Monday, 30 January 2012

Candlemas and keeping one's head

I posted about Candlemas this time last year. It was a new one on me when I accompanied Pen to Astbury parish church where she was singing in the choir. Few churches seem to bother with Candlemas these days and the idea of a pivotal point between Christmas and Lent holds little purchase in these increasingly liturgically-lite times.

We were all in the chancel with the lights dimmed as the associate priest and the robed choir processed in with a Taize chant. Taize-rs on stun!

It's not all about theatre of course. I was interested to hear Ella the associate priest (her husband is the rector) pray at the outset, 'Lord, we don't seek theatre but an encounter with you ...'

Theatre can help. I'm no tat-queen but I do like a bit of a show, a bit of choreography as someone I met on a train once put it.

I'd defy anyone not to get goosebumps in a candle-lit 14th century chancel as the choir chanted the Nunc Dimittis ... 'Lord, now lettest thou thy servant de -| part in | peace: ac - | cording - | to thy | word ...'

Afterwards, I chatted briefly to Ella about current trends in worship and liturgy. She and her husband used to be involved with an independent evangelical outfit and we discussed the strengths and weaknesses of that particular scene - and how some of both are entering the Anglican bloodstream through the New Wine conferences and networks.

There's a balance, of course. Many of the people they're now getting at the 10am service aren't familiar with the Anglican formularies at all, and it's debatable how many they really need to become familiar with. But is minimalism where it's really at? People like me who were out in full-on independent charismatic evangelicalism for many years are approaching some of these things as I would a long lost friend. Wannabe hip and trendy vicars look at me daft (as we'd say in South Wales) as they can't wait to sell off the family silver.

'I go from a corruptible crown to an incorruptible ...'
How far do we take these things? Today King Charles I is commemorated in the Anglican lectionary. He's still regarded as a Martyr in some Anglican circles. Every year I find myself debating with High Church Anglicans on-line as I horrify them with some Puritan and Parliamentarian sympathies ...

I've outgrown my adolescent penchant for the Puritans, some of them wouldn't have been out of place in a Taliban cadre ... but still believe that poor old Charles I made things worse for himself and for everybody else with his Divine Right malarkey.

He certainly faced the block with dignity and courage, though.

Perhaps T S Eliot put it best:

We cannot revive old factions
We cannot restore old policies
Or follow an antique drum.
These men, and those who opposed them
And those whom they opposed
Accept the constitution of silence
And are folded in a single party.

(From Little Gidding)

That's where we're all headed. At Candlemas, as Ella reminded us, we turn from Christmas towards the cross. Ahead of us lies Lent and Passiontide.

I'm sure Charles I would have approved of aspects of the service last night. I'm not sure what he'd have made of a female priest, but the liturgy itself would have struck a chord, I'm sure. The Puritans too, might have had an issue with a female president and I don't think they'd have liked the 'theatre' much ... although they weren't the kill-joys that they are often portrayed. Both are folded in a single party.

For all their faults, both, I'm sure, could have said, 'Mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared before the face of all people.' Lord have mercy. In the face of our own faults too, let us aim to say the same.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Ken Jones, runner, winger, gentleman

I was never a sporty lad. I had two left feet and my co-ordination was terrible. Rather a disadvantage if you were growing up in South Wales during 'The Decade of the Dragon', when Welsh Rugby carried all before it.

Sure, I used to watch the games, I enjoyed the Internationals. But after a few seconds on the rugby field I was squashed flat. I wasn't built for it nor could I run very fast.

Imagine my surprise at Christmas when my twin brother presented me with Ken Jones, Boots and Spikes, a book by Steve Lewis published by Sports Books.

Ken (1921 - 2006) taught us English at Llantarnam Comprehensive in the mid-1970s. We didn't know he was one of the greatest sportsmen Wales had ever produced, until our fathers and uncles started to express their astonishment. Ken Jones? You've got Ken Jones?

It was typical of the modesty of the man that he never even mentioned his fame until we asked him about it directly. Even then he would only allude to it when it was necessary to do so. He used to write the match reports for The Sunday Express. My Dad used to read them avidly and we still took the paper even after our parents were divorced. I remember reading them to compare Ken's account with what we'd seen on the telly the day before. It was one of the first times, I think, that I began to appreciate the level of skill involved. He didn't just tell you what had happened, he captured the spirit of the game.

Ken had a very resonate and distinctive voice and we used to take turns to imitate it during break. My brother could do a very good impersonation. We meant no harm and we respected him. I was quite a bookish boy and so enjoyed his English lessons but even those who weren't that way inclined appreciated them. I remember some of them saying so. Now you don't often get that from 14 year old boys!

It was through Ken that I first became aware of contemporary Welsh poetry, the 'second flowering', works by writers like Leslie Norris (also 1921 2006). Ken used to read us The Ballad of Billy Rose. It's stuck with me to this day. Through that I also encountered Norris's moving Elegy for David Beynon (scroll down for the poem) which remains one of the most moving poems I know. Both of these have sporting themes and helped me realise that the sporty and arty sides of things needn't be mutually exclusive.

