Archive for the ‘Real Life’ Category

Thoughts triggered by reactions to flowers being left for Henry Vincent at the site of his death.

The churchwardens have been sent a new copy of the Diocesan Churchyard Regulations. The regulations are important on different levels, including the laying down of the law on what may be placed on a grave. This causes the Church of England all sorts of problems with grieving families who do not share the same ‘good taste’ as … well, who? Middle England? The Bishop? God?

The rural churchyard for which I’m responsible was formally ‘closed’ in the 1980s, with no new burials since then, so the current vogue for turning graves into shrines doesn’t really affect me as a churchwarden (thank goodness), but the news coverage of reactions to flowers being left on the south London street where alleged burglar Henry Vincent died after being stabbed by the pensioner he tried to rob, has given me pause for thought beyond the issue of the rights and wrongs of plastic flowers on graves.

Why do people put more focus on the site of a death than on the place where the person’s remains are laid to rest? And why do people mark that location with not only with flowers, but balloons, or football shirts, toys and other memorabilia?


Almost two years ago, one of our flock, a teacher called Penny, was driving home from school on a summer afternoon. Suddenly, someone on a motorbike came through her windscreen. He died instantly.

Penny was exonerated in the enquiry: the motorbike rider apparently pulled out of the traffic coming towards her, overtaking several cars. Because those cars were slowing down to enter a 30mph zone they bunched up, and the gap on his side of the road that the motorbike rider expected to pull into disappeared, and he had nowhere to go. Penny’s instinctive swerve was evidenced by the tyre marks on the road, but the motorbike kept coming.

Flowers in cellophane appeared at the side of the road the next day, laid by the man’s family who live in the town 10 miles away. And then candle lanterns, and a resin statue bearing comforting words, a couple of good luck charms, a bunch of plastic/glittery flowers, and some schnapps (?) in a bottle. And a wooden cross with an engraved plaque. Then a two-foot tall conifer was planted.

Two years after his death, this roadside shrine is still on the main road outside our village, as you can see from the photo, taken this morning. Fresh flowers in cellophane are placed on a regular basis. Candles are re-lit. The conifer is growing. The Council mows around it when they cut the verges.

And yet I assume that, depending on the faith tradition of the motorbike rider, the family held some kind of funeral ceremony, with a cremation or burial. There is a place where his mortal remains lie, which his family can memorialise to their hearts’ content and to hell with Churchyard Regulations!

So why does the family create, and tend this shrine?

Penny’s physical injuries healed within a few weeks; her mental injury has not. During term time she drives past the shrine twice a day, five days a week. She lives with the knowledge that she was driving the car which killed a 30-something husband and father. Every time she passes the spot, she sends up a prayer for the man who died, and thanks God that she is alive.

She does not need the shrine to remind her that a man died there. And nor should his family.

The right place to remember a loved one is a churchyard or garden of remembrance. 13 years ago my brother and I saw our parents buried in the quiet country churchyard of our childhood.  They have simple headstones, carved with good words that do them honour. Snowdrops and cowslips from our family home have been planted in the turf.  One or other of us makes a (long) journey once or twice a year to lay a sprig of holly at Christmas, or a rose in summer. Simple. Dignified. Minimal environmental impact.

And what of the site where Henry Vincent died? The people who tied those brightly-wrapped bunches of flowers to the fence, along with balloons and messages were/are extremely insensitive towards the Osborn-Brooks family who, like my friend Penny, will never recover from the tragic encounter. People should not need to build a shrine where Henry Vincent died: they will have a grave.



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I am in despair about the Paris shootings. With each attack on an individual, an organisation or a government by Islamic ‘terrorists’ I become more fearful for the very future of world peace.

That sounds dramatic, but each attack is a wedge driven more deeply between Muslims and Christians, between the Western world and – I know I generalise here – The Middle East and Africa.

I put the word terrorists in quote marks because I’m feeling less inclined to use that word to describe the religious maniacs who think it is a good thing to kill people who do not believe or think like they do. To me, a terrorist has a more political or nationalistic meaning.

