Flash Compline 16th December 2014 8.45pm

There will be a Flash Compline service at 8.45pm on Tuesday, 16th December 2014, at Christ Church Greyfriars, near St Paul’s tube – here’s a map

Music: We will use this setting of Compline.

We will have a small number of spare copies, which you can purchase for £3 if you want to keep them, or borrow if you don’t. Don’t worry if you aren’t a confident singer — follow along with the text and see what you can pick up. Everyone is welcome.

You may wish to bring a torch or book light.

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C of E throwing money at the wrong problem.

I am trying to make sense of the alleged plan to groom talent for high office in the Church of England.

The short version seems to be this: there is a plan to create a “talent pool” of people suitable for “high office” (to include bishops and deans, but also incumbents of “large parishes” — which could easily be the only stipendiary posts left in some dioceses), and give them mandatory business training. And yes, I think it’s business training: even if you re-name modules like “Building healthy organisations”, “Leading growth”, and “Reinventing the ministry” to something that sounds more church-y, it’s pretty clear.

The report is virtually silent about the shortcomings of the present system of preferment in the C of E. Its stated intention, though, is to see leaders emerge from “a wider variety of backgrounds and range of skills than is currently predicted”.

So let me get this straight: to try and fix a system where a sort of unofficial old boys’ network and a great deal of prejudice means that middle class white men are privileged when it comes even to getting basic parish stipendiary posts, the Church in her wisdom is going to create a much more official and robust network, with mandatory training demands which will almost certainly disadvantage women and marginalised people and, especially, anyone who doesn’t have a good “cultural fit” with the ethos of the training. It will then exclude from high office all who are not in said network. There’s no word in the article about how one gets into this network in the first place, but I bet it has to do with coming to the attention of the “right” people. And if your performance falls you get asked to leave the network: so don’t take a post in a difficult poor parish where it’ll be a struggle to keep numbers where they are because people keep moving away or dying, and don’t have any experiments that fail.

I don’t think this will work very well. In fact, I find it downright worrying.

I don’t think there are any shortcuts, you see. I think we should be thinking creatively about how to best distribute the resources we have, but I don’t think spending £2 million on mandatory further training and monitoring for existing bishops and deans and some 150 people who might be suitable for higher office is the way to do it.

Jesus seemed happy enough to call random fishermen off a beach, and his instructions were clear enough too: “Feed my sheep.” The most worrying thing about the report of the report is the lack of indication that anyone has thought about whether the scheme will enable this to happen.

I can’t say much more on the matter today, because I have a pile of parish admin to do. I sure wish we had a secretary or admin assistant who could help with this, so I could focus on my ministry as an organist, which I’m much better at than at paperwork. If only there were some money we could spend on things that would help parishes be more effective…. oh.

Flash Compline 12-12-2014 8.30pm

There will be a Flash Compline service at 8.30pm on Friday, 12th December, just north of Southwark Cathedral, near London Bridge tube and mainline stations – here’s a map

Music: We will use this setting of Compline.

We will have a small number of spare copies, which you can purchase for £3 if you want to keep them, or borrow if you don’t. Don’t worry if you aren’t a confident singer — follow along with the text and see what you can pick up. Everyone is welcome.

You may wish to bring a torch or book light.


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Minster-Shaped Church?

One proposal for the flourishing of the parish system in the Church of England

The Church of England, we keep being told, has a problem: not enough resources to have a priest (or even a deacon) in every parish church. Some will say this is about a shortage of young vocations to fill stipendiary posts, others will be blunt and say it’s because we don’t have enough money to pay for that many full-time stipendiary clergy. This has been going on for a while (decades?), and different dioceses have been trying different methods of sharing ministers around between churches in order to try and patch things together.

Sometimes it works quite well, and we need to do better at telling the stories of when it works and why it works. If you are in a benefice with more than one distinct congregation and church and it’s going well: great! I am glad. Do share your experiences, please.

Sometimes it doesn’t work. I have a theory about why this is: the parish system is, by nature, somewhat parochial. And as soon as church hierarchy starts playing a game of musical chairs, suddenly parishes which may already be slightly competitive have resources they see a real need to compete for.

This leads to things like me not being able to take my choir on an outing to see Evensong in a nearby parish because of fear that some choir members will “defect” and sing in that choir instead. It leads to serious worries for smaller or less affluent parishes — anyone whose parish share is below the cost of stipendiary ministry — about whether they will be able to have any clergy “of their own” available after a vacancy, and similar sorts of worries about clerical availability when mergers do happen.

Here’s a suggestion that might address some of these problems in some places.

