The show must go on

The monastic sojourn has ended and I’m back in London with a new appreciation of myself and the amazing group of people I’m privileged to be training with. I also have a speaking voice that’s an octave lower than usual – not thanks to over zealous singing, chanting or Bible reading, but thanks to some kind of autumnal virus.

The dome of the rather lovely Merville chapel.

This virus emerged on our first day in Merville. By Monday morning I was croaking out the words of BCP morning prayer. Normally this would have been a mild inconvenience – I’m a person who does not appreciate their ability to talk being compromised. However, as I mentioned in my pre-Merville post, I was preaching my first ever college sermon on Tuesday morning. A lack of speaking voice would be a major issue.

So, I did the sensible thing of taking to my bed for Monday afternoon; not talking too much; drinking sloe gin to ease my throat; and asking Twitter (& the St George’s faithful) to pray. [Actually, my fellow ordinands prayed lots too. I was stunned that so many of them – when they heard my voice – immediately prayed for me. I’m not sure why this surprised me.] Twitter did pray, but it also suggested a back-up plan:

If my voice completely failed me, I could always do my sermon via mime or, even better, interpretative dance. Hmmm. [As it happens, someone in my year at college is a mime artiste – I think I’ll leave miming sermons up to him…]

On Tuesday morning, I awoke early and tested my voice. There was noise, it was crackly and croaky, but it was something to work with. I got through the sermon, it received positive feedback, and with the pressure over, I took to my bed for most of the rest of the day.

As I commented to a fellow ordinand & fellow child of clergy, it was a valuable lesson in the show must go on. Sometimes, no matter how rubbish you feel, or how little voice you have left, you have to get on with what you’re called to do. Services need to be conducted, sermons have to be preached and pastoral care needs to be provided. Not that I’m suggesting that vicars never get a break, it’s just that sick days aren’t always as easy to take as they might be in an office job.

Also, sometimes you’ll discover two days before you preach that someone else had the same passage as you, and was going to use your main theme just 36 hours prior to your own sermon. By some ridiculous quirk of the worship rota, Daniel 2 was the Old Testament reading for Sunday night’s service, as well as being the designated lectionary reading for both Tuesday (verses 1 – 24) and Wednesday’s (25 – end) morning worship. That’s three sermons on Daniel interpreting Nubuchadnezzar’s dream. Needless to say, the ordinands are now very au fait with Daniel…

But in such circumstances, one cannot simply get up and say “sorry, I had a sermon when we got here on Saturday, but unfortunately Ashley made most of my points on Sunday night”. One has to instead re-write one’s sermon, trying not to think about the poor person who’s preaching 24 hours later. [That person was slightly miffed that I’d used her Brueggemann quote, but she made a good joke out of it.] Fortunately, it seems that there is a lot to be said regarding the interpretation of dreams – which makes me wonder if interpretative dance/mime would have been a good way to go had my voice escaped me entirely.

The vaulted ceiling of the chapel gives it a marvellous acoustic.
This makes singing sound wonderful, but makes coughs highly conspicuous.

The mystery of obsession

Twenty-four hours ago, I was stood in a clearing in a wood watching a boyband singing to a group of their fans around a campfire. Fake snow lay on the ground and Christmas was being celebrated, albeit nearly two months early. I can’t say much more about the event as I’m sworn to secrecy until a TV broadcast at Christmas, but suffice to say that I wasn’t amongst the groups of fans. Instead, it was a case of “have CRB, have random adventures”. This was a very random adventure. Not only was there fake snow and a campfire, but a night under a tipi’s canvas chaperoning boyband fans.

This is probably the extent of the photos I can currently post of our escapades. 
That’s the tipi lighting & heating systems.

There is much I could write about the last couple of days, but much of what occurred is subjected to the darned embargo. However, what did intrigue me and is more of a general concept, is the nature of fanhood and the obsession it creates.

