Thursday, 15 January 2009

The Dark End of the Street.

It was, not long ago, possible to walk down Frith Street in Soho, probably from the French House round the corner, into Ronnie Scott's club, show your membership card and settle down in a corner with a couple of friendly faces and a scotch and listen to some of the best live jazz being played anywhere in the world for very little money. Moses would always offer a friendly nod to enable queue jumping and Ronnie Scott himself, miserable though he became in later life through his health problems, would still introduce each act with the same tired old jokes. Smoking was mandatory, or at least you may as well have smoked, such was the atmosphere. I saw Georgie Fame one night holding an impossibly long note with a cigarette in one hand and a scotch on the keyboard, the next week Doctor John, and all sorts of great performers and like everyone else who was not subsidising the place through buying dubious food, wondered how long it could last.

Not that long, was the answer. Ronnie died and left the club to Pete King, who sold out a few years ago. I have not been back and probably never will, given the outrageous prices. A small, truly great institution goes under through mismanagement. From time to time jazz websites mourn the passing of Ronnies and comments boxes fill up with both lamentations and lessons, 'how could it last, you silly fusty jazz fans, things need to modernise, get up to date'.

I hear similar lessons coming from within the Church in these days. Why can't the traditionalists just get with it, man, and stop holding us back. Things have to die to move forward, the minority will just have to get with the programme. I don't want Forward in Faith to become a group of disaffected guys in a corner of the Coach and Horses bemoaning the loss of a past time like some of the Ronnies die hards, with nowhere else to go, blaming the world and its secularism for our loss. I do not want to be a fringe group, fighting every day for the right to survive - although I will if that is what it takes - I do not want to be tolerated, I want to be understood. I want us to be understood for the sake of small Churches in the middle of nowhere, like this one above which I drive past from time to time as well as for the city Churches, because these places need congregations and priests, to the glory of God and the salvation of souls. This isle is covered in a cobweb of Parish boundaries and Churches, in radically different locations and often with radically different ministries and if the squeeze is begun to plop the traditionalists out, who will be squeezed out next? How will the cobweb survive and, more importantly in this secular world, given by the grace of God for us to live out our missionary faith in, how will it strengthen itself and support those within it? The bounds which keep us together, in these times of trial, are tighter than those which separate us, even though this is hard to see when we look in at such a micro level.

For sure, the truth of the catholic faith is the most important part of our mission, indeed it binds it together and in a way which is sometimes done better by us, under pressure, under attack, than by others. We may bemoan areas where our faith is hard to find, as an example can I bring to our mind the twelve Anglican Parishes around the Wilmslow, Handforth, Knutsford, Alderley Edge and Prestbury areas and all the land in between. This represents some of the financially best off villages in the country, a very wealthy area, which will be served in the next few years by one Roman Catholic Church and one Priest, the rest of the RC Churches will be sold for development, there are no more Priests available to staff the area and the congregations will fit into one Church (which is not in any way large). We are not the only ones finding the going hard, although, admittedly, we may have more doctrinal differences within our Church.

This synagogue near my house also has doctrinal differences with its neighbours, the locale being split between Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews, with a scattering of Hebrew Nation adherents and the Ultra Orthodox living a mile or so down the road. It is the more orthodox synagogues which are seeing the increased footfall in Manchester, a staggering change over the last ten years has seen the Reform community drop and the broadly Orthodox community increase by twenty five percent, soon there will be the largest Ultra Orthodox community outside of London in the country here, I am told by my friend who makes the latkes and smokes the salmon which make Hyman's Titanics Deli so famous.

This swing to the Orthodox echos a similar Muslim change as well, and I was reminded of the correlation in most peoples minds between orthodoxy in its broad sense and right wing politics by a conversation I had with someone who could not understand that it was possible to, as she put it, 'like high church or anglo catholic worship' and have a genuine commitment to justice and peace and to hold these ideals up in and through our worship. The assumption that we who wish for understanding are ourselves intolerant is incorrect, I hope and it is borne out in our continuing commitment to a Church which is looking as though it would rather be rid - not of us per se - but of dissenters against the secularising agenda, the agenda which brings the Church to be an arm of state once more, which, unless I am mistaken, is where we came into it all those years ago under Keble and Pusey.

An agenda for all who hold and teach the Catholic faith which comes to us from the apostles is to look at what we hope Church will be for us in the future. The Telegraph (Damian Thompson) again, again, again today publishes 'news' that it's all over for us. Maybe so, probably not. Do we want to be priestless or without church buidings and the local infrastructures which will vanish overnight if we move? This looks unlikely, given the number of people I know testing their vocations (and I am sure the same is happening throughout the country), the only tricky thing seems to be going for selection in certain Dioceses. It is worth pointing out that in the 'Uniate' Church in the USA, nobody has been allowed to train for that particular grouping by the Bishops. So much for keeping traditions longer than a generation. Do we see ourselves following the example of the continuing Churches (not me, for one), or do we see ourselves in some way within the Anglican Communion, if a bit more separated than we are now? I would suggest that our best chance for real survival is in staying within the Anglican Communion - albeit that would have to be possible - and wait for the tide to turn as it is doing in other world faiths, to people searching for orthodoxy, answers and clear scriptural faith. We may owe it to God to provide those answers. I would suggest that people are not going to seek us out in the Continuing Churches and that they have an affinity with the Church of England, which teaches their children and is visible in their local areas. The spiders web is a sleeping network, alive to the possibility of being used to communicate the message of Christ in the way which is required, a reactive tool of communication and dissemination.

And so we come to this picture. It shows a shop in Manchester. Not a shop I particularly frequent, but I stopped at the lights and wanted a picture to illustrate the fact that I am leaving Manchester in June to go on to pastures new, by the grace of God, at this time in the life of the Church which looks so interesting. It is hugely exciting to change ones life, almost overnight, to a new place. It hit home yesterday when I was trying on a clerical shirt to see if I likes that type and whether it fitted, so I can begin buying one or two more as finances allow. Looking at myself in the mirror I just thought 'ah well, this is it then'. And I will stop going on now and tell you where I am going.

Not far from where this picture is taken, as the crow flies, in fact a medium length walk away. The Bishop of Blackburn who you see in the centre will, Deo volente, ordain me Deacon in his Cathedral to serve in the City of Preston Parish, taking in Saint John the Evangelist (the Minster), Saint George the Martyr (I am very keen on this, Saint George's Day being my birthday!) and the Prince of Peace Chapel at the County Hall. Pray for me and pray for them.