A grief observed

In a week when the world has mourned the loss of two great stars in the form of David Bowie and Alan Rickman, I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about death and how we respond to it. That’s partly thanks to having an evening of curate training at a funeral directors, and a death in the parish, as well as my own response to the celebrity deaths.

Bowie’s death was (obviously) unexpected and a shock, but I’m really the wrong generation for true Bowie affection. However, I was rather surprised by my reaction – a need to listen to his music and hear as much as I could about him – which resulted in listening to BBC 6 Music’s fantastic response en route to work. Bowie was a phenomenal talent and most people expected it to last forever. Like a few other friends, I felt like I needed to learn more about the man, his music and other creative outlets, having previously always known he was there in the background. Now he wasn’t, there was a lifetime of work to catch up on. [Apart from the obvious: Labyrinth and pretty much most of his greatest hits.]

Interestingly, the overwhelming public response to this untimely death resulted in something of a backlash against such shows of grief. Camilla Long [The Times’ journalist that my friend Rich considers to be my doppelgänger] suggested that such displays of grief on social media were insincere and that those involved should “man up”. But why? Don’t we (particularly the British population) already have a reputation of stifling emotions in an unhealthy way?

Bowie grief brixtonThe display of mourning in Brixton. (Credit)

In actual fact, up to a certain point, such displays of grief isn’t just natural, it’s beneficial. On the one hand, it’s completely justifiable to be grief-stricken for someone you never met or knew personally. When someone touches our lives through art, music, acting or writing, we feel a loss when it’s no longer there. In losing a person from this earth, we have genuinely lost something from our lives. Another facet of this grief is almost a kind of practice run for when grief hits us hard in the future. That’s not to say that the grief for a celebrity is a lesser grief, it’s just that it enables people to feel and experience emotions that they may not have felt before, and means that when a family-member or someone similarly close to them dies, they have a reference point for some of what they are feeling. Finally, it can act as a reminder of previous losses, triggering elements of the grieving process again. This is not a bad thing either. No matter how long has passed, moments of grief are still completely natural and even necessary. It’s bottling up those emotions that can lead to trouble…

These were thoughts I was composing in my head en route to a curate study day yesterday. In fact, I even thought that I might get chance to jot them down during the seminar – which I did not, because it turned out to be very interesting and useful! The last 15 minutes of the session were obliterated however, when this flashed up on my phone:

The bad news

My gasp may have been audible. There was eye contact with a fellow curate as I tried to convey the terrible news. Tweets were tweeted, a Facebook post composed, all in a sense of utter disbelief. I had not loved Bowie, but I had loved Rickman. I know exactly when it began – with this Texas video from 2000 – specifically, the moment when Spiteri and Rickman tango across the forecourt of a petrol station. Yes, by this point I would have already seen Sense & Sensibility, but this was what launched Alan Rickman into being one of my all-time favourite leading men. [I went into my favourite Rickman moments in this post from back in 2010 – which in the comments sparked a little debate regarding his allure. The refusenik was wrong!!]

Texas – In Demand. (Once seen it has to be repeated – according to those who saw it for the first time yesterday courtesy of my sharing!)

I don’t need to tell you how amazing Rickman was. I know I’m not alone in having sobbed my way through Truly, Madly, Deeply (I can vividly remember watching it for the first time and my father declaring it a soppy mess). The discerning Harry Potter fan knows that Rickman as Snape brought more to the role that could ever have been imagined – largely thanks to JK Rowling’s insight into who Snape really was. His humour. His presence. His voice. Oh, his voice! As I write, I’m watching Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince and with a mournful sigh, I noted that this voice appears for the first time at exactly 15:06 minutes in. That voice.

14-alan-rickman-roles.w529.h352(Credit.)

Yesterday, I was grieved that I would never see Rickman perform live. I would never hear that sonorous voice in the flesh. I would never get to have a conversation with him. (I know the latter is a far-fetched notion, but I have friends who have!) There are only a few unseen films left to watch before there are no more of them. The thought is a hard one to comprehend.

Chatting with a one-time classmate (and fellow Wittertainee) after our training, I found myself nearly bursting into tears at the emotion of it all – and he felt the same. I walked my favourite walk back from college, through Green Park and sat on a bench and let the tears flow. It wasn’t entirely Rickman grief, I know that, it was a heady combo of emotion; tiredness from a very busy, over-full ‘part-time’ week at work; pent up emotions about other things that needed letting out; and, interestingly, a recurrence of mourning someone else.

alan-rickman-dead-emma-thompsonYesterday, I also made the mistake of reading Emma Thompson’s goodbye to Rickman while I was on the tube. There’s nothing like tube tears for a very public display of emotion!!

That last one was a surprise, despite being well aware of the fact that I have long associated Rickman with my one-time landlady Angela – because we both loved him, but she got to meet him (and get a photo with him) at the Love Actually premiere. Every Christmas, when I do my ritual viewing of a film that I love dearly (although I know that view is controversial), I remember Angela. It’s not surprising his death prompted those thoughts, especially as they both – as did Bowie – died from the same disease.

Today, I tramped across the mud of Hampstead Heath, thoughts still very much on a Rickman-grieving plain, sorting out my head and getting some much needed downtime. [Side-note: I was in the area for physio on my special feet, but generally if I make a pilgrimage up to Hampstead, it’s for thinking purposes.] I pondered this question of grief some more…

We, as a nation and as a society, are generally rubbish at grief. It goes hand-in-hand with being a nation known to withhold emotion and affection. Public displays of grief (as long as they don’t get ridiculously out of hand) are a good thing, a healthy thing in fact. We need to have outlets to express our grief and social media is perfect for this – especially as it can be a place for solidarity, of grieving together. On Wednesday, our morning prayer group shared memories and prayers of thanksgiving for the life of the parishioner who had died. On Thursday (and today) I shared memories of favourite Rickman moments on social media. Both are good, healthy and necessary!

Tea making became truly epic when Rickman got involved…

We don’t like to talk about death. It is feared and not understood. Perhaps if we were as honest in our feelings as people have been this week, society would find itself in a much healthier place in its attitudes towards death, grief and loss.

In which I am thankful x 15

To celebrate the final day of 2015, a reflection upon that for which I am thankful in this rather mixed year… (In no particular order, lest people feel slighted.)