Some of my atheist friends point out that Christianity has a lot to answer for: Crusaders fought Muslims in Spain & North Africa; in the 16th & 17th centuries variations of Christian doctrine were an excuse for umpteen European wars; the enmity between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland was the subject of many a news bulletin while I was growing up; differences of faith were behind the break-up of what we once called Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Fundamentalism is a curse, in any religion. I know there are ‘Christians’ in Africa who think gay people should be imprisoned or killed. But they are wrong and true Christians tell them so.

So what are Muslim communities and the Governments of Muslim countries doing to stop Islamic fundamentalists from killing people in the name of Allah? Are Muslim leaders out on the streets preaching tolerance of other faiths and of other views? Condemnation of the Paris murders is welcomed, but where is the active leadership, the organised youth programmes, the re-education and – yes – even punishment of the fundamentalists in their own society?

If they don’t step up to the plate I fear it will not be long before Muslim communities in Britain feel the backlash from the behaviour of their ‘brothers’ and our tolerance of other races and faiths is replaced by suspicion, fear and hatred towards all Muslims. And that’s why I despair.

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Last time I posted I said the Rev Fred had resigned to become a hospital chaplain; something he now admits was influenced by the frustration of trying to look after 6 parishes on a half-time stipend, but with full-time red tape. (Apparently dealing with death and grief as a hospital chaplain is less stressful, and pays better. Who knew?)

So the Rev Keith joined us a few months ago and has already delivered some arresting sermons: he speaks fluently, with barely a note, a huge improvement on some of the interregnum vicars who read a prepared statement from the pulpit… The congregation has warmed to Rev Keith’s natural, heartfelt preaching style, and to his informal approach. But a few feathers were ruffled this morning.

This morning he spoke about the Gaza/Israel conflict “with a heavy heart” but no apology. He mixed religion and politics, nailing his colours to the mast as a Christian supporting Arab people in their desire to live in the land that we used to call Palestine, in the face of Jewish people who believe all the land is theirs by divine right.

Keith even gave us each a hand-out showing maps of that land as it was in 1946 before the establishment of Israel, as it was under the United Nations plan in 1947, again in 1967 and in 2010. The graphics were… well, graphic, and thought-provoking, showing the ever-growing amount of land settled by Israel and the dwindling amount of land that Palestinians are allowed to live on.

The Rev Keith’s empathy for the people he has met in Gaza, on the West Bank and the ‘Holy Land’ (oh, the irony!) obviously influenced his talk this morning. I could not agree with all his points. And I am braced for mutterings from parishioners who disagree with him, or who think that regardless of his view, he should not mix religion and politics.

But why not? When politics results in destruction and death, should Christians not speak out?

I came home and spent hours googling around the conflict, reading some online newspaper articles, the controversy about Jon Snow’s report that wasn’t shown on C4 etc. I also scrolled down to read some of the hundreds of comments posted by readers, and by non-readers who are the sort of people who post comments regardless…

And the diametrically opposed ‘facts’, the completely contradictory historical ‘truths’ and the century upon century of hatred is there for all to see. It’s incredibly confusing and depressing. Who is right? Who is telling the truth? Who did what to whom a thousand years ago?

I am not a historian. Or a theologian. I do not know who did what to whom 20 years ago, let alone 1,000 years ago. And I do not know how far allied guilt over what happened to Europe’s Jews in WW2 has affected relations with the nation of Israel for the last 60 years.

I do not know if the people of Gaza support Hamas. I do not know if Hamas fires rockets from close to UN schools. But even if Hamas is doing that, it does not matter. Because NOTHING, nothing at all justifies Israel’s daily bombardment of tens of thousands of people who are penned into Gaza. And nothing justifies the killing of octogenarians, of mothers and of children.

So I’m going to mix religion and politics and ask my MP and David Cameron to condemn what Israel is doing. And more importantly – and probably with more effect – I’m going to pray.

