Monday, 9 December 2013

Holding on to sand...

Trying as hard as possible to hold onto a handful of dry sand is an activity that is guaranteed to end in frustration and gritty failure. But what has that got to do with anything, I hear you ask?

In Advent we are encouraged to prepare for the coming of God and to explore and reflect on that time of preparation and waiting. Christian discipleship: is it something that can be bettered by trying harder, by holding on tighter, by gripping it as hard as we can?

That is like holding onto dry sand, as hard as we can. Holding on tighter, it runs out just as fast. Try to hold harder: it's still gone. Is failure guaranteed?

But there is a pleasure in letting dry sand run through our fingers. The cool particles run like a liquid across our skin. The weight shifts and rustles back down to the beach or sandpit.  And there are more handfuls waiting to be picked up and let go, millions upon millions, a literally infinite repetition of taking up and gently running back the soft sand. The journey, the action, the practice of flowing sand is a delight.

Our Christian life and journey has that same flow, on so many levels. It flows over a lifetime, from birth, realization of who we are, maturity, death. Our spiritual life also flows across our life. It can also flow day by day, with a pattern of prayer, study, worship. A Christian community's life also flows: sometimes taking up the sand, growth, new ventures. Always letting it go: change, moving on, letting go.  There is the same delight is seeing the flow and pattern of God's grace in individual or community life as we see in childlike playfulness and dry sand.

So my Advent thought today, as a pressured, busy church leader? Let go, relax, and enjoy the flow of the sand. Again and again and again.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Global grace and connection

This is an image of the 'Peary Spirit,' an oil tanker, as she rounds Strone point and moves up Loch Long, towards (I assume) the Finnart Oil Terminal.  Apparently there are pipes that connect Finnart to Grangemouth Oil Refinery, built in the 1950s to allow crude to be imported via the west.

Why am I blogging this today? I spotted the vessel as she came up the Clyde after I paused for my usual 'in-car-office' on the sea front, prayers said from my phone.  She progressed from a (quite large) blur down near Arran and passed by where I was.

ShipAIS is a useful tool for the marine aficionados of Argyll: click to the right map and there's a live feed of whatever is passing you at that minute. So I, an Anglican priest, sat on the sea front in Argyll, saying my prayers, was being passed by a vessel built in Korea (by the chaebol Samsung, who also made the phone I was looking her up on), owned by a Canadian company, flying the flag of Barbados and quite probably crewed by Filipinos. Taking oil (from Shetland, according to her ShipAIS history) to the west of Scotland, to be made into petrochemical products in the east of Scotland. For example, the diesel that my car was burning to keep me warm and keep my phone charged as I did all this stuff.

The interconnectedness of it all occasionally smacks us between the eyes and shows us the invisible connections that hold the human world together. One can go down a route of Anglicanism: the Scottish Episcopal Church as the local manifestation of a church that also exists in all those places, nearly 80 million followers, as diverse as the culture and countries that it tries to align. Or one can go down a route of globalisation through technology (culminating in the chaebol created, lawsuit protected smartphone that allowed the prayers/knowledge/research to take place and reveal the connected lines...). Or one could just thank God for his gracious gifts in all that we see and all that we know.

And finish with the grace.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all, evermore 

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Social media and the gospel... #thatoldchestnut

I wonder how many times those words have been typed as people submit their topic for a MPhil/PhD/thesis/magazine article etc. etc. etc.

We seem to feel that social media and getting the Christian message over must be important in some way or other.  I share that view. I tweet. I blip. I (occasionally) update my Facebook status. I blog.

Twitter is probably the most fertile area for this sort of thing. I'm convinced the power of the 140 character message will grow and grow.  It is punchy, wide reaching, linkable and effective. It can challenge regimes, point out tasteless products and gather and influence public opinion. It's great. It's not coincidence that eveyr product, every TV programme, every magazine has a #hashtag and a @username

How do Christians tweet?