I’m thinking of churches working together in groups in such a way as to maximise economies of scale and cooperation, and minimise competition (or perceived competition) for resources. Yes, you’ve heard this before, but bear with me…

A Minster church could be a local focus for such cooperation. For the sake of clarity I’ll call the area supported by Minster a Minsterate. I’d say the minimum size would need to be about eight churches, and maximum around 18: more than that and it’s time to split. Optimum might be twelve.

I would want to make sure that each parish has at least one ordained minister (a deacon or a priest) whose primary role is to minister in that parish. Some, maybe many, of these posts would need to be on a half-stipend or House for Duty basis. The requirement to live in the parish would remain, but no minister would have responsibility for more than one church with no additional support. Each church can have a minister they think of as “theirs,” and the threat of being left behind with no support disappears. Non-Stipendiary Ministers living outside the parish, and Ministers in Secular Education or with other full-time employment concerns, could continue in much the same way as they do now.

That “minister with a primary role which is the parish” might look different than being a vicar today does, though. Rather than each church and minister digging in and trying to run an entire community themselves, I would put structures in place to encourage mutual support and cooperation.

The first one: each minister is responsible for leading one Sunday service in their own parish, and one service (at any other time of week, but it should be as regular a commitment as possible) in the Minster. Suddenly we have a Minster where there are public services every day. This might be the Daily Office, early enough that commuters can get to work in the morning. It might be mid-day Eucharist services for people who work in the area, or some sort of evening activity. But for the parishes in the Minsterate, that burden of having their minister take one service elsewhere is not huge or unrealistic.

A Minster would be the obvious place to have some sort of administrative office. Suddenly instead of twelve crappy photocopiers that break down in cold damp churches and even when working make everything they print look dingy and amateurish, there can be one good one in a warm clean office, and a bit of money to spare. Pew slips, rotas, publicity, grant applications — these could be supported centrally without having to have uniform “branding”. Of course, there’s nothing to stop parishes having their own admin team if they really want to, and there would still need to be someone in each parish making sure the communication happens, but the business of muddling along and making a bad job of it would be greatly reduced.

My musical dilemma wouldn’t need to exist, either. Some parishes could have choirs, some music groups or bands or what have you; and the Minster would have similar for the main Sunday morning services. But a smart musical director could draw from these to form a larger choir, let’s call them the “Minster Singers”, for a regular Evensong service, timed not to conflict with the main morning/evening Sunday services elsewhere in the Minsterate. Membership in this choir would be contingent on being a member of your parish choir/music group/whatever, so that it’s an enrichment of the music in parishes rather than a threat to them. And it would be great to be able to invite the Minster Singers for patronal festivals, confirmations, installations and that sort of thing.

I’m certain similar models could be followed for everything from adult education to flower rotas. A Minster wouldn’t be a centrally-controlling monolith, exerting uniformity on surrounding parishes, but instead acting as a resource for the flourishing of all.

I’m not exactly sure where benefices/parishes that currently have more than one church and only have one stipendiary minister would fit into this. A lot of them seem to have a number of NSM clergy or Licensed Lay Ministers (sometimes also known as Readers, though their ministry is often very much more in depth than the old order of Lector). One solution might be to replace the ordained ministry posts with House for Duty as people retire, and meanwhile licence any new NSM (or SSM, MSE etc) clergy to the Minsterate rather than individual parishes within it — or, indeed, to work out on a case-by-case basis what will work best. My concern would be to preserve what is working well in such group parishes, without leaving the Rector in a pickle when two NSMs and a Reader all retire within two years of one another and aren’t replaced.

There are still going to be some parishes that just aren’t sustainable, I think. Truly under-used or vacant buildings in such a context might be put to better use as monastic communities, arts centres or ecumenical or interfaith projects — maintaining a presence in the community, but without the same obligations. In a healthy Minster system, the support for that kind of thing could be wider than just one parish, as is so often the case now, and I think that would lead to greater flourishing of Fresh Expressions and other initiatives, without weakening the existing parish churches.

That flourishing in a variety of contexts could do more for the C of E’s resource woes than the current variations on musical chairs ever will.

What I don’t know is how we get there from here, or even whether we can. It might be that we’d have to rely so heavily on House for Duty posts to do this, that ministry would only really be open to those with another source of income, and so the availability and resource issues would continue. It may be that our buildings are actually a much bigger problem than we would like to admit (though my thought on this is that we do need something to keep the rain off, and that ditching all our buildings and the land on which they rest would create more problems than it would solve). It may be that the differences in responsibility for clergy that I’m talking about would require an Act of Synod to put into place, which means in fifty years we’ll still be talking about it. But that’s all a bit cynical. I think it’s certainly worth a try, and I’d be interested in any tales of places where something like this is happening already, and what the problems encountered are.

