful and gossipy.  I much watch it again - it must be three years since I last did so.

Today I've just ended my time in a 48 hour silent retreat with folk from the diocese.  Maybe a little top heavy: the retreat leader (lately the warden of a theological college), the bishop, the dean, the cathedral provost, the congregational development officer, plus a retired cleric who was incredibly involved in selection and training for many years in England.  Out of a group of 12 people.  But, in silence, you don't really notice.  Meals shared in silence, sitting in the common room of a college on an island, worship the only 'official' spoken words.  It is a good, comfortable time.  I like silence.  I find that useful things bubble up.

I'm not much good at just being silent and still.  A new ipad (which I'm using to write this) and the temptations of work, email, Twitter and Facebook are all there.  Wifi and some limited mobile phone signal make this temptation present.  Is it realistic to shut out all distractions? I don't believe so.  Things that need to be done bubble up, exchanges with people who have been long neglected on Twitter (I blame Tweetdeck, harder to update followers), sharing the fact of a silent retreat with others back in the world.  All this feels legitimate, with leaving behind duties, visits, the business of parish and family life.

And the unreal sense that all that has continued in this 60 hours or so on an island.  The problems that family face, illnesses, the fallout from church events, spiritual and practical.  The family continuing with their school, work, eating, watching TV.  It all continues, even as we 12 on the island were silent and a little chilly in the Victorian cathedral next door.

Tomorrow is back to 'normal' but with a sense of peace and recharging, I hope.  The theme, 'Hope in small things' was helpful and encouraging. The artwork and scripture and poetry was evocative and powerful.  A good time!

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Matters decanal...

It was announced this week that their is a new Dean of the diocese of Argyll and The Isles: me!

This is a great honour and a great challenge too!  In Scotland a Dean is like an English archdeacon - except you keep on working as a parish priest!

There is lots to do, much help that I hope to be able to bring to the bishop and the diocese - but always trying to be aware that ministry is HARD WORK - and it was hard work 'just' being the priest for my churches in Cowal and Bute.

So, if it's what you do, please pray for me, and the family, and the diocese (they probably need them the most!)

Friday, 21 September 2012

Trust on the edge?

I often find myself here, fingers poised over this keyboard, wondering if I can actually blog about all the stuff that's going on: the people, the issues, the ways forward, the problems, the conflicts.  In practice it usually makes me pause, then go away and do something less dangerous instead.  Talking about church in a blog (in almost any way) can be a risky thing to do...

But to reflect that we can live in a edgy way is good: read this guest post on friend's blog by a friend.

The churches where I serve are not established in any sense of the word: neither formally, as part of a state church, as there isn't officially a state church in Scotland (some of my Church of Scotland colleagues may argue this...), nor in a we-have-lots-of-money-and-are-clear-where-and-who-we-are sort of way.

One of my English colleagues with whom I Google+ met this week (see piccy below) has started at a new parish - and he described them as having lots of money and tradition, wanting to grow, but not knowing how. He has an exciting time ahead as he takes them on their journey (prayers for him!).

But the contrast here feels extraordinary.  We have no money, not in a significant sense.  Our existence is precarious. Our master-plan is to try and offer an encounter with the living God to anyone who is seeking it.  That's not an easy thing to try do in the geographical and financial fringes of a country, with dodgy buildings, midges and the rain!

But we are in a spiritual heartland, out here in the fringes.  Jesus met people on the fringes of society (St Matthew's day today - the repulsive outcast tax-collector - transformed into a follower, and, if you wish, an evangelist) - so being on the fringe is good for church mission.  You don't take your (still greatly valued) tradition too seriously, you are open to new possibilities - that's life on the edge.

But being edgy can make people anxious - I guess the answer is to strike a balance between confidence in where and how an institution is going, and a certain looseness and edginess about going that way.  The best model I can find must be ... yes, you've guessed it: Jesus and his disciples.  Did they know where the project was going? No.  Was it a safe, established, comfortable project? No.  But an encounter with the living God was made again, and again.  And they trusted him in this journey, wherever it might take them.

Trust and edginess - those must be the perfect partners for Christian mission!

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Diaspora memories captured...

I love the fact that people make pilgrimages to our churches - two sets of families in the past week, one to Bute (grandfather married and lived there) one to Dunoon (grandparents buried there).  They are usually people from England who have emigrated south with family/work/wars.  But they come up, often on a coach trip, to visit these important places of family pilgrimage.

