Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Remembrance Sunday 2016

Among the many battle honours of the now-lost Northamptonshire Regiment is one won on this day, and at about this hour, exactly a century ago. By 10am, on the 13th November 1916, the Battle of the Ancre was already five hours old. It would be last in a series of battles which we know as the Somme Offensive, and was the beginning of the end of what history comprehends as the bloodiest, most definitive actions during the whole of the Great War. While other Northamptonshire battalions had seen service during the Somme, and particularly at the Battle of Albert, it was the 6th Battalion, lined up in the 18th Division of II Corps, that fought to regain Beaucourt.

They were among the New Armies, battalions that had not existed before Kitchener’s massive expansion of Britain’s fighting force. As a wartime chaplain wrote to the widow of a son of our county, ‘[theirs] should not have been the life of a soldier’ and yet in the face of their duty they did not shrink from the danger. As November drew on, the stakes could not have been higher: thick fog descended upon the battlefield the night before, and it was into the soup, on a chilly day that the armies advanced on to St. Pierre Divion and Beaucourt Hamel. More seriously, this was the moment, as winter began to bite, to take advantage of German exhaustion and to win back the hearts and minds of the folks back in Blighty, still stinging painfully from the first day on the Somme.

The end – which came on the 18th November - brought about a suspension of greater hostilities which would last until January 1917. Time to reflect upon battle strategy, and what had happened as aerial bombardment, heavy artillery, and the introduction of tanks had begun to shape the history of warfare. It was a pause in humanity’s first experiments in mechanized death, and questions over the morality of the technology employed there became something akin to the questions we have today about the means and the weapons and the extent of conflict. As ever, we continually test the idea of ‘just war’, as set down by St. Thomas Aquinas and which lies at the heart of our nation’s Laws of Armed Conflict.

Today is, however, not a day for battle analysis or expatiations on moral theology. We are well aware that conflict, while a prompt for heroism and self-sacrifice (and how the world needs that at the moment), remains a failure in human terms to preserve the peace of the world. Moreover, if is not a means to peace we shall not be able to satisfy ourselves of its legitimacy, legally or ethically. We are here for the sake of the soul. The souls of the fallen; the souls of the survivors; the souls of us, who now by generations, are their descendants. What is right and good we do now, that in summoning the scars of the past we might live more truly and thankfully in the present.

In recent years we have become painfully aware that those who fought and lived through the Great War, and many of those who fought in the Second World War, are no longer with us. Great names have passed from this world in the quietness and peace that was denied those who fell around them, and even the name of the Northamptonshire Regiment has fallen to amalgamation with other proud names into the Royal Anglian. Such names and battle honours are never forgotten, however, and it is a great honour for us to have among us this morning Sgt William Allen, the last living veteran of the Northamptonshire Regiment. He was among those who carried the proud name of our county in the liberation of the Auschwitz Extermination Camp. You have stood in the narrow place between the conflict and the peace, and seen the true wreckage. We are surpassingly proud you are here. Ninety years ago last Friday, in committing the memorial, about which we shall stand in silence at 11 o’clock, to the Mayor and County of Northamptonshire, General Horne said it was “right and fitting that there should stand in the county town some visible monument, some tangible memorial appealing to the heart through the eye, of the bravery, devotion to duty, and self-sacrifice of the men of Northamptonshire."

We continue that tradition today. Devoid of the markers that distinguish us by politics or faith, class or ethnicity, gender or sexuality (and regardless of what FIFA might think), our testimony is to the service of the fallen, whose blood has been the seed of peace. The risen Christ showed his wounds to his disciples, unafraid of them because they could no longer pain him. Whether it is us who in commemorating the conflict honour the peace, or those who last night marked the re-opening of the Bataclan theatre in Paris, we know that wounds – though painful – attest to the fact that we have lived, grown, and healed. And not done so as if we were islands unto ourselves, but more truly as human beings interwoven in the lives of our neighbours, community, and nation wherein is the source of our human flourishing. Today is a reminder of that as gift, as fragile and vulnerable as the children to whom we pass on this world.