There are 'vicarbots' who post snippets of scripture to uplift and challenge.  They are usually unfollowed pretty fast.  There are trendy/sharp Christian tweeters, always making witty asides and observations.  There are tired and faithful Christians sharing their journey.  And many, many more.

Does any of it proclaim the gospel? I suppose (vicarbots aside, despite what they think) is does.  There are men, women and children sharing their journeys, mutually supporting each other and generally trying to work out what it means to be a person of faith in the 21st century.  Life goes on in Twitter, just as it does in RL: and Christian life is just the same.

I'm off for some corporate church comms meetings in Edinburgh next week.  I've only been to one so far, and the overriding concern at that one about Twitter was how to prevent the (corporate) church being taken to court for something this is tweeted by a clergyperson.  That is a rather underwhelming take on engaging with the world of social media: pre-emptive damage limitation. Oh well.

So I will go on tweeting (I try, usually vainly, to be amusing and show that stuff is happening). But I will also visit, I will meet, I will drink cups of tea and try to live a sustainable and balanced life as a human being, a priest and a person who follows and has been transformed by Jesus Christ...


Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Branding, products and facing the celestial CEO

My Very Reverend colleague at Glasgow St Mary's Cathedral has blogged on some religious identity data from the 2011 census: read it here.

This is fascinating stuff, especially on the overall trends in Christian/religious identity and in the specifics of identifcation (or rather non-identification) with the Scottish Episcopal Church.  The six different lines (you made up your own category here) that seem to contain the Anglicans resident in Scotland are (in numerical order):

Church of England            66717
Episcopalian                     21289
Scottish Episcopal Church  8048
Anglican                             4490
Church of Ireland               2020
Church in Wales                  453

By far the largest of these was Church of England: which does not exist in a separate form in Scotland and has not since 1986 when St Silas in Glasgow joined the Scottish Episcopal Church.  The 'Episcopalian' and 'Scottish Episcopal Church' lines probably add up to something like the 'actual' SEC church membership, give or take a few thousand. Kelvin has a much better researched take on it, but essentially the English Anglicans in Scotland don't stampede into the pews of the Anglican province in Scotland.

And why would they?

The Church of England is a much, much broader church than the SEC, with a strong evangelical wing, a catholic wing, a large progressive/moderate rump and all the rest of it.  Why would an English evangelical go along to a service which looks like a catholic mass? Or why would a moderate, middle-of-the-road Anglican travel an extra 15 or 20 country miles to find an SEC church when a good welcome and an active Christian community might be there on their doorstep, in one of the Churches of Scotland? (although their stats are alarming in the census - from scientific observation it would appear that the Church of Scotland is in danger of creating a religion-free Scotland!)  The same issue applies to anyone who might wonder about wandering in and meeting us.

The issue of branding really, really matters. But so does the issue of what the product is like, once the brand has brought someone in through the door.  And that is where we will find ourselves working hard to understand what we are today.  A snapshot, from a recent-ish conversation with a person (who goes to no church) in my patch.

Her: "What does 'Scottish Episcopal Church' mean?
Me: 'Well, 'Episcopal' means that we have bishops, and are one of historical churches in Scotland, dating back to...'
Her: *glazes over*
Me: 'We are a church that thinks all people are valued by God, regardless of gender, race, sexuality.'
Her: 'I might come to that.'
Me: 'You would be welcome.'

She's been a couple of times, to a midweek: She looked like she found it all rather odd. But I wonder what she really found...

Saturday, 7 September 2013

On a hill far away...

The cross from the small empty bell flèche on the west end of Holy Trinity church in Dunoon.  The scaffolding required for repointing and roof repairs gave us unique access, and the serendipity of the day, the angle and snapping with the iPad gave the image above.  I feel it symbolises a lot of useful stuff about this church community.

It was made by a now unknown man in 1850 or so, and fitted to the original church.  The lines, back when Queen Victoria was still pretty young, would have been fine and ornate. He took his time to create the fine cross, even though it would always be high, high above the heads of anyone who would ever see it.  It was made with care, and left to the elements.