The Bute visitors were there for the third time - second time during my stay here.  I'd spoken to them on the phone last year, but met them in the flesh for the first time.  They left a home-made book about their grandfather (Thomas Wilson), his life, death (falling from a gang plank in a new Zealand harbour in 1954), their journey, health and encounter with Bute. I blessed them and there were lots of tears.

The Dunoon visitors turned up while I was pottering about. moving boxes into church.  Flora Fraser (nee McAllister) had put up a plaque in memory of her husband John, killed in 1918 when his ship, HMS Montague, collided with the USS Manley off Ireland (Google said all that, not the gravestone).  29 years later she died, and was buried in the same lair (what they call a plot in Scotland) - beside her brother Samuel's lair, near the door of the church.  Her family were at the burial, and this was who was visiting.  Daughter & son from England, and son from Canada, over for the first time in decades, plus several partners and grown up children.  They had a look at the register with the record of Flora's burial - we didn't get round to Samuel's marriage etc.

Their memory to capture: on the funeral in Feb 1947 it was so snowy that the hearse couldn't get up the drive at Holy Trinity, so the pallbearers with coffin and all the mourners had to pick their way up the icy hairpin bend to get to the (no doubt freezing cold) church.  I can just imagine it, the black coated figures, the breath hanging in the cold air, the slips and scuffles with no words said.  It has stayed with them for the 65 years since it happened.

There is a distinct diaspora of the Scottish churches, just as there is of Scotland: economic movement, fluidity of society, never mind things like clearances from older times.  And we can meet and relate and engage with this diaspora wherever they may be, esp. with new technology!


Thursday, 30 August 2012

Oban again

Off up to Oban today, to see Nicki McNelly made the new provost of Oban cathedral.  It feels rather momentous: the first female provost in Oban, only the second ever in Scotland.  There is now a female dean in Edinburgh, but overall the need for senior female clergy in our province is as great as ever!
So Nicki's role, as well as being one of my stipendiary colleagues, is to be a pioneer in our church.
Roll on a woman in a mitre: no canonical reason for this not to happen up here, we just need the right person and the right diocese.

Silver (borrowed) - polished: check
Cassock alb & stole: check
Falling apart black shoes: check
Wife & daughter (signed out of school): check.

I think we're ready!

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Phew: what a month...

No blogging in August - what a wild month, with loads happening and far too much on the go.

Tomorrow - maybe something like back to normal (whatever that might be)

And then a few posts about all that has happened!

Hints: weddings, courses, ordinands, diocesan websites, ecumenical Highland games projects, new developments...

Phew - what a whirl!

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

...what *is* happening?

Someone asked me today, 'What is going on in your church at the moment?'

The question rather stopped me in my tracks.  It is frantically busy right now, with lots and lots of stuff to get done.  Some of it might even be important, just possibly.  But it's useful to be stopped in our tracks every once in a while to ask the question.  In the good old 'Seven Habits' terms, it's taking time to sharpen the saw.

So what is happening?

There is stuff to do with buildings, there is stuff to do with events, there is stuff to do with planning activities and worship in the future, there is stuff to do with people and what they are doing, what they want to do and what they will actually do.  There is stuff from well away that is good and stuff from well away that is toxic.  There are demands, there are gifts, there are plans, successes, failures. People, ideas, animals, time to be consumed.

Lots of stuff.  Plenty to keep everybody busy.

But I read a salutory lesson in an old friend's blog last week: Vicars that don't pray.  There is a real danger in all this busyness that the one thing that actually matters gets squeezed out.  And all those things that are going on only really matter if God is being paid attention to somewhere in the middle of it.  We are not a heritage preservation society, we are not a minor IT firm, we are not an entertainment provider, we are not a social club, we are not a counselling organisation, we are not a slightly posh group of cross-dressing men.

We are a church.

A church might end up looking a bit like all those things, which is fine - absolutely perfect.  But a church is Christ's body on earth, and a place for encounter with God.  It is a living community, in our case managing to be busy, but with God at its heart.

What is going in the church at the moment?

Lots of stuff.

What should be going on?

Friday, 6 July 2012

Female bishops - a view from Scotland

Have just signed the Church of England WATCH petition to lobby the house of (English) bishops to withdraw clause 5.1c of the amendment to the female bishop legislation.

