Friday, 22 September 2017

Writes of the Church - On Sale Now

The paperbook book of the Beaker Folk's sibling blog, "Writes of the Church" is released today! Available through The Bible Reading Fellowship, Amazon, and presumably many good Christian bookshops.

Join the congregation as they make their way onto proper printed paper, with some great cartoons drawn by Dave Walker.  How many times can Norbert resign as treasurer? Why is Romilly constantly cancelling the social events? Why would a tea towel cause a boycott of the church hall? And Melissa gets in with a couple of her uplifting poems.

A queue of letter-carrying parishioners at the vicar's door

And all just in time for Christmas....

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Getting Really Close to Nature

Really pleased to read Mark Boyle's Guardian article on living without the benefit of modern medicine and technology. At last someone has embraced the lifestyle we have been advocating through our "Ultimate Immersion Beaker Experience" retreat concept.

For a very reasonable rate, we've been letting idealistic people with lots of money live in the Lower Wood for up to three months at a time. During this time we send in "Beaker Lifestyle Coaches" to give them advice on important pre-industrial lifestyle tips. For instance - how to make tents out of fox skins, which herbs to use for broken bones, and how to tell whether you're so cold you will die of hypothermia, or whether you'll probably make it to morning alive.

The Immersion Beaker people spend their days foraging for berries, gathering moss and ferns to create sanitary products, and being sick after eating unwashed berries or drinking water out of the brook. Of course, foraging for berries in late winter and spring is always a bit pointless, so at those times of the year they mostly just sit around being hungry.

Lower Wood was always full of wildlife, so in principle a particularly keen Immersion Beaker  person could have had a decent Neolithic diet of muntjac, hedgehog and rabbit. In practice, of course, they were such idealists they couldn't harm a bunny-wunny, and careers as investment bankers and actuaries don't give you much idea as to how to create a decent bow or snare. And not having matches, they were strictly relegated to banging the rocks together to make fire. We caught someone using a bit of broken bottle to magnify the sun once. We had to confiscate his loincloth as a punishment.

Clothing was of course a real bugbear. Any Immersion Person going into the woods had to yield up all artificial fibres. And if any of their clothes then wore out or were so dirty they were unredeemable, they had to weave replacements themselves. In the absence of any cotton fields in Husborne Crawley this left them chasing sheep round fields and harvesting bits of discarded wool off the barbed wire.
Lacking aspirin, some extreme methods of obtaining pain relief were attempted
The ban on modern medical intervention did bite, though. Surprisingly, as they thought their natural lives would protect them from all illness. Not if you fall out of a tree while trying to hunt squirrels and break your arms, it turns out. All that feverfew didn't have the slightest effect. And Melanie was rubbish at foraging after that. Eventually, faced with her colleagues' refusal to call a modern ambulance to drive along modern roads to help her, she had to walk up to the Big House and beg for help. Where, true to the Neolithic principle, Burton Dasset gave her a backie to Milton Keynes General on his bicycle.

I remember the guy with terrible hay fever, who spent six weeks unable to see, let alone forage. His colleagues did try feeding him plantain leaves, but he didn't trust them not to have herbicide on them. He ended up sitting under a crab apple tree, eating the fruit whenever it fell on his head. Although to be fair, the raving state he got into was very definitely a religious experience.

Indeed, religious experiences become more common the longer you spent in Beaker Immersion. After a couple of months of near starvation, you end up seeing all kinds of visions. And most nights, if you walked past Lower Wood, you could hear people calling on God for help. And twice we had to intervene to prevent human sacrifice to ask Hern the Hunter for blessing. So a very big tick in the box.

But sadly, eventually the Beaker Immersion course had to be wound up. A group of particularly enthusiastic course members, with some awareness of Neolithic agricultural practices, went in for slash and burn. The Lower Wood ceased to exist one week in April. And then they realised they had no seeds, and no way of feeding themselves. They didn't get their money back, mind you. I felt they had had the ultimate Beaker experience.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Tea Light Terror

Some excitement at this evening's "Tea Light Labyrinth" service.