I've written a tribute to Ken. It's going to appear on the Sports Books website.

I'll share it here too.

i.m. Ken Jones (1921 – 2006)

We never saw you run,
were too young to cheer
you sprint or watch you dash
across the grass to score another try.
We felt the wind of it alright,
our fathers and our uncles told us,
until the boldest – or the cheekiest –
came out and asked you straight:
‘Sir, are you famous?’

You would speak of it then,
never to boast but only to underline
a point, conjure an image in our minds
pertinent to the passage in hand.
Ken Jones, runner, winger, Olympian,
medallist, columnist, all-round athlete -
now ‘Third-Year English’ on a wet afternoon.

You took us in your stride, stood no nonsense,
stopped us in our tracks whenever
we went too far. You must have known
how we found your voice, rich and resonant,
ripe for mimicry, that we’d take turns
each break to ‘do Ken Jones’, echo
your rising cadence, deep Blaenavon tones.

Could you have known
how the quietest among us read
your sports reports each Sunday
after match-day, admiring felt them catch
the spirit and the rhythm of each game?
How we heard hidden treasures in the verse
you read us and realised its value?

We broke no records,
never breasted tape, scored no tries
to speak of – but we ran, Ken,
ran although you never saw us run.
I expect you barely even felt us
take the baton from your hand.
We’re running with it yet, Ken,
and will keep on running
until it’s time for us to pass it on.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Making Friends with the Enemy

Jo Berry's father was killed in the Brighton bomb in 1984. Since then she has been on an extraordinary journey, working for peace and reconciliation, even alongside her father's killer.

I was struck by Jo's story and her gracious dignity when she came to speak in Alsager on 16th January. I wrote an account for various church magazines in the town and I reproduce the article here with Jo's permission.

Making Friends With The Enemy
‘It’s a journey and it’s a choice ...’

On 12th October 1984 Jo Berry was setting out for a two-year development project in Africa when the ‘phone rang with terrible news. A bomb had exploded at Brighton’s Grand Hotel where her father, Sir Anthony Berry MP and her step-mother were attending the Conservative Party conference. In the hours which followed, even worse news emerged. Her father was among the dead.

‘I felt I had been thrown into a war,’ she told a gathering at the Alsager Peace Centre on 16th January. ‘I had never thought of him as an IRA target, still less about the issues that lay behind the conflict.’  Over the next few years that would change dramatically as Jo sought to understand her father’s killers. It was journey that would lead to her working alongside Pat Magee, the only member of the gang convicted for the bombing, in peace and reconciliation initiatives in trouble-spots across the world.

‘For me, the question is about whether I can let go of my need to blame, and open my heart enough to hear Pat's story and understand his motivations,’ she said. ‘The truth is that, sometimes I can and sometimes I can’t and this choice is always there.’

Shortly after the bombing, Jo found herself sharing a taxi with a Belfast man whose brother had been an IRA volunteer killed by the British Army. She visited Northern Ireland and became involved with groups supporting the victims of violence or working for reconciliation. Later, she would work with Colin Parry who lost his son in the Warrington bombing, another tireless campaigner for peace and conflict-resolution. She met former IRA and INLA men, Loyalist paramilitaries, former UDR men, British soldiers and ordinary people on both sides of the sectarian divide. And in 2000, following his release under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, she finally met her father’s killer, Patrick Magee.

Jo movingly described that initial three-hour meeting. For the first hour he stood by the conventional ‘justifications’ for political violence she had heard many times before, how he’d felt that non-violent protest was not enough, that the beleaguered Republican minority had to take direct action even if it meant planting bombs and taking civilian lives. She heard him out and, touched by her dignity and empathy, asked to hear her story in all its rawness, anger and rage. In order to objectify the bomb victims as ‘targets’ he had forced himself not to think of them as human beings. Confronted by Jo’s calm dignity he said at last, ‘I’m really sorry I killed your father.’

At their next meeting, Pat Magee was profoundly moved by a question Jo passed on from one of her daughters, ‘Does that mean that Grandad Tony can come back now?’ Pat began his own journey, joining Jo on speaking platforms, conferences and workshops in Northern Ireland, the Lebanon and other regions scarred by communal violence.

Although there remain differences of opinion between Jo and Pat on the legitimacy of violence to achieve political ends, they have worked together to promote peace and reconciliation with varied groups. ‘The very fact that we share the same platform says something in itself,’ Jo explains. ‘And wherever we speak together it creates an impact.’

Jo fully acknowledges the dilemmas involved. Not all her siblings and relatives share her views, but they have come to respect her stance. ‘It starts with us. We need to take responsibility, be vigilant, show empathy and respect, see the humanity in everyone.’

For more details of Jo’s work on conflict-resolution see:

Tuesday, 10 January 2012


Have you been Boondoogling this year yet?

Geoff Sutton, one of the regulars at the Poetry Society's Stoke Stanza at The Leopard in Burslem has.

You can read all about it here.

And return after the next Leopard session on 24th January to find out the results of Geoff's boondoogling extravaganza!