Seeing God’s Trace in the Face of the Other

Celebrating All Saints’

Faith is God’s call to see his trace in the face of the Other.

— Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: Not in God’s Name, 25.

All Saints is a wonderful Festival and, like all Christian festivals, it reminds us who God is and who we are. By giving us the opportunity to give thanks to the Father for all the Saints who from their labours rest, it reminds us that by baptism we have risen way beyond the confines of our biology or genealogy and have become members of the body of Christ, together with all those whose names and feats of sanctity we know, and those we do not. This process is played out little by little day by day as through the liturgical calendar we encounter one or two at a time those who are known to have excited holiness in the church, whose example we are encouraged to follow.

So far so good. There are however one or two pitfalls associated with this feast, to which I would like to draw brief attention.

The first is the cult of the hero. It’s quite common to teach children and others who are new to the faith that we should think of the Communion of Saints as the heroes of Christianity. And while in a sense this is true, there are some unhelpful consequences to speaking of heroism. The Saint is one who (as Tristram SSF once reprimanded me by explaining) excites holiness: that is to say, the Saint is one who assists all the other brothers and sisters in their task of growing in holiness and following Christ. A hero is by no means able to instil in his or her devotees any of the skills or dispositions which elicit the admiration of the fanatic. It is indeed likely to be the admirer’s very great distance from the hero that sustains their admiration. One might well have enormous respect for a sportsperson or a musician or a poet, a public figure or one of the readily available celebrities which our culture constantly spawns. But these people will not enable me to become more like them. I admired Ian Botham, because I could never bat or bowl like him and I looked on in awe when, at the height of his powers, he demonstrated his talent. Similarly, as I listen to the playing of violinist Janine Jansen, I am aware of the profound effects the sound of her music is able to create within me, but I know that this relationship will always be one way: there is no version of the universe available to me, in which I will achieve anything that approaches her virtuosic skill.

In sportsperson and artist, innate skill is brought to fruition only through a regime of practice and self-discipline which may indeed be called heroic. As children, such people have glimpsed a vision of what their lives could achieve. And, no doubt inspired by family and supporters, they devote their lives to realising what they have seen only in part. This is why we reserve such heights of admiration and honour for the lonely Olympic hero.

The Christian life, however, has no place for such an understanding of heroism. Christians are not in the business of fashioning themselves as their own work of art: there is certainly askesis, but this is the process by which Christians are formed through baptism, sustained by Word and Sacrament, and transformed by the grace of God through the Holy Spirit, worship, and the common life of the body of Christ. Of course I see that I also am called to sanctity (in a way that I’m not called to be a virtuoso violinist) and that I will never live a life of holiness by my own unaided desire and discipline: anything that is achieved in me will be achieved by the grace of God alone.

This means that the Saints are exemplars not principally of their own achievements, but of the power of the grace of God to transform lives. And what ramshackle lives they have very often been!

From the obvious failings of the Lord’s first followers to the oddnesses of his holy ones throughout the ages, there has always been plenty of work for grace to do. Peter’s impulsive behaviour and bitter denials of Christ; the interesting financial background of Levi; the medical history of those from whom various Devils had been cast; the appalling ambition of James and John, spurred on by their mother; the alleged theological thuggery of men like Athanasius and Wilfrid; the highly-strung nature of Francis, ditto the Spanish mystics; the propensity for self-absorption that many monastic saints will have abundantly displayed; the ease with which Ignatius of Loyola would give himself and his attention to an impressive story wherein he might shine as the hero; there will have been plenty of saints who had been boozers and lechers, spendthrifts and misers, cowards and curmudgeons; there will have been those who were over-fond of the limelight, and those too bashful for words. But by their daily encounter with Jesus, they were converted into newness of life, created afresh by their first creator.

I too am called to holiness

And if all of these with their failings can be tamed and refashioned by the Jesus whom we worship, then so can I! My besetting sins can be burned away by the fire of Christ’s love. But I must be clear that it is with Jesus himself that my business must be done. If I attempt to place around either him or me any sort of cordon sanitaire, I will not be dealing with the living God, but with my own simulacrum; and I will not be offering myself for service, but just a version of myself, an ecclesiasticised caricature, someone who lives and prays in inverted commas. The Communion of Saints needs me to become not an improbable alabaster version of myself; but, finally, to become the real me.