When I first got offered this bizarre chaperoning gig, I assumed that I’d be responsible for some teeny-boppers – the kind of boyband fans whose obsession is largely financed by their parents and amounts to little more than over-priced concert tickets; endless watching of anything the band has appeared on; learning the choreography for every single song; and buying anything with the bands name or faces on it. I never went through that particularly phase of life, but my sister did – buying multiple versions of the same Boyzone single owing to different B-sides; having a Boyzone themed 12th birthday party; and occasionally dreaming that the band had turned up at our house bearing gifts of savoury pastries.

However, the fans we were in charge of were all over 16. Most were over 18. My tipi of six winners included four who were all in their 20s and who spent most of their time (and money) following the boyband around the country. (As well as memorising songs, dance routines and customising clothes in the band’s honour.) They were so dedicated in their passion that the band’s members knew each one of their names.

While I expected to meet die-hard fans, I was unprepared for exactly what ‘die-hard’ would consist of, and it really made me think…

Psychologists are generally agreed that teenage girls go through crush phases so that they can learn how to be attracted to men, practicing safely on totally unattainable men. Most of us go through such phases to a greater or lesser extent – my teenage crushes of choice were Dean Cain (the Clark Kent in between the Superman movies and Smallville), Keanu Reeves, Brad Pitt and Damon Albarn/Alex James from Blur (depending on my mood). I was only reasonably likely to see the latter in the flesh and despite occasional rumours that Albarn was at a gig at Gloucester’s Guildhall, it never happened.

However, several of the girls we met this week were past this stage of life. The girls in their 20s could have been having relationships with real men, but instead chose to spend their time waiting in the cold for a glimpse of the objects of their desire, fantasising over their next conversation with them, or conducting post-mortems over their last conversation with them. They were so angry about one band member’s new relationship I actually wondered if they’d do her physical harm given half the chance. In some ways, it was terrifying.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not passing judgement on their choices. But I do wonder if they realise what they’re missing out on? It’s great to be fans of stuff and it’s absolutely fine to have moments of geekiness or obsession (my own passion for musical theatre and particular actors was highlighted by my friends during our conversations on this topic), but surely there’s a point where a line needs to be drawn and reality faced? These girls will almost certainly not spend the rest of their lives with their idols, yet some of them genuinely believe that they will. Is it fair to encourage or allow them to persist with their unrealistic expectations?

The world of the obsessed fan is a truly scary one. Tonight I will be thanking my lucky stars that I’m on my own in the flat, rather than supervising several of them in an extremely chilly tipi.

When life hands you two jars of stem ginger…

…get baking.

The flat in which I now live was previously occupied by the church’s curate. Unlike a normal house move, when I arrived at the flat there was a pile of things benevolently left to me by my former colleague – a dvd player, a copy of LOTR (how I laughed), a wealth of cleaning materials, an umbrella and a huge range of jars containing all manner of goodies. Previous curate was a skilled cooker of roast dinners, so many of the jars were condiments suited to such meals (red currant jelly, mint sauce etc), all of which will come in handy once I finally get around to cooking my first ever roast dinner.

Also amongst the selection were two jars of stem ginger in syrup, which presented something of a challenge. What can you use two (large) jars of ginger for? Too much ginger is overpowering, but surely there had to be ways of getting through it? Logically, my mind turned to baking – specifically, ginger biscuits. Everyone loves a ginger biscuit, no?

So I tried out a recipe for ‘best-ever’ stem ginger biscuits. They were fine, except they only used one ball of stem ginger and each jar appeared to contain twelve of them. It would take many, many batches of biscuits before I’d erased the ginger stash.

In the week leading up to Greenbelt, I had a bit of a brainwave: ginger flapjack – surely that had to use more ginger than the biscuits did? I successfully located a recipe that required three times as much ginger as the biscuits, tried it, took it to the festival where it was met with joyous acclaim from my camping companions. [When camping, flapjack is a completely legitimate breakfast food.]

