Saturday, 10 November 2018

Spoiled for choice

                                                  Memorial to the fallen: Weekley

How do we choose where we worship? (If you watch Channel 4's Grand Designs, think Kevin McCloud's voice here...) For some it may be less a question of choice, more a matter of habit. Some will have a strong preference for a particular style of service (drums and/or incense, anyone?) while others will think only one place represents their core beliefs (transubstantiation, an absence of uppity women, the Literal Word of God?) Loyalty and duty play their part. The presence of friends or the age of a building (either Ancient or Modern) may be key factors...and so may be where a family's three year old hopes to go to school. Today's journey enables me to sample a single town's churches all in one go. That town is, ladies and gentlemen...let's have a big hand for...Kettering. Of course, my Big Walk takes in only Anglican churches. In Kettering (pop. approx. 93,500) the Kaleidoscope of Faith also comprises places of worship for Catholics, Methodists,URC, Baptists (rather famously!) plus more contemporary foundations such as The Vineyard and Open Door, and groups on the fringe of the Christian mainstream too, such as Jehovah's Witnesses. There's something for everyone, you'd think, but the majority don't care and go shopping or to football instead. Just as they do everywhere else.

Is there too much choice? Do our divisions weaken our Brand? And can you be a Christian if you're generally nice to people, read your Bible, and stay at home on-line?

I park on the green next to St. Botolph's in Barton Seagrave, and stroll down past the dog-walkers into the green space by the earthwork remains of Barton Seagrave House. Over the road I meander into the parkland of The Wilderness which runs roughly parallel to Kettering's river, the Ise. On my right is a housing estate where the luckiest occupants have a green view. The ends of their closes are marked by blocks of stone so large they'd cost you a small fortune in your local garden centre, a protection against invasion by Travellers. Two men are standing around a heat exchanger on the outside of a community building. I catch a fragment of conversation: 'I was born in Kettering, you know...grew up in dad was in the Forces...' In another half mile I come to a road and there's the Church of Christ the King. The door's open...

Jo Batch is tidying up after Thursday morning Mums and Tots and now she's preparing for the afternoon session. Around the large modern space which sits under Christ the King's canopy is a cheerful clutter of toys and chairs, drum kits, music stands and keyboards. It's all very bright, warm and welcoming. Jo tells me there may be 300 in on a Sunday morning, split between two services. A Friday evening club for primary age kids will attract 50, and there are perhaps 30 in their teen group. You see, it can be done! Do I like everything about Christ the King? No, of course not.  A leaflet about their men's ministry says: 'for too long Church has often been seen as a place for the ladies, the children and the older generation...Kingsman Men's Ministry aims to allow a very real environment for real men to be real about their spiritual lives...' (my underscoring). I agree with some of the diagnosis, but worry slightly about some of the language. But should this matter? What this church is doing works, doesn't it, and if I lived close by, I'd worship here, though perhaps I'd miss Choral Evensongs.

                                 Jo Batch + assistant aka Mr. Sheepy. He has his own song...

After a month of not-blog-walking, it feels a bit strange to be on the hoof again, the kind of disorientation one feels returning to familiar software after weeks away: the hands/feet move instinctively, but don't quite know why. What's this all about? Am I doing things the way I should? Will I break the machine?

There's time for a little countryside in among the urban today, and I follow a bridleway across the fields towards Warkton. In this mildest of Novembers I'm still in shorts, but have kicked my Merrills in favour of boots, because it's slightly greasy underfoot on the paths, although the ground is still firm. This last week has seen a sudden end flame of autumn, the colours at their most vivid, but even over the most recent 48 hours, the leaves are giving up their struggle against the inevitable. There are squirrels everywhere among the overhanging branches. I like their cheekiness out here in the open, but we think we have squirrels inside the walls of our house. I have threatening conversations with the Weston Favell brethren concerning their fate if they don't clear off.  A puzzle. I pass a badger sett, where some of the holes have been covered with hollowed out pumpkin skins. Have the badgers developed a taste for this most gastronomically drab of autumn vegetables, goodness knows why, or has some human individual tried to stop up their various holes? Or, nasty thought, has a farmer poisoned the pumpkins in an effort to prevent the spread of TB?

