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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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The Rev Fred is leaving. As soon as he rang my mobile and asked to see me on my lunch break I knew what he was going to say.

He is headed for pastures new, but I feel rather better about it because he’s not forsaking his multi-parish Benefice for another nicer, richer, more interesting one (which would make me feel bad). Instead, he’s becoming a hospital chaplain at our nearest big city hospital. Apparently the more he visited the villages’ sick and dying in hospitals around the region, the more he felt drawn to this sort of work. And I know he’ll be really good at it.

Of course we shall miss Rev Fred and for sure I’m concerned about the Interregnum. But it’s also started me off on the question: why do vicars stop being vicars? I mean hands-on-vicars in parishes like ours?

On the wall of the south aisle is a list of our Rectors dating back five or six centuries. Each incumbent’s stay spans decades until the list reaches the 1960s. But the list of names for the last 40 years is almost half as long as for the last 400 years, with stays of two, four, five or seven years interspersed with lengthy interregna, one of almost two years.

Before everyone jumps up and down, of course I know that the original system of life-time posts in the gift of the landed gentry (or rich Oxbridge College) regularly resulted in a complacent Rector boring the pants off his congregation for 30 years, and no-one could do a damn thing about it. But I’m also sure it equally regularly resulted in a good Rector faithfully serving his community for 30 years in a mutually supportive and happy relationship.

I don’t know of any local Rector/Vicar being in post for more than six or seven years. Is this official Church of England policy, does anyone know?

Or is it that no Rector can cope with the stresses and strains for more than a few years before burning out, as if they were a City trader?

Or is it that care of a country parish is seen as a stepping stone onto greater (better paid?) things within the Diocese, or at the Cathedral? My impression is that there are as many administrators wearing dog collars in our Cathedral city as there are Vicars serving the parishes around it.

Or is it that the stipend is so low that few Rectors can live and raise a family on it? So that they leave for better-paid jobs with more regular hours – such as hospital chaplaincy like the Rev Fred? He tells me his new four-days-a-week contract – plus one weekend a month on call – will pay him the same as a full-time stipend.

Answers on a postcard please?

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.

The Diocese has kindly sent its Churchwardens a link to something called Shrinking the Footprint, and exhorted us all to take part in a national energy audit with a view to reducing the Church’s impact on energy use. The carrot is that we might shrink our electricity/gas bills too.

I hasten to say that this is all good stuff, in principle. But I do want to share a paragraph that made me smile.

“In a new CofE videocast published today (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MdDk2icT7tQ ) the Revd Ruth Lampard, Associate Vicar at St Mary the Boltons in London Diocese shows how regular meter reading can lead to energy saving initiatives with significant long-term benefits. The church, which has made energy and financial savings, even has a thermometer in the pulpit to make sure the congregation is warm enough but not overheated.

… NOT OVERHEATED ?!?!? I did not need a thermometer to gauge the temperature at this morning’s service. I simply looked at the breath rising as white steam from ten mouths as we sang. Despite the overnight rain that has washed away most of the snow, and the accompanying leap in temperature to double figures, inside our Norman church it is still about 3 degrees. The Rev Fred DREAMS of the congregation getting overheated. But it’s never going to happen.

We are currently taking lots of meter readings to monitor our electric wall-mounted radiant heaters (installed circa 1980). But not so we can reduce our carbon footprint. No, it’s because funeral directors are insisting that we justify the PCC’s charges for everything, including heating. And given that I had to put the heaters on five hours prior to the funeral last week, just to take the chill off, I really don’t think we’re going to have any trouble justifying the cost. Indeed, we may well find we’ve been under-charging!

The churchwarden's terrier

The churchwarden’s terrier

Cannot believe that it is so long since I posted on The Churchwarden. I’ve tweeted a bit, but in all truth, I’ve been doing a lot of writing in the last six months, on other topics… and (when it stopped raining for about four days last year) quite a bit of gardening.

In that time the Church of England has managed to make some very odd decisions without my help (and apparently without the help of anyone who actually lives in the real world). First, a small number of Lay ( ie un-ordained) people succeeded in blocking Women Bishops which makes the Church of England look misogynistic, discriminatory and driven, not by Christian principles but by legalistic wranglings. And then the Church of England decided that a gay clergyman (not a gay clergy-woman obviously) may become a Bishop but only if they are ‘sexually abstinent’ even if they are in a civil partnership. Which makes the Church of England look.. well, hypocritical? Perfidious? It’s OK to be gay as long as you don’t practice. Better a gay bishop than a woman bishop. Hhhm.