The net is very wide

And if I acknowledge that I can become the real me, then I must see that God draws sanctity from all sorts and conditions of women and men, including many who will surprise me. Of these, the most surprising will be those whose differences from me are the most striking. We are prepared for this on those days of the year when we celebrate a group of saints whose dissimilitude leaps out from the calendar. For example, on 26 May we keep Saint Augustine of Canterbury; together with John Calvin, whom the calendar describes simply as Reformer, 1564; and Saint Philip Neri, a hero of the Roman Catholic Counter Reformation. Nevertheless, they are all in it together, and I cannot simply take the ones I want, leaving the others like discarded fish. If I cannot see God at work in all of them, then I will never see God at work in me.

This was well illustrated today when, in response to a twitter posting that the Church of England keeps Martin Luther on this day, one high churchman replied, Oh no, we don’t! It is a Saturday and we shall celebrate a mass of our Lady. What place this person supposes narrow tribalism to have in the celebration of the Christian sacraments is best not to explore here. But at All Saints we do remember and celebrate that God requires a vast diversity among God’s faithful servants. It is a diversity of such breadth that it even includes you and me, and will, if we pay heed to it, be an apt illustration of the words of a great Jewish saint, Jonathan Sacks, who has said that Faith is God’s call to see his trace in the face of the Other.

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Wake up to Advent!

A gracious invitation

I was recently asked to take part in pre-Advent study days for the diocese of St Albans. Another speaker (John Leach, the Discipleship Adviser for Lincoln diocese) and I were invited to address the topic of Waking up to Advent, and to make other more general comments about Liturgy. I had been described in the blurb as “engaging and competent”, which I took to be a kindly admission that although I was not remotely scholarly, I was unlikely to say anything completely asinine. You, dear reader, will be the judge of that. What follows is a tidied-up account of the first part of what I said to the three different audiences in Welwyn, Radlett, and Flitwick. Some people found the remarks useful. I hope you do, too.

 

‘What are days for?’

I am beginning to realise afresh the very precious nature of the gift of time. This follows in part my own experience of sickness: over a year ago I suffered a stroke, which, although it has not, in the end, greatly debilitated me, could nevertheless have taken my life, leaving my wife without a husband and our young sons without a father. Mindful of this mercy, I have a new sense of the absolute value of time, and of the need to make every vital second count (for something).

This perception has been sharpened in focus and made all the more urgent by our global experience in these past months of the refugee crisis. The men, women and children whose lives we witness through the news media have been abandoned by circumstance in deep oceans of time, becoming passive recipients of whatever treatment our political leaders have decided to pass down to them. One moment, they are admitted to buses and trains and transported hundreds of miles; another, they are left on patches of waste ground, at the mercy of arbitrary lines on a map, or of policemen and others whose actions in applying hastily-constructed law seem equally arbitrary and incoherent.

The refugees’ relationship with time has been transformed by their experience. They are no longer able to make use of time as the rest of us would, for example by working for the advancement of themselves or their families. Unlike the settled citizen, refugees have no sense of the lateness or urgency of the hour; they have no tasks to complete within an allotment of time and are therefore neither in a hurry (‘running out of time’) nor suddenly released from a duty by its quick completion. Their lives have stopped; they have been stripped of their human dignity, left starved and staring at the lights. They take food and water when it is offered, like babies or animals. Time continues to affect them as the seasons turn and they grow older. But it has no meaning that they can shape. It will mean something only when their lives are given again the autonomy to decide their own direction and purpose. It was, of course, precisely this autonomy that they exercised when they set off from their homelands with unimaginably decisive courage, seeking a new home and a new future — a new time.

One sees a diluted form of this in the empty gaze of the commuter: standing still as cattle, transported down the tracks to a daily engagement with their servitude, time is only consequential when given back to them, carefully weighed out at weekends and holidays, when their own socialising, family life or creativity might squeeze itself, frustrated, into fast-evaporating hours of liberty.