Why, as a Scottish Episcopalian, did I do this?  I asked the same question of myself, and have hesitated to do so for some time because of this.  The Scottish Episcopal Church allows women bishops - we have just never had one (yet).

I was ordained deacon and priest in the Church of England, and did not expect or intend at that time to move north of the border.  I served my title in an English parish.  It was a rich, full and rewarding time of ministry.

I am now in a church that has maybe a little as 1-2% of the full-time clergy that serve in the C of E (I think there are 16,000 C of E clergy, and maybe 170 or so SEC clergy who are paid - this is a bit of a hazy guess...).

But there is an issue of justice here.

I am an Anglican priest - part of something much bigger than the charges I serve, the diocese in which I work and the province that I find myself within.  The rules in all the many Anglican provinces on gender and ministry vary, as do they on, doctrine, inclusion etc. etc.  There are plenty of justice issues in this world, but to perpetuate, even implicitly, division and historical reaction WITHIN our church structures.  I feel the theology of this issue is tainted...  We need bishops who are humans - that is what the incarnation teaches...

Show me a petition about a human justice issue lying within our Anglican Communion, and I will, as an Anglican priest, sign that petition...

*shouts* "Timbe-e-e-e-e-er!"

The forestry up above the reservoir near where we live is being harvested.  I guess it must be 25 or 30 years since the trees were planted, by the size of the trunks, so this very slow-growing cash crop has taken a generation to be ready to be felled.  I was walking the dog there the other day when I saw one of the logging machines (not quite what's in the photo above) and just stopped and watched.  The machine has an amazing head on its arm, which cuts the tree where it stands.  The jaws hold the trunk while it's stripped of bark and branches and cut into 10-ish foot long sections.  All in a few seconds, leaving a post-apocalyptic wasteland on the hillside.  The operation and the machine has a menacing, primeval sensation to it.  It was mesmerising and slightly scary  to watch this machine at work, picking 18 inch diameter trees as if they were blades of grass and processing them into cut logs in a few well-designed hydraulic strokes. It would have taken individual men, even with chainsaws, days to do what this machine can do in a just a few hours, driven by a man using his fingertips to drive the hydraulic devices.  

Reflecting on this, as I tore myself away to finish Molly's walk, humanity is unique in the way that we, with technology, control our environment.  This first hit me many years ago when I was becoming a ship designer, and I learned that the design of a vessel is dominated by the waves that hit it.  The waves, millions of them, will destroy the ship, eventually, as the steel cracks like an enormous paperclip.  The trick is to correctly design the life of the steel and scrap the ship before this happens - humanity wins by designing the technology correctly.  The same feels true of the logging machine: the trees grow and are harvested impressively by the somewhat menacing machine - humanity wins!  Trees and other plants will grow up in the harvested wasteland, but humans, by controlling the environment, have taken over this environment.

I guess there's a post about ABUSE of the environment here, but today I'm more interested in human creativity and determination.  No other species controls the environment to the extent that humanity does.  As a person of faith, looking at the divinity in this, humanity has been given this creativity and ability to adapt and control and go beyond natural limitations. We live in hostile parts of the world, and even in space. Is this the human echo of the divine creativity that Genesis attempts to describe?  Created in God's own image: is God the ultimate environmental engineer, devising schemes and systems that allow life to flourish and grow? Devising the life itself (and the Higgs-Boson particle that lets it all exist...)?  A post on intelligent design doesn't really interest me: proof of God is not something I seek.

But a sense of awe at a God who has equipped humanity with creativity, drive and the ability to harness, control and exist in the universe.  That sounds like something worth exploring...

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Two years of the dance...

It's just been the second anniversary of starting ministry in Bute and Cowal.  Two years of the business of being a priest in a church community, trying to make sense of it all.

Things have changed for me, in leaving a curacy, and leaving the Church of England.  Things that really seemed to matter are held more lightly.  Things that didn't seem so interesting before are now critically important.  Boringly, I can't really say which are which, not in an open blog post at any rate!

And who knows where the next two years of the dance will take my family, my churches and I?  I suspect and intend that we will still be in Cowal and Bute, trying to make sense of it all.  But what will have changed, evolved this time?

The unexpected sherry and cake after the eucharist on Sunday on Bute was a lovely surprise.  There are still plenty of those in this life, I am delighted to report.  And God: God is there in all sorts of ways.  One has to remember to keep on looking, all the same...