I think at its best, a Minster system could preserve the positive bits of the parish system, enabling the Church of England to have a presence in every community, while breaking down some of the barriers to working together that currently exist.

Flash Compline Wednesday 3 December

There will be a Flash Compline service at 9.30pm on Wednesday, 3rd December, in the gardens of St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate, near Liverpool Street tube and mainline stations – here’s a map

Music: We will use this setting of Compline.

We will have a small number of spare copies, which you can purchase for £3 if you want to keep them, or borrow if you don’t. Don’t worry if you aren’t a confident singer — follow along with the text and see what you can pick up. Everyone is welcome.

You may wish to bring a torch or book light.


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Sermon for All Souls

I did some preaching again yesterday, at a Choral Evensong for All Souls. The readings were Lamentations 3:17-26, 31-33 and 1 Peter 1:3-9, and this is roughly what I said:

All Saints this morning was a chance to celebrate all those who have illuminated the Christian faith for us. In contrast, this evening’s commemoration of All Souls is an opportunity for a quieter reflection, remembering those who have died.

Lament and grief can be uneasy in our culture. The “stiff upper lip” attitude of just getting on with life is always there…. and life does go on. Sometimes trying to get back to “normal”, whatever that is, after experiencing painful loss can be comforting, but sometimes it can compound a sense of isolation as we tell ourselves and others that yes, of course, we’re fine really. It may be true, or it may be very far from reality. Every grief is different.

We do need space in which we can grieve, places and communities where it is safe to give voice to our distress. We need the opportunity to lament and be honest about pain, even if sometimes we would rather avoid it.

The five chapters of the book of Lamentations are formal Hebrew poetry, probably written by the prophet Jeremiah, in response to the destruction of Jerusalem in around 587 BC. We get a small sample of the general tone at the beginning of our reading: “my soul is bereft of peace, I have forgotten what happiness is.” Strong stuff for the destruction of a city, but Jerusalem was more than just a city: it had the Temple, it was seen as the City of God. “The thought of my affliction and my homelessness” doesn’t refer only to a physical home, though the people were made utterly destitute and leaders and authorities were sent into exile. It also refers to a spiritual bereavement: nobody had thought it possible for Jerusalem to fall. It was taken as evidence of God’s might and favour for Israel. So, its destruction was seen as a punishment by God. An entire way of life was gone. No wonder people lamented!

Yet in the midst of this total defeat, the poet-and-prophet has hope: in God’s mercy, compassion, and steadfast love. The central three verses of the book of Lamentations tell us that God does not abandon us for ever, that God will have compassion, that God does not willingly afflict people. We are left to work out for ourselves how that can be possible, how the Lord who allegedly loves us so dearly can take away so much. The book doesn’t end with resolution, but with a list of bitter complaints followed by a challenge: “Restore us to yourself!…unless you are angry with us beyond measure.” But even being willing to make such a demand requires the hope of an answer. Lament here is evidence of faith, not a failure of faith.

Given this need for lament, the second reading can seem almost too cheerful. The first letter of Peter, written to Christians exiled from Rome to various places in what is now Turkey, has a different audience and context. We don’t know the exact circumstances of these Christians, but it’s likely that they were subject to casual, unpredictable discrimination, being social outcasts and not really fitting in either in the communities they came from, or where they lived when the letter was written. It is clear that the letter is written to people who are in some kind of distress. Peter wastes no time in offering comfort, blessing God and saying: “By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”

This isn’t the desperate-but-sure, abstract hope Jeremiah clings to in Lamentations, insisting God will be merciful despite apparent evidence to the contrary. This is St Peter, the Rock, who walked and worked with Jesus, who denied him three times and wept. This is Peter who knew Jesus personally, saw him crucified, and ate fish with him on the beach after the resurrection. Peter writes to these Christians that in Christ’s resurrection lies their hope: not that they will never have any trials, troubles, pain or discomfort, but that in salvation through Christ, those trials do not have the last word. This is not a denial of whatever distress the exiled Christians are facing, but a transformation of it, just as the resurrection of Jesus transformed his death from the starkest loss imaginable to the ultimate hope.

This, says Peter, is the inheritance of the Christians he is writing to, and it cannot be destroyed or corrupted or contaminated. They inherit this living hope even though they have never met Jesus in person, never walked with him, or heard him speak or saw him heal anyone, never hauled straining nets onto a beach to eat fish with him. Why? Because they love him and believe in him.