It was a lovely idea, based on Ps 119:105, "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path." A labyrinth of tea lights. The idea being that Beaker Folk would wander through the labyrinth, their feet literally lighted by the tea lights on the floor, and experience the sense of being on life's journey until they emerged, refreshed and ready for a glass of sparkling grape juice.

But Young Keith made a minor error or two in laying out the labyrinth, didn't he. Specifically, in accidentally laying it out so there was no way out from end to the other. As the Beaker folk wandered their meandering paths around the Moot House they started in awe, moved to confusion and ended up in some concern.

So the concern increased as they stacked up at the dead end. And then the concern turned to panic as one or two of their trouser legs caught fire. At this point the sprinklers should have gone off, but we'd put in the emergency override after the Streams of Water service. So the whole thing staggered to an end with Young Keith and I running around the Moot House, throwing beakers of water over the sizzling Beaker Folk. Completely messed up the whole filling up / emptying out of beakers cycle. It'll be 19 years now till we can get that straight.

The Well off Preacher

Nice little blog post from Doug Chaplin on the recent press reports that Church of England stipends are enough to live on.

Basically pointing out they are, as long as you've got other income....

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Blessed are the Peacemakers

Just back from an attempt to arbitrate in one of the most bitter divisions  in world Christianity.

Yep, two groups of Roman Catholics from the Western World. Twitter got a bit scorched but I think we were able to contain the damage.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Streams of Water

Thanks to Young Keith for his latest experimental worship this evening, "Streams of Water."

You may remember that we have a "Mystic River" running under the glass floor of the Moot House. An junior tributary of the Hus Bourne itself, this stream flows from a natural spring, and meanders in a complex pattern under our feet. Thus representing ancient concepts of blessing, abundance and the living world. And reflecting the Biblical concepts of "streams of water" and the four rivers that flow through Eden.

Young Keith's idea was a "dynamic representation of God's love, transforming our ordinary into extraordinary - sublimating the natural into the supernatural, if not the preternatural."

What this meant in practice, as so often with Keith's experimental services, was a skipload or two of dry ice dumped into the "dunking hole" we use for initiation ceremonies.

Yeah, a bit of a misjudgement of quantities. The lasers that were intended to draw a delicate tracery through the gently rising mist in fact were incapable of penetrating a heavy CO2 fog. The temperature in the Moot House dropped by 6°C. And as the issue of gas exceeded its ability to percolate through the vents, the floor of the Moot House rose, lifting the choking Beaker Folk closer towards the Moot House ceiling.

At this point, the highly-sensitive Moot House safety override cut in. Unfortunately that involved the sprinklers all coming on and a deafening nuclear attack alarm kicking off, together with all the halogen searchlights rotating. Disorientated, screaming, soaking and gasping for oxygen, the Beaker Folk reacted by pushing through the fibre-glass simulated thatch in the Moot House roof and rolling down the outside to safety.

There's a deep theological symbolism to be drawn from this evening's events.

I just wish I was clever enough to draw it.

Frozen Parsons and Liquid Assets

Sometimes I realise how lucky I am. Being able to live in my family's ancestral Great House (now officially owned by an offshore trust), and charging the 50 or so resident Beaker Folk rent, means I live in warmth within the reasonably-sized Archdruid's Suite. Of course, the Beaker Folk are responsible for cleaning their own rooms, and the corridors and dining hall, on the George Herbert principle of sweeping the floors as for God's laws. So yes, the lot has fallen well for me.

Then I read the complaints about the selling off of the Church of England's old parsonages and I wonder. The basic complaint being that the old-style vicars used to live pretty much in mansions, and these days they want to live in 4-bed detached houses with a study and a double garage, and not have to pay for servants.