Tired after eight years of sun, rain, ice and all that England then Scotland can throw at it, poor old Dalriada's red paintwork was long since brown with yellowish patches (the latter largely from an inadvisable experiment with marine cutting compound some three or more years ago).

But no more!  Fresh from the heady delights of last week's Scottish Episcopal Church General Synod, this week I am painting a narrowboat red!  A spot of dial-in meeting to Oban has varied the pattern a little, as has collecting and delivering Elly from her S4 work placement in the Glasgow Riverside aka Jaggy-roofed Transport Museum. A little close manoeuvring in the 60 foot boat to turn the sides has been rather good for me, to remind myself that I can still do it!

And the rain has held off enough (by Weds evening) for both starboard and one of the port coats to have been applied.  That really IS a miracle in Kirkintilloch in June.

And to reflect upon all this in the context of life? Elly will be goine soon, in a couple of years, to we know not what.  And by then the shiny red paint will be rather browner than it is today.  It all continues, it all fades, and we find ourselves back again, in our metaphorical white coveralls (of which more another day) doing it all over again!  

Thanks be to God!

Tuesday, 29 May 2012


The tiles in the sanctuary at Holy Trinity.  Why post a picture of them?

I spotted a conversation on the SEC Facebook-o-sphere about what colour carpets should be used in a sanctuary.  In one as damp as ours - transparent and non-existent is the only sensible option. I feel I'm too new to the SEC to launch in to jolly debates about gold/purple/blue (I have blue on Bute). But we have these tiles, slightly tired-looking as they are.

The lack of carpet means cold feet in the winter-time, even through soles of ones shoes.  It also means clicking and clacking as the servers walk about.  It means a ringing, sharp acoustic in this end of the church.
But that means that the voice of the priest, facing the east wall (our stone altar is rather firmly fixed there) is picked up and carried back to the congregation.  I believe I am easier to hear facing the wall than turning and speaking directly - the resonance of the tiles, the wall, the window, the head slightly angled (as I was trained) to ensure reflection of sound - it all seems to work. The fabric and space that we use for worship can resonate and send messages out beyond even the walls, into our communities!  That's being missionaries in the 21st century!

And the tiles themselves: what changes they have seen since the 1840s when they were put in place.  Changes to the church, and to the world outside!  Apparently the humble tiles also matter: I was telephoned not long after arrival, by an academic of the encaustic tile society (or something like that) to ensure that our significant Victorian encaustic tiles were still there.  Which they are.

So maybe it's worth posting a picture of some tiles every once in a while!

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Conversations flow together...

So what exactly are we doing, trying to be a church?

Are we people who have a truth to share with others?
Are we builders of communities?
Are we spiritual guides, advisers and companions?
Are we holders of old traditions and creators of new ones?
Are we voices that cry out against injustice?
Are we hands that work to make things better now?
Are we owners of hope when things seem hopeless?

I hope so...

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Technology meets wilderness...

I'm not sure a narrowboat moored in the centre of Kirkintilloch qualifies as a 'wilderness' location but there are certain parallels.  Today is my post Easter Sunday off - a month or so after Easter Day - and I'm sorting stuff out.  The deck scrubbing and red-oxiding of rust spots on NB Dalriada is waiting while I sort out my technology.

As an Episcopal priest with a massive 'canonical area' (denominational parish) I spend a lot of time out and about, often in breathtakingly beautiful locations, often miles from anywhere.  I also spend increasing times on the island where my house is not.  Mary also runs her holiday business from these places.  And a narrowboat moored in Kirkintilloch and many other points on the canals.  Selling holiday lets, keeping in touch with colleagues in Scotland and elsewhere, and also an increasing amount of pastoral work, demands connectivity and, for me, the use of Skype and now also Google+ hangout videoconferencing.  But all that needs connection and a place.

Remaining connected is important.  I am not a cutting edge technology person - I use it when it's useful and ignore it when it's not.  But this week my rather ancient Nokia's screen finally reached the point of unreadability due to scratches - it was a keypad phone, 3G but only just.  This phone has been the nerve centre for webmail, map browsing, Google etc. for the two years ministry/Spinnaker View running in Scotland.

So this morning, I am sorting some of this out.  A little bit of shouting at our 3G provider produced some improved contracts for the kids' phones, and a conciliatory Android smartphone, which I have (reluctantly) switched to.  The pain of learning a titchy touch-screen's keypad will pass, and I am far too tight to buy a tablet.

