Visiting St Mary’s Monnington-on-Wye: one of Herefordshire’s Hidden Places

A few miles west of Hereford, down a track off a path off a narrow lane lies the secret church of St Mary, Monnington-on-Wye. The settlement was already established by Domesday, and the Court claims an early mediaeval Moot Hall within its fabric. So I suspect an early ecclesiastical site, and while the tower (and general footprint of the church) are claimed for the 15th century, I would not be surprised if the lowest stage of the tower was 13th century and earlier remains still were buried underground.

What is so striking about the church, though, apart from its picturesque and remote setting, is that it is a time-warp from the Restoration, a rare survival of a Royalist cry of triumph as Uvedfale Tomkins repaid the execution of his grandfather with a rebuilding that was then frozen in time. So we still see his chancel furnishings and pews, and oil lamps still hang, though not in the gloom as the church is flooded with light by its re-worked “double-decker” windows from the same period.

Owen Glyndwr is said to have taken refuge at Monnington (probably wrongly), and Kilvert who had relatives at the Court saw the grand mile-long Walk whose vista the church tower closes when it was still a youngster. John Kent the mathematician and poet also lived there and perhaps it is the sort of atmospheric place that could led credence to the legend that he sold his soul to the devil and constructed a bridge over the Monnow in a single night.

A further treat is the 18th century lych-gate, sympathetically restored, with its unusual fretwork balustrading filling the sides. We picnicked there in style, and rejoiced that while the Court is private, the Walk and the church, and the adjacent Bulmer’s orchards, are open to visit for those who can find them.

Interdependence Day?

Interdependence Day (to borrow a meme from Derek Chedzey). That’s got to be our ultimate aspiration as Christians, even if independence is a step on the way.

But interdependence comes at a cost. Alongside all the benefits and feel-good factor, if you go down, I go down.

So, choose your interdependents carefully? Well, no. Not if you aspire to be the body of Christ, and build the kingdom of God, and not just add to your own weight or build your own security. In Christ men and women, enslaved and free, ethnicities of all sorts, respected and shameful, sinners and saints all hang together.

A dumb choice to go down that route then? Some would say so. But if the alternative is beggaring my neighbour, or worse, then it’s the one I’ll make. And here’s a long, hard look in the direction of anyone who chooses differently.

Father’s Day sermon using the lectionary readings

The set readings from Proper 7 of the lectionary don’t exactly chime with Father’s Day. But if you don’t want to be sniffy about this modern celebration, here’s my attempt to draw something out of them that might speak to fatherhood and fathering today.

It’s Fathers’ Day. So three cheers today, and as many treats and hugs as the lockdown allows, for everyone who has shown a fatherly care for us, and reflected the love of our Father in heaven. Dads yes, hooray for them (I speak with self-interest!), but also uncles, mothers, vicars, carers, siblings, teachers, neighbours. None of them will have been perfect of course, certainly not me – fathering is not easy whether like me you were brought up rather traditionally and feel the pressure of being the Great Breadwinner and all the rest, or whether like our sons you are trying to navigate good but new and sometimes difficult ways of blending our family roles. And some father-figures will have turned from Christ’s way of love and hurt us instead. But many will have blessed us and so today we can in Christ’s name say an Alleluia and a Thankyou for that.

So far so good – but where’s all that in the bible readings and prayers set for today? Nowhere of course. As far as the church is concerned, it’s the Second Sunday after Trinity, and Father’s Day just doesn’t feature. So what we have in the readings rather jars with our theme. 

An important message from the Chief Executive of St John Ambulance

Martin Houghton-Brown, CE of St John Ambulance, has just sent this impressive and moving message to all St John people on the Black Lives Matter movement, which I reproduce here by permission to help us all reflect – and do better, see change and be part of the solution.

Dear St John,

Injustice is wrong. It upsets me, it makes me get up and campaign, and take action and do things differently. I am 50 this year and for most of the last thirty years I have been working to fight injustice. Mostly for young people, who for reasons beyond their control faced injustice. No one to turn to, nowhere to live, no one to help them right the wrongs that they have suffered. But in coming to St John I took a step away from that direct fight, instead working to promote the building blocks of a healthy society in communities. Which I believe St John does.

However, the Black Lives Matter movement has made me ask some profound questions. Why is it that when in some of our cities when there is wonderful representation of BAME youth in our cadets the same is not true of our adult units even when they meet under the same roof? Why is it that across our senior leadership there is woeful under representation of BAME people? Why is it that time after time our appointments have no people of colour in the shortlists?

These are painful questions. Most of all they should help us to understand why it is so painful to be black and be in St John right now. It is painful because the racism endemic in modern society is subconsciously replicated by institutions like ours time and time again. It’s so subtly part of our everyday lives we don’t notice, unless we are black.

Now we must notice. We must notice the passionate cry of the black community, that Black Lives Matter. That to be black is to know that you will face discrimination because of the colour of your skin.

