Sunday, 11 August 2019

We're all one...

                                                   Raw material for the Championships 

Apparently a great opportunity awaits you on October 13th, and boy, are we all going to need some cheering up this autumn! Sign up now. There’s just the chance you could become a World Champion – at conkers. The hosting of this prestigious event is just one of the many charming and quirky things about Ashton (near Oundle, as opposed to the one up the road from Roade!)

 Like many of his family Charles Rothschild (b. 1877) was a banker, but there was much more to the chap than that. He was passionate about Natural History, and the family story is that he was drawn to the area of Ashton - where as in many other places the Rothschilds had a house and land - because of the plethora of butterflies to be found there. He employed the architect William Huckvale to pull down the old house at Ashton Wold and build a new, healthier one furnished with all the turn-of-the-century mod cons. He also built a model village for the estate workers near the Polebrook road in a style that recalls the more famous Edwin Lutyens, providing an enlightened degree of comfort for a community of ordinary people too. Charles’ interest in the natural world passed to his daughter Miriam, who became a world expert on fleas.

 There’s no church in Ashton as such, but there is the ‘Creed Chapel’, which was built in the eighteenth century on a parcel of land known as ‘Play Close’ near what is now the Chequered Skipper pub. The ecclesiastical history of this little chapel is odd. Never consecrated, it was only licensed for ‘divine service’ after many decades. The Creed family charity provided for a clergyperson to come to Ashton until as late as the nineteen eighties, at which time it decided to concentrate on its major function of supporting the education of the village children . The door’s locked so I can’t get in, and so don’t get to see the family paintings.

I’m replaying my last walk in reverse as far as the shooting range, which I now know to be for the young men and women of Oundle School, so should be safe to cross during the summer vacation. I find being in the presence of guns anxiety-provoking – it causes an unpleasant, visceral, sympathetic, stomach lurch. There’s been much discussion about firearms in recent days: two more mass shootings in the US, greeted with the usual faulty reasoning and hypocrisy by their politicians and lobbyists, and calls in the UK for the police to be routinely armed after an unprovoked machete attack on an officer. This is surely not way-to-go. As with Nixon and Reagan, unorthodox Republican presidents sometimes achieve the unexpected. It’s probably within his power for Trump to make some limited moves towards gun control in the US, but whether he’ll deem it an electoral plus or minus is another matter – and I suppose that’s probably the significant factor.

 I hang a left and follow the bridleway across the fields to Tansor Lodge. Once I’m on the far side of the A605, I find myself in a field system with a gang of sprightly young calves, who look like they’re up for a rumble. They sprint along behind a hedge a hundred metres away on a parallel line, clearly aware of my presence, play peek-a-boo at a water trough, and then bounce round the field’s short side to huddle challengingly near the gated exit. ‘Yeah, well, watcha gonna do about it?’  seems to be the message: a bunch of teddy boys fingering their flick knives. Maybe they’ve seen West Side Story. (I’ve certainly been watching Shaun The Sheep!)  I try to look as big as possible, and as little like a source of food or entertainment as possible, and maintain a firm path towards the gate. When I’m within a couple of cricket pitches’ distance, they do an ‘only kidding’ and make like they’re being pursued by a team of rancheros with lassoes back whence they came. Kids, eh!

 Near Tansor, I cross to the road through a field of near-ripened wheat, and my mind goes to the story which provoked Jesus to his comment that the Sabbath was made for man, and not the other way round. I think (because my dad‘s in my mind a lot this week) how childhood Sundays in the Cross household seemed pretty much like a day of work rather than a day of rest. I’m still dealing with this sixty years later, still trying to grasp the fact that worship should be fun, relaxation, mind-expanding, full of colour and light:  something that also seemed to be eluding Libby Purves in a particularly cranky Times article a week ago, in the course of which she laid about her to all sides, including condemning Peterborough Cathedral for temporarily installing the space capsule which took Tim Peake to and from the ISS. Libby, there’s a great deal to be said about this, but to start with (and I don’t know if you took the time to visit?) it was pretty discreetly situated in a vast building. And Christians are often criticised for not being science-friendly, whereas in truth faith for many of us is only enhanced by our understanding that the universe is impossibly vast, and we impossibly insignificant by its standards, and yet God cares for us, just as much as he notices a sparrow’s fall.  Etc.