Just over 40 years later it moved, when the church was extended.  The west wall was moved further west by maybe 30 feet or so to make more room for worshippers.  The flèche and the cross moved with the wall.  It will have been pretty much still as good as new, I suspect, after 40 summers and winters in Argyll.  Maybe the edges were starting to blunt a little, but still recognisable.

Now, another 120 years or so later, we are back up to have a look.  Others have been up in the meantime, roofers and masons, leaving their initials or names carved in mortar or the softer stone of the flèche itself.  But the 160 years haven't been kind to our nameless mason's labour of love. The wind, rain and salty spray have eroded the stone, changing the fine details to blurred, irregular lines.  The overall shape is still there, it is still a finial cross on a gothic revival building, and from the ground probably still looks pretty much the same as it always has. But up close...

But the backdrop to the cross is striking.  The town of Dunoon, ever changing, the 'capital of Cowal' lies below and far from the cross: but still visible.  The blue sky and clouds behind the cross capture the beauty of Argyll, the land and seascape.  And the green of the lime trees, planted about the same time as the cross was carved, that has grown and deepened, just as the cross has faded and eroded.

Are our church communities faded and eroded like the finial cross?  The intentions of the founders of churches and their communities were based on strong views about worship and history and the place of Christianity (in their preferred style) in the life of the nation.  Decades of capitalism, consumerism and apathy have attacked the certainty of the Victorian church revivalists.  Secularism (which I don't see as a rival to faith or Christianity, just a context for it) have blunted the certainty of the edges of the beliefs that our forebears carried with them.  

But the shape of the cross is still there.  In fact, it has probably been nudged closer to the sort of shape that a rough wooden cross beam, on a tree or beam of some sort, would have had.  The blurry lines of the worn stone are moving towards a better image of a Roman instrument of execution.  The sharp edged, ornate institution is long gone.  The worn image of the cross seems attractive, we are drawn towards its solidity and the memories that it holds.  And an image of a cross, rooted in history, created in care and accepted by new generation after new generation: that still sits far above the bustle of ordinary life, looking down on God's beloved people in the world.

Friday, 16 August 2013


Our fourth year in ministry in Argyll and The Isles is picking up speed. This week we kept the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, on two different days in the peninsula and on the island.  I have a clear, clear memory associated with this feast, abbreviated to 'BVM', as the first 'official' feast that we kept at Cuddesdon theological college, pre any term starting but as the waifs and strays of ordinands and their families gathered together wondering what was going to happen to them.  Morning prayer in the chapel (the second one at that Oxford college, and presumably now superseded by the King chapel) was a rather home grown affair and we tried to behave like 'proper' vicars, I recall.

Now eight years on (a short time by any standard, but a time) I wonder how those folk are exploring the same wondering about what will happen.  I keep up with a few, and a few more float past on Facebook.  One or two from about that time are no longer in ministry, most are now incumbents scattered around England and Wales and Mexico and elsewhere.  But what will happen?

Will people be shown a way of meeting God?

Will it be about people flourishing and being shown how much they are loved?

Will it break down barriers and prejudice?

Will it show people how much that man, from 2000 years ago and today, really, really matters.

I wonder what will happen?

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Glottal stops were all the rage when 'e were a lad...

The rain falls in straight dense lines outside the early morning window, obscuring the soaking foliage of the lime trees.  August in Argyll. At least the midges will be grounded.

No blogging in July, a holiday month but a busy month.

And I'm glad that the rain was not this Argyll monsoon two days ago, as some of the Swift side of the family gathered in St Helens, Lancashire, to bury my father's ashes in a family plot in the catholic graveyard in Sutton.  The priest who celebrated the requiem mass said in his reflection,

"He went from Scotland to heaven via Sutton."

The bald simplicity of that was rather shocking, and wasn't something that I would find myself ever saying in that sort of context, but then I'm not a catholic priest.  On a facetious level, a Scot would also observe that such a theologically distilled journey was also a very long detour to get back so close to home, etc. etc.