1. London. I celebrated the last day of the year walking several miles from Limehouse to St Paul’s. The weather was beautiful and the city looked stunning. (Though this did draw out the tourists. Anyone with me on starting a petition for a ‘tourist free path’ over Tower Bridge and along past City Hall??) Given that even 7 months ago I didn’t think that I would be staying in the capital past June, so every extra day is a definite blessing! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I ❤️ London!

NYE London views

2.Which leads me nicely onto St Paul’s Cathedral. Getting a curacy in London Diocese meant my ordination took place at one of the UK’s (perhaps even the world’s) most iconic buildings. In the long journey to finding a church, I would often stop and pray at St Paul’s, and now, whenever I pass it or glimpse it in the distance, I remember that day and all and all that it means.

3. So I am also hugely thankful for the incumbent and community of Christ Church Highbury for giving me the opportunity to take on a slightly unconventional curacy. It’s working out really well, being a nice mixture of challenging and fun, with lovely people. Moving up to Highbury to live is on the cards for February/March, which will make life a lot easier!

Christ Church Highbury

4. While I’m very excited to be returning to the green fields of North London (once a Norf Londoner, always a Norf Londoner!), it has been a joy to score an extra 8 or 9 months with the lovely Schofields. While the hot tub they were in the process of installing when I looked around in July 2014 may still not be finished, they have, in the last year, completed a sauna in the back garden and produced the utterly adorable baby Serenna. Smaller Housemate, the now 4 year old Jacob, continues to teach me lots about cars, Octonauts and Transformers; while I teach him about baking and attempt to answer his increasingly tricky theological questions. An added bonus has been the extended family, particularly the grandparents who turned up to support the family after the baby arrived, which coincided with the week before my MA thesis was due. The days before such a deadline really should merit the same kind of support as the family of a newborn – meals cooked and cheerleading provided!

Smaller housemate & smallest housemate

5. That I have this lovely family with which to live is entirely down to the wonderful (and mad) Matryoshka Haus community, who I continue to be extremely thankful for! The community of people are brilliant and amongst my closest friends, but, at New Year, what’s even better is MH’s new base in Limehouse. This building is a Godsend in many ways. Acquired in October, it’s become the base for all things MH – community meals; co-working space for the various people working on MH tools and projects';a location for parties; storage for many, many objects; and a space for guests to stay. It’s this latter element that was a particular blessing at New Year, when I took residence for a couple of days an had my very own introvert’s retreat. [More on this to follow.]

Matryoshka Haus houseTo explain…our first house guest took some photos of the space. (Don’t worry, he’s not actually naked in the bath!)

6. Talking of new houses, in 2015 I am also thankful for the quaint town of Tewkesbury. Home to my sister for around a decade, this town now possesses the home to which my parents will retire in 2017. For a family that has been separated by the Irish Sea since 2004, this is quite a milestone! As the family gathered at my sister’s on Boxing Day, it was a sign of years to come, when our parents will live just a few minutes up the road, instead of a flight away. Halle-flipping-lujah! [Though we will miss Belfast, because it is lovely.]

A girl and her abbeyA girl and her abbey.

7. On the subject of family, this year is also a year to be thankful for our faithful labrador Megan, who went off to chase the rabbits of heaven back in February. Very sad times. She has left a legacy though, as it’s clear from our Boxing Day walk with some friends’ gorgeous hound that this is not the end of family dog owning. No dog will quite replace Megs though. [Guarantee that at this point my mother will have had to reach for a tissue, if number 6 hadn’t done that already…]

8. To happier things! More babies! As 2015 closes, multiple friends are expecting new additions in 2016 and plenty of babies have arrived over the last 12 months. Aside from my baby housemate, the most anticipated newborn was Tobias Bede, the youngest member of the Matryoshka Haus community and an absolute cutie. He has a veritable city of people helping to raise him and has a very special mother!

Tobias meets LondonTobias meets London

9. 2015 was the year in which I finally ceased being a student at St Mellitus, after four highly memorable years. (I think there were moments when staff thought they might never get rid of me – and they very nearly didn’t!) I will never cease to be thankful for that amazing community of students and staff who supported me through some very difficult times, and who have encouraged me into doing some things that I never quite imagined I’d do! I’m very glad that I still get to go back from time to time to teach, and would love 2016 to see a slight re-arrangement of my week so that perhaps I can make it a more regular thing. We’ll see what God does about that…

St Jude's in springSt Jude’s on a beautiful spring day

10. In celebration of no longer being a student, I took myself off on a well-deserved break to the States, so I am thankful for New York and Vermont and all the fun had there. A special thanks goes to St Lydia’s for making me feel so welcome, and giving me the basis for an exciting plan for 2016…

11. New York & Vermont were only possible thanks to friends living in interesting places! Thank goodness for staying in touch with excellent people who are lots of fun!

12. On the subject of friends, I continue to be exceedingly thankful for friends who send reassuring messages, call, or even pop something in the post (looking at you Wendy, with your PB Oreos…). I should post particular thanks to whoever sent two items anonymously to me in the last few months [it’s not creepy, it’s touching!]. There are few friends that I am more thankful for than those with whom I spent Big Cottage with. Great people. Great fun. Great cottage. Oh, and I’m thankful that within these friends is a family so like my own that they let me spend Christmas with them! [Returning to that one another time too…]

Big Cottage Two

13. Great friends also = great theatre buddies. This same crew were on it in terms of West End viewing in 2015 (God bless Jenni and her organisational skills). Gypsy starring Imelda Staunton was hands-down the best theatre I’ve seen this year. I finally got to see Carrie the Musical (sooooo good!) and was mightily peeved that tickets for Funny Girl clashed with Thanksgiving, but perhaps I’ll get to see it in 2016…

14. The great ship Wittertainment. I don’t think I really need explain why – if you know me, yet don’t know the story, just read this and then this.

15. Avocados. They’re amazing.

Yes, 2015: the year I got ordained and finally enjoyed eating avocado. Profound and ridiculous!

An alternative church

There is an alternative church. One which is global, diverse, and to which all are welcome. One that upholds a code of behaviour, as determined by its leaders and members. Occasionally, it claims the credit for miraculous healings. There are rituals and language incomprehensible to the uninitiated. It meets on a weekly basis, but its teaching permeates the day-to-day lives of its congregants too. 