An old rectory

There's a few things wrong with Olivia Rudgard's article. Mostly that it's one-sided and uncritical. But to be more specific:

The headline suggests the Church of England has lost £8bn by selling off old parsonages. This based on Anthony Jennings guessing that 8,000 houses have been sold off that would now be worth a million quid each.

Thing is, this would only be true if the C of E dioceses had taken that money as fivers and had a giant bonfire with them. And I don't think that's happened all that often - though I know there's some odd types in Ely diocese. I know property has risen in value, but if they'd actually taken that money and used it for ministry, for mission, for buying smaller vicarages that would also have grown in value - then I don't reckon that's such a disaster.

Then the claim that  "They [clergy] feel some kind of guilt that they're living in a better house than everybody else, which is ridiculous, because everyone knows it's a parish parsonage and not their house."

Well, do you know, I've never heard that as an explanation of why a clergy might want to live in a modern house. I've heard them complain they can't sleep at night because the old vicarage is in the middle of town and right next to a pub that's open late into the night. And of course the vicarage was invented before karaokes, PAs and discos were invented. I'm aware that some old parsonages are freezing cold, and the diocese don't necessarily have the money to put in serious amounts of heating and double glazing for an unnecessary number of rooms. I've known a bachelor priest  living just with his mum in a 12-bedroom, 3-floor vicarage with extensive wine cellar. And I've wondered how the typical clergy family can keep such a leviathan of a building dusted, hoovered and clean. And it's lovely when you've got an acre of garden - but it don't half take some maintenance, when the clergy's busy tending the flock and the clergy's spouse has a full time job and they've got a few kids around the place.

Anthony Jennings goes on to tell us, "In the past everyone knew where the vicar was and now they wouldn't, because he's on a housing estate."

And that's the nub of it, isn't it? This isn't because huge vicarages are an asset to the Church or the community. It's because there are people who really still want to live in Bertie Wooster's England - where every village has a vicar, and every vicar has a huge vicarage. Where parsons are important persons (and, implicitly, all of them are blokes) and the Church is a power in the land.

Well, that's not where we are. The vicars are already full-time busy and probably don't need people doffing their tatty caps to them because they live in a big house. They need decent, warm, easy to maintain housing.

So it's a shame about East Coker vicarage. But it's not a building for an associate priest. The Church doesn't need listed vicarages and massive maintenance bills. And it's not like TS Eliot is buried in the rose garden.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Troubles with Trebles

And so to Harpenden, where the attitude of the "sharp elbowed" London commuter set, intent on standards of excellence, has apparently caused the choir master to resign.

And I am glad to announce this year's Beaker Award for Utter Naivety  in a Single Sentence for this cracker:
"The church choir is generally assumed to be a bastion of inclusivity, acceptance and love for all."
Has this woman never read Midsomer Murders? Hopefully she will be buying a copy of "Writes of the Church" when it comes out next week, for at least a hint of the organist - choir - minister - congregation dynamics that go on.

Let us consider some of the dynamics  in a typical church.

Inclusivity Versus Performance

People love their churches, and people love to worship. And people love to use music to worship.

But people also love to use music to perform.

So dynamic number one - inclusivity versus performance. Maybe this is the source of more choir and music group angst than anything else. We can accept there is a minimum level of performing ability for a choir or a musician to lead corporate worship. Broadly, somebody needs to be able to play or sing something that is roughly in time and tune. Anything less than that and you have the Beaker Quire, who are today busy trying to buy some brown paper for their kazoo.

But there is a tension when the music group decides they want to improve their performance. When a seven-minute guitar solo is introduced, it is often distracting to worship. Especially when singing "Abide with Me" at a funeral. If you introduce complex polyphonic singing, where does the congregaton sit? At the back of the church, obviously, same as normal. But you know what I mean.

