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Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber


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Book Review: The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber

This tale of a Christian missionary in space tells us more about life, love and faith than most down-to-earth fiction.

Michel Faber once said that he was an atheist. If that is still true, his latest novel — The Book of Strange New Things — suggests that he takes religion so seriously, considers it so valuable, that he cannot bring himself to sully it by believing. Within the novel, the ‘Book of Strange New Things’ is the Bible, and so Faber has written his own bible, what he wants to say to our common humanity about life and death, faith and doubt. He has produced something far more lucid and alive to human joys and sorrows than any bowdlerised attempt by AC Grayling.

The book is full of humour, that warm kind of wit that dimples the cheeks when we catch a glimpse of the fact that everyday human existence was ever part comedy. Yet Faber had me weeping in despair for humanity too, and he gently led me back and forth between the two until I understood the need for both.

Peter Leigh is an English Christian pastor who has been called to be a missionary. To say that Peter’s marriage to Beatrice is a happy one is an understatement: they are a perfect partnership and their love-life is good. But that mission means that they will be apart for the first time since they married. The novel opens with the couple driving to Heathrow Airport, finding a lay-by for last-minute lovemaking, and the nervous separation.

The Book of Strange New Things is sci-fi, but it would be wrong to pigeon-hole it as genre fiction. It depicts a near future: near enough for everything to be totally recognisable as if it were today. The only difference is that a faceless corporation — USIC — has started a colony on the planet Oasis (so named in competition by a schoolgirl in Nebraska). So much, so sci-fi, except that Peter has been called to bring the Gospel to the inhabitants of Oasis, the Oasans — when a colleague refers to them as ‘aliens’, Peter reminds her that the humans are the aliens on Oasis. We are saved from too much sci-fi by the fact that we are limited to Peter’s experience and limited understanding of what is going on. As is common practice in sci-fi, Peter is put into a drug-induced suspended animation for the month-long ‘Jump’ to Oasis, resulting in some crazy, mind-bending jet lag. On arrival, his liaison, Grainger, apparently gives him a full briefing, but, as he cannot remember, we too are left in the dark about the practicalities of living in an extraterrestrial colony until Peter find out the hard way. And there is that nagging question: why would USIC want to spend millions to send a missionary into space?

The USIC base on Oasis is described as the most ugly airport terminal imaginable. Its concrete edifice is populated by a skeleton workforce that is still setting things up. Peter’s colleagues are characters, but not that characterful — somewhat self-repressed workaholics. The functional mess hall where the members of the community meet serves some expensive imported earth food alongside simulated earth favourites made from the various flora and fauna of Oasis, all to the background drone of Patsy Cline, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. Like the food, all is recognisable and yet somehow alien.

While Peter is bringing the Good News to the Oasans, there is Bad News from Bea about far-away Earth. The ‘Shoot’ — a text-only interstellar messaging relay — enables Bea and Peter to write to each other, but their text-only relationship is awkward, unnatural. Both now inhabit worlds that the other cannot but fail to understand. First of all the news is full of terrible natural disasters, then Tesco stops stocking any decent chocolate desert, and finally Tesco goes bust. Culverting the sewer of Hollywood disaster movies, one wonders whether this is a more real description of how we might experience the beginning of the end of the world from suburbia. Michel Faber is on record for turning down British citizenship because of the Iraq war, and one can see that for him just nudging Cameron’s crumbling Britain up a gear makes for an apocalypse that is both frightening and believable.

At first the Oasans look like mediaeval monks. They are short and thin, wearing pastel-coloured hooded robes, and live a communal life of simple agriculture, without machines or electricity. When Peter first takes a look inside one of their cowls what he sees is described

“Here was a face that was nothing like a face. Instead, it was a massive whitish-pink walnut kernel. Or no: even more, it resembled a placenta with two foetuses — maybe three-months-old twins, hairless and blind — nestled head to head, knee to forehead. Their swollen heads constituted the Oasan’s clefted cheeks, their spindly arms and webbed feet merged into a tangle of translucent flesh that might contain — in some form unrecognisable to him — a mouth, nose, eyes.”