Unlike the Body of Christ, its leaders cannot said to be God (nor do they aspire to be). It doesn’t offer the forgiveness of sins, nor does it hold the imbibing of certain substances to be holy. But there is a warmth of community, and a sense of communal purpose. 

The church is actually not so much an alternative as a complementary one. In a venn diagram of the members of the church of Wittertainment (founded by Mark Kermode & Simon Mayo) and those of the venerable Church of England, a not inconsiderable number would be in the overlap.

I over-egg the comparison somewhat, but the Church of Wittertainment does have its similarities to the church that ordained me back in July. And it was that ordination, and an email I sent in, that has brought out these characteristics in recent months…

My earlier blogpost chronicled the immediate aftermath of my moment of Wittertainment ‘fame’ (someone else’s word, not mine!) six months ago. I thought things would die down after the initial flurry of new followers on Twitter from the congregation; the random tweets from random people; and messages from friends of friends on Facebook, including ‘Colonial Commoners‘ far away in New Zealand.

The first weeks in my new clergy role (having tried to explain the saga to my rather baffled training incumbent) elicited some classic Wittertainment responses on Twitter – particularly on the day I was asked in a staff meeting if I knew how to do a baptism. Cue multiple responses of “How do you do a baptism? You just do a baptism!” [It’s an in-joke. This kind of explains it.]

At church (my actual church), congregants would occasionally sidle up to me after a service and divulge their Wittertainment status via some form of code-phrase, like a Hello to Jason Isaacs or, in one instance, the bemusing “It’s a honour to meet a legend of the church…the church of Wittertainment that is!” 

Clergy corner is a thriving niche of the Wittertainment congregation, so it shouldn’t have been surprising that clergy (or soon-to-be clergy) would continue to come out of the woodwork as fellow Wittertainees. I’ve met them at Chapter, Post Ordination Training, on Twitter and at assorted other clerical gatherings. However, I never thought I’d see the day when a Wittertainee in training for clergy corner status explained my appearance on the show to both a Bishop and the wife of the former Archbishop of Canterbury. That was the very definition of a surreal moment and one in which I think the church of Wittertainment would appreciate!

Then, last Sunday, I took myself off to the BFI for an evening’s entertainment where everything got a little bit dead amaze and totes emosh all over again…(and I’m not even joking!)

canongate-the-movie-doctors-banner.1024x500.mz

The leaders of the church, the self-styled Good Doctors, have written a book together and have been on tour to promote it. Miraculously, despite it being that most wonderful time of the year when all clergy are working their socks off, I was free on the Sunday night that the tour came to London. An alarm was set and a ticket acquired. 

The show was great, and from an initial flick-through, I highly recommend their book too. However, the real highlight was afterwards, when a book signing took place. I joined the queue just ahead of a girl in a Mary Poppins t-shirt who’d been an audience participant that evening. We chatted on and off (a friendly bunch these total strangers who belong to the same church!) until someone from the publishers came to sort out our book dedications. I felt that my whole name needed to be given (as it is in Clutterbuck that the humour lies), so gave it and then dashed off to buy the book. When I returned the ladies either side of me were chatting to each other and immediately greeted me with “I’m sorry, did you say your name was Liz Clutterbuck? Are you THE Liz Clutterbuck??” Much more conversation ensued, until we reached the front of the queue.

I’ll confess that I had hoped when purchasing my ticket that I would get to meet the Good Doctors, but that was pretty much the limit on my expectations of the evening. To quote myself as I emerged onto the South Bank later that, “Well, *that* exceeded expectations!” [Because I often talk to myself in such a way.]

When Clutterbuck met the Movie Doctors

Did I expect an exclamation from Dr K on realising who I was? No. Did I anticipate a kiss on the hand from Dr M? Most certainly not!! Was I expecting them to request a photo with me? Errr….NO!!

God bless the Clutterbuck

I left the BFI in a little bit of a daze, clutching both book and phone, lest a mugger rob me of my precious cargo! At Waterloo, I bumped into the girl ahead of me in the queue and we chatted all the way home to Stratford – another indication of just how warm and friendly this church of strangers is. It was thanks to Debbs that the following morning I joined the Mark Kermode Appreciation Society on Facebook (she’d been showing us it in the queue and it seemed a good place for film banter). When my request was approved, I received a special welcome…

MKAS Welcome

 Within a matter of hours, this had evolved into a multi-comment thread, in which it was pondered as to how one ‘does the Clutterbuck’. Chuckles emanated from my office during the course of the afternoon…

My reflection? The members of the church are only so nice because their leaders are – it sounds a bit soppy, but genuinely, that signing was one of the most authentic and positive I’ve ever witnessed. [I’ve worked in a bookshop, I’ve seen many!] It wasn’t a production line, and despite having been there for nearly an hour, they didn’t look as frazzled as any self-respecting person would have the right to be! 

So, good on you Good Doctors, thank you for being your fabulous selves and bringing much joy to discerning podcasters!

Postscript:

This post has been in draft for a couple of days (thanks to seasonal obligations). I meant to post it on Friday morning, but forgot, and then the lovely Doctors proved every word of this post to be true by mentioning our meeting (1:27 in) in the show. (Possibly the only time my name will be mentioned in the same show as JJ Abrams & the cast of Star Wars!) 

Thank you doctors (although, not to play favourites, especially Mark for your excitement & enthusiasm!), it was a delight to meet you both. You helped make an already memorable 2015 even more memorable! 

Putting women front and centre

Over the last 24 hours, a great blogpost has been doing the social media rounds (in my world) on the subject of the lack of women leaders in evangelical/charismatic churches in the UK. It’s a topic that’s incredibly close to my own heart and one that I have written on before. In fact, I’ve regularly written about some of my own experiences as a woman in the church – largely because in many circles we’re still very much in the minority.

Richard Moy’s post is excellent, in that it’s based on research he’s been conducting, and in that it provides some really concrete suggestions for what those in positions of authority and influence in the church could do to improve things. I hope that anyone in authority who reads this challenge really takes it up and runs with it:

“If a woman has been called to ministry it seems eventually that calling will come out. If that involves a 20 year time-lag and a journey away from evangelical theology to find space to outwork her calling because she got no encouragement from you then that’s on your head. Deal with it.”