Christians must make a claim on time, taking hold of it with confidence. It is the essence of God’s life-gift to us, the portal through which we are admitted to challenge, joy, experience. It has been redeemed for us, the hours carefully counted on the cross. And yes, we know it through the passing of the seconds, tolled solemnly from town halls and church towers, or blinking digitally at us from cooker, laptop, alarm. But we also know it and swim in it through the sense of hallowed time given us by the church calendar. It is this that prevents time from stretching pointlessly backwards through history and forwards into the as yet blank pages of the Google planner. It saves us from being simply a breather and a breeder, our life solely given over to Eliot’s ‘birth and copulation and death’. Through the link established between my life now and the life of Christ seen at work in the saints and the whole of salvation history, I become a purposeful voyager through time, one in receipt of God’s transformation that is marked and mediated through the holy seasons. Through our methodical occupation of each marked paving stone on the pathway from Advent to Christ the King, each with its own proper readings and rite, we are thoroughly immersed in the revelation of God’s love for us. More than just a punctuation of lives, or an arrangement of tasks into certain seasons, time becomes a means of grace, each day a cog in the apparatus of salvation itself.

Why keep Advent?

Of all the seasons, even more than Easter with its Alleluias louder than the song of the birds in the newly-budding trees, Advent is the time when the Christian proclamation of approaching judgement is a perfect match for what we ourselves and the people around us are feeling and experiencing. By late November, deep winter approaches; the darkness and cold are biting; a sharp anxiety about Christmas has been gripping the nation for some weeks already. The tight grip of Sunday trading offers no respite from the commercial vortex: every day is a shopping day; and these whizz by with powerful speed. Adverts for professionally guided present-selection, and masterclasses in how to keep the perfect Christmas, being the perfect parent of perfect kids, have long since landed in the mailbox. And even if I’m rich and can afford to purchase for myself this perfectly manicured Christmas experience, I am not saved from the gut-clenching fear that the lavish gifts I give and receive simply conceal the gaping cracks in my probably imperfect relationships: for all the merrymaking, the baying laughter of the office party, the mounting assault on the family credit card, I fear that this annual judgement of who I have been for one more year (and they won’t go on for ever) will reveal that I and my whole life are a sham, as lifeless as the tree cut from the earth, festooned in tinsel and dropping needles, standing in the corner of the room like Miss Havisham daubed in rouge. And of course if I am poor I am not spared any of these fears which rather multiply, first as the day draws nearer when I must watch the faces of my children to gauge whether their delight in my gifts (which in truth they cannot need or even desire for more than a moment) reveals a glimmer of understanding of the utterly helpless love I have for them. And then there is that second day when (a sharper dread) I must finally pay for all of this, performing the impossible juggling of numbers whose final outcome is for many each year the loss of everything.

So the feeling of some clergy that people will not understand or find themselves able to get any purchase on the Advent theme of God’s coming in judgement is not one that I find borne out by experience. People know all too well what judgement is; they will not be surprised to hear that the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when you will be sorted, sifted, judged and examined, cast into the flames or gathered into my barn. You will see that I have come to judge the living and the dead. I am indeed a refining and a consuming fire.

But even if they understand it, is this really a message to be sharing with people at the start of the biggest party of the year? If they want any religion at all, surely they want the donkey and the shepherds, the wise men and the innkeeper, the bouncing baby miraculously born in the bleak midwinter, long ago?

Questions of whether and when to offer people distinctly Advent themes (especially when we know little if any distinctly Advent music) have an urgency for those who lead and present the worship and teaching of the church at this most numerically abundant time of year. Our regular congregations may want to resist any reference to Christmas until the afternoon of Christmas Eve, like well-brought-up children who know they shouldn’t open their presents until Christmas day. They may also have calculated the need to eke out the riches of Christmas until Candlemas, forty long days away. Occasional churchgoers, however, particularly if they’re coming to school and community carol services, will expect Christmas carols to be sung lustily any time after the start of December.

I think we worry too much, in all sorts of ways. We imagine that there is an irreconcilable difference between the coming of God in judgement (at the ending of the age) and God’s coming in merciful flesh at Christmas. It is true that each of these phrases contains an ancient and tightly-coiled narrative that systematicians and splitters will happily tease out in densely-footnoted detail; but this should not mislead us into imagining that we have comprehended the divine action referred to. Even if we have recited the phrases and heard the stories since infancy, there is no sense in which we can contain or limit them in the palm of our understanding. In the Scriptures, God’s coming and abiding are always diverse: as flame, wind, silence, angel, child[1], God comes among us in many ways. We will want to make use of a variety of these as Advent proceeds. Each of them invites us to consider ourselves in the light of God, notably the manner in which humankind habitually falls short, marring the divine image within us. Our preaching and worship will be able to open up many of these ideas of judgement, not least that expression of judgement which is visible in the vulnerable Christ child as he lies in the crib, proclaiming the kingdom, even in his crying, and challenging us to love one another more perfectly, by following as this little child leads us from exile and abandonment along the road back home.