For we, who also stand at the precipice wherein, were we to hurl ourselves forward, should find oblivion, rightly choose to skirt the pit. Such acts are too often interpreted as cowardice, or peacenik-ing, but they are a search for the deeper roots of brotherhood at the heart of humankind. Here we show our devotion for what has been lost, but we are more truly honouring what has been found. For my generation, where the world conflicts that have formed my perception of war and peace are still open, painful wounds for our society, we learn of these conflicts past, these times between which we commemorate the passing of a century, not first or even second, but mostly third hand. Like the Israelites recalling the Exodus, and release from the hands of tyranny: summoning up the terrible realities of the past into the present, and allowing our future to be determined by it. There’s a line in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys which says this rather more neatly, that of history we should “Pass the parcel. That’s sometimes all you can do. Take it, feel it, and pass it on. Not for me, not for you. But for someone, somewhere, one day.”

In this place, and at this hour, we ask God’s grace for the peace in which we live and hope to live; his protection from the conflicts yet to come; and faith to trust that the heroes and warriors of the past now rest in His hands. It is the vocation of the Christian soul to hope to sleep in God’s peace, but it is incomplete if it does not yet yearn to rise and reign. It is a natural instinct of humanity, it is also the natural instinct of nature – the Poppy, growing preponderantly on blood-soaked fields is surely a sign of that. The greatest affront to the powers of wickedness and violence, that would otherwise have us cowering in fear for our lives, is to keep on living, to live as if nothing threatened us, to live, and to seem, free. It is the debt we owe to those who for our tomorrow gave their today, and the endowment we now make for graces unknown and ages to come, that we too might make our reasonable service.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Will you let Jesus be your satnav?

or Notes from a Parson in Transition

The title of this post was a sentence in a sermon I heard recently. Stylistically it jars with me, but usually when I get crotchety about such things they end up making me think carefully.

And so 'Jesus I want you as my SatNav' becomes a moment of pause, as I enter into the stage of real transition. Ministry at the moment is filled with stuff I'm going to stop doing soon, and making sure that - to the fullest extent - we are able to leave well the place we've been for the past five years. Enormous piles of paperwork, long meetings with the accountants, architects, etc, etc. beckon, in the hope that everything will be in a good state once July comes.

There's an oddness in announcing that you're off, four months before you even go. Folk seem to expect to see the back of you almost immediately, but I do generally recommend it. Leaving well, and leaving gently is what we have wanted to do, and some folk have even been kind enough to say they'll be sorry to see it happen. So that's nice. But we're beginning to say 'goodbye' to people we love very much, and that's always going to be tough.

A couple of conversations I've had with my superiors, however, have elicited 'what a shame' comments, and a mutter or two about something they'd have liked me to do, or where I might have been poached by. It's nice, in many ways, to know that in observing and responding to the call to go to Northampton, that there were other directions open, and that we weren't in any sense forced by either end of the equation. Northampton continues a nice personal trend of never having failed at being offered a job I've interviewed for (the one ecclesiastical post I didn't get involved not even making it to the interview stage), but those events have never seemed like a series of faits accompli. As with anything consequent on responding to a vocation to the sacred ministry, it is a process of attempting to discern the will of the Holy Spirit.

In a church that speaks gleefully of 'Talent Pools', 'Career Management', 'Reform and Renewal', there is an odd sense that while there are some who are having their 'careers' managed and developed, most are going from one job to another hearing very little of what their bishops and senior staff might refer to as 'strategic direction'. Bluntly, which priests and people do they need in which parishes and at what time. If I have any advice to Bishops and Bishops' Senior Staff, by no means confined to my own diocese, it is that you shouldn't keep that information to yourself. Think about your diocese in ten years, in twenty years, and who you are going to need and where. Then tell them. If you don't then their lives will continue to be 'SatNav'ed by their own perceptions of where the Holy Spirit is leading them, and all manner of things will continue to be well. But if the Spirit is saying something else to you, we need to know.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Singing the Presidential Prayers

These are a selection of quotes from a variety of foundational documents, concerned with singing the prayers that belong to the president at the Eucharist. The use of the word 'President' is loaded with significance for Anglicans, but it is used prominently in Roman Catholic documents. It formed the basis for a talk I gave to our SSC chapter recently, encouraging the brethren to sing the prayers.