I once had a Beaker Quire member (Buzfide, an ocarinist if I remember correctly) once resign because the Quire didn't "sound enough like Hillsong." I remember telling him - Hillsong has more guitarists than we have Beaker Folk. I can't train everybody in the Community on guitar. Not everybody has a guitar. Not everyone wants to play guitar. But he left, convinced I was disrespecting God with my low standards of worship. Then we had Gwyndolyn wanting the Quire to be "more like the Rend Collective." But that wasn't an artistic judgement. She just has a thing about blokes with beards.

And then of course, some congregation members actually want to hear high-quality music without the effort of joining in. The existence of cathedral choral evensong tells us that for some, it's enough simply to sit back and enjoy the space cadet glow. And that's fair enough. But it make it hard enough for those charged with pitching the music right.

Choosing the Hymns

Then there's the matter of who gets to choose the hymns. Options can include:

  • The minister
  • The "worship leader" for that service
  • The choir master / organist / music group leader 
  • The choir, changing the songs at the last minute when they decide they can't sing the ones the minister / worship leader has spent the last five days choosing.
  • The congregation at a "Songs of Praise" event, shouting out random hymns they hope the organist can play. Always beware the former Methodist who's always loved a 26-verse Wesley hymn in an unexpected meter.


Few things more potentially divisive than the time and format associated with rehearsing. When Buzfide was demanding Hillsongesque levels of musicianship, he was really asking for the Quire to practice together for 3 hours a day, every day. For about 10 years, in my opinion. Whereas some more relaxed modern music groups like to just get together on a Sunday morning and busk it, maybe with a quick half-hour run through first.

And then you get the conflict between the experts and the volunteers. Because to get the best out of the weaker members, you have to spend longer on the relative basics. And the ones who think they're better get bored. Imagine a music group where the rhythm guitarist is still having trouble finding the fifth chord, but the keyboard playing  has a degree from the RCM. Where's the attention going to be? Not on the wizard of the ivories. And what's the drummer going to do during three hours of the lead guitarist telling her less talented / experience buddy "no - you just have to wrap the little finger round a bit more to get the D#?" He's gonna be happily drumming, isn't he. Drummers have no concept of time passing, boredom or most of their surroundings.

The Artistic Temperament vs Control

Because this is where a lot of it boils down to, isn't it? This is where the battle lines are drawn. When the vicar sacks the quire in Hardy's "Under the Greenwood Tree", it's to gain control over the music. The previous vicar told them to "blare and scrape what ye will," but the new guy wants things orderly so gets an organist in - ironically.

The Artistic Temperament! How best to categorise it? When it's spotting the perfect chord, the classic segue between two songs, the precise time to pause on "The...." in the fourth line of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" then it's genius and spiritual blessing.

When it's insisting that the whole song is shifted three notes higher, because the possessor of the Artisti Temperament has such a perfect A above top E, that's a different matter. That's where artistry becomes vanity - and performance has replaced worship.

So I've got the perfect solution to balancing the Artistic Temperament with the leading of worship and the need for control.

I'm sacking the Beaker Quire. I'm investing in one of them barrel organs. You can't go wrong with a barrel organ.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

The Circling Cycle of the Seasons

Could Beaker Folk please note that, as the world turns turns turns, we are now two weeks from the Autumnal Equinox. Therefore liturgical hi viz will be russet from now until Michaelmas.

You may think that russet is not a brilliant colour for hi viz.  You would be right. This time last year Marston Moretaine walked straight into the Doily Shed while wearing russet hi vi. You may think that it's not the colour you wear that determines what you can see, but Marston was always clear that the shed had "appeared out of nowhere."

Also as we approach autumn, we need to get some space free in the Beaker Bazaar for the Yule-themed tea lights. We therefore have a 2 for 1 sale on, on all summer-scented tea lights and candles.  These being:

  • Cut grass
  • Wallflower
  • Honey sandwich
  • Freesia
  • Sweet Pea
  • Barbecue Smoke
  • Petrichor
  • Wasps