The most instructive experience I have had of this sort of liturgy was an Advent/Christmas service I devised for Lichfield Cathedral called Songs for a City. When I was there, it took place early evening in mid-December, being designed principally for those who worked in the town centre, but open also to civic dignitaries and politicians, and to any who had a stake in the well-being of the town and region.

I was a little generous in the first few years, providing four Scripture readings with matching hymns and carols, divided into the four ‘Cities’ of Sorrow (Lamentations 1 and 2), Joy (Christ’s birth in Bethlehem), Glory (the Presentation in the Temple), and Light (the New Jerusalem in the Revelation to John). In subsequent years, we had just the two sections: Reclaiming the Wilderness (Isaiah 40) and Light of the Nations (Luke 2: Presentation reading). However plentiful the material, and whatever liturgical tradition and style we favour, it must be possible to make ample and urgent connection between the city we inhabit, the city of Christ’s birth, the perfection of the heavenly Jerusalem and the disasters that befall so many of the world’s cities fairly constantly. It must be and is possible to lament and bewail our ecological carelessness and political callousness, while at the same time singing O Little Town of Bethlehem. You can also embellish the occasion, for example by preceding it with the blessing of the Christmas tree (more connections to be made there), and by following it with an agreeable social occasion involving mulled wine and Fairtrade mince pies; these are, perhaps, the perfect symbol of a happy conjunction of Advent and Christmas themes.

Good preaching is the most critical ingredient in a liturgy like this. It will need to be succinct enough not to scare off those who are allergic to long speeches, or those who need to get home for children’s bedtime. But it will also need to be rich enough to name and explore both the tradition we inherit, and the lives that we ourselves experience, placing all of it under the merciful yoke of the incarnate Lord, and so leading the way from this welcome beginning of carolling in frosty air to the possibility of eventual regular worship as a member of God’s Pilgrim people.

Good Experiences

We were invited to share with the audience two of our most memorable and helpful experiences of worship during Advent.

Together for Advent

The first occurred about 35 years ago when the newly-arrived parish priest decided (with great foresight as it turned out) that the best way to prepare for Christmas was to spend the season of Advent together as a parish, creatively and prayerfully exploring its themes and bringing together the fruit of our work to offer to God in the Sunday Eucharist. Thus it was that on the Friday evenings of Advent, we gathered together in the village hall and set about a variety of activities, some musical (typically learning Advent and Christmas music that could be used in our worship), some artistic (producing banners that dealt with the gospel themes and characters we would be meeting during the four weeks that lay ahead); there was a prayer school that met each week to explore prayer in different styles and traditions; there was Bible study; and there was an enormous sense of fun.

What I remember most vividly, however, is that simple reality of being together week by week as a parish community, then coming together for worship feeling more than usually equipped and prepared. The benefits of the program were quite intense on every level: we knew that we were being built into a more closely-knit Christian family, one we wanted to belong to, and one in which we took comfort and encouragement from each another.

As for the Sunday liturgy, it was most assuredly the offering of all the people, right down to the child who could only play one note on her instrument but who was nonetheless incorporated into the band. It was the offering of all that we had become, all that we had learnt: it assumed a new vitality and imparted to us all a compelling sense of our own dignity and our place in the drama.

The Advent Carol Service

My second experience is that of a priest working in a cathedral, responsible for the musicians, readers and servers, as well as other Cathedral staff involved in preparing and performing the liturgy of the Advent Carol service. I can remember (as a chorister 40 years ago) when these were relatively novel occasions. But over the years they have become commonplace, as regular a feature of cathedral life as the nine lessons and carols at Christmas, and, by and large, as predictable in form and structure: hung on the hanger of the seven Advent antiphons, a series of readings and carols explore the themes of Advent and set forth our Christian hope, while the Cathedral, which has begun in darkness, is gradually illumined as more and more candles are lit, so that, by the end, Lo, he comes with clouds descending, or some other equally sublime hymn is sung by the thousand or so present in radiant light.