And now I have the warm glow of things coming together.  A modest 'add-on' on my 3G contract allows the new smartphone to be a wireless hotspot (and my Aberdonian roots like a mere one month rolling contract!).  The resurrected netbook (new motherboard from ebay), D2's iPod touch, all the data hungry devices, all of this is suddenly connected to broadband while we are tied up in the marina! Skype and videoconferencing (within data reason) suddenly beckon wherever 3G signal is to be found.

Which still raises issues with wilderness.  The old definition of wilderness (used in Duke of Edin award hiking planning etc.) was to do with distance from habitation.  The new definition feels like distance from suitable electromagnetic comms bandwidth.  And we still have some battles to be fought there in the hinterlands of Argyll and Bute.

But let me bask a little in the glow of satisfaction as I blog via my new portable wifi hotspot.  The frontier of my personal EM wilderness has been pushed back a little, here in wild Kirkintilloch! 

Friday, 27 April 2012

What price salvation?

This is a slightly technical post, I suppose, but it has caught my interest.

Those of us who are professionally involved in the business of running a charity (e.g. incumbents of churches or the like) will, of course, have spotted an HMRC consultation on a new Gift Aid Small Donation scheme. This will allow charities (and similar organisations) to claim 25% tax aid back on £5,000 of small donations, without needing any donor paperwork or declarations. Jolly good, I hear you say: £1,250 (or so) more income. There are strings attached, special procedures, definitions etc. But that's the gist of it.

But in reading the consultation document, I spotted one of those lovely little gems... (well, I think it is)

What sort of thing is this scheme all about - what sort of donations? Well. it says: "when a charity has a bucket collection to raise funds, or where a religious group passes a plate around for its members to make donations during a service"

Fair enough.

But then a string is attached...

"Qualifying donations under the scheme must be pure gifts ... no benefits may be provided to the donor in respect of a small donation on which a scheme top-up payment is claimed, although charities ... will be able to provide a small token of negligible value to recognise the donation, such as a lapel sticker."

Could be good reformation theology - placing money in the plate gives no benefit to the donor: no sale of indulgences here!

Or, if putting collection money in a plate is a sign of church membership - then eternal salvation has been entered into by faith, accompanied by worship, devout stewardship and renewed discipleship. Salvation is intertwined with popping a penny into the plate. So that salvation must be of 'negligible value'!

Or maybe we should give people a sticker to thank them for putting pennies in the plate - that is definitely allowed. Let the Lord sort out the eternal salvation with HMRC...

Monday, 9 April 2012

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

The first light 2012 in Dunoon woomphs up: courtesy of goforchris on Flickr

That's the traditional cry in churches up and down the land as Easter Day finally arrives - with the response: 'He is risen indeed, Alleluia!' echoing back.

It's been a good Holy Week and Easter in the linked charges of Cowal and Bute. It's a week of hard work, lots of services, lots of themes and different encounters. Some churches (as I follow them on Twitter or 'like' them on Facebook) have a greater degree of formality. Latin phrases abound as the days of the week, wrapped in unreformed tradition, are played out. Devotional artwork is splashed all over the web, and in church buildings.

The usual slightly competitive edge also seems to appear when clergy blog or tweet or status update about these things. It may just be a desire to articulate that things have gone well (or otherwise) that makes people talk about numbers at services, or running out of hymn books, or all the rest of it. But it is not, in my humble opinion, very healthy to splash the pages of the service register for public display on the web.

Does that mean, Mr Swift (I imagine you say) that your Holy Week and Easter was a poor one? There you go - the desire to prove that we are doing a good job, it is growing, all is well - it can even dart out in the middle of a blog post about it actually being about our Lord and Him being risen!

My statistics I choose to share for this Holy Week and Easter:

Number of candle drip screens gone up in flames in services: 2

Number of tins of petrol consumed for 'first light': 1

Number of ecumenical services I nearly nodded off in: all of them (including my own ones)

Number of shoreline weddings: 1

Number of hours spent worrying about doctrinaire colleagues disapproving of shoreline wedding in Holy Week: 0

Number of business miles driven: 279

Number of business ferry rides: 10

(OK, those last two might be a little bit competitive, but I am a mere human!)

