Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Music for Lent

A few years ago during Lent, I read Gordon Giles, The Harmony of Heaven, in which he took a piece of music for every day in Lent, and explored it in the context of a scripture. It's a gem of a book with some profound insights into music and theology and I've gone back to it on numerous occasions and drawn on some of his material.

Later in March I've been asked to speak at a Sunday evening ecumenical service in one of our Baptist churches, as part of a series on the arts, considering the contribution composers have made to Lent. I'm looking forward to it, but the realisation has dawned that it's a bit of a challenge! In the tradition of many churches, purely instrumental music is forbidden during Lent, and apart from the Common Psalms of Lent, (Ps's. 51, 91 and 130) upon which a number of pieces are based, most notably the Allegri, Miserere, there's not a vast amount of material. Now if it was Holy Week I'd be spoiled for choice, although one of the Passions by Bach might be a good start, and certainly an excellent finish. 

So, I'm intending to include a number of pieces that I associate with Lent, that I'll play and reflect upon, and I may include some of my thoughts here, after the event if not before. This will involve selecting not obviously religious music (of which there's little) but music which for me makes some connection.  

Sister Wendy Beckett, who presented programmes on TV about art suggests that religious art falls into three categories: religious art which takes obviously religious themes; spiritual art which may also be religious, yet goes beyond the religious subject and speaks to us at a deeper level; and sacred art, which depicts reality as it is 'beneath the surface'. I find this helpful although I wonder whether the difference between the spiritual and sacred is a bit too close. It seems to me that in musical terms there's music which is obviously religious and may be spiritual too, but there's music which isn't necessarily religious but is spiritual in that it finds a deep resonance in an individual. For example, many people with no religious conviction find the St Matthew Passion deeply spiritual, and others have a similar experience with the music of John Coltrane. It's about listening to music with a spiritual filter, or to change the analogy, a theological ear.  Essentially this is what Gordon Giles has done in his book.

I'd love to hear of music that in the context of Lent finds a resonance in you, and just to add, I'm open to all genres.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Olney Pancake Race and Shriving Service

I do some rather strange yet wonderful things! Today I attended the Olney Pancake Race and was the guest preacher at the Shriving Service in the parish church of St Peter and Paul where I gave 'The Shriving'.

For the short race, those competing must be women of 18 or over and have lived in the town of Olney for at least three months immediately prior to the event.  For the race they must wear the traditional costume of the housewife, including a skirt and apron and head covering, though they need not be married. The Starter orders competitors, 'Toss your pancakes, Are you ready?' and gives the start signal. At the finish the winner is required to toss her pancake before being declared winner and being greeted with the kiss of Peace with the words, 'The Peace of the Lord be always with you' spoken by the Vicar, and the traditional prize of a kiss from the Verger.  

The service was led by the Rector, the Rev'd Claire Wood, (whom I'm told didn't do any kissing at the end of the race) and included seven 'Olney Hymns', those written by William Cowper and John Newton - both had long ministries in the town where they wrote their hymns. As part of the service, Jane Hughes, this year's winner was presented with her prize, an Olney Hymn Book. 

She told me over lunch that at the Pancake Race Party this evening there are other not insignificant prizes to be presented.  There is also a live web link to Liberal in Kansas, USA, who have their own race, inspired by Olney's.

It's not an exaggeration to say that it is a world-famous race with an international connection. It's been happening since 1445, although it's lapsed several times and was revived again in 1948. There were about 450-500 at the service and apart from local dignitaries, and guests from Liberal, people had travelled from far and wide. One person has been to every service for over 30 years.

'Shrove' is the past tense of the verb to shrive, which means to forgive, so the options on preaching were limited. It was either a sermon on pancakes or a sermon on sin. I thought that the former might be a bit flat or syrupy, so chose the latter, and spoke about grace, knowing that we would be singing 'Amazing Grace'.

In preparing for the occasion, most of the pancake jokes were unsuitable, but I did discover that the biggest pancake was set in Rochdale, Yorkshire, in 1994, and measured 15 metres in diameter and weighted three tons.  And that Ralf Laue from Leipzig, broke the world record in 1997 by tossing a pancake 416 times in two minutes.

An excellent meal was provided afterwards, and you can guess what we had for desert!

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Wonder and Wondering is won (oops!) one year old today!

A year ago today I inaugurated Wonder and Wondering! And it's been a really good part of my life. So far, I've enjoyed sharing thoughts and experiences which have been enriched through the process of blogging on them, and I've appreciated the interaction with other bloggers. One aspect that has surprised me is the sense of community of which I feel a part. 

At times I've felt the pressure to post something just to keep going, but most of the time I've come to it with enthusiasm and I've been energised by it. And certainly it's my intention to continue, while recognising that I've been a bit blog-lite of late.

For all who've visited Wonder and Wondering over the last year, thank you. Do continue to pop in from time to time!