From the age of 16 to the age of 36 I hid my sexuality. I did not want to face the prejudice and ignorance about sexuality that was pervasive when I was growing up. I did not want to be beaten up, bullied and have opportunity denied me. And whilst denying my identity for all those years caused immense pain, it also afforded me enormous opportunity to progress as I appeared to be what people wanted me to be – a straight white man. I could hide. I cannot imagine what it would have been like to not be able to hide from the prejudice. I cannot imagine what it would be like to face prejudice every day of your life. I cannot imagine in particular what it would be like to be a 16 year old black young man. I do know however that if I had been that man, the chances of me being CEO of St John would be impossibly diminished. And so Black Lives Matter. Because to this day to be black is to face a wall of racism, fulfilled every day in society in so many ways, and in particular to deny equality of opportunity.

The moment that the Trustees of St John launched the 2022 strategy, reflecting what you all had said, that we would become more representative of the communities we serve I jumped for joy. And the night a small group of us gathered in a room in the basement of NHQ to launch the equality, diversity and inclusion network – Celebrating Communities – I jumped for joy. But now those moments of optimism are tempered by the sense of responsibility I share with all of you to turn that rhetoric into change.

At my first St John’s Day I talked about the ‘St John knee’, the image of a First Aider down on one knee helping the injured. Well now let me say it again, we must get down on one knee and come alongside our black colleagues and say racism has no place in St John and together we will become more representative of the communities we serve.

We will do better, we will see change, we will be part of the solution because Black Lives Matter.

Yours,

Martin HB

Martin Houghton-Brown

Chief Executive

The Psalm from the Cross: a Psalm for Today

Psalm 22 is set for our prayers this morning, and offers a dialogue between a voice of suffering and anguish and a voice of trust and hope that can speak to us as we suffer with present virus or care for others who do.

Psalm 22

1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me, ♦
and are so far from my salvation,
from the words of my distress?

2 O my God, I cry in the daytime,
but you do not answer; ♦
and by night also, but I find no rest.

3 Yet you are the Holy One, ♦
enthroned upon the praises of Israel.

4 Our forebears trusted in you; ♦
they trusted, and you delivered them.

5 They cried out to you and were delivered; ♦
they put their trust in you and were not confounded. R

6 But as for me, I am a worm and no man, ♦
scorned by all and despised by the people.

7 All who see me laugh me to scorn; ♦
they curl their lips and wag their heads, saying,

8 ‘He trusted in the Lord; let him deliver him; ♦
let him deliver him, if he delights in him.’

9 But it is you that took me out of the womb ♦
and laid me safe upon my mother’s breast.

10 On you was I cast ever since I was born; ♦
you are my God even from my mother’s womb.

11 Be not far from me, for trouble is near at hand ♦
and there is none to help. R

12 Mighty oxen come around me; ♦
fat bulls of Bashan close me in on every side.

13 They gape upon me with their mouths, ♦
as it were a ramping and a roaring lion.

14 I am poured out like water;
all my bones are out of joint; ♦
my heart has become like wax
melting in the depths of my body.

15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd;
my tongue cleaves to my gums; ♦
you have laid me in the dust of death. R

16 For the hounds are all about me;
the pack of evildoers close in on me; ♦
they pierce my hands and my feet.

17 I can count all my bones; ♦
they stand staring and looking upon me.

18 They divide my garments among them; ♦
they cast lots for my clothing.

19 Be not far from me, O Lord; ♦
you are my strength; hasten to help me.

20 Deliver my soul from the sword, ♦
my poor life from the power of the dog.

21 Save me from the lion’s mouth,
from the horns of wild oxen. ♦
You have answered me! R

22 I will tell of your name to my people; ♦
in the midst of the congregation will I praise you.

23 Praise the Lord, you that fear him; ♦
O seed of Jacob, glorify him;
stand in awe of him, O seed of Israel.

24 For he has not despised nor abhorred the suffering of the poor;
neither has he hidden his face from them; ♦
but when they cried to him he heard them.

25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation; ♦
I will perform my vows
in the presence of those that fear you.

26 The poor shall eat and be satisfied; ♦
those who seek the Lord shall praise him;
their hearts shall live for ever. R

27 All the ends of the earth
shall remember and turn to the Lord, ♦
and all the families of the nations shall bow before him.

28 For the kingdom is the Lord’s ♦
and he rules over the nations.

29 How can those who sleep in the earth
bow down in worship, ♦
or those who go down to the dust kneel before him?

30 He has saved my life for himself;
my descendants shall serve him; ♦
this shall be told of the Lord for generations to come.

31 They shall come and make known his salvation,
to a people yet unborn, ♦
declaring that he, the Lord, has done it.

Lamenting with the Litany

Saying Evensong today I found myself, perhaps for the first time, taking up the option to say the Litany in place of the usual intercession. Once upon a time of course it was said weekly on Sunday morning between Matins and Communion, in the rather gutsy form in the Book of Common Prayer (online at https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/book-common-prayer/litany). Especially in that version I wonder whether it gets as close to lament as our rather reserved tradition gets. And whether in some modified form it could be a template for our orayer now. What do you think?