As a woman in the first year of a curacy (in an open evangelical-ish church), who was sent for ordination from a very large charismatic church, and who was placed for three years at a HTB church plant while training at St Mellitus, I feel I have a voice to add to the discussion. Particularly to those women who might have read Richard’s post and felt that pursuing their calling was going to hit barrier after barrier, unless something changed immediately. What I want to say is that there is hope! Yes, there are institutional issues, but there are things that can help…

Young women gather at St Jude'sA day for young evangelical women interested in ordination, 2013.

There are plenty of exceptions…

To start, let me say that my sending church (who sent 5 women into training while I was there) were incredibly supportive of my call to ordination. They don’t currently have any ordained women on staff, but in the last couple of years have intentionally tried to have a gender balance amongst those up at the front – leading, preaching and worship leading. They’ve seized the need to be intentional and run with it.

My placement church sent another three women into training during the 3 years I was there – from a comparatively small congregation. (In contrast, one man started theological college in the same time period.) Although both ordained clergy were male, alongside myself there were several other women who would preach or lead, and a few who led worship too. I don’t think that this was a deliberate move, but their very presence meant that other women were inspired to follow their example.

Now, I find myself in a church so open to women in leadership (I think I’m their third female curate, and there’s been a female SSM for decades), that a recent service unintentionally led by an all-female cast elicited a comment of “Where are the men?” It’s the norm here, just as I think God intended!

But, these positive experiences do not change the fact that I have returned from summer festivals seething at the lack of ordained women represented. Or been angry that women in one particularly large church had no one to turn to for mentoring or the odd coffee because there was no women there ordained or an ordinand who could take on the role. There are issues, as Richard has identified.

However…

Evangelical/charismatic women are entering training

I trained at a college were the number of women was pretty much equal with men. St Mellitus is a college with a broad spectrum (don’t let the connection with HTB fool you), and I trained alongside a number of women from New Wine churches and HTB plants. Some of these women had perhaps waited some time to begin training, but that’s their story and I can’t make assumptions on what impacted upon that.

I never felt particularly outnumbered at St Mellitus (unlike friends I’ve spoken to at other colleges) and also felt very affirmed in my calling as a woman. Whenever we raised issues of gender balance (particularly for a specific teaching slot and on the staff team) these concerns were listened to and acted upon. St Mellitus now has a faculty that offers a number of different inspirational examples for a female wannabe theological educator!

From recent conversations, I know that this year a number of women will join HTB church plants as curates and that’s a big step forward. Currently, there’s just two (and just one woman leading a plant) and that is definitely an issue. Change is happening but it will take time and quite a big culture shift in some places – but you can find a lot of support for this, if you know where to look!

There is support out there 

I’m very lucky – I readily acknowledge this – as I grew up in a denomination where issues with women are few and far between (those enlightened Methodists!) and had numerous feisty ordained women around me as I was growing up (my mother being one of the feistiest!). I had never been in the position of facing challenges on the basis of my gender until I began the ordination process, and as a result I think I was in a stronger position than a woman from a male dominated church might find themselves in.

Facing such challenges alone is difficult. I can imagine that the women Richard writes about – who may have been pondering their calling for some time, but have no one to look up to, be mentored by or to encourage them – may find them insurmountable. What is needed is strength in numbers. In my world, that includes: female college friends; a ‘Mighty Women of Valour’ group (of lay & ordained feisty women); the Gathering of Women Leaders network; deans of women’s ministry; ordained women who’ve been on the journey longer than I; and plenty of men who want to support women in ministry too. The key is getting connected and allowing them to support you!

Finding hope in statistics…

The stats aren’t great. I was shocked to discover that my area of London Diocese, Stepney, known to be one of the most affirming of women (we’ve had two female Archdeacons already), only has 3 female clergy aged 35 or under. Of the three, I’m one and two friends are the others! (Happily that number will also grow next year – although one will also turn 36. And we are from across the spectrum too.) A group of us are already working on a plan to encourage women in their vocations across the breadth of traditions in Stepney, and the same can be said for other parts of the church too.

But, the numbers look set to improve imminently. I think the church is already seeing the benefits of events held specifically for evangelical young women interested in ordination – I was involved in one in June 2013 and I know several people I met there are now training. At St Mellitus, the cohort with whom I studied on the MA last year included several women in their early/mid-20’s – a very unusual sight!

I think that the change has already begun, but it’s going to take a while before they are reflected higher up the chain. Richard particularly emphasises the lack of female incumbents in more evangelical churches – there are a few, but ones I know of I could probably count on my fingers. Interestingly, when I think of ordained women who inspired me during my journey, virtually none of them have become incumbents! They’re in diocesan/national roles, or university chaplaincy or theological education – not necessarily because they are women, but for a host of other good reasons.

The Moment of Ordination

What can be done…

If you’re reading this as a woman who is thinking about ordination, but who currently worships in a rather male-dominated context, can I make a few suggestions:

  • Ask some questions. It can be really hard, but ask your incumbent whether they’ve considered inviting a woman to preach or whether you yourself could have a go. They may ask for some suggestions, so have a think about who you’ve heard speak elsewhere, or ask for recommendations from others. “But I don’t know anyone” or “Everyone we asked was busy” are common responses to such questions, but there are ways around them!
  • Find solidarity! Align yourself with like-minded people with whom you can rant, or who can help back you up when you ask difficult questions. [Over just the last couple of weeks I’ve been part of a group doing just this for a friend – it’s massively helpful, even in the long-term.]
  • Go along to events at which you might discover more like-minded people; follow them on Twitter/Facebook; get introduced to people who inspire you – you never know what might happen. My involvement in GWL is one example of this – my first gathering was quite intimidating as I didn’t know many people, but now I have a fabulous supportive resource that I can draw upon and through which I can support others.
  • Get to know women who have been there and done that. I had female friends a little way ahead of me in the selection process and that was very handy. Is there a Dean of Women in Ministry in your area? Are there other ordained women you could meet with? I’ve made it a rule of mine that if I ever get into a vocational conversation with someone, I’ll follow it up with a coffee – I partly owe my own exploration to someone who did that for me, so I want to pay it forward!
  • Most of all, remember that God created you as YOU! It’s not an accident that you are the gender you are in this place and time. He has a plan for how you – specifically you – can impact the church and the world, so you owe it to him to follow it through!

Christmas Jumpers 2013Almost everyone in this photo is now ordained – there’s hope! (Also, this is the 2nd image on a Google image search for St Mellitus. Well done!)