It was also suggested on Twitter that a number of those Lay people who voted against the Women Bishops measure put themselves forward to General Synod at the last elections with this vote in mind. I notice in my own Diocese that two out of our three Lay representatives voted against it (one of whom is a woman), and one out of two of our clergy, the votes effectively cancelling each other out.

But perhaps we get the General Synod that we deserve? If I am too lazy to stand, then who am I to rail at the end result? Our Rural Dean says that it’s almost impossible to get anyone from Deanery Synod to stand for any of the committees at which Diocesan plans are discussed. At the Annual Parochial Church Meeting, people avoid the Rector’s eye when it comes to volunteering as Deanery Synod representative. And who can blame them? I’ve attended a few meetings with the Rector and truly wonder what is the point of them. If ever I saw an organisation that excels in top-down communication, it is the Church of England. And as Synod representatives at every level operate on an individual basis, expressing their personal views and under no obligation to communicate the views of the people they represent, then no wonder General Synod has become a dysfunctional body. It no more represents my views than the current Government does.

Meantime, in the village, life has carried on much as usual, with baptisms, funerals and weddings; with coffee mornings and summer fetes. So far, thanks to God and the watchfulness of church neighbours, we still have all the lead on the church roof. The only blot on the horizon at present is the ghastly chore of exploring the Chancel Repair Liability issue. Of which, more soon. When my blood pressure can stand it.

This definitely comes under the heading of churchwarden’s rants. Today is Mothering Sunday, and our special family-friendly service has opportunities for kids and their mums to take part, with readings and prayers in a short-attention-span service of no more than 40 minutes. The service was flagged up in the monthly village magazine, and 10 days ago I produced a happy little leaflet exhorting children to bring their mums, aunties, grannies and godmothers to church – with the ‘carrot’ of free flowers for mum. And my 15 leaflets went through the letter-boxes of the 15 houses with kids under 16…

Yesterday I put together bunches of spring flowers – bright daffodils, fragrant jonquils, purple lenten roses and sprigs of perfumed mahonia flowers – into little bunches tied with pretty ribbon. And this morning at 7.30, optimistically fretting that I wouldn’t have enough, I went out and cut more daffs for ’emergencies’.

But by 11am it was clear that all the village children had better things to do than come to church. Though that is not really fair on the kids. What I should say is that their parents had devised ‘better’ things to do today. I am sure some drove off to see distant grannies to take them out to Sunday lunch, but in other cases, the kids were ferried to the swimming pool, to pony club and to ‘a picnic’ (have you seen the weather?).

So the upshot was that we had the grand total of two little girls, from the same family, who gamely helped the Rev Fred with his daffodil-bulb-themed sermon, and with their mum led the prayers and who helped me dish out the posies. We had a sprinkling (about 15) of grown-up mums, grannies and aunties, and in the spirit of inclusivity, posies were distributed to every female member of the congregation. Even then, there were two left over and so these are now in a blue jug on the kitchen table, to cheer me up on what has been a disappointing day.

The Rev Fred said “Now you know how I feel when I’m preaching to two widows and a dog”. True enough: he sees far more ‘no shows’ than I do. But it’s not much fun.

I was surprised to hear this on the news tonight. And my immediate instinct was ‘good’, but in fairness, I could be wrong. Obviously Rowan Williams is an immense brain, a deep thinking theologian and an extraordinary man. But here at the cliff face, in the parish, his difficulty with sound bites has raised eyebrows (sorry, that’s not a deliberate reference to those wayward owly tufts).

Of course it would be so much better if the world did not expect leaders and figureheads to spout forth easy answers at a moment’s notice to meet the news deadlines. But sadly that’s how it works and sometimes the considered, deeply thought and very balanced views of Rowan Williams have been too late, too nuanced, and too hard to paraphrase.

I don’t know who can succeed him. It must be the worst job in the world, far harder than being a Prime Minister or President. I do thank Rowan Williams for giving it his best shot, and I wait with interest to learn more about how his successor will be chosen and who that might be.