Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The unforgivable sin?

It’s strange now looking back at the church of my teens, now that I know so much more about church types and history. Then it was a mostly rather disorganized and occasionally mystifying place in which I endured an hour of boredom now and again. My faith disappeared around the time one of the saner members of my family did.

Partway through my time there, my secondary school acquired a closer link with the CofE and we were subjected to compulsory communion services in the school hall. At around the same point the Alternative Service Book came out and the wording of the service was rearranged imperceptibly. At the time I had no idea why this was happening, and I can’t say which of several alternatives were being used. I do remember thinking there was something odd about using a random one of the stackable plastic tables off which we would eat our lunch in a couple of hours as a communion table/ altar. (I guess I was destined to turn into an Anglo-Catholic.)

The assemblies on non-communion days were also religious, of course. As a non-believer and non-singer I used to feel faint when squashed in the too-small hall with several hundred other kids on hot days as they all droned out some dirge-like hymn or other accompanied by thumping piano, occasionally varied by something very militaristic or awful seventies schlock.

There was usually an uplifting reading or story after the hymn, then a lot of administrative notices, occasionally a mini-prizegiving. One day the Bible reading was on the need to forgive our enemies seventy times seven, shortly followed by an announcement in the notices that Jane X had been “expelled for being unforgivably rude to a teacher.”

No one got it.

At the time I just assumed everyone in charge of that school was really, really dumb (I was a teenager). Now I wonder if one teacher thought there was something wrong with some of their values and put that reading forward for the day. (I’m not saying never exclude, just that your reasoning for the ratio of forgiveness to giving up on people needs to be up front and not contradictory.)

Children and church – the 70s.

My family went to church out of a sense of duty. There was no expectation that anyone would enjoy it, nor any perceptible spiritual growth, increase in charity, or any other fruits of the Spirit as a result. It was just what you "had to" do on Sundays. They were at the tail end of the demographic who went to church out of deference to social expectations. At the age when we tend to believe everything adults say is true, I was told about God, but didn’t have any direct experience of God.

The head of one of my first schools was a committed Christian who told us bible stories, and about the rules of the religion, the Ten Commandments and other things that came in handy lists we could memorise. Miss B also had a real faith herself and an absolute integrity. Her version of Christianity was very much like the icebox approach in the delivery of its beliefs and doctrine, but it was real, she did not go home and then behave very differently for the remaining 166 or so hours of the week like my family.

But when I went on to another school, and although the cracks in the family were obvious by then, there was a complete lack of pastoral support. Here there were some people of integrity like Miss B, but also a lot of opportunistic misuse of religious tools. Telling children about an eye in the sky bearing down upon you wherever you are has obvious applications if you want to enforce excessive school rules or any other kind of conformity. This was paired with a kind of saccharine babytalk in the school assemblies that completely cut God off from me when I most needed that connection.

We filed into the RS classroom past a series of framed cartoons of contorted figures in hell, based on the Psalms and Wisdom literature quotes on fools saying there is no God. When we were told the story of Abraham and Isaac, the teacher did nothing to explain it – another time and place, Abraham’s mistake, God’s knowledge that Abraham would do anything for him? Nothing.

I was going through major intra-family violence, emotional abuse and neglect, including refusal to get me medical help for a very painful and sometimes dangerous condition, someone very close to me was dying, I had been uprooted from a home and school where I had just about managed to hang on. I was not so much having a childhood as getting to be a four-foot high carer for some of the adults around me.

If your so-called children’s assemblies or services are alienating the very children most in need of this, it’s safe to say you’re Doing It Wrong.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Glazed over

A few more layers on one of my abstracts yesterday. There will be several more layers of colour in little lines then some unifying glazes over the top, on each stripe, to get the effect I want. The advantage of the very hot weather of the last couple of days is that even the very high oil content glazes I was using on the other painting are drying much faster than usual.

I've also edited another couple of chapters of the novel, but was hit with another face full of paperwork in my inbox this morning - forms to fill in for starting training this September, most of the questions asking me for information I don't even have yet. I am trying not to let this stress me out in the slightest - back in my consultancy days I generally had not just a Plan B, but Plans C, D and E for my next move. Life is not like that any more.

Monday, 27 June 2011

The whitewashed Protestant icebox

When I was very small I attended the church of No Saints, not particularly near Little Dullsville, in a very isolated part of the West Country – extremely reluctantly, I might add. The church had originally been built as a private chapel near a manor house, the latter subsequently demolished. It had been miles from the nearest villages so now in the absence of the house it stood alone on the north side of a granite hill with a few sheep chewing at the scrubby grass.

The building was tiny, and the coldest place on earth, as far as I could tell, even though I lived in a freezing house and have never met anyone else in my generation who managed to get chilblains in winter. It was somehow more freezing inside than out even in February. I don’t think there was any heating at all. There was electric light in winter so there must have been some kind of generator but there was no kitchen, water supply etc. These people didn’t do after-service tea, coffee mornings or Sunday school.