This is obviously not the sort of Advent worship every community would want or be able to reproduce, and it is not the specific contours of the Advent Carol service that interest me. What catches my attention is the way this service has the complete confidence to be simple, straightforward, repetitive, and utterly convinced of its ability to draw us into the mystery of Advent. It is what we might call the complete worship event: from start to finish, it is entirely itself. There should be no chummy words of welcome or oppressively relevant prayers of intercession. There should certainly be no sermon. There should be no anxiety that this is effectively nothing more than a wander by candlelight with a bit of singing thrown in. The service must be allowed to get on with the task of being itself, while we are drawn completely into its orbit. We are given the inexpressible luxury of sitting and doing nothing, with no one to bother us, as in heart and mind (nourished by word, music and atmosphere) we allow the spirit of God to work upon us in the generous transformation of divine grace. If we wish to learn from and imitate this sort of event in our own parishes, schools and other contexts, we need a little imagination to find appropriate ways of communicating the essence of its content; but, more than this, we need the confidence not to fiddle with it, and to let the beauty of sound, silence, darkness and light lead us by hand and heart to where we would desire to be.

[1] http://rowanwilliams.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/2280/advent-calendar-a-poem-by-dr-rowan-williams

We’ll let you know, Dr Beeching

Although it is clear that some church buildings may have to be sold for conversion into other uses, we must try to let churches respond to this crisis on a deanery and diocesan basis, with one ear open to current potential and partnership; and one eye open to the unknowable future. We need to summon not Dr Beeching, but Capability Brown.

I listened to last night’s short debate on The World Tonight (BBC Radio 4) between Giles Fraser and Sir Tony Baldry, in which they went over some of the arguments about church buildings. I have just seven points to offer (most of the short). I write from the viewpoint of a vicar responsible for a small and poor church in an over-churched deanery, over whose church the spectre of closure or amalgamation has hovered regularly in past years and decades.

  1. The unavoidable reality that nettles must be grasped

The problem is simple and clear: the Church of England is responsible for the maintenance of a vast number of church buildings, to standards of safety and comfort unknown to our forebears. Many of these are now in poor repair, geographically isolated or very sparsely attended. As a Church we have neither the financial nor human resource to care for all of them adequately. They are now the nettle in the room (actually, one of a clump of nettles); and we are in urgent need of grasping it, however intense the pain will be. So the cry goes up from many that what we need is a significant programme of church closures, with a new concentration of church life and mission in a smaller number of more central and better-resourced Minster Churches that will serve larger areas and (thus runs the theory) be more attractive and effective centres from which to do business with God and humanity. Giles Fraser likens the process to that carried out by Doctor Beeching who filleted the railway system in the 1960s, removing apparently insignificant stations and branch lines from Chorlton-cum-Hardy to Chester-le-Street. This would free us from the need to pour millions of pounds into the vast abyss of maintaining lesser and insignificant churches, a practice which seems particularly questionable in a time of national austerity. It would also, claims Fraser, enable us to shift our attention from buildings to God.

  1. Care of buildings and worship of God are not inimical

Now, I absolutely agree that not every church building can be maintained and cherished in perpetuity; I absolutely see the sense of freeing Christ’s Pilgrim people from buildings that shackle them and weigh them down. But I feel that a number of reservations are worth setting down, beginning with Canon Fraser’s presentation of the choice as being between buildings and God.

These two are not in irreconcilable opposition. I am conscious of biblical ambivalence about tents and temples, and Saint Peter’s response to the Transfiguration with the suggestion that he should build three little chapels, like an over-eager Victorian church planter, was not his finest. Nevertheless, church buildings do provide more than a roof over the heads of worshippers. Even when they accommodate much more than worship (and I know of no parish church that does not now also enable a range of community activities to take place within it), they are a hallowing of an often-harsh landscape, a punctuation and orientation of our lives and land, stone oases that are much more than simply historical monuments.

Thus the many who lavish time, love, money and labour on these buildings do so not as an alternative to worship, but as a means to it, one not to be dismissed by the highfalutin. The clearing of gutters and arranging of flowers, the polishing of pews and all the rest of it are one key in which prayer may be offered to the God whose story is told in the glass and stone of a thousand village churches, whose devotees are more than janitors in the fight against wood rot and gravity.