 The theme has been picked up in today’s BBC News website, not mentioning Peterborough, but renewing Libby’s attack on cathedrals: Norwich, where a helter-skelter has been erected in the nave, and Rochester, where they’ve set up a nine hole crazy golf course celebrating bridge-building. Yes OK, a bit weird, but hey, I haven’t been down to play a round, so provisionality ought to be the order of the day. And after all, thinking high culture, Caravaggio isn’t exactly to everyone’s taste either. Yet Gavin Ashenden, a Bishop in the breakaway Christian Episcopal Church offers the opinion that the clergy at Norwich had been ‘unprofessional’ and were ‘making a mistake about what a cathedral is good for’. I know it’s the silly season, but I’d hope the BBC could be clearer that as far as mainstream Anglicanism is concerned Gavin isn’t one of us, not now. He may indeed have been a chaplain to Her Majesty, but resigned from all that some while ago. In the way of things schismatic he would of course maintain that he’s the mainstream, and it’s all of us C. of E. remainers who are crazy in our women-ordaining, space-capsule loving apostasy. You’ve heard my refrain before, but we Anglicans are better together. And Christians are better together too. There’s nothing wrong in disagreeing strongly, but we should declare our interests properly. Gavin, and possibly Libby, please take note. And BBC, please find yourself some editors of greater competence for your influential website.

St. Mary’s, Tansor is an oasis on a humid sticky morning. Both south and north doors are open so a cool breeze wafts through, and birdsong is the music which accompanies my prayer and reading. It’s a church of nooks and crannies, many of which, as Pevsner has pointed out, are now beyond resolution or explanation, the accretion of need and fancy through many centuries. Libby Purves would like Tansor too, I think. Maybe even Gavin Ashenden. Oh no, sorry, the vicar’s a woman. I forgot.
Onwards along lanes, through Cotterstock where I have a fight to get into St. Andrew’s churchyard, let alone its high-towered building (I kick the gate hard to force it open – maybe the churchwarden has a better knack!) and forward to Glapthorn where low-slung St. Leonard’s backs on to a working farm. I can imagine Nativity services there might easily be accompanied by the lowing of real life cattle. Of the two villages, Cotterstock is the more apparently up-market, offering gracious buildings and a jolly mill. Glapthorn seems more workaday, stretching out longingly towards Oundle, only a mile distant across the fields.  Not everything about Cotterstock is classy. At the Manor, amongst a selection of admonitory notices aimed at the would-be intruder there’s one which reads ‘Smile, your on camera!’  I resist the temptation to ring the bell on their gate intercom, and begin a conversation: ‘Did you know…?’

                                                         St. Andrew's Cotterstock

And so to Oundle, the first of three towns out in the east of the diocese which are more or less defined by the schools named after them. If any American friends are reading this, these are our ‘public schools’, by which of course we mean ‘private schools’, last bastions of the famous English class system – an opinion which the schools themselves would of course hotly dispute. Change has come, not least because Oundle school is now co-ed, but a seven year stint there for a day pupil is going to cost over £125k, and boarding maybe a cool quarter of a million once everything’s taken into account. The facilities are marvellous, reminiscent of an Oxbridge college, and perhaps the contacts they make at their Oundala Mater will set pupils up for life, but this isn’t working towards an egalitarian society.  However when a new Ferrari 812 Superfast is a snip at £338k from your local South Kensington dealer, Public School education begins to look cheap. The morality and desirability of both perhaps needs to be interrogated by each new generation.

 The school buildings press in on all sides around the lofty needle spire and well-proportioned body of St. Peter’s church. In the context of the foregoing, is the slogan prominently displayed on all sides of the church as pointy as the spire?

