Archive for September, 2009

Ive not yet worn my hat indoors...

I've not yet worn my hat indoors...

Cold vicarages seem to be a hot topic for discussion. Since I posted last week I’ve also remembered a couple of other techniques that we use to keep the frostbite at bay.

  • Our electric blanket. Not yet on the bed but absolutely essential for later in the season. With cold feet I cannot get to sleep at all. The poor man’s alternative is the good old hot water bottle. My mother has bought a large selection to be set aside for visitors. The children like them too, especially when they have covers in the shape of racoons.
  • My teasmade. I have a hot cup of tea every morning (Roiboos, without milk, so much less hassle than having to fetch semi skimmed). This is also a great encouragement to prayer and bible reading. What else to do whilst tea-drinking first thing? It’s sometimes a battle to switch off the Today programme, though.

Quite a few commentators have mentioned the ‘sell the vicarage and buy something warm and modern’ option. This is appealing in many ways but also has its downsides. The expectation is that a warm modern vicarage is a pleasure to live and work in and doesn’t cost a bomb to heat or to maintain. However, not all modern vicarages are chosen well – it seems that some are poorly located away from the church or community, and houses that are not specifically designed as vicarages can lack rooms of the right size or configuration.

In our diocese cold vicarages have been identified as a source of clergy stress and there are plans afoot for double glazing. In the meantime, please continue to share your warmth tips.

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I was listening to Radio 4’s ‘The News Quiz’ on BBC iPlayer earlier this evening. As usual, it was laugh-out-loud funny, but I especially enjoyed a section about 12 minutes in. It was about the dear old Church of England and some of the activities of bishops in the run-up to Back to Church Sunday, especially the Bishop of Reading’s remark that Jesus would be more likely to shop at Aldi or Asda rather than Marks and Spencer.

Jeremy Hardy summed up the English experience of cultural Christianity quite well:

I was raised in the Church of England. I can’t say I’m lapsed. You can’t really lapse if you’re an Anglican. You don’t lose your faith, you just can’t remember where you left it.

Another panelist remarked:

He would shop at Aldi…. Jesus saves.

If you want to listen for yourself it will be available on iPlayer until Friday 2nd October.

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Living in a vicarage is an enormous privilege. Ours is a seven-bedroomed three storey detached Victorian house with a large garden, outbuildings and a cellar. It’s wonderful to have so much space to live in and to share with parishioners as we offer hospitality.

Big houses can be freeeeezing

Big houses can be freeeeezing

Vicars tend to have big houses so that they can have meetings and offer hospitality (well, I guess that’s the reasoning). I think there are even some minimum size stipulations for living rooms to ensure that you can fit the entire PCC in. So we have a big house. And a stipend of about £20k. The size of the budget is not at all proportionate to the size of the house and the associated heating bills. In fact, if we hadn’t made careful provision, I’m sure we’d fall into the government’s ‘fuel poverty’ bracket (more than 10% of income spent on heating).

We have a boiler that’s 20 years old, single glazed sash windows and 10 foot ceilings. Beautiful but freezing. The diocese is poor and doesn’t have the budget to ensure modern levels of comfort in every house.

So what techniques do clergy families use to keep warm in their huge and unheatable homes?

  • Clothing layers and slippers. As I type this up I am wearing my fleece gilet. Essential clothing for a vicar’s wife. At our last church, the vicar’s wife had a down-filled one which she wore nearly all year round.
  • Limited room use. We stick to the kitchen and one family room most of the time.
  • Baking. And porridge in the mornings. It really helps if you have the cooker on.

Before we moved here, we also decided to use some savings, our harvest from working as engineers in the Far East before we had children. We decided that we’d spend it on being warm in the vicarage. So we’ve installed two wood-burning stoves in the main reception rooms and underfloor heating in the bathrooms. We reckoned that this way we could be warm in the mornings and evenings without having to pay for the boiler to heat the whole house.

This seems to be working very well so far. We’ve managed to remain very comfortable without the heating until now and are hoping we can last until half term this way. The vicar is getting very skilful with the wood-burning stoves, but I’ll save all that for another post.

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Today I’m beginning a little series about Sunday lunches in our Vicarage. I’m planning to post some recipes and photos and everything. But for today I want to just talk about who comes to lunch.

We have found that Sunday lunch is a great opportunity to offer hospitality and get to know people in the congregation. Although folk in the inner city don’t really do dinner parties, people are very happy to come over for a meal after church.

I can't promise beef every Sunday

I can't promise beef every week

Ever since I lived and worked in Cambridge in my twenties, my Vicarage Sunday lunch model has been the amazing meals served up by Fiona Ashton, (wife of Mark, vicar of StAG). Every week (it seemed) about 15 people joined the family for lunch, with a full roast and at least three puddings. I only went a couple of times – in a church of over 700 people I was just delighted to be asked. I’m not sure how Mark and Fiona organised their guest list either, but it was wonderful to be able to meet a real mix of people, as well as spend time with the Ashtons.