  1. Closing churches does not of itself create a pilgrim people.
  2. A pilgrim people has a bigger carbon footprint.

I was not long into my curacy before I became an enthusiastic advocate of the Buses not Buildings mantra. Worshipping with under 20 people in a slightly dilapidated Victorian church, it was clear to me that if this building had a positive and fruitful future, it must be as a channel of much-needed resources into a needy community. It should continue to offer quiet space for prayer and worship, but its days as a parish church were surely over. As one of a Team of four churches, its few regular congregants could easily walk or be driven to worship elsewhere in the town, no doubt rejoicing that such a good use had been found for the former church. But (despite witnessing the phenomenon on those Sundays when united worship for the whole team took place in one of the church buildings) I had completely failed to remember that many people’s inability or unwillingness to up-sticks and worship elsewhere would leave many simply worshipping nowhere, leaving fallow all that they might have contributed to church life, thus weakening even further the fragile links between the church and some parts of the community. We therefore see that supporting a small church in decline may make rather better sense than at first appears to be the case.

  1. Any church closure must not be the imposed act of an overbearing centre, but rather the fruit of local conversations at deanery and diocesan level.
  2. Even when Ministry is centrally provided (Minster model) there may well be a role for individual church buildings which precludes any need for closure.

My own church of St Andrew’s, Croydon has been happily squatting on a street corner for the last century and a half, and now finds itself eyeballing the post-war flyover that bisects the town just a few yards away, providing a frequently furred artery for dense traffic and consigning the rest of us to an often-stinking subway.

The church was built for the servants of those grandees who attended the much more fashionable church of Saint John the Baptist, now Croydon Minster, — very much a Greater Church to our lesser. St Andrew’s has never attracted particularly large numbers. Thirty years ago, there were about 70 adult communicants on a Sunday. These days I am relieved if we have 40. But with those 40 there will be 15 children or more. And during the month there are also those few who come to the Community Café, or Messy Church, or who belong to the other Christian denominations who make use of our building on Sunday afternoons, and with whom we seek to form not simply a contracted relationship of provider and hirer, but a genuine sense of gospel partnership.

I acknowledge that history has been good to us. The church recently sold a couple of church halls and with the revenue renewed and reordered the interior of the building, creating a new worship space west of a central screen and, east of it, social spaces (in the former Chancel and Lady Chapel). These are now used for a variety of community activities, some organised by the church, others not. A small charity (www.thehive-croydon.org) was established to oversee much of this work and to strengthen partnerships, particularly with our local schools. We were blessed in being able to avoid withdrawal and conversion into a coffee house and, under the leadership of my predecessor, were able to reimagine our work and purpose, retaining a visible presence in the community, in a building that not only offers architectural variety, but stands to proclaim the Christian gospel to much passing traffic. Our arrangements for the care and evangelising of the parish envisage a priest (myself) whose stipend comes from two sources and who consequently works part-time as vicar of the parish and part-time as chaplain to the neighbouring Church of England High School.

Such arrangements as ours were made possible through the sale of our historic property, and I daresay that many at the time thought it irresponsible to give this surely unnecessary parish another chance at leading a fruitful life within the deanery. But we have survived, and we firmly believe that we have a part to play. It is almost certain that our future will involve working collaboratively with one or more churches in the deanery, perhaps with ministry offered from one central church. But I am clear that we have something definite to offer our deanery partners, and despite our modest financial and human resources, we are still more productive alive than dead. I believe we may reasonably look forward to the sort of both-and future of survival as a discrete community within a larger whole that appeals far more than any centralising through take-over.

I see, of course, that what works in south London will not necessarily work in Cornwall or any other rural setting. In these contexts I’m interested to read the material on Festival Churches. This seems a very promising way ahead, one that allows communities themselves to respond on a deanery by deanery basis rather than after the issuing of a one-knife-cuts-all directive from what we seem to have begun to call (with just a slight whiff of jack boot) The National Church.

 

  1. Of the future, we know nothing with certainty

We cannot know what our future is, or predict all of the consequences of any action that may seem wise and necessary now. No doubt the closure of so many small railway stations and branch lines appeared very sane and strategic in the 1960s. But in our current ecological condition we would give anything to have them all back. In the same way, I would not give Dr Beeching carte blanche to close churches just because they are small or ill- attended or isolated. In years or decades from now, such local outposts as our constellation of parish churches may be exactly what our nation or civilisation needs for reasons as yet unimaginable. Sending for Capability Brown rather than Dr Beeching may prove the better way.