 The child in me is really pleased when the automated church doors swing open for me to enter. Simon Jenkins thinks the interior ‘rather dull’, but I think it’s wonderful. The airy sense of space, and the soft light suffusing the harmonious decoration makes it a lovely, thoughtful, worship space. Everything reinforces the message that this is an inclusive church where all are welcome. Years ago that excellent slide guitarist Bryn Haworth recorded a Christian song called ‘We’re all one’. I remember standing in the crowd at Greenbelt and singing along with 25,000 others…and feeling a little uneasy about the experience. There was too much of a Hare Krishna chant about it for my taste, but then I’ve always been wary of the mass reactions of rock n’roll/festival audiences. (I’ve never felt so alone as amongst the punters at a Fish gig, feet sticking to the Northampton Roadmender’s beer-swilled floor, while everyone except me was punching the air and shouting the lyrics of each song. And I like Fish’s music!)
Thirty years later the swelling cult of the individual causes one to revisit the possible ideas behind ‘We’re all one’. Leaving aside any unintended Buddhist interpretation, how do you read it? And who is left outside our cosy psycho-physical unity? Not Gavin Ashenden or Libby Purves for sure, however much we might disagree with them. But thinking politically for a moment, are there any ideas which disqualify from entry to the Christian tent? Or if not from entry ( because only sick people go to hospital) then from claiming permanent membership status? Our first definition as Christians is clearly by who we are – positively – and Who we follow. Should we ever secondarily define ourselves by what we’re not?

As you’ll have gathered, I really like the vibe of Oundle’s church, and it goes on the list of: ‘I could worship here week by week'. One small gripe however. In the pews there are copies of St. Peter’s ‘Supplementary Songbook’. Their regular hymnbook is the familiar red-covered Hymns Ancient and Modern. The supplement gives a customised selection of more modern well-known hymns written and published after A&M’s issue. This is good, but nowhere in the supplement can I find any credit for the writers and publishers of the hymns. At best this is rude, and at worst it’s illegal and (this is going to sound very harsh) a kind of theft – though readers will appreciate that as a sort-of-meeja person I have a particular bias. The hymns aren’t the property of any individual or church, and their writers get very little, if any, reward for their efforts. They deserve this small celebration. It’s an omission which could easily be put right.


                                                                An Oundle scene...

In the sunshine, the Thursday market is winding down. I pass the Seven Wells butchers’ shop, purveyors of most excellent sausages, and take a coffee and cake in the café near the lane down to the Co-op. A large local family gathering occupies half the dining area with their friends, the kids mildly out of control, the adults invading my personal space as I’m served at the counter. I have to laugh at myself, so much a campaigner for the common people at one moment, so annoyed when I actually have to mix with them the very next. I suspect (though I don't have the carapace to be one) it’s a perennial dilemma for politicians. And the church?
Passes at GCSE:  15 km. 5 hrs. 24 deg.C.  Four stiles. Thirteen gates. Five bridges. Five churches and chapels. Two open. I don’t visit Oundle School’s chapel, which I maybe could have done. I look for kingfishers at the Nene crossing, but sadly there are none in evidence. I saw one there once. A preening peacock in Ashton. Six tourists in Oundle church.

                                                            The Nene at Ashton

I praise you for
All the people
Who can do what I can’t
And never will.
I sit in these churches
And am amazed
At the accumulated skill:
The exactitude of the stonemason:
The subtlety of the wood carver:
The delicacy of the weaver:
The enterprise of the architect.
I sit in my house
Surrounded by
The appliance of science:
The wonder of electricity:
The reach of technology:
The creativity of entertainment:
All of which I do no better than half understand.

As I thank you for
Multiform human ingenuity
And feel its fragility,
I ask you to
Have mercy, O Lord,
And in your loving kindness
To prevent us from harm.
Help us be your partners
To make your Kingdom come
According to your will.


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