For Peter’s first, official visit to the Oasans, they have scrawled ‘WELCOME’ above the door to one of their houses. As his new flock gather, rather surprisingly they break into a few verses of ‘Amazing grace’, lisped and warbled by alien throats. They are desperate for him to read to them from the ‘Book of Strange New Things’ about the ‘technique of Jesus’.

The book design in itself is a delight: the white-and-gold dust jacket represents the spiral dance of the rain of Oasis. As a lover of fine typesetting, the publishers Canongate made the commendable decision to set the text in Eric Gill’s Perpetua, the ‘Shoot’ messages between Peter and Bea are in the clean, typewriterly Officina Sans, but best of all is the book’s use of Blambot’s We Come in Peace, a comic-book font for representing alien languages. Some of the Oasans have learnt English, but their inability to pronounce ‘s’, ‘t’ and ‘ch’ means that these are replaced by Blambot’s symbols. Later, as Peter learns their language, we see whole words, even speeches, in this script, and the reader is left to imagine how these alien sounds are made.

The Book of Strange New Things deserves rereading. Michel Faber has packed it with little observations and cryptic references. Faber litters the narrative with hanging questions and mysteries, letting a few go unanswered, and surprising the reader with some rather mundane answers to others, bringing sci-fi bang down to earth — and rather wonderfully.

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Liturgy bits: a spotter’s guide to Evensong

Old picture of the author wearing Anglican choir habit.

Old picture of the author wearing Anglican choir habit.

Evensong is a peculiar Anglican creature. It is the liturgy that has become the most distinctively Anglican, and has become a treasured bulwark of tradition. This article is a little, geeky exploration of what is Evensong and its sub-species.

The word ‘Evensong’ is first documented by the OED in the Old English of the Canons of Ælfric (c. 1000) as æfen-sang. Until the Reformation, this English word was used to describe the office of Vespers, the seventh of the round of eight daily offices, said just before sunset.

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer produced two drafts of how the reformed Church of England should pray each day. The first, more radical plan was to consolidate the eight offices down to two. When, eventually, Henry Tudor junior died, Cranmer was free to produce the first Book of Common Prayer, published 1549. Its two daily offices were named ‘Matins’ and ‘Evensong’ (the former being the name of the first of the pre-Reformation offices, which also had the colourful Old English name uht-sang, which persisted as ‘Oughtensong’ in Middle English). With Cranmer’s revised Prayer Book of 1552, the quaint (or poetic) names of the two offices were officially replaced with the more robust (or prosaic) ‘Morning and Evening Prayer’. Yet the old names continued to live on, to the extent that it is rather daft to speak of ‘Choral Evening Prayer’.

Because of the pressures on Sunday mornings, especially with the restoration of the Parish Eucharist as the main Sunday mid-morning service, major celebrations of Matins have become rather few and far between. However, in twilight isolation Evensong has remained strong. In the nineteenth century, the ‘Fully Choral Service’ became a sign of aspirational excellence in neo-gothic, middle-class churches, aping cathedrals with their processions and besurpliced choirs. I believe that movement has skewed our understanding of  Evensong to assume that only a proper Choral Evensong will do, when we have forgotten how to do a good — liturgically and musically — Evensong that is suited to a church that cannot really cope with the demanding choral repertoire.

What about those sub-species? Continue reading


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Liturgy bits: let us pray the collect

The collect (stress on first syllable: KOL-ekt) is a traditional, formal short prayer of Western Christianity. The Latin missal simply calls it oratio (‘prayer’). However, the Gregorian Sacramentary has oratio ad collectam, and then, in two places, simply collecta. In the earlier Gallican use, the term is first collectio, before becoming collecta. The term remained in popular use among churchgoers while missals chose oratio. Perhaps it is no surprise that the Book of Common Prayer chose the popular vernacular name ‘collect’, but more surprising that the new translation of the Catholic missal has opted for ‘collect’ where its predecessor had a prosaic ‘opening prayer‘. The collects of the Church of England and the Catholic Church preserve many old Latin models.