I shelter in the porch of St. Edmund's, Warkton and eat a sandwich. Yesterday was a sapping, depressing day, six hours on the road to and from London, holding back resentment against clients, fellow-drivers, politicians, radio presenters, you name it and I've got a grudge. So as I sit, I allow myself the luxury of praying for me as well as the parishioners of Warkton, for what I should be doing with my life, to know how much slack I should be cutting myself at the age of sixty-seven and whether I'm entitled to enjoy my preferences in expressing my faith. I look at the stones around me, and feel the challenge of being a 'living stone'. In short, I'm feeling a bit Weekley and Warkton, as Les Dawson might have said.

The two villages are spread either side of the Ise, linked by the Boughton estate, sharing a cricket team who are lucky enough to play on the pretty ground which sits beside a grand drive of trees close to St. Mary's church in Weekley, by a long chalk the more picturesque of the two settlements. It was sufficiently photogenic to find a starring role in the Keira Knightley film of Pride and Prejudice, the seventeenth century Montagu Hospital hard by the church becoming Mr. Collins' rectory. Weekley's a lovely, calming place, and though I'm sure the monuments inside the church are fascinating, I don't regret for one moment not seeing them. I could have done though, because as I pick up my stick and rucksack to move on, a gentleman in a Mercedes is just arriving. He winds his window down. It's Brian Giles. He's the lay worship leader in the benefice. He has a group coming in for a tour this afternoon, and it wouldn't be a trouble to let me inside. I decline, thinking I have only so much time before dusk (I started late today!) The parish has a new incumbent arriving in February, Brian tells me. I leave him with a card, and he leaves me with a leaflet. Over the lintel of the Montagu Hospital door is the legend: 'What thou Doest, Do Yt in Fayth'.

                                                   Bats: to be found in many churches...

The main road back towards Kettering is vaguely familiar. Once upon a time it was the only way out to Stamford and the A1. Now there's a Kettering by-pass. Inside the town limit a right turn takes me up Weekley Glebe Road into fifties' housing estates, which after a mile or so shade into terraces from an earlier era, for Kettering is largely a Victorian shoe town, building on a wool trade from the centuries before that (Stamford cloth was once famous Europe-wide, according to Trevelyan) and diversifying into iron ore for a time as the cutting of the railway revealed deposits which remained economically viable until the late nineteen-fifties. Here is the still barely beating heart of old Northamptonshire. Opposite the Midland Band Club lie the Rockingham Road Pleasure Gardens, complete with bandstand and lovers' walk, and tucked away in one corner is All Saints Church. A chalk board sign by the Club tells me that the Pensioners' Parliament isn't meeting there today: they've gone to Weekley - to be entertained by Brian  Giles, I presume. 'Pensioners' Parliament'! What a fantastic name!

All Saints' patron is the 'Society for the Maintenance of Faith', which I think has its roots in the Oxford Movement, and has some ninety parishes under its wing up and down the country. I associate this Catholic tradition with mission to the working classes, the Arts and Crafts Movement, and an invigorating, robust, no-nonsense approach to living the Christian life, which to the outsider can sometimes seem at odds with its mystical, complicated liturgy. All Saints has been on the ground here since 1898, and the current building since 1916, which must have been an interesting moment to be developing a church community. Their website invites and encourages, and stresses community involvement. And it seems puppets feature in the preaching ministry here too...

The pattern of church building in Kettering follows the town's historical development: an ancient town centre foundation, satellite churches from the Victorian housing boom, and Christ the King as the twentieth century outlier. What, if anything, will the 21st century bring? I wander down the Rockingham Road. They're pulling up the town centre, to further improve the road system. My first impression is that sadly where Northampton has led, Kettering is now following into a soul-less, character-less abyss of political failure. No one knows what the middle of a town should be. On the corner is an interesting church - St. Andrew's, which says that it hosts various congregations, and has become the venue for Kettering's Arts Centre. Perhaps a place to try if you're from the radical Christian left? Recently it's seen a memorial service for Morey Gompertz, a formidable, pioneering headteacher at Northampton's only Anglican Middle School, back before three tiers became two again, educationally speaking.

