The First Nowell

There ought to be a badge for curates that declares: “I survived my first ordained Christmas!” – such is the achievement of getting through one’s very first festive season as a member of clergy. The services, the sermons, the lunches, the drinks parties, the children’s parties, the Christingle making, the carols…

I guess a part-time curate’s first Christmas could be considered slightly less of an achievement? Yes and no.

Yes, because I didn’t do the full slog of Christmas services. Thanks to still being a commuting curate, reliant upon London Transport (which ceases to exist from 9pm on Christmas Eve), I missed Midnight Mass. (Also thanks to there being two other clergy present to divide preaching and presiding between themselves.)

But I did preach my very first Christmas Day sermon – complete with photos of some gems from the Clutterbuck Nativities Collection, and a legendary pop diva in the congregation. [I kid you not on that last point. Fortunately I didn’t find out about that until after the service!] I travelled through deserted London streets courtesy of a Muslim taxi driver who spent most of the journey quizzing me on how to cook a turkey – as I’ve never cooked one, I really wasn’t much help, but did recommend Delia’s Christmas.

Inuit NativityFor some reason, the Inuit Nativity got a lot of laughs in my sermon…

Being part-time means that there’s an awful lot to pack into the two weekdays that I’m at the church. Which can have interesting consequences – like the December Wednesday when my very first school assembly (on King Herod & lying) was preceded by the over 60’s Christmas lunch. I love the over 60’s group! They’ve made me an honorary member of their coterie, and that allows me to attend their monthly lunches. The Christmas lunch was talked about for several weeks beforehand, with references to sherry and wine plentiful. On the day in question, we wrapped up our 10.30 midweek service a bit before 11.30 and immediately, out came the sherry. A particularly spritely 88 year old offered me a glass, insisting that I should have something, after all, assembly wasn’t till 3pm – I relented an asked for a very small glass. I’m not sure what a large would have looked like, as I was handed a regular wine glass that was two-thirds full of sherry! [Needless to say, it was not drained empty!]

Downside of being part-time? Missing some of the Christmas lunches. Upside? Not having quite so many enforced mince pie eating occasions!

To be honest, the biggest Christmas challenge was never going to be the work, but the fact that it was different to any other Christmas I’d had before. I’ve grown up with church-orientated Christmasses – where the priority was getting one, two, three or even four services done between Christmas Eve morning and Christmas dinner! I’ve been hauled into action on grey Christmas mornings to support parents’ leading worship – regardless of whether or not I was indulging in my semi-annual Christmas cold. But it turns out it’s rather different when it’s you that has the church to look after!

Christmas 2015 was the first Christmas I’ve ever spent away from all my family. It was the first Christmas that my parents would spend with neither daughter with them. A tad daunting, but I have amazing alternative families…

A campaign had been underway to get me to spend Christmas Day in Harpenden for over a year – and where better place to spend Christmas than with a family of people you’ve known for over half your life, and who appear to have had a near-identical upbringing! Christmas with the Kilverts was different to a Clutterbuck Christmas (fewer nativities for starters), but it was good different – including Christmas quizzing, Christmas cheese, Christmas present notebooks [still reeling from the organisation level displayed on this one], and the Queen. Yes, the Queen. For the first time IN MY LIFE I watched the Queen’s speech. And you know what? It was really rather good and something to be stored away for a future sermon illustration. Anyway, huge thanks to the Kilvert clan for trekking to Highbury on Christmas Day, being in my congregation, and then taking me home with you and making me feel so much a part of the family!!

The other alternative family was of course my London one. For a city whose population seems to flee in a mass exodus in the week leading up to Christmas, it was a surprise to discover that so many Matryoshka Haus-ites were in town over the holidays. Christmas Eve-Eve was spent enjoying great food with great company in the new building, while the following night was a lovely extended family meal at home. [Christmas: when three roast dinners in four days is considered not in the least bit excessive!] Celebrating Christmas with friends, my honorary niece & nephew [“aunty Liz” appears to be catching on as a moniker with the smallest housemates] was lovely and more than made up for the lack of actual family.

Oh, and I put Father Christmas to the test and won. Twice. Stocking gifts arrived from Belfast, and then on Christmas morning a Christmas miracle occurred! A stocking full of another set of presents arrived at my bedroom door. So it’s official, Father Christmas *does* exist!

Christmas Stocking

 

Well done fellow Deacons for surviving Christmas. Now, bring on Easter!

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.

2015 Firsts

Totally cheating – I did write down my 2015 Firsts at some point in January 2016, but I neglected to post them on here. So I’m playing catch-up for posterity’s sake… (And back-dating so that no one really notices.)

Walked in Wanstead Park
Lectured for WTC.
Visited Leinster Terrace.
Swung on the swing in the Lambeth Palace garden.
Attended a humanist funeral.
Eaten tea at Wadham College.
Given up alcohol for lent.
Baked multi-coloured cakes.
Played in West Ham park.
Eaten at the Cereal Killers cafe.
Drunk gin from Vancouver.
Taken a Lewis Caroll walk in Oxford.
Owned a baguette box.
Visited Royston.
Taken a child to Messy Church.
Processed along Columbia Road with a donkey.
Participated in a lingerie shower.
Shown Eric the builder around London.
Paddled at Lac de Vasiviere.
Baked Picnic Slice.
Attended Citizens’ General Election Assembly.
Watched Carrie the Musical.
Invigilated an exam.
Watched Gypsy.
Worn a dog collar, cassock & surplice.
Attended a priesting.
Been mentioned on Wittertainment.
Ordained Deacon.
Worked at Christ Church Highbury.
Baked strawberry cake.
Received Boomf marshmallows.
Visited Winchester.
Made blackberry gin.
Baptised a child.
Attended a rugby world cup match.
Done mindfulness colouring in.
Stayed in Brooklyn & Vermont.
Rode an Amtrak train.
Visited the NYC Transit Museum.
Worshipped at St Lydia’s.
Drunk cocktails at the Rainbow Room, Rockefeller.
Had a blow-out.
Received flowers from a train company.
Carved a Jack O’Lantern.
Created a fire engine cake.
Visited the BFI.
Met the Good Doctors.
Eaten Lucky Charms.
Preached on Christmas Day.
Spent Christmas away from my parents.

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!