December 2009

Prayer to St. Stephen
We give thee thanks, O Lord of glory, for the example of the first martyr Stephen, who looked up to heaven and prayed for his persecutors to thy Son Jesus Christ, who standeth at thy right hand: where he liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting.

Prayer of Saint Stephen Martyr
Loving God, Saint Stephen was one of the first deacons in the Church. The Apostles ordained him with six others because they needed ministers who wouldoversee the needs of the poor and the widowed. His holiness was so evident that when he preached to his enemies, his face glowed brightly like an angel’s. I ask him to pray for those who have been called to a life of service as ordained deacons. O Lord, help them to be a sign of Your love in their parishes and in the world where they live and work. Bless them with a vision of their ministry that stirs them to passion and tireless effort. Saint Stephen, pray for us. Amen.

Quelle est cette odeur agréable, 
Bergers, qui ravit tous nos sens? 
S’exhale-t’il rien de semblable 
Au milieu des fleurs du printemps? 
Quelle est cette odeur agréable 
Bergers, qui ravit tous nos sens?

What is this pleasant fragrance, 
shepherds, which delights all our senses? 
Does anything like this breathe 
amongst the flowers of Spring?

Mais quelle éclatante lumière 
Dans la nuit vient frapper nos yeux! 
L’astre du jour, dans sa carrière, 
Fut-il jamais si radieux? 
Mais quelle éclatante lumière 
Dans la nuit vient frapper nos yeux!

But what a brilliant light 
in the darkness beats upon our eyes! 
Was ever the star of day, in its course, 
as radiant as this?

A Bethléem, dans une crèche, 
ll vient de vous naître un Sauveur; 
Allons, que rien ne vous empêche 
D’adorer votre Rédempteur. 
A Bethléem, dans une crèche, 
ll vient de vous naître un Sauveur.

At Bethlehem, in a crib, 
there has just been born to you a Saviour. 
Come, let nothing prevent you 
from worshipping your Redeemer.

Dieu tout-puissant, gloire éternelle 
Vous soit rendue jusqu’aux cieux; 
Que la paix soit universelle, 
Que la grâce abonde en tous lieux. 
Dieu tout-puissant, gloire éternelle 
Vous soit rendue jusqu’aux cieux.

All-powerful God, may eternal glory 
be paid to you in the highest heaven. 
May peace reign universal, 
and may grace abound in all lands.

One of my favourite artists died this week – a painter who was an outstanding colourist. Here is his obituary from the Times:

Craigie Aitchison was one of those visionary individualists whom Britain throws up from time to time. The first sight of a picture by him might suggest a dangerous naivety, an outrageously childlike religiosity, a decorative triviality, even technical incompetence; but not for long.

His paintings soon reveal a spontaneity of response followed into supremely calculated form and effect; the intensity that only comes from deep experience; and the brilliance of the true artist who can simplify his images almost to abstract shapes, yet intensify their communication.

Craigie Ronald John Aitchison was born in 1926, the younger son of a distinguished lawyer, Lord Aitchison, who was Labour MP for Kilmarnock, 1929-33, and Lord Advocate for Scotland during those years. He died when Craigie was 15.

His son abandoned his original inclination towards dress design since he felt he could not draw adequately. The possibility of studying architecture arose, but finally Craigie — who had frequently read with enthusiasm his father’s legal papers, including the appeals against conviction for murder in which his father specialised — decided to follow his father into law, and read British history and jurisprudence at the University of Edinburgh, then at the Middle Temple in London. However, he found himself more interested in the human drama of the law than in legal niceties, and began to take painting lessons from Adrian Daintrey.

Aitchison entered the Slade School of Art in 1952 as a fee-paying student, and was delighted to be there — while resisting instruction in painting, anatomy, perspective or art history. However, he did appreciate advice from Robert Medle and accepted Sir William Coldstream’s example, as taught in his select class there, of basing portraiture on strict measurement; Aitchison subsequently always began his portraits from the eyebrows outward.

Aitchison won an Italian government travelling scholarship in 1955, and the light, the landscape, and the art — particularly the early Italian religious works of stylised simplicity — were a revelation to him. Using vivid colours such as purples and yellows as his starting point — and Aitchison is one of the outstanding colourists of the 20th century, even including abstract painters — he began to produce portraits; still-life paintings; landscapes often with reminiscences of Tulliallan, his family home in Scotland; and contemplative religious subjects; mostly Crucifixions, often backed by the elements of this familiar landscape, with its distant profile of Holy Island. These were pared down to minimal detail, with the understated simplicity of early Italian devotional painting. Their strong colour and suffused emotional ground at first recalled Odilon Redon; later, as the highly calculated edges of his forms became sharper, the comparison with Matisse suggested itself.