The whole occasion was quite striking.  I have never been to St Helens before, even though this was the place of my father's childhood and adolescence, and he always had a rosy, soft focus perspective of the eighteen years that he spent there, eighteen years that ended with his departure for university (nearby, in Manchester) and also the death of his mother and his entry into orphanhood.

Well, now he has joined Charles and Sarah Swift, both dead in their fifties in the fifties.

Even that was complicated.  I suppose I have developed a clergy antenna for 'things-that-could-wrong-at-funerals' and it was twitching like mad as I arrived. After the Scottish party had had dinner with my aunt and uncle, I slipped over to the graveyard to make sure all was well.  We had a muckle big wooden casket, about a foot long, which, it transpired, my mother and sister really, really wanted to have buried.  I had rather supposed that we would get away with infusing ashes into the grave, pouring them from the urn into a hole.  I was used to a fair sized hole for this pouring process.  But if the casket was to go in, it might well have to be a bit deeper.

In Lancashire, or in Sutton anyway, it seems that a hole about the size of a tin of beans is sufficient for the resting place of the cremated faithful.  Quick call to the priest, then a quick call to B&Q for a shovel, and I dug out a hole in the iron-hard urban earth to take the casket.  A couple of inches deeper in the morning (thanks to George my brother-in-law) and it looked OK.  All rather Father Mackenzie from the Beatles track 'Eleanor Rigby', I walked away from the grave wiping the dirt from my hands.

All went well, the thurible was swung a little, the asperge did its thing. The priest coped with no questions or preparation beforehand whatsoever with great aplomb and style.  The slight oddity of Scottish cords attached to the casket was rather useful, as the family members were able to lower the casket into the rather deep hole with grace and no scrabbling on the ground.

We then retired to Widnes for Marks and Spencer sausage rolls and cups of strong tea.

And it was mercifully dry, in Lancashire, returning a man to his home.

Dr Bernard Christopher Swift, Chevalier de l'Order des Palmes Academique, Requiescat in pace.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Viral vicars and the gospel...

A Twitter friend of mine is the lady vicar who led the flash mob at a wedding last week. 

It is all going rather viral now, with the Guardian and other reporting on it.

And even some of my clergy colleagues condemning it for being irreverent, and not appropriate within a liturgy.  Thankfully, the ones that I've spotted with this sort of line have only very recently been ordained so I suppose know no better. They will hopefully grow up to distinguish between their own preferences and propositional statements on 'right' and 'wrong.'

There is also a great big slice of clergy anxiety about it all.  "But <I> couldn't do that...!" is what it seems to be about.

Each of us has to minister in a way that fits us, our shape, our spirituality, our personality type.  Kate Bottley is and extrovert who likes to dance, evidently. Others are not.  She can declare love and blessing and the grace of the gospel by the delight that she gave others at that church wedding. Others have to try and do it their way, with the people that they come across and working with their own selves.

Where does this blog post go? I don't dance at weddings: never been asked, probably never will.  But joy, laughter, putting people at their ease, making it their day as well following liturgy: all those things feel important as we proclaim a gospel of love, redemption and life lived in fullness

Saturday, 8 June 2013

General Synod reflections...

The speaker at last night's General Synod dinner was Professor Tom Devine.  The name rang a bell for me, but in my ignorance I must confess I didn't know that much about him.  A Scottish historian, leading academic, that sort of stuff. (Image from

He spoke last night as a Scottish Roman Catholic, in the wake of the events of the past few months and years.  Not a comfortable place to be starting from.  He was upbeat about his church, and as a historian seemed to have good historical reason for so doing.  He ended by saying that future "was not his field" which neatly sidestepped the crisis that their leadership, who lack an empowered laity and have some rather horrendous systemic issues, must now face.

The thing that I heard was the change in what it is to be a Scottish catholic, from the tribal basis of even as recently as the 1960s.  The working class discriminated group that were Scottish (/Irish) Catholics at the start of the 1960s have now become leaders of Scotland.  Judges, politicians, leaders of industry (but less so the financial sectors...) all are now occupied as easily by Catholics as by anyone else.  The influx of English firms/organisations, and English Catholics (of which my parents were two) changed all that.  It doesn't now matter.  