The text of the more anodyne but also for many the more appropriate version in Common Worship follows below the break:

Arguing it out with God

One of our most distinctive inheritances from the Jewish faith, though an often undervalued one, is the assumption that finding salvation in God does not mean “checking our brains in at the door” as one writer put it, and may even involve a robust argument with God. Think Abraham and Sodom; think Job; think some of the Psalms. And think this iconic passage from the beginning of Isaiah set as an Ash Wednesday reading:

Come now, let us argue it out,
says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.

You might think it’s a bit unfair and one-sided of God to invite us into an argument. But I take it as empowering, and affirming (following my hero Grosseteste) that our intellect is not so corrupt that it can’t be both redeemed and a redeeming power for the rest of our being. A touch of Pelagianism? Perhaps. But as the great R W Southern saw it, his was a distinctively English mind.

So during Lent, don’t – I suggest – think it’s all about turning off your head and getting all soulful: use your God-given intellect to be honest with God and even argue out the challenges of life and faith with him.

A church on every corner?

Richard Morris, Churches in the Landscape

I’m much enjoying Richard Morris’s classic book Churches in the Landscape and have just reached this fascinating table. There’s quite a bit of speculation built into it, but the point is to explore the idea that a few “super-towns” (London, Winchester, Norwich, Lincoln, York) grew large enough pre-Conquest to develop an urban version of the church building boom in the eleventh century and before the firming up of the parochial system made such multiplication much more difficult. Towns which were smaller or grew later had fewer churches.

We have a little evidence of church building following attendance demands, but I wonder if we are seeing here an urban expression of the church as status symbol on a thegn-ly estate, so some of them could have quite small and almost private chapels.

But still, what a contrast with the “standard” 1:6000 ratio for urban parishes when I started out, let alone the much higher figures now emerging.

And of course it highlights the question of what the ministry and mission of the church will look like if it loses its population base and physical footprint (and to some extent therefore its stipendiary ministers).

The same question and challenge applies whether you consider social service or evangelistic conversion as the priority. It’s still very different if we are rather suddenly rather small.

Good Cheer at Christmas. Really? Really.

I probably count as a pretty sincere believer. But how hard it is (for me anyway) not to give into the gloom when I look into the mirror and see myself falling short time and again, and look out into the world and see the same there too. And so much pain, so much suffering, so little hope. It really messes with my mind and opens the door to a dark and nasty downward spiral. Perhaps I’m alone in that. Perhaps not.

This is the point where so many of us drink to forget. But today we went to church to drink to remember. To drink the wine of the sacrifice of Jesus that changed everything.

Christmas is God serving notice in person that in the end all shall be well, there will be a homecoming, forgiveness and a celebration in which even we prodigals will be welcome and all will be one.

That’s deep good news for me, a rock to cling to in the storms of life without me and within, and why by the skin of my teeth, against the grain, by no gift of mine but grace alone, I can truly wish you and me alike good cheer this Christmas.

When Bishops Wept (even in Hereford)

Yesterday I stumbled across an article by Katherine Harvey in Historical Research, about the times when mediaeval bishops lost it, and broke out into spiritual tears. She writes:
“Bishops shed pious tears in everyday circumstances.Virtually every twelfth- or thirteenth-century English bishop with a reputation for sanctity (whether canonized or not) is recorded to have wept as he celebrated mass. Two successive bishops of Hereford were credited with this gift: Reinhelm (d. 1131‘would dissolve into tears everywhere, especially during the celebration of mass’, while Robert de Béthune (1131-48) showed ‘no moderation in his sobs, nor in his tears’ in the same circumstances.”
As well as the historical interest, this intrigued me spiritually. I don’t see such crying just as the eruption of ordinary feelings, which can bring tears to any of our eyes, for eaxmple when a hymn is sung that reminds us of a loved one or own mortality, or we are experiencing affirmation or relief. Rather – as the link to the celebration of mass suggests –  I suggest that we think of these particular tears as a gift of the Spirit, given as a revelation of the presence of our Lord – here in the eucharist, but it could also be in the bible or in prayer.
I am aware that it is not listed as such in Scripture (though the lists are surely exemplary rather than exhaustive). It does, however, occur often enough in Christian experience, to be taken seriously, as long as we don’t promote purely human emotions as it or take it as a mark of sanctity or deep spirituality (the Spirit blows where it wills).
John Bartunek offers what seem sone wise words in a blog at https://spiritualdirection.com/2015/01/26/what-is-the-gift-of-tears, and I see that Daviud Runcorn has a recent book  “The Language of Tears – their gift, mystery and meaning” (CHP 2018, introduced at https://leeabbey.org.uk/blog/2018/08/the-gift-of-tears/.
Sobbing away while celebrating or praying isn’t very English, is it? But I wonder whether – at a time when there is both much to celebrate and much to lament – whether it would not be good to be open to a rather wider range of God-given emotion than the Stiff Upper Lip.
Katherine Harvey, ‘Episcopal emotions: tears in the life of the medieval bishop’, Historical Research, [87 (2014), 591-6109]. For a summary see Katherine’s blog-post at https://emotionsblog.history.qmul.ac.uk/2012/10/episcopal-emotions-weeping-in-the-life-of-the-medieval-bishop/