The rest of the letter instructs these Christians about the earthly consequences of that love and belief: they are to live as God’s people, with holiness, humility, gentleness, patience, and above all, to treat one another with love. They are to do this while waiting for the revelation of the last things, which they believed would be soon, possibly within their lifetime.

And this is our inheritance, too: not a promise that life will be easy, or that we will never be in pain or suffer loss or grief, but rather this: death does not have the last word. As evidence of this promise we have the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

In all honesty I don’t always find it easy to rejoice in that promise. When in the depths of despair, Christ’s resurrection can seem as abstract and far away as the insistence on God’s mercy in the book of Lamentations. It’s been a long time now since anyone I am close to has died, but I remember the feelings of intense sadness and abandonment. I’ve certainly had times when sorrow has threatened to overwhelm me, and rejoicing was simply not on the cards.

Yet somehow I do believe in the resurrection — not just that Jesus rose from the dead, but that I will, and you will, and so too those we love who have already died. I don’t know much about the details, but I believe it. This is partly because at times when I have struggled with sadness, I have been supported by a community of people of faith, acting out St Peter’s advice, trying to live with holiness, humility, gentleness, patience, and above all, taking seriously the instruction to love one another. Rather than being somewhere that we need to put on a smiley face or keep a stiff upper lip – as if God mustn’t find out how cross we are – a church can and should provide that kind of support and care in situations of mourning and sorrow. When we allow space for lament, our lives can demonstrate the hope we share.

May we all show forth in our lives the living hope we have inherited in Jesus Christ; and may the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace and rise in glory.  Amen.

Sermon for Bible Sunday

I preached for the first time on Sunday evening, at St Mary’s Addington. The readings were Isaiah 55.1-11 and Luke 4.14-30. This is what I said:

Today is Bible Sunday, a chance to consider the place of Scripture in our lives as Christians.

In the Church of England much of our liturgy quotes the Bible directly. This service of sung Evensong doesn’t just have the two spoken readings, but at least three sung portions of the Bible: the psalms, and the two scriptural canticles of the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis. This evening, the introit and the anthem were also using words from Scripture. Even the responses are mostly derived from the Bible.

So the Bible is a great resource for prayer, not only where it contains direct instructions, but in recording the prayers of our predecessors in faith and allowing us to join in with the prayers of Mary, Simeon, and so many others.

But the Bible is more than a book to aid our prayers. This incredible collection of texts tells us about who God is, who we are, and the relationship we have with God.

In this evening’s first reading we hear the prophet Isaiah, speaking on behalf of God, urging us to ‘hear, that your soul may live,’ and describing what will happen: the word of God shall not return empty, but shall accomplish God’s purpose.

That ‘word’ refers to the suffering servant of God, the Messiah figure of the preceding chapters of Isaiah’s writing: not the word-written-down, but the Word made flesh. We recognise that Word as a person, Jesus Christ — “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

In the reading from Luke’s gospel tonight we are told that Jesus himself had excellent knowledge of Scripture: good enough that his teaching in the synagogues of Galilee was praised by everyone. Synagogue means school – unlike the Temple, where sacrifices were offered, it was a place where people met to read, study and discuss Hebrew scriptures. So in tonight’s reading, we have the Word made flesh, studying the word of God! At the synagogue in Nazareth Jesus reads a portion of Isaiah. Then he stops, and tells his listeners that this has been fulfilled today in their hearing: the Saviour they have been told about is here, now.

Then Jesus gets quite critical, and his listeners don’t like that. They dislike it so much that they run him out of town and try to kill him and, somehow, he gets away. But that makes sense: Jesus has God’s purpose to fulfil, not only in the hearing of a small-town synagogue where he grew up, but for the whole world.

What is God’s purpose for Jesus? The passage he reads tells us:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

This is the message of our Bible. God sent Jesus to be good news. Jesus IS that Good News! This is why Mary sings the Magnificat, and why Simeon prays the words of the Nunc Dimittis: they recognise who Jesus is, and rejoice.
May we hear in the Bible the good news that Jesus is for us and for all people, and in response, may we rejoice, and follow Him.       Amen.

Jubilate Amen

Just a simple sleepy little piece, this — almost a hymn rather than an anthem, and almost not a hymn in that it straddles the line between describing worship and participating — to some words by Thomas Moore:

Hark! the vesper hymn is stealing
o’er the waters soft and clear;
nearer yet and nearer pealing
and now bursts upon the ear:
Jubilate amen!
Farther now, now farther stealing
soft it fades upon the ear:
Jubilate amen!