39. The Christian faithful who come together as one in expectation of the Lord’s coming are instructed by the Apostle Paul to sing together Psalms, hymns, and spiritual canticles (cf. Col 3: 16). Singing is the sign of the heart’s joy (cf. Acts 2: 46). Thus St. Augustine says rightly, ‘Singing is for one who loves’,48 and there is also an ancient proverb: ‘Whoever sings well prays twice over’.

40. Great importance should therefore be attached to the use of singing in the celebration of the Mass, with due consideration for the culture of peoples and abilities of each liturgical assembly. Although it is not always necessary (e.g., in weekday Masses) to sing all the texts that are in principle meant to be sung, every care should be taken that singing by the ministers and the people not be absent in celebrations that occur on Sundays and on Holydays of Obligation.
However, in the choosing of the parts actually to be sung, preference is to be given to those that are of greater importance and especially to those which are to be sung by the Priest or the Deacon or a reader, with the people replying, or by the Priest and people together.
General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) 39-40

It is most appropriate that the Priest sing those parts of the Eucharistic Prayer for which musical notation is provided.
GIRM 147

It is a praiseworthy practice for the parts that are to be said by all the concelebrants together and for which musical notation is provided in the Missal to be sung.
GIRM 218

The Voice

The use of the voice is important in the context of preaching. But there is equally a need to develop the more subtle art of the liturgical use of the voice... Moreover, the singing or chanting of the liturgy is an ancient tradition, strongly encouraged for most parts of the Mass which are ‘said’ or ‘proclaimed’ aloud.
Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite (CMRR) 209

All texts spoken by the president and other ministers during the Eucharist should be regarded as perfomative texts. This does not mean that they are to be declaimed in a Shakespearian or parsonical caricature manner, but it does mean that they need to sound sincere and be uttered with meaning. They also need to be audible.
Celebrating the Eucharist (CE) Ben Gordon-Taylor & Simon Jones, p. 4

The Priest calls upon the people to lift up their hearts towards the Lord in prayer and thanksgiving; he associates the people with himself in the Prayer that he addresses in the name of the entire  community to God the Father through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, the meaning of this Prayer is that the whole congregation of the faithful joins with Christ in confessing the great deeds of God and in the offering of Sacrifice. The Eucharistic Prayer requires that everybody listens to it with reverence and in silence.


            The celebrant should know by heart the words of consecration.
CMRR 212
At the most sacred moments of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, the celebrant may be guided by the pastoral wisdom of Pope John Paul II: “Eucharistic worship matures and grows when the words of the Eucharistic prayer, especially the words of Consecration, are spoken with great humility and simplicity, in a worship and fitting way, which is understandable and in keeping with their holiness; when this essential act of the Eucharistic liturgy is performed unhurriedly ; and when it brings about in us such recollection and devotion…
CMRR 296
Something of the grandeur of what is being said needs to be conveyed, something of the mystery, but also something of the directness and unhindered generosity of the divine gift that lies at its heart. In liturgical texts there is a verbal and grammatical geography to be negotiated which repays close study of the map: where should the voice rise or fall, where should the pauses come? From such attention to details springs the transformation of the liturgy.                                                                                                                                   CE, p. 6

The Eyes

If is preferable for the president to look at the bread at [the institution] rather than at the book, so learning this part is encouraged. Even though the words of Jesus are being quoted, God is still being addressed, so looking directly and deliberately at the people would be as inappropriate and misleading here as in any other part of the prayer.                      CE, p. 67

…it would not be correct, for instance to stretch out arms towards the people when asking for the gift of the Holy Spirit during the latter part of the prayer.                   CE, p. 6