Number of last suppers, crucifixions, lights lit, alleluias shouted and empty tombs fled away from: the right number.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Experience Easter 2012

Some images from the two days of station staffing with S1 in Dunoon Grammar School. I'll hopefully have a few more with some of the kids once we get permissions etc. sorted from the school. We live and work in a well-regulated environment, designed to protect vulnerable people (and ourselves) but the gospel has this habit of escaping out from amongst the constraints and limitations.

And long may it do so!

The last supper - with bread and 'wine'

Sharing our Sorrows - one particular take on atonement - but one that boys love for the gory story!

The tomb - with folded clothes and a (low energy) light for effect...

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Lenten sand

Where is Lent going, speeding past, like dry sand through the clenched hand. Lots of life looks and feels like that - it runs away before you have the chance to grab it, and feel its grains and make sense of it all.

Approaching two years (at great speed) in my current place - and the sensations flit past. The good: people, worship, smiles, prayers, encounters, growth (even, if one dare say it in such a sensitive place as church). The not-so-good: anxieties about keeping it all together, trying to share it about, trying to keep oneself together.

Where is God in all this? In the sand, as it runs through our fingers? In the funny-sparkly-light that one charge took to Oban? In the teacup and candle the other took? In the folk who are joining in with the enterprise that is developing and growing here? Maybe even in the church...

I believe the answer is: All of the above, and in all sorts of other places too.

But, a bit like a discussion with a fellow British-Legionnaire today on his becoming numb and oblivious to the beautiful highland/island scenery: I have to make sure I remember to keep on looking out...

Friday, 9 March 2012

The trouble with blogging about Argyll and The Isles diocesan synod 2012

My third attempt to blog about last week - I must be tired, to be getting so much operator error!

I have just returned from three days in Oban, the centre of our diocese, at the diocesan synod and associated events. Impressions and reflections?

The pre-synod day (which hopefully will have some photos arriving shortly) was a gathering to share the year's worth of 'Building the Vision' - a grass-roots focused initiative to get congregations focused on their vision and mission. People brought models and symbols and presentations of what they had been up to. The excitement of a way forward was there, as well as a creditable degree of the pain and anxiety that being small communities widely dispersed over a massive wilderness can bring. The energy and buzz of this meeting was energising and exciting! The next year, tagged 'Equipping for the Vision,' was opened out in an early form - with some challenges ahead on remaining with the grass roots - watch this space!

The synod eucharist (with a Chrism mass in Lent, an artefact of the difficulty of getting everybody together at the same time) followed. Not a bad occasion, in St John's cathedral, Oban. The bishop cracked his staff ferrule on the stone floor to declare proceedings open. I found a few drips to sit under for some of the time, but the singing was lusty and enthusiastic and we seemed to have lots of folk. I remembered to remove my sporran before I donned my cassock-alb - that would NOT look seemly otherwise!

Drinks, dinner, fiddling and to bed!

Synod itself: one day, from 9.30 to 3.30 or so. The usual mix of dry business and areas of lively discussion. Finances looking up, a new constitution, some gentle elections and trying to focus on canons. All the usual stuff. Then the 'indaba' discussion on the Anglican Covenant, as we had been charged to do by General Synod. No outcomes, just the range of views. At my table of six, four didn't much like the covenant, one thought it was a good idea to bring order and a process and one was about to leave the SEC because of the extremes of imbalanced liberalism. Quite an interesting microcosm of Anglicanism. The synod then ended gently - no more ferrule cracks, just the grace. As a stranger in a strange land with nowhere to go, I went and read a book!

The following day (imaginatively titled the 'post synod day') was for clergy. There were about 16 of us, I guess, including the facilitators. The agenda was back to 'Equipping for the Vision' - this time from the ordained leaders' perspective. We had an interesting debate about the role of education in church growth - and it was noticeable that the vast majority of the clerical collars about the room had been on for about thirty years. Things have changed a lot in those years, in society and in the church. And we were sent away to identify one 'training need' for ourselves. My personal take: this is such a subtle and involved process and competency frameworks and personal development plans such an alien concept to the church - it will take a long time to evolve to the point where this is the norm.

Then back on the road and home - spaced out with the whirl of concepts, socialising and business. A good day - but a year's worth of interactions and business in 52 hours!

...and the bishop's staff ferrule crashed on the stone floor of the cathedral!

I have just returned from three days in Oban, the centre of our diocese, at the diocesan synod and associated events. Impressions and reflections?

Lively discussion, prayerful reflection.

A major change in the flavour and environment.

A sense of purpose and direction in where we are going.

Everybody having a chance to share their points of view!