The walls were plain white, the furnishings completely unadorned wooden pews, box pews down one side and open pews in the main body of the church. Everyone, the whole congregation of maybe fifteen, sat in the same pews decade after decade. (I thought they might go home between Sundays but with some of them you couldn’t prove it.) On the south wall was the only decoration in the place, a giant sculpted marble tomb to one of the defunct manor family's Stuart ancestors, dwarfing the plain pulpit and table.

This was in the days before Alternative Service Books and any other newfangled modern language, and the Parish Eucharist movement had not penetrated the wilds of the moors, so the main service was Morning Prayer three Sundays out of four with Communion on the remaining Sunday. Most of my memories of the service are of sitting on a kneeler on the floor, reading the hymn books or prayer books by myself when I had lost the thread of the preacher droning on. I can’t remember much about what he wore or where he stood or any of the other distinguishing features of different types of Protestantism. My best guess would be a cassock, surplice and stole, and I think he presided from the north end of a plain wooden table at the communion services, but I may be mixing up this “padre,” as he was called, with later ministers at the church school.

There was one other child present most weeks, but she was the organist’s daughter and sat near her mother on one of the benches that had once been choir stalls. The only music I heard anywhere until I started school was the sound of the hymns, taken from the inevitable Ancient and Modern book, modern apparently referring to 1869 not 1969.

The church was miles away, past about half a dozen other Church of England places, but the family had chosen this church when they lived in their previous home and it suited their purposes. They hadn’t lived any nearer before the move, but had decamped there from their previous village church after a dispute with a new rector who removed names from pews and insisted visitors should be allowed to sit where they liked. Somehow they found the remotest, coldest church in the middle of nowhere, and the fact that there was no real community there suited them just fine.

Any sense of God that I had came more from the reading on the church floor than anything that was explained to me. I can’t say, either, that I particularly connected the wet countryside with any sense of awe or natural theology. At home I had an Authorised Version of the Bible that I attempted to plough my way through. I more or less abandoned this attempt when I realised no one would answer my questions. In the line-up to shake the vicar’s hand after the service, one day I asked him where God came from, and he told me I was too young to be told that.

I also hated communion, having to kneel on the carpeted altar step next to my parents and watch them being given communion whilst I was only allowed a pat on the head. I think I'd say now that it made me feel like a second class citizen - I didn't really have that concept at four, but I could see it was yet another way in which children didn't count.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

On Painting

.. because I have started again. I had a look at two of my abstract works in progress, seen here in quick colour sketches,










and did a lot of glazing (thin layers of translucent colour) on one of them. It's an 80*80cm square.
















I'm planning to take it further tomorrow when this layer has dried and get started with more of the lower, opaque layers on the second one, which should eventually look more shimmery like the sketch.












This is a 60*60 square and has a companion piece for which I have only painted a plain background so far.

All of these came out of a kind of prayer/meditation type of session I sometimes do with a set of oil pastels and a sketch book handy.

I know I am, but what are you?

People in churches seem to feel a great need to classify people. I get put in the Anglo-Catholic box. That’s the elegantly proportioned stone one with all the Gothic tracery, lined with slightly faded and shredded rose-coloured fiddleback chasubles.

Being in this box suits me in some ways. There is plenty to look at, some of it very engaging and most of it not too kitsch. In other ways it doesn’t – some people think women really don’t belong in this box, though others insist that the box has been updated, Anglo-Catholic 2.0, and so on. Others think I spend too much time reading the bible for a proper A-C, despite the fact that the founders of the Oxford Movement might be horrified by that statement. Compared to most of the others, I am about as musical as a brick. Allowances need to be made.

I don’t really use the bible the same way the open evangelicals over there do, though, and I couldn’t stay in their box with all its over-exuberant worship songs (especially not the ones with arm movements). I don’t really fit with the self-described liberals as I believe too much old-fashioned orthodox stuff, and can’t cope with lurex-threaded seventies fabrics or pottery chalices. In the far distance there are the fundies, and that’s the way I’d like them to stay.

Yeah, I’m stereotyping. That’s kind of the point.

But I am going to find out more about recent church history, for a church in which “recent” probably means nineteenth century.

On not painting

I have a bad habit of getting blocked. I’ll find myself constitutionally incapable of writing for a few weeks or months, or with painting the block can last years. This is exasperating.

At the moment I am going great guns learning ancient languages in preparation for the whole vicar school adventure – far more than I will be forced to learn, especially as we ancient over-thirties get special dispensation to be lazy about them – but something I want to do. I definitely want to arrive at college having some idea whether I want to take Greek further or start Hebrew or both. I am also studying some basic theology and reviewing the stuff I learned on my diocese’s excellent certificate course a few years ago.

I don’t know whether it is the study or the uncertainty that is getting to my creativity. The lack of clarity is currently around which degree I’ll be studying, funded how, and for how long. There is nothing much I can do about this other than turn around the extraordinary number of requests for pieces of work and long forms to fill in coming in from various churchy directions. I’ve given out more personal statements than the average continental European president’s mistress over the last couple of months, but considerably less interesting, I’m afraid.

I know what I have to do to push my creativity back up – it usually works when I start with small exercises or simply go into my studio and clear up, or re-read an earlier piece of writing. So it’s just a matter of doing it. Meanwhile, back to those Greek participles.