My take: maybe religion doesn't now matter, so who cares about the denomination/faith/tribal loyalty of people? It does matter in many places still - the tribal loyalties of the old times are still present in Scotland.  Episcopalianism doesn't quite fit neatly into it.

But I was struck by my personal response to Tom's talk.  My father was a university professor. His father was a shipwright on the Mersey.  He was part of a social revolution that turned merit into a factor in where one could aspire to be, rather than class or tribalism.  He was a catholic, although became disillusioned with tired rhetoric from out of touch men in black who seemed more interested in maintaining a self-satisfied status quo that transforming themselves or others (at least that's what I think happened, when he walked away some years before his death). But he worshipped the ground that John Henry Newman walked upon, and the energy of the Jesuits who educated him (with no sinister undertones).

My own swim - from the Rome side of the Tiber, changing into the Tweed as I came back north, confuses me with where I am with my own Catholicism, which is still part of what defines me.  You can take the boy out of the Catholic Church, but you can't take... Etc. etc.

I think my late father would have enjoyed discussing Tom's talk with me, and seen himself in some of this revolution where being a catholic is no longer an obstacle to progress in Scotland, as Scottish structures and society have changed.

But it seems that celebrating the fact that religion is less relevant (the negative way of reading this revolution in the last 40 years) is very uncomfortable for 'professional religious people.'  How do we make ourselves relevant to a Scotland that doesn't see religion or denominations as relevant or meaningful matters. How do we proclaim a gospel in a post-sectarian society?

General Synod 2013

I write this as I'm travelling back from the annual General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church.  This is about two and one half days of time gathered in Edinburgh, with representatives coming from the furthest corners of the country (/province) to debate the issues, rules, structures and way forward for the Anglican church in Scotland.

This was my third synod in the three years since I came back home to Scotland.

And I would have to be honest that the papers, when I received them, did not fill me with excitement.  There were no decisions to be taken, it felt, that would drastically affect the life of our church, its mission or its members.  There was a lot of business, and papers and processes on the table that were about things of great importance.  But not a lot was going to be decided and moved on.

Now, as I sit on the train to Glasgow, near to several of my colleagues, it has been a very important synod.  But because of what was NOT done at it.

The issues that face us as a 21st century Christian presence in Scotland are many and varied, but some of the most critical must be numerical (and financial) decline, engaging with the state's moves to equalise marriage and, to be frank, working out who and what we actually are.  These matters were the context of the discussions, whether it was reflecting in how we train leaders (which needs to change, but has much history and baggage), how we encourage mission at national, diocesan and local level (which could be seen in terms of money grudgingly trickling down) or how we discuss sexuality issues ( which it seems optimistic that any process could be convergent) but no decisions of a material nature were taken.

I suspect that a certain head of steam will now build up in the members of the synod, at least those who are activists and wish to see change.  And this, I suspect, will force some of these issues to the point of quicker decision that the viscous processes that we seemed in danger of adopting in the days just gone by.

Prayerful, careful, listening. Careful, loving reconciliation. Walking alongside other Christians in our and other provinces (and other denominations). These are all essential to our life as a church.  But a positive, focused, decisive and confident church that has the courage to make decisions and become relevant in the 21st century.  That is what I believe we need to be.

Sunday, 5 May 2013


A day or two spent afloat on the narrowboat Dalriada is a time to relax and reflect.

The busyness of life for us as a family seems to be a constant, and has rather felt like this since long before service as a church leader. There seems to be so much to do and so little time to do it, whether it's juggling work, family and other commitments. It felt the same when I was working in corporate environments, in the civil service, wherever.