When we moved to our Vicarage, we decided we would try to be vaguely systematic and invite (over time) everyone on our church’s electoral roll (71 people). So far (six months in) I think we’re about a third of the way through. Of course, we’ve had a few Sundays off, a few with local friends, a few with visiting family and a couple of Sunday afternoon open houses (with tea and cake) when we first arrived. And yesterday the bishop came over with his family. We also try and invite newcomers if we can. One of the reasons that we settled in our church in Malaysia was the wonderful hospitality offered to us on our first Sunday there.

Sometimes it’s just one family who comes over, other times we manage a mix of people. Our table is not quite large enough for Ashton-sized gatherings but often there are ten or more people squeezed in. We can have more folk when the weather is good and we can sit in the garden.

I love our Sunday lunches and our kids enjoy meeting a wide range of people. The Queen is great at being hospitable and specialises in taking snacks round as I panic with the gravy at the last minute. The boys specialise in eating up quickly and wanting pudding. I hope they keep enjoying them as they get older, as I see these lunches as an important part of our ministry here – one that all the family can share in.

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So the kids are back at school and everyone is busy catching up on the local gossip. The neighbourhood drug dealers are a popular topic of conversation. Chattychap thinks that some of the teenagers in the area are being recruited to make the actual drug deliveries. This distances the dealers from the deals. And sadly some of the local kids don’t have very clear moral frameworks and would find the idea of making easy money very appealing.

Everyone knows who the dealers are, even the local police (I had a chat with them the other day about it). But to nick them, they need to catch them with the stuff, or in the act. This is extremely tricky, with a single PC and two PCSOs covering an area a good bit larger than our parish, which is home to nearly 3,000 souls.

The PCSOs told me that the best way that local people can help to get rid of these guys is to note any deals or activity that we see happening and pool them together to give to the police. But mostly it feels like nothing is being done, even though everyone knows what’s going on.

I saw the dealers just the other day, hanging about with some other guys at the top of our street. I couldn’t see a drug deal, but they were just standing around looking suspicious, maybe waiting for a deal or a delivery. Can the police use that? I doubt it.

Recently an elderly lady in our congregation was badly hurt when she was mugged very near to the church. The thief stole her handbag in broad daylight. Most people agree that it was probably a drug addict. We need to rid our neighbourhood of the dealers, but it seems an almost impossible task. I believe in the transforming power of the gospel, but we need to know people first to tell them of the forgiveness Jesus can give and how he can change lives. And I’m a little nervous about introducing myself.

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I’m not sure how many people is a crowd, but we did have 15 children in our garden on Saturday afternoon. A sunny day always draws the masses, but after the 20th (I am not exaggerating) ring on the doorbell, I did begin to get a little hysterical.

Thankfully, some of the kids were there with their mums, which meant I was able to sit outside and enjoy a coffee with them and not feel that I had sole supervision responsibility. The bigger kids who were after bike mending spanners did not gain garden admittance. But they rang at least four times.

The trampoline can get a little crowded

The trampoline can get a little crowded

We have the largest garden in the neighbourhood, a trampoline and a monkey swing and sociable kids, so it’s no surprise that they all want to come and play. Folk don’t arrange playdates or invite their children’s friends over for tea in the inner city – the kids seem to arrange the social diaries themselves. If I’m feeling up to it I’ll let most of them in, but I’m feeling a need to reapply my Vicarage and garden entry rules. Am I missing any?

  1. No entry without me seeing you come in.
  2. No entry if my kids are not in the mood.
  3. No entry if I haven’t met your mum/nan/carer (I didn’t apply this rigorously enough yesterday).
  4. You go home when I say.
  5. Shoes off indoors.
  6. Be kind to everyone.
  7. Speak in a way that pleases God.

We want to be hospitable to the local children – we have a hospitable God who invites us to eat at his table, and we want to reflect his character. It’s a challenge for me to be graciously inviting all the time though. And so on Sunday I lacked grace with a doorstep caller. I am praying that I will remember God’s welcome more and more so that I am able to share it in increasing measure.

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Although I am sadly unable to attend myself (and my theological expertise may not be up to it) I would like to encourage my more expert readers to check out this training opportunity.

I know both the speakers well and have learnt much about the Lord from them both – they are godly Christians and wonderful communicators. I am sure that the day will be both stimulating and fun. You can check out both their websites.

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The Vicar organised a men’s breakfast last Saturday morning. After their bacon and eggs the chaps did some work in the churchyard. Our churchyard is pretty small – there’s the new playground, some lovely trees and a few dilapidated headstones and chest tombs. But it’s also completely open, and many people walk through it as a shortcut. Others use it for less civilised purposes.

The gardening crew last week only unearthed the usual debris – Kestrel Super Strength beer cans, Sobieski Polish vodka bottles, used condoms, newspapers, clothes – everything you’d want for a top evening’s entertainment. It was just before the Vicar family went on our summer camping holiday a few weeks ago that we found something a little unexpected.