The structure of collects are widely discussed and well known — being

  1. invocation, e.g. Almighty God
  2. divine attribute (quiclause), e.g. unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid
  3. petition, e.g. cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit
  4. consequence (ut-clause), e.g. that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name
  5. doxology, e.g. through Christ our Lord

The major division of the collect is between clauses 1–2 and 3–4, often marked with a semicolon. In collects for saints, the second clause says something about the saint in question rather than describing a divine attribute. Rather wonderfully, this shows the holy life as a glimpse of divine revelation. Most collects address God the Father, and so the doxology (which is often not written out in full) declares that our prayer is made through (per) Christ (or ‘the same’ Christ if he is mentioned in the body of the collect), and may add the unity of the Holy Spirit too.

Some have remarked that the quality of the collect is frame for our petitionary prayer which should flow from an understanding of God’s nature. It is a snapshot of how lex orandi models lex credendi, or, put another way, how doctrine should feed into our spiritual life.

At the eucharist, the praying of the collect concludes the gathering rite, the first part of the liturgy, and thus herald the Bible readings. The placing of collects for Sundays and holy days together with the epistles and gospels in the Book of Common Prayer (which makes sense, because one reads the collect, epistle and gospel in order) has led to some Anglicans, particularly evangelicals, to desire collects that reflect the readings or themes of the day. I think this is wrong, seeing as the collects are designed succinctly to draw divine qualities into our daily lives, and so belong to our gathering and preparation rather than an introduction to the readings. The gathering rite at its simplest (and ’tis a joy to be simple) has just a liturgical greeting (The Lord be with you) and a collect, although prayers of penitence usually occur between the two.

The Catholic Church developed a series of other collect-like presidential prayers: the prayer over the gifts and the post-communion prayer. Common Worship has fully embraced post-communion prayers, gathering them with the collects proper, and it suggests some ‘prayers at the preparation of the table’ that cover some elements of the traditional offertory prayers.

In daily prayer, the collect comes at the end of the intercession. In the Book of Common Prayer, three collects (or four during Advent and Lent) follow the preces toward the formal conclusion of matins and evensong. Common Worship has followed the modern practice of retaining just one collect where a series of such had previously been used. However, its structural framework means that an unchanging ‘opening prayer’ is also used.

Let us pray, and its praxis

Modern liturgical sensibility around the collect can be summarised

  1. The bidding ‘Let us pray’ (oremus) is important
  2. The use of silence between bidding and collect is important
  3. The collect should be prayed deliberately: it is important
  4. The congregational ‘Amen’ is important

It has taken fifteen years of ministry for me to begin to internalise and practise this. It is not as simple as it sounds. I might bid ‘Let us pray’, but it was as if I were saying ‘I shall now read a prayer out of the book’. There is still the problem that some hear those words as a direction to get on their knees, but there are some relics of an instruction flectamus genua for the silence with levate for the collect. Knowing that oremus could be expanded into a fuller bidding, I would sometimes select a bon mot from the collect and say something like ‘Let us pray that God might cleanse our hearts that we may worship him’. It was a good idea, but it ended up like a liturgical wink: ‘see what I did there? I can read ahead!’