Are we allowed to do nothing, to relax and 'waste' time? I rather feel it is essential that this is exactly what we do. To regard time as such a precious commodity that it cannot be wasted, must always be applied to a useful purpose, is rooted in a rather strong Protestant work ethic. Time is a gift from God, and it must as such be used seriously and purposefully. I recall reading Karl Weber on just this sort of matter, how modern capitalism (and its child, consumerism, that Weber had yet to meet) with a regard for growth as an inherent virtue and workers being subservient to their work, is a distortion of a theology that took this idea of time as God's gift, and also that success in the use of this time is a sign of God's grace.

This idea is deeply rooted in our society, and even consumerism with its subtly crafted calls to individual worth to ensure massive sales of mass produced goods, is a development rather than a deviation from this model of time and worth. Work hard and reward yourself, because you and your success are worth it. God does not figure highly in this, not anymore, although there is some prosperity gospel proclamation in the bigger, shinier churches (who are obviously favoured by God, otherwise why be big and shiny?)

So back to time off, away relaxing. Not as a reward for using time well, because we have been successful or otherwise. Time off to be human, to enjoy simple things, to listen to birdsong and see the wind rippling the waters of the canal, is just as much a good use of God's gift of life and time as is earnest, focused, hard work.

Jesus came that all would have life in all its fullness. And that fullness is in peace, time as family, time to just relax and 'be.'

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Blog free April


A very busy few weeks up here in the Wild West of Argyll.

The biggest thing to drop out of it all? The need for space for reflective practice. Stopping to think, trying to apply models and paradigms to what is going on, trying to prayerfully work out a way forward from this practice.

All feels rather essential.

Theological training is useful in trying to get us doing this. I rarely write it down. But it so, so badly needs to be done as part of clerical life as reflective practitioners.

I now find myself increasingly cast in roles where we have to crack on and get things done. How do we know they are the right thing to do? We don't. But we can try and minimise the risk that they are wrongs things to do if they are rooted in scripture and prayer, and a conscious, intentional process of experience, analysis, reflection then action.

Theological reflection, the reflective cycle, whatever you want to call it. It is essential in Christian ministry. Absolutely essential.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Holy Week stramash!

Palm Sunday yesterday, and the whirl that is Holy Week beckons again.  It never feels the same, and this one, as ever, has a different flavour.

A few days, maybe a couple of weeks, after Easter, we will leave the church building in Dunoon to allow contractors to carry out a massive conservation project (thanks largely to the Heritage Lottery Fund and Historic Scotland, and much fundraising effort).  Maybe four months out will take some planning, management and looking after everybody!  And in the background the pieces are falling into place to recruit and appoint a new priest as my immediate diocesan neighbour to the north: something that I am intimately involved in my capacity as the dean (still newly installed in those shiny wooden seats in the cathedrals). Add to which a whole host of medium to short term issues with worship teams, rotas, fabric repairs on the island, financial planning, stewardship campaigns, a provincial board: there is a real danger that Holy Week might be swamped in the busyness of it all.

So let's slow down, stop, and see what's what.

Dean Marion (a different sort of dean) in Acts and Omissions last week had a different scale of this, but I felt a distinct mutuality with her plight.  But a Facebook status update this morning from a friend in Gloucester helped:

"Lord, when all seems out of control, help me neither to lash out nor to cave in, but help me to look up to the One who seizes chaos and marvellously creates new life from it. Amen."

I clicked "like" to that one.

A blessed Holy Week to all!

Monday, 4 March 2013

Blogging over the years...

I took that rare look back at my old blog posts, over the past three years since I started blogging again, three years of Dancing with Midges.

I can't help but feel that my earlier posts seemed more interesting than my recent ones. Maybe it is because I am feel very busy now, so less time to reflect on what is happening. Maybe it's because now dimly remembered things I was doing three years ago (that outward bound training day in the Forest of Dean!) seem a bit like someone else's memories, someone else's stories.

My resolve having looked back? More theological reflection on the events unfolding around me, in this very public model of virtual journaling. Maybe a bit more often, too, although that remains a resolve from the beginning.

And do I see God in the words of the blog? In the things that have happened, the people I have met, the things that are unfolding around me, touched upon every week or so. Yes, God is there, along side me, along side us as we continue the dance...