We tend to like doom and gloom in the Church of England, but can I encourage people that – as far as women are concerned – the future is bright! Yes, change needs to happen, but I think such changes are beginning to happen. We’re in a momentous season for women in the church at the moment (eight female bishops and counting…) and we need to keep up that momentum.

Verdant Vermont

One might say too verdant. Surely the first weekend in October would mean guaranteed fall colours in New England?? Perhaps, and there were some, but apparently I was a couple of weeks early for peak season. No matter, even without full autumnal spectrum, the colours of Vermont are pretty spectacular.

Fall glimpses in B'boro

Fall glimpses in B'boro

I almost didn’t go to Vermont on this trip. (I know, ridiculous!) At one stage in the planning process, I’d wanted to tack NYC onto the end of a week in Dallas (y’know, because of SUN, HEAT and well, friends…). Mentioning my proposed presence in NYC to Ian, a dear friend unseen in over 5 years, and Vermont resident for a similar length of time, he recommended a train trip up to New England – which was very tempting. Texas and Vermont couldn’t both be done, but an occasionally wise friend pointed out a few things to me: 1. I like long train journeys. 2. I love New England. 3. I love autumn. 4. I’ll always be able to go to Texas another time. And 5. I really needed a proper refreshing break, which a week in TX wasn’t necessarily going to be.

Mass view

And thus, after over 5 hours travelling on a spacious, comfy, virtually deserted Amtrak train, I alighted at Brattleboro. A town in the southern most tip of Vermont – in fact, I could see New Hampshire from the train station, just over the Connecticut River. [Can we take a moment to praise the wonder of Amtrak? Yes, it’s slow. Yes, driving is cheaper. Yes there’s only 1 train between NYC & VT a day. But the views! The wide seats! The space! The tracking app friends can use to monitor your progress! The free wifi! We will say slightly less about their rail replacement bus service on my return – except to say that despite leaving an hour later, it got to its destination 20 minutes early. That’s a win.]

Brattleboro

Got to be said, I didn’t know much about Vermont before I got there. From conversations with Ian, I knew bits and pieces – I knew quite a bit about Bernie Sanders; I knew Chick-Fil-A was banned;I knew my friends Ian and Adam had been able to marry there in 2010; and I knew that it’s one of the most liberal states in the US. [Can you guess what kinds of things Ian posts on Facebook??]

How would I describe VT now, having spent all of 72 hours there? Well, it’s got to be said, there are a lot of positives – even leaving aside the gorgeous countryside and incredibly clean air. Did you know that billboard roadside advertising has been banned in the state since 1968? Why? So that people can see the trees and mountains, obviously!! There is the distinct impression that everyone cares – about the environment, the local economy, ethical farming, civil rights and kale. There are a lot of feelings about kale…

EatMoreKale

The ‘Eat More Kale’ guy is a legend – he took on Chick-Fil-A and won. Plus, he now makes Bernie Sanders merchandise…

Brattleboro has no chain stores downtown (except a Subway that somehow snuck in). There’s a food co-op instead of a grocery chain, cute gallery/knick knack shops aplenty, a shop dedicated to the state of Vermont, and plenty of independent cafes. Oh, and there are four bookstores, including one that specialises in social justice books (and bumper stickers) and a gorgeous second-hand maze. There are local dairies making local cheeses, plus the whole industry around maple syrup – from the liquid gold, to candies, and to booze. God bless maple syrup combined with distilleries! It’s basically Stars Hollow – especially once you get to the Saturday morning Farmers’ Market by the river…

Oh, and did you know that Rudyard Kipling wrote the Jungle Book in Brattleboro?? (In buildings that are now part of the campus on which my friend Ian now works.) Yep, a classic tale of South Asian jungle was written in a room looking out onto a New England forest. Obviously…

I returned to the Big Apple full of enthusiasm for the state, practically signing up to move there asap. Then I got on a subway, went out for cocktails, visited a public transit museum and shopped at Target – and in the process, the dream of Vermont life faded into memory.

Ian, Adam & a covered bridgeThanks to Ian, Adam and the covered bridges of Vermont! 

In praise of St Lydia’s

My trip to the States was essentially a “hooray for finishing my MA, let’s have a well deserved break” kind of holiday. It had been nearly 3 months since ordination and life had been pretty full-on, with getting to know Christ Church, my MA thesis and a freelance research project. It was to be a time for R&R and a complete break from life in London.

One might have assumed that that would mean a break from churches – but no. In fact, in my first 24 hours in NYC I managed to spend time in four different churches! Out of 7 nights spent in the city, five were spent participating in some kind of church activity. This is possibly what one might call a bus man’s holiday, but in my defence not only did it result in new friends, it also gave me a really interesting insight into the issues at the forefront of churches in this part of the US – from LGBT rights and inclusion, to race and church segregation – which was fascinating to reflect upon, comparing with the UK.

My first stop, having landed at JFK and taken the A-train into Brooklyn, was a church – St Lydia’s to be precise – where Hannah (my host) works and which had been cited in the MA thesis I’d handed in just ten days previously. It is a community that enacts one of the most fascinating acts of Eucharist (communion) that I’d ever participated in. Having read a lot about it and heard many stories from Hannah (and a member of Matryoshka Haus who’d recently got to know it too) it was high on my list of places to visit in NYC!

St Lydia'sImage credit.

My thesis was on the subject of how the Church of England could make Eucharist more a part of the mission of the church, and hospitable in the way that (I and others argue) Jesus and Paul intended it to be. St Lydia’s seemed to me to be a brilliant embodiment of this. Every Sunday and Monday night, the community comes together for ‘dinner church’ in its store front home, where the communion is celebrated around a table to which all are welcome. The elements (the bread and the wine) are shared in the context of this meal, and it aims to foster the genuine inclusivity of the Kingdom of God.

Preparing for dinner church

I was expecting to be fascinated by the service – I did not expect, over the course of such a short space of time, to be so embraced by a community who were all but strangers to me. I could wax lyrical about the meals, but for starters, I just want to highlight a few things that really struck me.