After early inclusion in group shows at Gimpel and Gallery One, a fellow student, Michael Andrews, commended Aitchison to Helen Lessore, who gave him shows at her Beaux Arts Gallery in 1959, 1961 and 1964; while the Arts Council included his paintings in its New Painting exhibitions in London and on tour, from 1958 to 1961.

An admirer of Gauguin — after Piero della Francesca and Giotto — Aitchison found non-white people “a thousand times more exciting to paint”, if only for the way their skin set off the colours of their clothes; it was the availability of such friends as models that drew Aitchison from the clear air of Arran to set up his studio in South London in Kennington, in a house full of brightly coloured kitsch and bric-a-brac.

It was always inhabited by one, two or three Bedlington terriers, which he loved to paint and which remind one irresistibly of the dog keeping silent watch over the body of a nymph in Piero di Cosimo’s Mythological Subject (otherwise known as The Death of Procris), in the National Gallery.

He also bought a house — with its own chapel — at Montecastelli San Gusme, near Siena.

Despite the suspicions of some critics confronted by Aitchison’s economy of means, his art won a devoted and affectionate following far beyond his many friends from all walks of life; its colour chords became ever more singing, its compositions ever more subtly solid and its objects of contemplation, especially the Crucifixions which could be like flayed skins, ever more audaciously minimal, without losing their intensity or their innocence, or becoming precious. Aitchison maintained a blithely timeless vision, despite his thoroughly contemporary means of expression. “Ever since the world began, there have been the same birds on the same trees,” he said.

He was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1978, and a full academician in 1988. He was given a retrospective of his work from 1953 to 1981 at the Arts Council Serpentine Gallery in 1981-82. He won the RA’s Korn Ferry International Award in 1989 and again in 1991, the Jerwood Foundation Award in 1994, and the Nordstern Art Prize in 2000.

In 1996 he was commissioned to paint a mural of Calvary — a landscape illuminated by a mystical light — for the Gothic Revivalist Truro Cathedral in Cornwall. Other sacred works by him are held by Liverpool Cathedral and the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge.

In 2003 the Royal Academy held a major retrospective of his work, which was so popular that the RA shop produced cups and saucers, ties, mouse mats and memo pads bearing Aitchison designs. He said he did not mind as long as they asked for his approval first.

Aitchison’s popularity increased as the years went by, and there were solo exhibitions at the Albemarle Gallery, Thomas Gibson Fine Art, a retrospective at the Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow, the Timothy Taylor Gallery, the Waddington Galleries and the Long & Ryle gallery among others.The Tate owns four of his works and others are in public collections in Aberdeen, Birmingham, Glasgow, Blackpool, Newcastle, Nottingham, Edinburgh, Cape Town and Melbourne. He was appointed CBE in 1999.

I delight in his work and am very proud to have a couple of pieces….

We are busy here preparing for our Christmas worship – amidst the snow and frost and activity….


 And for those of you who want to join us:

Wednesday 23rd

Holy Communion
Community Carol Service


Thursday 24th

Holy Communion
Nine Lessons and Carols
Midnight Mass


Friday 25th

Holy Communion
Mattins & Sermon
Said Eucharist
Evensong and Procession


Saturday 26th

Holy Communion
Evening Prayer


Sunday 27th

Holy Communion
Mattins & Sermon
Said Eucharist with hymns
Evening Prayer with hymns



Is Heaven a Place — a Sky — a Tree?
Location’s narrow way is for Ourselves —
Unto the Dead
There’s no Geography —

But State — Endowal — Focus —
Where — Omnipresence — fly?

From Emily Dickinson, We pray — to Heaven

The Church of England has taken a pounding from critics, but Rowan Williams has reasons to be cheerful as Christmas approaches, says a leading Anglican historian and commentator,Diarmaid MacCulloch ( printed in the The Observer  Sunday 20 December 2009)

I thought this letter worth pondering?


Dear Archbishop Rowan,

Even though I’m not sending Christmas cards this year – ran out of time – you are not going to escape my seasonal circular letter. It is filled not with the record of my many achievements, holidays taken, operations survived and the GCSE results of my imaginary children, but instead has a few tidings of great joy, because you seem to need them at the moment.