I walk on through the mazy back streets, the untidy terraced houses dotted with small businesses, and think how this kind of environment was a part of my family past. In Erith's Emes Road, my grandparents brought up six children in a two-up, two-down, with scullery and outside toilet. I and millions like me are so lucky to live in the more spacious accommodation which is so widely available and desired now. Other upwardly-mobile populations are moving in here. A head-scarved North African woman gives me a lovely smile as she wheels her pushchair towards the distant sound of children playing. An Indian couple argue as they move in on their front door, juggling keys and offspring. A black British postman says a cheerful hello. I find St. Mary's on the slope between light industries. It's a Forward in Faith church 'under the care of the Bishop of Richborough'. It looks sad and beleaguered, the windows defended with metal and plastic, the stonework blackened and dingy. However, the cliché about books and their covers must apply: like St. Andrew's, St Mary's proclaims a welcome to all. This next question may seem provocative, even offensive. How do the attitudes of this wing of the C of E stack up against #MeToo, hate-crime, and anti-discrimination legislation? Law and Spirit? (The same questions would have to be addressed to Muslim and Jewish congregations where there's 'separate development' for men and women. Ditto for some Evangelical groups.) A recurrent challenge to all Christians is how to respond inclusively to those who tell us aggressively we're wrong, from outside the Church, and within it.

                                          A Saturn 5 of a spire: SS Peter & Paul, Kettering

The spire of St. Peter and St. Paul's was built on a grand scale. There are beautiful buildings in the town centre, but they've become somehow disconnected from the commerce. A banner proclaims a Kettering Cultural Quarter, but appends the word 'Shopping', and two doors up there's a large Tattoo Parlour and a 'Private Shop', which I shouldn't think is the kind of culture the town councillors had in mind.

As I approach the entrance to SS. Peter and Paul, a bell sounds, and a man hurrying past exclaims 'they've been doing that for days...' as if to say to me 'go and sort it out, will you?' According to a woman sitting patiently inside by the bell tower, a thirteenth bell is being added, and although the company hanging it have been testing to make sure it doesn't come crashing down through woodwork and stone to wreak havoc on Kettering heads, today is the moment when the church team get to take their new toy out for a walk. Her husband is one of the ringers. The church is long, solemn and dignified. I light a candle for my family, and think with amusement of my friend Lynda Hayes who was once a parish administrator here, and is a very long way from being solemn. Lynda's a wonderful session singer, with a command of all pop styles, but she didn't style herself Crazy Hayes for nothing!

I walk away through solid, prosperous villas once built for the managers of the shoe factories, past the surprising, green painted, corrugated shack of St. Michael's and All Angels. Humble St. Michael's shares a vicar with the town centre grandeur of SS Peter and Paul, and it's only ten minutes away on foot, so why is it there? There'll be a reason, and there'll be a congregation who love the place. In deepest winter, I bet it's the warmer of the two buildings!

So, if you re-located to Kettering, where would you go to church?

Postscript.  'A cloud no bigger than a man's hand'. Manfred Weber has just been elected as the European People's Party candidate for the post of President of the European Commission. He talks a lot about the fact that a unifying, defining symbol of 'Europe' is the presence of a Christian church in every town and village. For this reason, some see him as a person to be feared, and his Christian beliefs may prevent him from the highest office. Through this prism, what does it mean that we're about to extract ourselves from the European family? Clouds sometimes pop up and then disappear again as quickly as they came. And sometimes they're harbingers of cataclysmic meteorology, for good or evil.

Factsheet: 16 km. 4.8 hrs. 1 stile. 15 gates. 2 bridges. 13 deg. C. Sunny at first, clouding somewhat in the afternoon. A warm south-westerly breeze. Roses still blooming in Weekley, as well as in Picardy.

We are scattered limbs
Torn apart by the wars of religion
We do not speak each to each
Or share
Or respect
Retaining bare, ghosting memories
Of how we were made.

God of miracles
Knit us together
Breathe your Spirit into us
Make lovely what is dry
Fashion a new body
Which though scourged and wounded
Is triumphant
In its resurrection life

                                                                                               Remembrance 2018

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