Now like moonlight waves retreating
to the shore, it dies along;
now like angry surges meeting
breaks the mingled tide of song:
Jubilate amen!
Hush! again, like waves retreating
to the shore, it dies along:
Jubilate amen!

It has a rather large range required but at least this time I haven’t scored the highest bits to be really quiet.

No recording yet so you’ll have to make do with MIDI robots and the .pdf, both available from the Choral Public Domain Library. As usual this is licensed under CC by-SA, which means you can use it for whatever you like as long as you attribute me and you share the results under a similar license.

If you like it, please tell other people about it, or become a patron at Patreon — even a little bit of help makes a big difference to me. Thanks so much.

Composer in Residence?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to continue building some kind of career as a composer of choral music, especially liturgical music. I do most of my publicity online, and church music is still a largely-offline world. I do love our small-but-mighty choir at St Andrew’s Leytonstone, but realistically, they can’t sing my SATB work, and the unison/two-part/flexible music I write for them is heard by very few people. I put my work online under a CC by-SA license, so anyone can use it for free, but they aren’t going to look for it if they don’t know it’s there.

Would your church like a composer-in-residence for six months?

I’d love to spend one day a week somewhere with more choral services, a more extensive choral programme, and exposure to a wider community. I could write some music especially for the choir(s) and congregation there, in consultation with the musical staff already in place, and some of my other work could be sung in services or concerts if appropriate.

What I can offer

  • The opportunity for your choir(s) to work with a living composer
  • works written especially for your choir(s)
  • publicity! regular tweeting and/or blogging about my experiences as a composer-in-residence and my impressions of the wider life of your church
  • something else? What would you like from me? I can direct choirs, sing alto or (if stuck) tenor, lead sung Compline… but I’d like my primary duties to be related to composing

What I need

  • A suitable church: preferably Anglican, with a strong choral tradition that extends beyond Sunday mornings
  • quiet-ish space to sit and compose, one weekday per week. Background noise in a community café is absolutely fine, background music really isn’t. I do most of my composing with paper and pencil so all I really need is a table I can write at, but occasional access to a plug and wi-fi or at least a spot with good mobile reception will help a lot with the twitter/blogging part of the residency
  • a Director of Music and clergy who will let me sit in on rehearsals and include me in the musical life of the church
  • performance of some of my work, either what I’m writing while in residence or stuff I’ve already written. You can hear examples at Soundcloud and most of my scores are on my works page
  • some flexibility: I have existing obligations at St Andrew’s Leytonstone and elsewhere, so Thursday evenings are just not a good option for me, and my Sunday mornings are going to be limited.
  • ideally, a location within 90 minutes on public transport from my home in East London; this could stretch a bit if I can stay overnight on one or the other side of my residency days
  • travel expenses (public transport)
  • lunch would be nice; accommodation and breakfast will be necessary if overnight stays are going to be involved
  • some sort of remuneration would also be good.

So, who pays for all this?

I’m not sure yet! If I can find a willing and suitable church, we could apply for some grants, or if you are up for it we could try crowdfunding. I’m in a position to be a little bit flexible about this — I already spend a day per week composing — so if your first thought is “we can’t afford that” then do speak to me anyway, maybe we can work something out.

If you’re interested, please do get in touch: artsyhonker at gmail dot com.

Sweet Spirit, Comfort Me

I wrote this in 2012 for a competition at St Paul’s. Clerical error on my part meant I wasn’t even in with a chance! But I am happy with what I wrote.

Thanks to Matthew Curtis I now have a recording on YouTube:

You can download the audio from Soundcloud and the sheet music from the Choral Public Domain Library.

In the hour of my distress,
When temptations me oppress,
And when I my sins confess,
Sweet Spirit, comfort me!

When I lie within my bed,
Sick in heart and sick in head,
And with doubts discomforted,
Sweet Spirit, comfort me!

When the house doth sigh and weep,
And the world is drown’d in sleep,
Yet mine eyes the watch do keep,
Sweet Spirit, comfort me!

As usual, this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license, or CC BY-SA for short. That means you can use this music for any purpose, absolutely free, as long as you attribute me and you share any derivative works under a similar license. If you want to drop me an e-mail, tweet or comment letting me know that you’re going to sing it, that’s even better, of course: to my knowledge, it has not yet been performed. The range of this piece makes it quite challenging, but I hope the repetition makes it accessible even to audiences who are unaccustomed to this type of choral music.

If you want to support me in making more music like this, please tell at least one other person about this piece. If you want to do more than that, the equivalent of buying me a hot chocolate every time I write another work (about once a month), you could become a patron.