  • Dinner Church is essentially sung Eucharist. Simple songs were taught and repeated (and clearly repeated week in and week out, so many knew them well) as part of the liturgy. They were accompanied by a box accordion and simple drumming that might to a stranger seem indicative of ‘hipster Brooklyn’, but were in fact just instruments that really fitted the context.
  • There was a healthy respect for the elements and an elevation of the Eucharist’s role within the community. This is exactly what my thesis was trying to get at – all too easily in the CofE we can make Eucharist a part of worship that we do without thinking, or in some circles, do too infrequently. Here it’s at the centre and drives the life of the community. It is at the table where relationships are formed and lives shared – it was the truest ‘foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet’ I have yet experienced on earth.
  • Name tags might seem cheesy, but at St Lydia’s I was touched by the impact they can have upon building relationships. A name tag enables you to offer your neighbour the bread or wine using their name – which I think has a profound effect upon the act. [I am still in awe of a college tutor who would give the bread using the name of the recipient at college worship, I watched him get the names of over 50 people correct!!] It also meant that people would readily start a conversation with “So Liz, how have you ended up here?” – perhaps helped by American confidence, but use of someone’s name helps them to really feel at home. (Plus my name tag went into a box ready to be used on subsequent visits…)
  • People really were open to sharing their life stories with one another. After the short sermon was a time of response, related to the topic. British me was surprised at how keen people were to share personal information and stories to a group that would always include some who were unknown to them. Even more incredibly, by Dinner Church number 3, I was willing to share too! [Also, have you ever heard a sermon where the response was to design a tattoo??]

My name is Liz

I’ve brought home with me lots of ideas – for church, for my ministry and for Matryoshka Haus. In the case of the latter, it was the very practical divvying up of tasks when cleaning up after dinner! Washing up or fixing tables not only means everyone is sharing responsibility for the task, but also provides great getting-to-know you opportunities. I would love to try this kind of service myself, in some form, once I’m priested next summer. It’s also confirmed to me that ideas I included in my thesis are possible! The church just needs to get a little bit more creative.*

The table is set

St Lydia’s isn’t just dinner church – there’s a new ‘waffle church’ (a version of messy church where stickiness is definitely an end result) and a vespers service, as well as one-off talks and community events. My final New York evening was spent listening to Phyllis Trible lecture on feminist theology – which I’m sure is everyone’s idea of an excellent way to spend one’s last night in the Big Apple! Whatever, I enjoyed it! I also loved being made to feel so welcome by Emily and Julia and everyone else who makes up the community there – especially the one evening when out of a gathering of 24 people, four of us were Elizabeths or Lizs!

If the long-term plan to do a PhD is realised, and I base it upon the groundwork I’ve done through my MA, I’m vaguely hopeful of spending some more time with St Lydia’s in the future, but until then, thank you guys! It was a real joy.

 

*On the subject of my thesis, I realise I’ve not said anything much about it. To be honest, as I’m still at the “Argh! It’s probably all rubbish!” stage of awaiting my grade, it’s not a great time to go into much detail. But its official title was: ‘Communion Table or Communal Table. What can Anglican practice of the Eucharist learn from the communal table of the missional community?’ Suffice to say, I now know a surprising amount about certain sections of Canon Law…

New York Transitting

“You’ve been following the museum’s Twitter account for nearly four years and you don’t even live in the country??” 

It was at this moment that I realised one of my hosts did not fully appreciate the level of my public transportation geekdom. Yes, I had been following @NYTransitMuseum since 2011. No, I had not been to NYC since 2009. No, I did not think this was weird. [They post archive photos and tidbits of American transit knowledge – plus, every so often they have a chat with the @ltmuseum!]

Obviously, a trip to the museum had to be included on my travel itinerary, and by fortunate twist of fate, it happened to be only ten minutes walk from my hosts’ apartment in Brooklyn. Incredibly, they hadn’t visited in the year that they had been living in the neighbourhood! I mean, seriously?? But both felt like it was a suitable post Sunday brunch activity, and joined me in the transport geekery fun.

Three have fun in the NYC Transit Museum

For anyone who has experienced the multiple levels of the London Transport Museum, the New York version is on the small side. However (and it’s a big however) New York’s museum is only in a FLIPPING DISUSED SUBWAY STATION!!! Hello ultimate geek heaven! Transit history AND a disused station?? My goodness!

The disused (but still live) platforms are put to great use, housing a history of subway carriages – which, quite honestly, was a highlight for everyone. Carriage design doesn’t seem to have changed too dramatically in recent decades, but the adverts certainly have. I think we got as much joy out of their bizarre-ness and political incorrect-ness as a little kid dressed in his own MTA uniform had jumping on and off the carriages! [Seriously, I wish I’d asked to take a photo of him – it was clearly a clever home-made job for a transport mad 3 year old. Soooo cute!]  A selection are below, without comment…

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What the museum does a great job of is charting the progress of some pretty iconic NYC transit things – like the train carriages. We appreciated the collection of historic turnstiles and subway tokens immensely – working out which ones would have been functioning on previous visits to the Big Apple, and (obviously) discussing the relative merits of New York’s turnstiles and MetroCards versus London’s ticket barriers and Oyster cards. [Clearly London wins on that front, although NYC gets bonus points for not needing to touch out.]

Special mention should also be given to the current featured exhibition ‘Bringing back the City’, featuring three different disasters in recent years (9/11, Hurricane Sandy and a power outage that none of us had heard of!), their impact upon public transit, and the MTA’s response. The 9/11 section was particularly fascinating, partly because the impact was huge (some of the network still isn’t functioning properly) and partly because the response was incredible. Did you know that up to 40 new transit maps were issued PER DAY in the first days after the attack?? In a pre smartphone world, these, plus staff with loud hailers, were the only way in which to get information out to passengers.

My only regret about the visit was that my stay in NYC didn’t coincide with any of the tours they give of another abandoned station – the beautiful City Hall station which closed in 1945. It would have been worth a membership fee for the museum and the $50 ticket for that experience!

Borough Hall Station

Fortunately, the station I used the most (Brooklyn’s Borough Hall) is considered another excellent example of subway design… 

Pumpkin spice and all things nice

When one visits the USA at any point between August and Thanksgiving, it is compulsory to consume as many pumpkin products as is physically possible. During the 10 days that I was resident this autumn, I’d like to think that I more than did my part in the annual celebration of all things pumpkin.