Friday, 1 March 2013

Once upon a time...

1001 Arabian nights, survived by a fearful wife telling a fascinating and never-ending stream of fantastic stories to stave off the seemingly inevitable assassination that had befallen all her predecessors. This is the stuff of middle eastern legend, with the wiley Scheherazade keeping the wrathful king on tenterhooks, and the interwoven folk tales wrapped in this happily-ending frame form part of almost every culture's stock of tales.

Tomorrow I will have got through 1001 nights in Cowal and Bute, as a priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church.  I discovered quite by accident that today is my 1000th day since I was licensed here.

Is there an inevitable fate that awaits the unwary in taking on a ministry such as this?

I fear that the fate that awaits is to become stale, no longer feeling a fire and excitement at what a Christian community is called to do.  Maybe that can be by the repetition of the annual cycle, or the blurring of years into each other.  Maybe paralysis because of fear of upsetting whatever applecart may be presented to be upset.  Maybe it all goes sour when a chosen direction splits or distorts the congregation's view of the community.  Maybe.

I am glad to report (and any readers in my charges will be glad to hear (at least I hope they will be glad to hear!)) that this fate seems nowhere near as the 1000 day mark rolls by.  The excitement at what is going on and what there is to do is just a great now as three years ago, when we were negotiating the details of my arrival in the charge.  The cycle of the years has a gentle variation and change that seems to make it richer, not stale.  And alongside our third-time-now pattern of the year, the gently changing people of the churches, the new vestry members, the newly appeared ideas and opportunities, all add to make things feels stable yet stimulating.  I hope and pray that the churches feel the same. I also hope and pray that we have some of this to share with those around us in our diocese and elsewhere.

The tale is never ending, the cliffhanger ending employed by Scheherazade just as applicable to exploration of the gospel and the form of community that we are being made into by that gospel.  And the cliffhangers will not come to an end.  The happy ending is always there, even when the walk is through the wilderness (which it sometimes must be).

And the 1001st night? What special ending for that? Well, I will be compering the third publess church quiz night (bring your own bottle, even in Lent) on Bute, in a rather gaudy waistcoat and with as good a line of wisecracks and oneliners that I can muster. Sister Scheherazade and I, working the audience to keep them engaged, interested and aware of our community: all for the gospel!

Friday, 15 February 2013

Lenten array

We have violet frontals etc. for Lent in both Dunoon and Rothesay churches. With smaller churches, these are it for both Advent and Lent. This is absolutely fine, quite right.

But I do love the sparseness of Lenten Array, the unbleached linen look of the plain, drab lack of colour. It can be glorified up - Durham cathedral's new frontals with gold crown of thorns et al are beautiful but could rather lack a plain, rough, sackcloth look. That is what Lent feels like, to me at any rate.

This year the altar in Dunoon is bare for Lent - this gives a slight problem in that it is ornately carved, hidden below slightly old and faded frontals. To go from bare to white and gold on Easter Day (still far away) can risk feeling like a step in a subdued direction. But more how that's being solved this year later.

The empty, harsh, slightly unforgiving nature of Lent occupies the churches for the next 40 liturgical days. The themes of wilderness, repentance, sinfulness and forgiveness (and more) will be picked out.

The ash that was imposed on some foreheads a few days ago has been washed off. The foreheads that failed to get it because of driving snow and wind have had it washed off by that weather before we ever even got there. Quite Lenten in itself, a snowy, stormy start to the season, the sparse Ash Wednesday service sparser still by failing to take place on Bute and only just scraping in there in Cowal.

So Lent begins. A long, hard journey. But one that is good to spend in good company.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Where's the invasion?

January is coming and going with blurry speed.

Some of my colleagues in the Church of Scotland asked the above question when I said that we were installing canons on the Isle of Cumbrae in the Clyde this weekend.

The Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, Cumbrae, was packed for the occasion.  Given it is the smallest cathedral in the UK (maybe even wider) this is not TOO hard, but a wonderful occasion nonetheless. Goforchris caught the moment the bishop popped me into the dean's stall from her choir stall across the chancel. (photo from her Flickr photostream)

My colleague Nicki McNelly, Provost of Oban Cathedral, was also installed as a canon.  Bishop Kevin did the deeds, Bishop Idris, lately Primus and of Glasgow and Galloway preached. Here are Nicki and I (photo thanks to Provost Kelvin Holdsworth), smiling away:

Question: do things like this matter? A cathedral chapter, robing canons in copes, processing in and out of the place.  Does it make any difference?

Of course it does.  Many of the congregations of Cowal and Bute came for the day, and spent time in fellowship with each other, members & friends of the cathedral and other visitors.  Our diocese is small, our charges are relatively few.  It would be all too easy to feel sorry for ourselves and feel that we were without a future.

But on a day like Saturday Argyll and The Isles is as much a diocese as any English, American, Nigerian or any other part of an Anglican Province.  We install canons in our cathedrals and grasp the need for mission, purpose and direction.  We have a cathedral chapter and a wider college of clergy that spends time together, that worships, prays and works together.  We look for the signs of God's work in our context and try draw others into that relationship of love and grace.

Self confidence in a church is not to do with money, or numbers, or political power or any of these things.  It is living in a tradition that feeds, with a history that roots us, and a desire to proclaim the gospel again and again, as long as we have breath.

So put those copes on, light those candles, and let's get stuck in!

Wednesday, 23 January 2013


The is a great deal of driving in ministry in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Not motorway stuff like I used to gobble up in my former occupations, going round and round the M25 to try and achieve escape velocity. The commuting up here is a mix of single track and double (not dual) carriageway roads. They twist and turn, and offer a few elusive places to overtake that slow car or truck. The wind blows trees over them, the snow lies across the middle of them. Water pools from overflowing burns and splashes up as you pass through them. It's actually rather good fun to drive on such varied and interesting roads. And, of course, you can stop and look out of the windows as you go. Sometimes it catches your breath, sometimes you just smile. And every once in a while you have to stop (safely) and take a photograph. This does not do justice to the smoothness of the water or the richness of the sunset over the Lenach and down to Bute. But you have to try and catch a sense of the God-given beauty that surrounds these places!

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

A new year is here...

2013 has arrived, an arbitrary line in our western keeping of time, but still a new beginning. What does this year hold?

Family: eldest sits her Highers, so will start to set her course for her life for next decade or two. Youngest will move from primary to secondary school. That means all three children, for one academic year, will be at the same school! Remarkable!

Churches: who knows what God, the bishop and the congregations might have in store for us this year. The church building in Dunoon should (all being well) be significantly restored over the summer months with a lottery and heritage grant. It will still need a never-ending programme of development, decoration and repair, but this will be a step change in the dryness, soundness and in rottenness of the place. On a smaller scale, Rothesay will be going down the same route, with grants, repairs, maybe even a new heating system.

But it isn't about the buildings. Repairing and upgrading them is a symptom of what I pray will be happening in them. There is only any point in having a building if there is a living community to meet, worship and grow within them. The episcopalians of Cowal and Bute will continue to gather, to support each other and to worship in our tradition.

Wider matters: the Archbishop of Canterbury doesn't matter too much up here, but the flavour of the Anglican Communion matters to us here. Our own province will continue to grapple with mission, finance, Scottish independence (or otherwise), and, as ever, issues of sexuality, marriage and so forth. Our business may be growing local communities but the wider context affects how and why we do this.

Personal: I end my first three years in the charges, the diocese and the province this June. The canons allowed me three years as priest in charge (renewable) to see how we would get on. I suspect the three years will be renewed, or maybe even the suspension on the charges lifted (if not this year, in the next year or two). My new duties as the dean of the diocese will be a new challenge, trying to help and encourage charges in a wider context. There are some issues, some unhappiness, some things that need to be discussed and agreed. So I look forward to getting to grips with these issues after the New Year break. It is all about God's plans for us.

So an interesting 2013 awaits, in a very positive sense.