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Carried Away by a Moonlight Shadow

Maggie Reilly is the red-haired singer on Mike Oldfield's hit single 'Moonlight Shadow' from 1983. The girl from Glasgow has done loads of things since then, in a long and hard-working musical career. The latest in this long line of performances was a live set on Saturday night, in a hall in Dunoon. She, with her long-standing collaborator Stuart McKillop (and Mark on guitar and Chris on sound) played a benefit gig to support Holy Trinity Scottish Episcopal Church in Dunoon raise funds for the Restoration Project.

Stuart (who is the cousin of Dinkie, the people's warden at HT: you start to see how this came about) last performed in this church hall in the famous Dunoon High Kirk pantomime in the 1970s (Oh no he didn't etc. etc.). So he was quite used to the surroundings. It felt slightly unusual - but this church has been trying out all sorts of things as fund-raisers, awareness-raisers and community-spirit-raisers. We have 'fair-ed', concerted, quizzed, coconut-shied, bag-packed, Italian-mealed - the list goes on and on!

It was a brilliant gig, with enthusiastic applause from the audience and massive stamping for an encore (with the spine chilling 'He moved through the fair' to continue).

But what did I love best about this rock'n'roll extravaganza?

We all had a nice cup of tea at the interval....

Monday, 20 February 2012

That would be an ecumenical matter...

I have been reflecting much on a service that took place in the Scottish Episcopal church on Bute on Sunday. I have hesitated to say much about it, because I find clerical fascination with how worship goes can be quite unflattering and ungracious, especially when read by others in the same line.

But it was a wonderful evening.

It was a 'slightly' choral evensong - sung versicles and responses, and a taize 'anthem'. With a smattering of hymns, of generally rousing genre. It was 1929, in form, lectionary etc. The officiant shewed up in choir dress. All that sort of stuff.

...and the delight?

We ran out of orders of service, almost by half. Bad planning, of course.

...I found myself wondering if I should have pushed the structural engineer from Ayr harder to get on and survey the balcony before we squeezed so many folk into it.

...and the responses were sung loudly by baptists, catholics, presbyterians, a salvationist (Major Nessie!) and our smattering of piskies, old and new members alike.

It was a gorgeous evening of ecumenical worship, with ALL the church leaders of bute, bar none, all there with big smiles on their faces.

Dare one say it? Yes, one dares: Praise the Lord!

Sunday, 19 February 2012

And there is another!

Back safely from my trip to Stornoway, a trip to see the new priest in charge licensed to St Peter's and St Moluag's (Eoropaidh). It was my first time on Lewis (in fact my first time on any of the Western Isles) and a very special occasion. I now have another full-time colleague in the diocese!

Shona Boardman is the fourth of the active stipendiary clergy (the provost is still in post, but remains rather ill - and there's a bishop too!) for the Scottish Episcopalian Diocese of Argyll and The Isles. This diocese, which goes from Stornoway to Arran and from Glencoe to Barra (and includes this little corner of Cowal & Bute) is a massive geographical area.

The small numbers of paid clergy in the diocese are both a symptom of the challenges that are faced, and also, I believe, an important part of facing these challenges. Ministry in Argyll and The Isles cannot depend on a small number of 'professional' church-people. Each of the small communities that makes up the diocese (and I think there are 32 churches/places listed on the diocesan website) requires a local leader to draw the community together, to give them direction, to help them worship and to draw others in. This local leader may be lay or ordained, it may be one person or several. But in a dispersed, massively separated place like this, us stipendiary mortals cannot and should not try to be in all these places, keeping some sort of show on the road.

The SEC has done much work on this type of ministry, and I love the echoes of the early church, sowing new communities as the gospel spread. It also has resonance with Donovan's 'Christianity Rediscovered' - where communities grow and have integrity in their local context.

All very exciting: lots of hard work - but it's great to have welcomed Shona into the middle of it all!

Thursday, 9 February 2012

..time for a rant

The General Synod of the Church of England (20 months ago I was a cleric in that church, at some point in the future I may well become one again) is continuing to debate how the C of E should live with women bishops. They have already committed to the fact that women should become bishops - the process is slowly grinding on, and the arguments are now about what happens to people, lay and ordained, who don't like the idea.

Outside the church, society would prosecute under discrimination law for this sort of behaviour. The Equality Act 2010 has an exemption for religious organisations that allows them to disciminate on grounds of belief or sexual orientation - but not gender! Interesting - I hadn't really hoisted that on board!