Now, I am a pumpkin fan. I love a good savoury pumpkin – preferably roasted with chilli, or in soup form; pumpkin pie is hands down my favourite aspect of Matryoshka Haus’ annual Thanksgiving; last year’s discovery of this pumpkin loaf recipe has become a firm favourite amongst those for whom I bake; and I claim credit for innovating the coffee-free pumpkin spice latte at Starbucks (“grande steamed skimmed milk with two pumps of Pumpkin Spice” – yes, I am *that* person). For me, a trip to the East Coast in the fall was an ideal opportunity to avail myself of as much pumpkin as possible.

I’m aware that many would turn their noses up at such an escapade. The sort of people who crack jokes on Twitter about the stereotypical consumer of a PSL (who invented the acronym in the first place). The kind of person who thinks the gratuitous addition of pumpkin to everyday items is nothing short of a shameless marketing tactic… However, I turn up my nose at them!

Pumpkin Patch

My pumpkin odyssey began innocuously with a slice of pumpkin loaf accompanying my Starbucks order. It’s fine – probably not as good as the one I make at home – but when in Rome…

Pumpkin Cider at Harpoon

Then there was pumpkin cider, drunk in the brewery that produced it. To be honest, I’m not sure I could have identified the pumpkin had I not known about it, but nonetheless, a good cider on a chilly Vermont day was much appreciated. Plus, I’d just visited a genuine New England pumpkin patch.

Dunkin Donuts proved to be a purveyor of an exceedingly excellent pumpkin donut, with a pleasing orangey hue and a cracking glaze. There is no photographic evidence of this as it was eaten in a frenzied hunger on board a train back to New York.

A photo posted by Jackie (@jocose_jackie) on

If there’s one retailer that fully embraces the world of pumpkin, it’s Trader Joe’s. I ‘popped’ into its Brooklyn branch on a Sunday afternoon, which was a big mistake as seemingly every local resident had had an identical idea. I was confronted with a multitude of pumpkin options: pumpkin O’s cereal (like Cheerios); tortilla chips & salsa; panettone; yoghurt; various baking mixes; oh, and dog snacks. Yes, pumpkin dog snacks. There are over 40 items in Trader Joe’s 2015 pumpkin collection and I’m pleased to report that I only bought one of them – a jar of pumpkin spice! I was very tempted by the pumpkin spice cookie butter though…

Pumpkin Pop Tarts

My Target shopping expedition (no word of a lie, I had been making my Target shopping list for weeks beforehand – it was probably the most organised element of my whole holiday!) yielded pumpkin Pop Tarts. (Yes, I know that they’re ridiculously unhealthy and just plain awful, but I have a childish soft spot for them.)

Shake Shack pumpkin goodness

Shake Shack delivered autumn in a small tub, in the form of a slice of pumpkin pie, swirled with cream. So a dessert that bore no resemblance to the original dish, but tasted fabulous. (Note to self: this should not have been bought to consume on the subway home, it got messy.)

Incredibly, there was a pumpkin option that I searched for and did not find: a pumpkin cupcake. New York’s cupcake game has gone seriously downhill since I last visited in 2009 – although I did at least manage to find a chocolate one with swiss meringue frosting, a combo that remains top of my cupcake combo leader board.

Pumpkin M&Ms

Oh, and I rejected a third opportunity to sample pumpkin spice M&M’s, because quite frankly, they sound WRONG!

Just in case you thought my love of pumpkin might have dissipated since returning to the UK, let me share with you my favourite discovery on last week’s trip to Morrisons: Ben & Jerry’s Pumpkin Cheesecake ice cream. De-lish!

B&J Pumpkin

 

My sister used to comment that my travel journals (completed for every international trip I take) were merely chronicles of what I had eaten and when – and this blogpost would certainly meet such expectations. However, there’s also plenty of food I haven’t mentioned (the best apple pancakes I’ve ever consumed, for example) – and will go unmentioned, for there are much more interesting things to write about!

An awkward blogpost

September 2015 is – without doing any kind of check whatsoever – the first calendar month in years in which I’ve not posted a blogpost, and we’re now two-thirds of the way through October. Therefore this post is simply awkward, like a coffee date with a friend unseen for years with no explanation, it just needs to be got through. In fact, reading it is entirely optional!

September 2015 was also a month in which a few things happened:

  • My housemate gave birth to the rather delightful Serenna on the 2nd. Her time in hospital and the impact of her return home meant that I was on babysitting duties with her older brother a little more than usual. Plus, it turns out that living with a newborn can prove distracting!
  • Newborns are both distracting and therapeutic. Serenna proved to be an excellent relaxation tool at the end of a long day writing – after all September 18th was the day on which my final MA essay and my dissertation were handed in! (That would be 27,500 words across the two assignments.)
  • How better to celebrate a completed MA than by watching one’s home nation playing their national sport in the city that was also one’s home for 9 years? Tonga Vs Georgia at Kingsholm may have had a disappointing result, but it was an ideal celebration the day after the deadline.
  • Big Cottage number two marked the start of a well-deserved fortnight’s holiday and two consecutive Sundays off. It was fabulous, not least because I had sole use of a ridiculously huge bathroom. (This is a big deal when current bathing arrangements at home involve a bathroom shared between 6-9 adults at any one time…)
  • What to do with nearly 2 weeks off? Go to America, naturally! I took the opportunity to gallivant off to the East Coast, visiting New York and Vermont respectively. There is much blog fodder from this trip.


The above isn’t so much a blogpost but a listicle. So to finish up and get this inconvenient ‘Er, hello! I’m back!’ post out of the way, I’ll leave you with a story…

As mentioned, I went to the Rugby World Cup to see Tonga play – which was fab, especially as it gave me a chance to catch up with a few Gloucester chums. I booked a train back to London at the sensible hour of 7.15pm (that early start on a Sunday still doesn’t feel normal!), which coincided with the time at which a number of clergy were also leaving Gloucester having attended the landmark consecration of the first female diocesan bishop in the Church of England at the cathedral. [Whooop! Go Bishop Rachel!] We were scheduled to reach Paddington at just after 9pm, however, due to unforeseen events – the Rugby World Cup primarily, because no one knew that was happening… –  I didn’t get there until nearly 1am.

My journey was scuppered by a cancelled train; queues of rugby fans leaving Cardiff; trains that couldn’t be boarded in Bristol; a taxi to London that broke down on the M4 just before Heathrow; a 2 hour wait on the hard shoulder; a rude First Great Western employee at Paddington and his even ruder manager; and two night buses which eventually got me into my bed at 3.30am.