You sounded a bit down the other day when you were talking to the Daily Telegraph, complaining that our government assumes “that religion is a problem, an eccentricity practised by oddities, foreigners and minorities”. Well, the government is often right about that, so if I were you I wouldn’t worry about it too much. I’d be more worried if the government didn’t think religion was a problem.

The Telegraph came up with more why-oh-why material last week, publishing the results of a survey indicating that only half those questioned in this country called themselves Christian. I wouldn’t pay too much attention to that either. God will no doubt cope. Let me draw on the words of the Blessed Ian Dury and give you some reasons to be cheerful: one, two, three.

The first reason is the established Church of England. It’s true, as that Telegraph survey suggests, that it’s not what it was, and the change has been astonishingly quick – encompassing my own still not over-prolonged lifetime. When my father, an Anglican parson, moved in the mid-1950s to become rector of a little country parish in Suffolk, there were still old ladies who would curtsy to him in the street, just because he was the rector.

Worldly power has gone out of the established church, and that is why so many of its adherents have fallen away. Thank goodness for that; churches never handle power well. Think what 1950s England was like when you and I were small boys: the stodgy conformity, the sexual hypocrisy, the complacent, monochrome white Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture. The Church of England, in its funny, messy, unwitting way, helped us to get out of that – giving vital help, for instance, to the tentative and much opposed moves in that same decade to decriminalise homosexuality. Compare the grim-faced, negative reaction of the Roman Catholic church in Spain in recent years to new freedoms as democratic Spain has thrown off General Franco’s legacy; give public thanks for the Church of England’s bumbling liberalism.

The C of E doesn’t deliver strident moral or doctrinal judgments to make an easy headline. Journalists and broadcasters often sneer at such indecisiveness, even though rarely would they be inclined to subject themselves to any system of moral stridency. The history of Anglicanism is confused and contradictory, and because the C of E never succeeded in achieving the monopoly over national religion that it undoubtedly sought, the church has become an icon of diversity and plurality for the nation.

Its doctrinal statement, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion of 1563, is pleasantly anchored in past history, fighting ancient battles. Any Anglican would be happy to acknowledge the importance of such history, while not having to believe personally, for instance, that “the laws of the Realm may punish Christian men with death for heinous and grievous offences”. Instead, this established church can be a home for those who go to it to express their doubts as well as their faith. It can be a shelter also for the kaleidoscope of culture, faith and no faith that now makes up our cheerfully diverse nation: an inoculation against the fanatics, both religious and anti-religious.

As the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish withdraw into their own search for national identities, please tell the English, whoever they are, to cherish this ecclesiastical symbol of a rainbow nation. At the moment the English church is afflicted by humourless, tidy-minded souls who want everyone in it to think just like them, and who frequently use the Bible to achieve their aim in the manner of a blunt instrument in an Agatha Christie mystery. Resist them, firm in the faith! Remember what Neil Kinnock achieved against the entryism of Militant in the Labour party of the 1980s. You and archbishop John Sentamu could together witness in the same way for sanity in the C of E.

My second reason to be cheerful is the ordination of women in the Anglican priesthood. Anglicans were the first episcopally governed church grouping to ordain women, way back in the Second World War, in a dire emergency in Japanese-occupied Hong Kong, when the only person available to do one priestly job was a woman, Florence Li Tim-Oi. Loud were the condemnations then, and there has been much angry noise since. But what riches the Church of England has gained since it joined sister-Anglican churches in ordaining women in 1994!

Women priests have faced some extraordinarily childish behaviour from many male counterparts: bullying, condescension and frank undervaluing of their ministry. Besides this has been the glass ceiling that prevented them from being eligible for choice as bishops. Now all that is about to change, and not least among the considerations behind the General Synod’s overwhelming vote for change has been the grace so many women have displayed in the face of masculine bad manners. But there is also an everyday grace that women have brought to the ministry: a general reluctance to join in the theological party strife so common among male clergy, who like nothing better than to line up as Anglo-Catholics or evangelicals, as if they were a set of football hooligans out on the streets after the match.

Consider, Archbishop Rowan, that one of the most positive images of the Anglican parish priest in the English media is the now evergreen Vicar of Dibley. There’s what the Great English Public think of their women clergy: a bit daft, fond of a box of chocolates or two, but, underneath it all, a source of love and common sense for a community that always has the potential to behave badly. When you think of some of the other stereotypes of priests around at the moment in these islands or beyond, just thank your lucky stars for the folksy silliness of the vicar of Dibley.