Now that it’s properly autumnal – nay wintery – I’ve whipped the recipe out and modified it for my own uses.

Stem Ginger Flapjacks

175g Butter
175g Golden Syrup
175g Light Brown Sugar
355g Porridge Oats
1/2 tbsp Ground Ginger
1tsp Cinnamon
3 Pieces of Stem Ginger

1. Mix butter, syrup & sugar in a large saucepan. Melt over a low heat.
2. Bring to the boil and remove saucepan from the heat.
3. Add oats, ground ginger & cinnamon. Mix thoroughly until combined.
4. Chop ginger pieces and mix into the porridge mixture.
5. Pour mixture into a square tin (approximately 15cm x 15cm).
6. Place into a pre-heated oven at 150C/Gas Mark 2 for 40 minutes, until golden.
7. Leave to cool before cutting into pieces.

I prefer my flapjacks on the squidgier end of the spectrum, so I’ve slightly reduced the quantity of oats. I am also a huge fan of autumnal spices, so added a dash of cinnamon to the mix. Not too much, but just enough to complement the ginger. The end result is something equivalent to perfection on a cold, blustery afternoon.

Before the oven; after the oven & ready to eat.

Gathering Women

Just as the world is divided along gender lines; so the Christian world is divided as to whether single-sex gatherings are a good idea. Some men might scorn a curry and football night, while many women would run in the opposite direction from a women’s prayer breakfast hosted by someone clad in a twinset and pearls. [In fact, there was an interesting debate to this effect on Dave Walker’s blog some time ago.] 
Personally, I love a good women’s gathering (it’ll be that single-sex education/Guide career kicking in again). I like being in a safe-space to discuss issues relating to women (no, I don’t mean Mooncups) and being amongst women who are facing similar questions and dilemmas in life. At my last church, I liked that they weren’t pink and fluffy (both the event and the women) and that it was a rare chance to be lead in worship by someone who sang in a key I could sing in too. However, I draw the line at female events where there is a plethora of pink, pearls and pashminas and where I’ll learn how to support my husband in his ministry. Ergh. 
Fortunately, the women’s gathering for which I gave up my Saturday involved no pink fluffiness. (There were pashminas, but only because the church was so flipping cold!) It brought together Christian women in leadership – it wasn’t just vicars (in fact they were in the minority), or even those in leadership of churches – all sorts of women in leadership roles were there. We weren’t there to men bash, or to stir up a feminist revolution; it was simply about networking, discussing what works against women in the world (including women themselves), the theology of women in leadership and being in solidarity with one another. 
During the day, I found myself re-telling the story I told in a blogpost written nearly a year ago, about how I was increasingly having to label myself and act more like a feminist – particularly since starting ordination training in the Church of England. Little has changed since that post was written. I still find myself banging the drum for women at college and in the CofE and just yesterday, I had to point out to a colleague that the ‘girls’ on staff were just as capable of moving chairs as the ‘boys’ on the team he’d asked to help (clearly I need to show him photos of me building scaffolding). Certain male colleagues have also worked out that ironic sexist comments are a sure fire way of winding me up – and thus make them on a regular basis. I ask the questions that enable men in leadership to realise that a simple tradition (like men serving the bread and women serving the wine at communion in our church) actually appears to undermine women in leadership (as a result,  last week’s female servers were specifically asked to do it). Most of all, I’m intentionally seeking out women who are also fighting their corner who I can learn from and be in solidarity with – so this gathering was ideal. 
I met some fabulous women who are already friends and made some new ones too. I made a connection with a fellow vicar-in-training who’s training with a good chum of mine. Tweeters were identified and inspiring stories heard – oh, and the sauna dilemma was discussed with amusement. Most of all, I realised yet again that I’m not alone in a world that can often seem entirely dominated by men. I could wax lyrical about the specific nature of the discussions and presentations (which were great) but the best thing about the day was the people, their stories and their willingness to share them. Whether these women would have been happy to share them in a mixed context is an interesting question – I suspect some would have been reticent – which is why such gatherings are really important.
It struck me at the end of the day that my feminist rant of a post last year was inspired by something Jenny Baker had written, so it seems only appropriate that she – along with Wendy Beech-Ward – were to thank for getting these women together. If you’re a woman in leadership and want to get involved in the next gathering, let me know…