Grounds for complaint to First Great Western (who, as if to distance themselves from this debacle, renamed themselves Great Western Railway not three hours after I returned home), no?? Oh yes! A bullet pointed email was duly dispatched on the Monday morning and I awaited a reply that was supposedly due in 5 working days…

…20 working days later, I received an email. It informed me that my train from Gloucester was never going to run, because of an amended rugby timetable – but that I wouldn’t have known this in advance as they decided not to advertise it. It also mentioned that we were diverted to Bristol (despite the chaos caused by the rugby in Cardiff) because they’d rather we waited for hours than used another train provider – a victory for privatisation! Most importantly, it agreed that the station manager should have put my taxi passengers (there were 5 of us, including an elderly couple) into taxis at Paddington to ensure that we reached our homes safely. Did I mention that we’d turned up at the station clad in foil blankets from Highway Patrol?? Oh, and they refunded my ticket (with a cheque, not rail vouchers) and gave me a free 1st Class return anywhere on their network (apparently Penzance is the furthest I could travel…). Not too shabby!

22 working days later, I received a very large package. An anonymous admirer had sent me a delightful bouquet of roses! Oh. Wait. It was First Great Western, apologising in style.

Great Western Roses

Great Western Railway. You provided rubbish customer service last month, but you do apologise in style!

Let that be a lesson in complaining for you all…

Discussing the sinking ship…

That post the other day with the text of my piece that had gone missing from Threads? Turns out it had been pulled – temporarily – and when it returned on Thursday morning, it was minus the article to which it was responding.

Sinking Ship Recruiting Now

Chine Mbubaegbu (Director of Communications for the EA, who publishes Threads) explained on Twitter why this turn of events occurred – she hadn’t seen the piece prior to publication and when she did, she felt strongly that it was completely the wrong tone for the site. The page where the article once was now features an apology.

“We’re all for asking questions and critiquing but in all of our questioning and doubts and critique, we want to look for the better way – just like Jesus did. And when we’re writing about the Church; our hope is that it can become all it’s called to be. We knew many would disagree with the post – like we did – so we had tried to pre-empt that by commissioning a more hopeful response. But for some things, a response just doesn’t cut it.”

I completely agree with their decision. Turns out a response piece makes no difference when it’s on a different page; when the link to the controversial piece is being tweeted around with no reference to a follow up. The piece was very dark, which is why I agreed to Threads’ suggestion that I write a reply, I knew it was too angry to be on its own.Perhaps if we’d written the article together, kind of dialogue or Q&A style, it might have worked better? Hindsight is a marvellous thing… But, life over the last couple of days would have been a lot simpler if this had been realised before publication!

The piece in question is no longer online, but I’ve taken the decision to include a link to a PDF of it here. I wasn’t going to, but its author has been unwilling to put it up elsewhere (although he is sending it out to people who DM him about it). It’s the version Threads sent to me and I’m pretty sure it’s exactly as it was published. At least now those who have been keen to make their own judgement on it, can.

It’s an angry article, but in amongst some of the less than attractive imagery (anyone met a vicar who creeps around like ‘Gollum at an orgy’??) is a really valid point: Christianity is virtually irrelevant to British society today, what is it doing to change this and is recruiting more clergy really going to help?

This point was why I felt compelled to write the response. If someone had asked me this in the pub, I would have willingly had a discussion with them about it. In fact, it’s one of the reasons that I love being part of Matryoshka Haus – the variety of the community means that questions like this can and do crop up on a regular basis. Close friends of mine have been hurt and disillusioned by the church and conversations with them have been a hugely important element of my journey towards ordination. The church NEEDS this kind of a discussion, it can’t just hide away under a pew and think that it will go away!! [In fact, note to DDO’s and Theological College tutors: writing a response to this article would be an excellent formation exercise for any potential church leader.]

When the articles were published, I’d hoped for some constructive discussion. I know that this can be hard on social media, but the Threads comments often prove to be fruitful and Facebook is easier. (Twitter is a flipping nightmare, you can’t have a good discussion via 140 character comments!) In my mind, I envisaged the kind of discussion I have from time to time with an atheist friend on Facebook, who maturely asks interesting questions and treats my responses with respect – as I do his. (Interestingly, we met via a church youth group…)

Unfortunately, productive discussion didn’t really ensue. Apparently Alex, my ‘opposition’, has something of a reputation on Threads and on Twitter for being antagonistically controversial. (Had I realised this, I don’t think I’d have agreed to write the response.) Some people (ordained people in fact) made some rather misguided comments about him, which was wrong – although they apologised pretty quickly. Lots of people simply felt that the article was entirely inappropriate for a Christian website.

I wasn’t expecting things to get particularly nasty on Twitter, especially as before publication, Alex had said that he ‘bloody loved’ my piece. But by yesterday morning, I was rueing the day I’d ever had an email from Threads! The disappearance of the articles without (initial) explanation caused a bit of a kerfuffle. By the time I went to bed, someone I follow on Twitter was effectively being trolled by Alex for expressing an opinion on the piece without having read it – what she had read was a very interesting analysis of it that Mark Hewerdine blogged before it had been removed. 36 hours later, she was still receiving what I can only describe as abuse, because she hadn’t read it but was still discussing it – the fact that she could not read it because the author chose not to make it available was apparently irrelevant!

Nothing I’m saying here should be news to Alex. I tweeted him yesterday to explain that I agreed with Threads’ decision, and that I wouldn’t have agreed to write the piece had I known that he was going behave so immaturely. I love Twitter and hate when it gets stirred up with a lot of ill feeling! One of his replies was that he hoped I’d find a ‘nice’ writer to write with. You know what, nice is a bonus, what I’m really after is mature and respectful – which is exactly what I got from my atheist Facebook friend this morning regarding my article.

The church generates very strong feelings, in all sorts of directions, from a lot of people. There needs to be a place for healthy discussion, that hopefully yields really productive results. The church can’t turn around its fortunes on its own – it needs to listen to those who disagree with what it’s done in the past and accept that it has made mistakes. I really hope that the beginning of helpful discussions that Alex’s article generated will see some positive outcomes. Voices like his do need to be heard, but perhaps in a slightly less antagonistic tone. 

At some point Alex is intending to publish a 20,000 piece expanding his views on what the church needs to do and I genuinely look forward to reading it. Hopefully, the church will take notice…

Boarding the Sinking Ship