Monday, 9 February 2009

Woughton Ecumenical Parish - a new perspective and a good story

On Sunday I was invited to lead services for the Woughton Ecumenical Parish, part of the Milton Keynes Mission Partnership.  This involved a Holy Communion at 8.30 and 9.45 at St Mary's Woughton on the Green, followed by an 11.15 Service of Worship and the Word at Woolstones. The latter was cancelled because with thick snow still on the ground, the track to the church made access very difficult.

Both the 8.45 and 9.45 were ecumenical congregations, but using a liturgy which had a very close resemblance to Common Worship, and with people coming up to the altar I did feel somewhat Anglican, and more importantly, priestly! 

As Baptists, our common practice is for people to be served in their seats with the cup and the bread. Normally the cup comes in small cups, although some congregations use a common cup at least occasionally. There was something strikingly different about people coming to the presiding minister, and not just in the physical action of 'coming to' rather than 'being come to'. I've received communion in Anglican churches on many occasions so I know full well what happens. What struck me was the interaction which took place from the perspective of the serving minister, which in nearly all cases involved significant eye contact which felt meaningful. I recall something similar when as part of a Maundy Thursday service I've been involved in foot-washing.

As Baptists, and for good reason, we shy away from the priestly function, but on Sunday that felt unavoidable. And the experience was profound. From my perspective it had a greater sense of connectedness than my normal practice of presiding yet serving only the deacons. In both services, communion was the climax of the worship, while in most of our Baptist churches, it's an add-on to the more familiar components of the service in which the climax is either the sermon or the worship that follows. It would be interesting to see whether I thought the same if my occasional experience became the norm. I guess that's what's so fascinating about a new perspective.

I needed to tailor my sermon to ten minutes and fifteen accordingly, although if I'd got to the third service I could have preached for twenty! This was instructive too, and I enjoyed exploring the lectionary readings. I chose to concentrate on 1 Cor. 9.16-23, 'Woe betide me if I do not proclaim the gospel', and as a way in I used Jamie Oliver's, Ministry of Food, as an example of a  man compelled to pass on the good news, in his case, of good home cooking! I recalled a story my brother-in-law, John, told me nearly twenty years ago, with which I concluded. It went down really well.

Jonathan the Monk joined the Order but was scared stiff on the first occasion he was asked to preach.  He stood up and asked a question in a very faltering tone, ‘Do you know what I’m going to tell you?’  To which the answer came back, ‘No’.  ‘Neither do I’, he said and sat down.

He was strongly encouraged by the Abbot to have another go, so the next week he stood up and asked the same question in a very timid fashion.  ‘Do you know what I’m going to tell you?’  On this occasion the answer came back, ‘Yes’.  ‘In that case I don’t need to tell you.’

By this stage the Abbot was getting a bit cross, and so had a chat with Jonathan.  The next week he stood up yet again.  And asked the same question, ‘Do you know what I’m going to tell you?’  Half said, ‘Yes’, and half said, ‘No’.  So Jonathan said, ‘Those of you that know, tell those that don’t.’  

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Atheist Bus Slogan Generator

Hat tip to Bishop Alan for this link to creating your own personalised bus slogan here

Alan's attempt is pretty good for starters.

'A cold coming we had of it' - at Haddenham

With apologies to T.S Eliot, but it was soooooo cold at Haddenham where the Horizon Ensemble played on Saturday evening! I really felt for Carol who organised it. When she approached me I said that two things were essential: we must have a good piano and the place must be warm. And she did everything within her power to ensure that this was the case. The boiler was put on at 9.00 a.m. in the morning. However, she wasn't to know that it had malfunctioned and we arrived to rehearse at the parish church, which dates back to Norman times, at 4.45 p.m. only to discover that it was without heating at all. Still it wasn't very cold on Saturday was it? Actually it was!

By way of rehearsal we 'topped and tailed' and within an hour they had brought in portable heaters to place alongside us and the boiler was repaired within an hour of the concert. Sadly, this made only slight difference to the temperature. 

The challenge for clarinetist and bassoonist was to play at pitch because however much the instrument was blown it remained very cold and therefore played flat. We placed them right next to the hot radiators in an attempt to warm them up, which couldn't have done them a huge amount of good! But this was only half the problem; the other was moving our fingers!!

The overall result wasn't disastrous and in fact it was a good evening. For me, the piece that suffered was the Weber Concerto, which just didn't have the sparkle it should have. The other pieces were very well received, especially The Bassoon Song in which I sang, although I did sing it rather well. Sarah Watts' quirky, jazzy, 'Everything is Somewhere Else' really was a treat to play as well as to listen to. And the melodramatic Glinka, Trio, against all odds was hugely successful.

The downside was that it wasn't the joyful experience it should have been because it was such hard work. For comfort I could have murdered some chips on the way home but sadly Buckinghamshire villages didn't oblige, and so arriving home I settled for cheese on toast with plum chutney, followed by a generous glass of whiskey. This helped to warm me up but it still took some time.

In the light of this and another experience at this time of the year, I think we'll need to consider carefully as to whether we accept gigs in churches in the winter.