A firey dilemma

I’m a big fan of birthdays that are outside of the norm – when by ‘norm’ I mean meals at restaurants or drinks in a bar. Last month, for example, saw an afternoon of fun in the park where each guest was instructed to bring an Olympic themed activity with them. [My contribution was dry-land synchronised swimming, but sadly we didn’t get to try it. Competitive strawberry shoelace eating with no hands was epic though.]

However, I become slightly less excited about unusual birthday celebrations that involve significant levels of clothing removal – like an evening in a sauna in Barking.

Having said that, when Saturday morning dawned, the fact that I had a pedicure booked as part of the party was quite a pleasing thought. However, I began to worry at lunch time when I realised that I’d left my swimsuit at home and couldn’t work out what I should wear in the sauna.

The fabulous Barking Bathhouse sauna. (Credit.)

The thing was, I’d been organised – I’d studied the Barking Bathhouse’s website, chosen a treatment and ascertained that they didn’t have water based spa activities. (As in a pool or hot tub – they did have showers and toilets.) Therefore, my logical mind had concluded that no swimsuit was needed. For some reason I hadn’t considered the sauna, or any of the following points:

1. I didn’t know everyone who’d be there. Plus, some of them were men with whom I have slightly awkward relationships already. Did I want to sauna with them without a swimsuit/similar attire? No.

2. Spa towels are difficult to predict, size-wise. Yes, I could’ve gone in starkers with a towel, but I had no guarantee this would protect my modesty. (Obviously, a bath robe would be far too warm in a sauna.)

3. I couldn’t do the primary school PE thing of vest & pants because I needed to wear my vest & pants for the rest of the evening – which would not be pleasant having sauna-ed in them.

And thus, the lack of a swimsuit became quite a pressing issue.

The issue was realised while I was at a gathering of women leaders (in all likelihood, this will be tomorrow’s blog topic), and several women provided advice – or simply laughed at my predicament. What could I do? As I saw it, there were a few options:

  • Go home and get my swimsuit. (Not an option really – I didn’t have the time.)
  • Go and buy a new swimsuit. (Similarly tricky – swimsuit shopping is a pain at the best of times.)
  • Acquire alternative underwear. (Doable, but where from?)

When telling this story to my mother earlier, I had got this far when she came up with a (genius) fourth option: Buy a large beach towel. Yes, that would’ve solved it – kind of.

So, what did I do?
Well, thanks to TfL engineering work, I had to travel to Barking via Stratford, so a quick stop at M&S (happily the nearest store to the tube exit at Westfield) was little bother. There, I happily discovered matching vest & pants sets for £6. A solution to my dilemma and new underwear – bonus!

So, was the party as traumatic as I feared? In a word: no.
Yes, the towels were too small; but my vest & pants set did the job of a tankini. Yes, there was a man in the sauna; but he was married and visually impaired without glasses. Yes, there were strangers; but I’ve sauna-ed with strangers many, many times at my old gym, so no biggy.

Plus, the spa served drinks in jam-jars; I tasted chocolate beer for the first time; I got a glittery pedicure; the squidgy baby was as delightful as ever; and I overcame virtually all modesty issues and even hung out in the spa’s bar in my bath robe and towel (fear not, I was not alone in doing this). The Barking Bathhouse is highly recommended should you need a spot of pampering – it may not be around for long, but it’s certainly worth a trip.

Delightful smoothies in jam-jars – but cava was even better. (Credit.)