We were on our way back to the Vicarage at lunchtime, after our main Sunday service, when I spotted a green metal box propped up against one of the chest tombs. It looked very new, so we picked it up and had a look inside. It was a two burner camping stove, completely unused. Well, it was most tempting. A week to our longest ever camping trip and we only have a piddly single burner stove.

Just the job for a family that camps

Just the job for a family that camps

We valiantly resisted the urge simply to snaffle it, though, and the Vicar handed it in at our local police station. There was speculation as to its origin – was it nicked by one of the local drug addicts, who then struggled to find a buyer? Had it belonged to the Roma gentlemen who’d been sleeping out on the church steps on the balmy summer evenings? The police decided they’d log it as lost property. And told the Vicar that if no-one had come looking for it by the first week in September, then he could claim it.

So although we camped with the one burner stove this summer, next summer we will have gourmet options. The snazzy new stove is now sitting in our cellar. And if anyone would like to leave some extra comfy camping mats in our churchyard, I’d be very happy.

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Our family visited West Bromwich’s very expensive new art gallery this weekend. We had been at the baptism of Polly’s baby at the local catholic church and had time before the chicken roasting in the Vicarage oven was going to be cooked, so we dropped into the big black fish tank with Babapapa windows.

Is it a huge waste of money or an investment for the future?

A huge waste of money or an investment for the future?

We have been in before (for expensive coffee and a view of the glitzy loos), but the art gallery part has only just opened, so this was our first opportunity to gauge whether the £67 million that was spent has been really worthwhile.

Of course, the word on the street is that it is a complete waste of money for a town which has no cinema, no bowling alley and no swimming pool. But let’s give it a chance, eh? We loved the art gallery in Wolverhampton, where you could look at beautiful pictures, dress up as a Georgian, feel textured sculptures and eat wonderful salad selections. I would sometimes just pop in with the kids for half an hour to visit their favourite exhibits.

So how was the Public going to shape up? Would the kids enjoy it? And would the grown ups?

First off, I have to say that the curators are a bit overkeen. I like to look at the art and spend time in my own head in a gallery. And the kids like to do their own thing. So having three or four curators launch themselves at us telling us what to do was a little off-putting.  Maybe they were a bit bored – there seems to be rather too many of them.  It’s great to have them there to ask things of, but when they just started suggesting what we do, I felt rather patronised. Like we were ignorant and wouldn’t know what to do and might not be able to read any instructions or labels. It made me a bit grumpy, to tell the truth. If I want people to leap on me and ask me if I need any help, I’ll go to a posh frock shop.

Secondly, there’s not a lot there. And I don’t want to sound ignorant or anything, but I don’t think that much of it was what I’d call art. There were four sculptures and some good photos of the Black Country from the 1960s. But the rest consisted of the following:

  • What the kids called ‘dance mats’ and were basically slightly weird and not very good computer games.
  • Some fun video projectors which enabled you to see yourself sitting on a bench with people sitting on a different bench.
  • Some touch screen digital photo frames with photos of art projects that have happened at the Public over the summer.
  • A couple of short movies (one on the Public and one on Malcolm X).
  • A chance to make an animation of yourself.
  • Some gadgets which you could swirl your hands in to make coloured bubbles appear on some round projector screens.

I’d much rather look at a couple of good paintings and let the kids dress up in funky ’60s clothing, like in Wolverhampton’s pop art gallery.

Now from their latest magazine, I can see that there is more to the place than the exhibition, and we enjoyed hearing wafts of live jazz as we ambled down the long wooden ramp that most of the gallery seems to comprise of. And I liked the look of their Saturday art club and might even bring the kids along one week.

But as for the exhibition, the children enjoyed jumping about on the ‘dance mats’ and swirling their hands to make bubbles. And they liked the free self portrait photo. But the Vicar and I were pretty bored. And I can’t see the gallery exciting my kids about art, especially not compared to what they could experience in Wolverhampton. I wonder what they could have done with a cheap refurbished factory and money spent on real art instead? Or money spent on artists in every primary school in Sandwell.

So in my view, the Public seems rather like the Millenium Dome. A visionary building with less than visionary contents. The Public has so far failed to impress this section of West Brom’s public.

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Orange Puffle Haircut

It being almost back-to-school time, today I took the Joker and the Engineer to our local barbershop for a haircut. I have in mind for my boys to have lovely messed-up surfer hair, but my aim keeps on being thwarted by my lack of ability to describe what I want to the barbers. And by the desire of the barbers to use the clippers without a guard. And sometimes because the barbers unfathomably don’t get the Boden catalogue.

Anyway, today I managed to ensure that not all the hair was chopped off, so the surfer look is not completely out of reach. In the meantime, the Engineer came home with lots of gel in his hair. We decided he looked like an orange puffle (from Club Penguin). Do you agree?

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