The Chant

The activity we have called ‘chant’ introduces a genuinely musical expression, while always adhering completely to the words of the text. In a Gregorian antiphon, for example, the melody can be identified: it has a complete musical shape. And yet this shape evolves organically from the sentences, words, and syllables of the spoken text. The term ‘verbo-melodism’, or word-melody, has been used to describe this sort of singing, in which the music is never there for its own sake, but always remains subservient to the meaning and affective quality of the text.
Music and Singing in the Liturgy, Joseph Gelineau SJ in SOL, p. 505

Decorum and Experience

Experience based on knowledge and understanding can lead to a reverence which is natural and unaffected. … The ceremonial actions are not forced, nervous or mechanical, because, like the other skills we acquire in life, these actions gradually become part of us.
CMRR 225

All of Christ’s faithful likewise have the right to a celebration of the Eucharist that has been so carefully prepared in all its parts that the word of God is properly and efficaciously proclaimed and explained in it; that the faculty for selecting the liturgical texts and rites is carried out with care according to the norms; and that their faith is duly safeguarded and nourished by the words that are sung in the celebration of the Liturgy.
Redemptionis Sacramentum 58

The Organist
While the Priest proclaims the Eucharistic Prayer “there should be no other prayers or singing, and the organ or other musical instruments should be silent”, except for the people’s acclamations that have been duly approved, as described below.
RS, 53

The General Instruction (147) encourages that the Eucharistic Prayer, or at least those parts for which musical settings are provided in the Missal, be sung. It is an extremely effective way of expressing solemnity and is also very appropriate at concelebrated Masses. The Roman Missal provides simple chant settings of Eucharistic Prayers I–IV.
There are also published settings by composers. Care should be taken that the musical setting allows the text to be well proclaimed and that music does not provide an interpretation of the text. There is also an issue where the Eucharistic Prayer set (such as Eucharistic Prayer II) may not be suitable to the occasion. The advantage of many composed settings is that they provide an accompaniment to support the singing of the
presider. This is not in contradiction of GIRM 32 which refers to the one time practice of some organists (particularly in the French tradition) to play over the Eucharistic Prayer. The once similar practice of singing Sanctus and Benedictus over the quietly spoken Eucharistic Prayer is similarly repudiated. It is encouraged that the Prayer be sung: if provision of unobtrusive support helps this to happen it should be provided. The problem is when the accompaniment becomes the dominant partner.
Music and the Liturgy of the Eucharist – Liturgy Office of England & Wales, 2005

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

The Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner

First of all, I need to note that I've never met the Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner for the West Midlands. For most of my time in the West Midlands, I've had a good relationship with the Police and with Law Enforcement, and have served on a couple of independent advisory groups, but despite being one of the DPCC's constituents in Nechells Local Council ward, I've never had the pleasure of actually meeting Yvonne Mosquito.

Nevertheless, what is perfectly plain is that a measure of controversy has followed her of late, notably in press reports alleging things about the Westside BID, over whom Labour will be nominating as PCC in the next election, and whom they will choose as their deputy. One or two ugly things have been said about race, which isn't fair or right.

So after some allegations over Yvonne's involvement in the investigation into the murder of Kenichi Philips, and her suspension as an investigation takes place, much is being said in, and against, her favour. I don't know what the specifics of the allegations were, and write in my personal capacity here, but if this article, published on Operation Black Vote is correct, then she is facing allegations of 'gross misconduct', simply because in her role as a pastor of the United Pentecostal Church of God, she paid a visit to the murdered man's family.

Let's be clear that racism has no place, and should have no place, in the police. And let's be clear that everyone is accountable, even if they are the sole representative of a particular ethnicity in a particular role. Nevertheless, a few months ago I had much to say on the subject of a candidate for Lord Mayor, who didn't seem to be able to make clear the difference between when he was wearing his local councillor 'hat', and the 'hat' he wore as chairman of Birmingham Central Mosque. Public perception keeps its own counsel on how to tell the difference.