My third reason is the election of a bishop in a diocese of the American Episcopal Church in California who happens to be a lesbian. There’s maturity for you. Faithful, seriously worshipping Christian folk have made a free decision in an open election that the best candidate for the job is a woman, who has shown by her decisions in life that fidelity, love and honesty are demanded by her practice of the Christian gospel.

These Californian Anglicans are grown-up enough to believe that it is entirely irrelevant that such fidelity, love and honesty are expressed in a same-sex relationship rather than a heterosexual one. Perhaps they have come to the conclusion that it would be a strange sort of supreme being who cared that much for a particular configuration of genitalia in her servants.

The Episcopal Church of the United States of America has been subjected to continuous abuse and carping from fellow Anglicans, attempted poaching of its churches by dissidents and demands that it curb its understanding of love and sexuality to fit in with the sexual mores of an entirely different society. So American Anglicans have decided that enough is enough: that they should just get on with being Anglicans and elect the best person for the job.

It would be nice if the election of bishops in the Church of England were that democratic and so effectively took into consideration the wishes of all the diocesan faithful. That’s a job to be tackled in Lambeth Palace once the mince pies have gone down and the archiepiscopal sherry decanter put back in the sideboard.

Meanwhile, I hope that you may rejoice at Christmas in this multiform church over which you so graciously and thoughtfully preside – give a welcome to the continuing unobtrusive and untrumpeted trickle of converts, not least from your sister church of Rome, join in the worship at one of your cathedrals, so packed to the gills, so well cared for and cherished as never before in their history, and enjoy the heritage of beautiful music that is one of the treasures of Anglicanism.

The Christmas story may be expressed in biblical forms that are not very good history and which some of your congregations may find difficult to take literally, but Christmas music can sweep past the puzzles of words to celebrate a new human life, weak, vulnerable and humble, which is glorified precisely for that. You will know the saying of Thomas Aquinas, which a wise old Dominican friar once quoted to me over a great deal of Irish whiskey, that God is not the answer, he is the question. As long as your church, and all other churches, go on asking the question, they will never die.


Diarmaid MacCulloch is professor of the history of the church at Oxford University. His latest book is A History of Christianity: the First Three Thousand years (Allen Lane). His BBC4 television series on the same subject ended last week.

Pictures are sometimes better than words!



Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
by Robert Frost (1923)
clr gif

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.


The child of Bethlehem, the man on the Cross, Jesus – he embraces the whole of our human experiences – God with us, not just for good times, but for all times. This is the message of the angels – God with us, in times of darkness and cold, sorrow and uncertainty; God with us in the sunshine of contentment and satisfaction. The good news is God is with us, God with us to strengthen, uphold, and renew.

 These truths are best expressed for me in the poetry of hope, and longing and I share these two pieces with you.

 First from Three Poems of Incarnation – Kathleen Raine

Who stands at my door in the storm and rain
On the threshold of being?
One who waits till you call him in
From the empty night

Are you a stranger, out in the storm,
Or has my enemy found me out
On the edge of being?

I am no stranger who stands at the door
Nor enemy come in the secret night,
I am your child, in darkness and fear
On the verge of being.

Go back, my child, to the rain and storm,
For in this house there is sorrow and pain
In the lonely night.

I will not go back for sorrow or pain,
For my true love weeps within
And waits for my coming.

Go back, my babe, to the vacant night
For in this house dwell sin and hate
On the verge of being.

I will not go back for hate or sin,
I will not go back for sorrow or pain,
For my true love mourns within
On the threshold of night.


 And finally from WH Audens Chrismas Oratorio

Because of His visitation, we may no longer desire God as if He were lacking: our redemption is no longer a question of pursuit – but a surrender to Him who is always and everywhere present. Therefore at every moment we pray that, following Him we may depart from our anxiety into His peace.



If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes;

My litany would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

Philip Larkin


Change is the essence of life. Or as Herbert Spencer put it in his Principles of Biology: ‘a living thing is distinguished from a dead thing by the multiplicity of the changes at any moment taking place in it.’ A commitment to changelessness is not only unfortunate, it is impossible. Rigidity is its sin; death is its wages.

I have become more open, more knowledgeable, more thoughtful, more aware of the God who stands by. I have learned that there is more than only way to do a thing. ‘Wisdom,’ Octavio Paz said, ‘lies neither in fixity not in change, but in the dialectic between the two.

Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope

Joan D. Chittister  (page 26)

Next Page »