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I am very conflicted by the vote on gay marriage with a capital M. And I am dismayed that anyone not in favour of it is being pilloried, called homophobic or a religious nutcase. Ask me if I believe in equality, diversity and fairness and I’ll put my hand up straight away. Marry divorcees in church? Why not. Gay vicars? Not a problem. Women bishops – please God! My beloved brother is gay, I have gay friends and I know couples in civil partnerships who have adopted children.

However, I’m struggling with this one. It has (I think) very little to do with my faith and much more to do with a thousand years of cultural understanding. And biology. There is no getting away from the fact that a man and a woman are designed to fit together physically, with the biological imperative of conceiving children. Whichever way you look at it, whether you’re of the Adam and Eve persuasion or fan of Darwin, men and women fit. That’s the biblical and the biological idea of perfection.

However much you Google it, and however deeply you research it, the world’s understanding of marriage is based around the union of a man and a woman. I know Wikipedia is far from perfect, but I note that it currently says “the institution of marriage pre-dates recorded history” and details several examples of cultural approaches to marriage, all of which relate to the union of a man and a woman. More recently (?!), the etymology of the word can be traced through the 13th century English word ‘mariage’ back to the Old French verb ‘marier’ and ultimately to the Latin word ‘maritare’.

So, for 1,000 years the world has used the word marriage to describe the union of a man and woman. And for thousands of years before that, as far as anthropologists can tell, society has recognised the union of a man and a woman in relation to having children. That’s why I think it is wrong for a relatively small group of people to hurriedly re-define marriage through this vote. Such a fundamental change, seeking to stretch to a new understanding, after a nano-second of debate, thousands of years of cultural programming is … arrogant. Sadly, few members of the House of Commons are deep thinkers and the potential ramifications – particularly for any individual or organisation that holds an opposing view – have not been adequately considered. I am sure that conservative religions uncomfortable with gay marriage will be lightning conductors for litigation, because it will not be long before someone, or something (probably the National Secular Society), will seek to test the Church of England’s supposed immunity.

And what, anyway, is the legal difference between a civil partnership and a marriage? There does not appear to be any. According to the BBC news website “it offers the same legal treatment as marriage across a range of matters, such as inheritance, pensions provision, life assurance, child maintenance, next of kin and immigration rights.”

I can understand why gay couples want to be able to call themselves married. Clearly, they want their relationship to be seen to be as valid as a relationship between a man and a woman. And in more than legal terms (otherwise a civil partnership, which delivers on that, would be sufficient). And it isn’t about being married in church, because most gay people seem to accept religion’s right to opt out. There is something intangible, unquantifiable, mystical, special, about the word itself. And gay people want those attributes too.

But is it right that a marriage between two men (or two women) should be seen as the same thing as a marriage between a man and a woman? I don’t think it is. It is inherently different, and the differences are both physical and cultural.

I am a single woman. I am sorry that I did not find a man to love (who loved me back) and that I therefore did not have babies, because I am sure that the closest thing to Heaven on this earth is a loving marriage blessed by children. I rather think that is God’s ideal for us too. And so I accept that I fall short of that ideal.

I cannot put myself into the intellectual and emotional shoes of a gay man or gay woman, but it seems to me that a gay ‘marriage’ – no matter how loving, how legally respected and how valid – is different from the marriage between a man and a woman who have the potential to create children. Equal, yes: I am absolutely on your side there. But different. And that’s why I’m sorry that the word, which has been understood, respected, celebrated and instituted for thousands of years, has, overnight, been re-defined by a couple of hundred well-meaning, but often wrong-headed, individuals in Parliament.

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Meetings recently with two security companies and the local bod from Ecclesiastical Insurance in an effort to gather all the information we need to make a decision about alarming the roof of the church, which is lovely old lead. It goes without saying that, like all churchwardens, the first thing I do every time I enter the churchyard is look to see if the lead is still on the roof!