How do the churches play this game?

There some who like debates about churches being places that define counter-culteral positions - Jesus came and contradicted the existing unjust structures of his day, didn't he? So it's the job of the church to take that same ground. And that means rejecting women/LGBT/... delete as applicable.

But if the counter-cultural position that the church takes is only counter-cultural because society has moved on and has a more developed view of what human justice ACTUALLY is - on gender, sexual orientation etc. - is not the church merely hanging onto a conservative, reactionary point of view?

What appears next? 'But the bible says...'

It says a lot of things. It has things that were oral traditions gathered around campfires over 3000 years ago, it has polished histories of an occupied people 2500 years ago, it has grumpy letters to badly behaved churches, it has love poetry, it has books of pithy maxims. It is a glorious human edifice, filled with God-inspired wisdom - and also filled with dozens of cultural contexts.

The culture that surrounds our churches, whether resisted or accepted or embraced, is a vital part of how a church relates to people and relates to God. And culture formed scripture, tradition and our view of reason.

The church in which I am now a cleric, the Scottish Episcopal Church, has already fully accepted women bishops. But we have never had one. In fact, I'm not even sure there's been a woman dean or provost (I'm sure someone will correct me if there has been one). Hmm. The hot issue, in the SEC view on the wider Anglican Covenant-related debate, is on sexual orientation and the episcopate.

And I would observe that Scotland, as a nation, is advancing faster than our neighbours in the UK on removing the final inequalities for sexual orientation. Legalisation (but not compulsion) of same-sex marriage in church is high on the Scottish government agenda.

Where is all this rant going? Where would Jesus be with all this? This first century Jew, in the occupied territories known as Israel/Palestine - what would he make of all these heated, sometime vitriolic debates on who/what is right and wrong? I suspect he would crouch down and draw with his finger in the dust, maybe humming a little tune to himself, before coming up with something along the lines of,

"Let you who is without sin cast the first stone..."

Monday, 6 February 2012

Walk on the wild side...

The fog rolled across the Clyde and wrapped itself around Cowal today: from a bright blue morning in Toward to a gorgeously foggy & sunny afternoon in Bishop's Glen. I was squeezing in a quick walk of the dog, grabbed my (very ancient) iPod for company as I walked and off I went.

The range of music on the iPod was rather random (both what it contains and how I chose to play it) - and I was buzzing with the business of the day: change of headteacher at Toward school, what to do with the cadets at my padre's hour later, the massive and complex list of actions to be shared out for our building restoration project. Buzz, buzz, buzz. It all goes on...

As the view above swept into sight, the iPod randomly chose 'At the foot of the cross...'

Where all can be laid down, and where it all makes sense.


Saturday, 4 February 2012

Candlemas haze

Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice. Ps 141.2

Not just a grainy phone photograph: actually the gentle fug of the Candlemas incense drifting across the spotlight above the sanctuary of Holy Trinity Dunoon. Mac's new thurible (in memory of his parents) had worked beautifully.

The paint-free chancel arch is also lurking in the residual smoke - that wonderful 'Early English Gothic' building has seen quite a bit of smoke about its rafters over the years.

And will for many years to come!

Thursday, 12 January 2012

A moment of space

As I watch the winter sun bathing the houses across the Balgie Burn, visible this time of year through the naked lime trees, I feel the need to reflect. There is an inevitability of busyness, for me, about the business of ordained ministry. Things to do, people who need to be visited, tasks to be done about services, buildings and so forth. The large tonne bag of salt (not used so far this mild winter) winks reproachfully at me from the empty grit bins, the 'Building the Vision' folder hovering on the desk...

But I (as an activist) need to step back and reflect. I need to stop and pray. I need to make sure that I'm rooted in something more than a task list.

Last night, I was rushing off to do a house blessing (Eastern European annual custom, it turns out, which I think is a lovely thing to do again and again) and the car radio was only offering pretty awful or boring fare. I prodded the 'change source' button and a worship CD came on - Mary's commuting to Bute a lot now and must have popped it in for the radio black spots near Loch Striven.

It was a gentle, minor key, modern worship set. And it gently slowed me down, made me remember what this is supposed to be about.

But it's so important to have those reminders, those invitations to slow a little and smile, thank God for the buzz of it all, and reflect.

...and then crack on with it all, at full speed as ever!