The larger point here, is that public perception, and a public vote, is also what puts or removes a PCC from office. If the wearing of one hat causes the wearing of the other to be suspicious, then something needs to give. It is the stuff of Yes Prime Minister episodes, where Sir Humphrey is unable to clearly mark the difference between batting for the Prime Minister and batting for the Civil Service. And, for those of us ordained, if we have 'tent-making' jobs* that allow us to preach the gospel and still live with the absence of a stipend, then our loyalty to God must not cause us to be disloyal to the people we live and work among. Ideally, the hat you wear to church and the hat you wear to work will present few conflicts, but too often they will seem to be the same hat - and a conflict of interest exists when people can't be sure which one you're wearing.

* St. Paul - when not in receipt of sufficient resources from the church - returned to tent-making in order to finance his mission.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Taking my leave

The Nave and Chancel of All Saints' Northampton

It's almost six years now since I travelled to the wonderful village of Lastingham, in North Yorkshire, to a meeting that - while not especially eventful in itself - turned out to be fateful for me. I was a curate working just outside Hull, and had begun to think about what I was going to turn my hand to next. At that time, Martin Warner was still bishop of Whitby, and it was he who suggested I might like to take a look at a parish in Birmingham who'd been having a tough time finding a new priest. A long and utterly Anglican process followed, and I announced to the good people I served in Yorkshire that I was headed for the West Midlands on All Saints' Day in 2010.

Today, I've told the good people of Small Heath that I'm moving on, in order to begin new work in Peterborough Diocese in September. Being in Birmingham has been a terrific ride: the finest thing I can say about it is that the joys have been as deep as the challenges, and the highs have outweighed the lows. I could remain here for many more years, and continue to deepen the wonderful relationships, activities, and happenings I've been part of, for both my family and I could continue to be comfortable here. Nevertheless, for reasons covering the personal, professional, and family - and perhaps because there is such a thing as too comfortable - we are convinced that God is leading us to a new place, and will call new leadership to Small Heath.

At the end of the summer we'll be taking leave of friends and colleagues in Birmingham, in order to move to Northampton, where I'll be becoming Rector of (another!) All Saints' Church in the centre of the town. With a fine history of choral music, a mission to the wider town and civic life, and a parish with some areas of desperate urban need, the prospect is of many excitements, many challenges, and - I hope - many joys as I come to exercise the priesthood of Jesus Christ in a new situation.

We plan to bid farewell to Small Heath at the end of July, so that this new work can begin in September, leaving plenty of space for our family to settle in over the summer holidays. We hope to say farewell properly to all who have nourished our life here, over the past five-and-a-bit years, but please be assured of my prayers for you, and ask that you pray for me, and Eleanor, Rebekah, and Jemimah.

NB. Lest this be misunderstood, the process for this appointment began in January and concluded with the approval of the Crown, who is acting as patron for this occasion, on March 7th. There is no link to be made between this announcement and recent press coverage. 

Monday, 25 January 2016

An open letter to the Lord Mayor-elect of Birmingham

Dear Councillor Afzal,

I'm writing following reports in the Birmingham Mail of your words at the recent event, held at Birmingham Central Mosque, to discuss plans HM Government has detailed regarding inspection arrangements for Madrassahs and (we discover) other activities for children and young people provided by a variety of faith groups. It is a common concern for faith groups, and I share an unease about the notion of my volunteer-led Sunday School being inspected by OFSTED, as much as you might feel uneasy about similar activities at Birmingham Central Mosque being inspected by a statutory body, by statutory means.

In particular, the track record that both the Department for Education and OFSTED have in Birmingham's recent history does not inspire much confidence in the future. I was among those voices that challenged both the methods used by government, and the conclusions they drew from the Trojan Horse scandal. But amid the general unwillingness of parts of our community, and of Birmingham City Council itself, to believe anything could be amiss in a variety of establishments, what began as low-level accusations of mismanagement in schools, blew up into a terrible nightmare in which our children were the real losers. Our communities lost too, and the general message from HM Government, and from a large part of society, was that we had to acknowledge that and move on, or accept that we no longer could make a contribution to education in Birmingham without being accused of failures that represent a danger to children and to Britain's national security. No matter how tough that is, it is a sad reality, and a disparaging reflection of a Government that wants to be small and unobtrusive, yet controlling everything.