For anyone in any doubt, let me spell out the Ecclesiastical Insurance position. They will no longer cover the church fully for lead theft. If your lead roof is stripped overnight, the most you will receive is £10,000 on an insurance claim, even if the value of the roof is £100,000. And you would only get back £10,000 if you have installed an approved deterrent system, such as we are investigating, with infra-red sensors on the roof, and a very loud alarm that would alert the whole village to intruders at that level.

If the church does not go for an approved deterrent system, but only marks the lead sheets with Smartwater (and registers it accordingly) then the insurance policy will only pay out to the tune of £5,000 maximum. And if you haven’t even applied Smartwater – which let’s face it is not a great deterrent – then you’ll get nothing at all.

So, we’re now doing a cost-benefit analysis of the value of the lead versus the cost of an alarm, factored by the risk we’re prepared to take in terms of losing the lead off the church roof. Meantime, I encourage villagers who live next to the church to phone me, or dial 999 if they hear things that go bump in the night.

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Two views of today’s High Court ruling about the atheist and the council prayers.

First the Daily Mail (yes, I know… I can’t believe I’m citing it either).

But also, thankfully, the Beaker Folk of Husborne Crawley, who have a much more reasoned summary.

So, while the National Secular Society will claim a victory, and the Daily Mail will rant and rave, apparently it’s all just a technical – ie legal – issue. There’s nothing to stop the Council holiding informal voluntary prayers before meetings. They just can’t make it a formal part of the Agenda.

The aggression of the NSS is amazing, to the extent that I suspect the tide of public opinion is turning against their continual sniping!

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I haven’t felt like blogging for a while. The day to day story of a country churchwarden and her trusty terrier seemed a bit trivial after the village was hit by the accidental death of one of our most popular young men.

At the beginning of August, a dramatic farm accident took the life of a beautiful young man who was born and brought up in our little community. Richard married an equally lovely girl from the next village only 18 months ago. They managed to buy a little farm-worker’s cottage and though they both worked long hours, they took part in village life, whether that was enjoying a pint in the pub or volunteering to run Splat the Rat at the church fete. They lowered the average age of our little congregation considerably on the occasions – more frequent than for most people in their late 20s – when they came to church. They had just been granted planning permission to turn their tiny two-bedroom cottage into a three-bedroom home so they could start a family.

When the accident happened, the Rev Fred was on holiday. I heard about it on local radio, and as I was stumbling up the High Street to their little cottage, to see if Vicky was home, part of me (I’m ashamed to say) hoped that she wasn’t, because I had no idea what I would say to her. But she’d already been wrapped in the loving support of her parents and close family, and was not in the cottage. That night I phoned the Rev Fred to let him know.

Perhaps because it was August, and relatively quiet on the news front, Richard’s death attracted the attention of the local media. I was pretty surprised to answer the phone to our local TV station, and local papers the next day: the result, I think, of Vicky being at her parents’ house, and my number being given out by the Rev Fred’s answerphone. For a day or two, I seemed to be the only person the media could get at. They were looking for eulogies, for sound-bites about Richard and the tragedy, and I felt unprepared to give them what they wanted.

In the Rev’s absence (Ryanair not being that flexible), two days after Richard’s death, I found myself sitting with Vicky and her best friend in the little cottage. I felt woefully unprepared to provide any comfort in the face of such a terrible tragedy. I have known a dozen deaths since I moved to the village, each one a sadness, but with the comfort of a long life well lived. In some cases, death has come as a release from pain, or as a friend at the end of a long road.

But what do you say to a 27 year old who has lost the love of her life in a random accident? A strong young man at the beginning of a happy family life? Very calm, very keen to do things right, Vicky asked me what her options were and I realised that she had no idea how to go about organising a funeral. At her age, Vicky had plenty of weddings under her belt, but never a death. I did my best, but my best felt sadly lacking.

A few days later someone asked me “Where was God in that accident?” Where indeed? All I felt I could say was that, life is often random. Sometimes terrible things happen to good people. But I hope (though I am not always sure) that God comes in at this point: to help Vicky through the weeks, months and years ahead.

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