Amid a cacophonous serious of missteps, the frailties of their strategies for tackling schools and faith communities as manifestly clear for all to see, and so the proper task of our communities is to work out how, through democratic process, to challenge these threats to freedom of assembly. If we are unsuccessful in that - to work out how best to implement what is forced upon us, so that negative impact on our communities is mitigated by robust leadership and pastoral care. In short, if we can't stop it, then we'll have live with it and help those hurt most by it.

However, nothing about this process is improved by calling people names, or by running away from our responsibilities. We all have critical commentaries to give about PREVENT, and goodness knows how we've tried to make our voices heard, but the general public needs to know that the aim of ending violent extremism is something we all share in Birmingham. If we have problems with the methods used then our criticism should be properly focussed there. The suggestion that the 500 people who have travelled to Syria is insignificant against an Islamic demographic in Britain of three million people is highly disingenuous. Whether it is 5, 50 or 500, or just a single person, that they have fallen prey to ISIS is a personal tragedy for them, and for their families, and a critical failure of broader society. The responsibility, and the sorrow, belongs to the whole community - not merely parts of it that identify as Islamic.

I hope that reflection will cause you to understand how unfortunate your words, as reported, have been, particularly given your dual roles among faith communities and local government. I hope that in continuing to respond to the Government's new plans we can all labour together, observing whatever is good, and offering robust criticism of what is manifestly lacking. As they stand, they will appear to many as another example of Birmingham sticking it's head in the sand, and refusing to acknowledge difficulties and darkness in the world.

With my very best wishes,

Father Oliver Coss SSC

Thursday, 1 October 2015

St Paul's: There's more than one way to protest

St Paul's Cathedral, on Tuesday of this week, saw the consecration of the three new bishops of Taunton, Aston, and Islington at a joyful and impressive show of Anglican ceremony. Two of the candidates for episcopal ordination happened to be female, prompting one person to come and protest - shortly before the moment of axios - in voluminous (but inaudible, thanks to the acoustic) voice that this is not what God wants. He was given a moment, before the imposing figures of 'wandsman' (surely this is what the Ostiarius is for?) and the Lord Bishop of London began to draw closer, whereupon he calmly moved toward the exit, still bellowing lines from his tract. The Archbishop reminded the congregation that women may now be bishops in the Church of England (as clerical colleagues behind me muttered the sort of things they'd condemn among their own congregations, if directed at an anti-social interloper) and we got on with it.

Apparently, among dissenters on the ordination of women, it isn't sporting to go criticising others' methods, but I can do nothing but deplore the manners and motives of protesters who, disregarding the era of trust and mutual flourishing, decide that interrupting divine worship - even if we dispute what is going on there - is the way forward. It is a backwards step, is unrepresentative of the desires and will of, well, everyone, and stokes the ire of those who have yearned to see such moments as the ordination of a woman as bishop in the Church of England.

What is most dispiriting is that, as a fellow dissenter, it drew too much attention to my own method and manner of dissent. Perhaps I assume too much, and that to have held my tongue was always likely to draw stern gazes, or make me feel self-conscious, or that noone noticed or cared. On that I shall never know.

Besides the receiving of Holy Communion, which I chose not to do on this occasion for an abundance of reasons, there was only one point where I did as others were not. It was as the archbishop requested the 'axios' from the assembled company. It goes like this:

Brothers and sisters, you have heard how great is the charge that N is ready to undertake, and you have heard his declarations. Is it now your will that he should be ordained?
AllIt is.
ArchbishopWill you continually pray for him?
AllWe will.
ArchbishopWill you uphold and encourage him in his ministry?
AllWe will.

It was, on the matter of the first question here and no other, that I held my tongue. Will I pray for my new bishop of Aston? Of course I will, continually. Will I seek to uphold and encourage her in her ministry? Of course I will, and will seek to meet every (implied and explicit) requirement of the Five Guiding Principles in so far as it benefits the mutual flourishing of us both. That commitment does not alter my conscience, nor does it change what I believe in the matter of Holy Order, but it does not give me licence to behave inappropriately. To provoke such derision from the lips of other Christians is surely to give them occasion to sin, which in itself is sin.