The silence proved a problem too. How long should it be? If it were too long, people would fidget, or think that I had forgotten the book of collects. The fundamental problem with my praxis was that is was superficial, skin-deep. The bidding, even if it be the simple ‘Let us pray’, should convey a call to deep, heartfelt prayer. As Romans 8.26–27 has it

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

If the bidding can convey the merest sense of those verses, then the silence just works. The bidding then is not an introduction to the collect, but to the silence. The collect then is a voicing of an aspect of the heartfelt silent prayer. A good trigger that works for me is a simple bidding like ‘Let us pray deeply’ or ‘From the depths of our hearts, let us pray’. Words alone are not enough; as a priest I need to model this deep prayer. I must not be looking at the book or looking around, but I must pray with bowed head. Whether the silence is ten or twenty seconds, or more, does not matter, as quantity of silence is replaced by quality. In a church full of people who want to be led in prayer, this works well. However, at weddings, funerals and baptisms, among those who may not be regular churchgoers, and who may not be focused mainly on spiritual things, the collect becomes transformative. There is a witty saying when people see me in a cassock — ‘Say one for me’ — and this is ‘Say one with me: it’s deep within you, and you want to pray’.

The celebrant faces the people squarely during all this in modern rites. Hands are folded for the bidding and silence. The arms are raised to the orans position for praying the collect. At the doxology, the hands are folded once more. The orans position is somewhat Y-shaped. The hands are raised upward, but no higher than the shoulder. The expansion of the gesture should be determined by whatever looks natural (not too tight and Tridentine, not too large and theatrical) and the space (it can be larger at a high altar, smaller in a cozy chapel).


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Recording of Rachmaninoff Vespers by the Hertford College Chapel Choir

baptism_icon

Icon of the Baptism of Christ in Hertford College Chapel, painted by Silvia Dimitrova-Potter.

The Hertford College Chapel Choir performed the sublime Vespers (Op. 37: Всенощное бдение All-night Vigil) by Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff (1873–1943) to a packed chapel at a late-evening service on Tuesday 12 February 2013. Vespers was written in Moscow in 1915. It is considered to be some of his finest work, combing his musical genius with scholarly treatment of the chant traditions. It was conducted by our senior organ scholar, Edmund Whitehead.

Below is the live recording of five movements from the Vespers:

  1. Свете тихий Svete tikhiy (Φῶς ἱλαρόν Phōs hilaron),
  2. Ныне отпущаеши Nyne otpushchayeshi (Nunc dimittis),
  3. Богородице Дево Bogoroditse Devo (Ave Maria),
  4. Слава в вышних Богу Slava v vyshnikh Bogu (Matins responses),
  5. Благословен еси Blagosloven yesi (Resurrection troparion).


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Carols from Hertford College, Oxford

nine-lessonsking-carols

We have ended term in Hertford College, Oxford, with joyous song and a couple of carol services. We squeeze Advent and Christmas into the last week of term, even though it is still November. For your edification and jubilation, here is a sample recording of five modern carols performed by Hertford College Chapel Choir.

  1. Gardner Tomorrow shall be my dancing day
  2. Whitacre Lux aurumque
  3. Allain In the bleak mid-winter (world première)
  4. Sandström Det är en ros utsprungen
  5. Leighton Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child

 


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Pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Willesden

Our Lady of Willesden, the Black Virgin

Our Lady of Willesden, the Black Virgin

This morning I took the train to North-West London on a personal pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Willesden. A few weeks ago I received my copy of the new Britain’s holiest places by Nick Mayhew Smith. It’s a wonderful travel guide with personal observations to the places of Christian heritage around Britain. I must confess that I had never heard of Our Lady of Willesden. Reading Mayhew Smith’s one page write-up, I jumped on the train this morning to make pilgrimage.

The Shrine is both oddly English and oddly London. It is in the Parish Church of St Mary Willesden, a rather pretty English parish church surrounded by a verdant graveyard, typical of so many village churches up and down the country. Yet just beyond its stone boundary wall is a busy roundabout with red London double-deckers ferrying passengers to and from Neasden Tube Station.

St Mary's Church, Willesden

St Mary's Church, Willesden

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Transgender and the church

Christina Beardsley

Christina Beardsley

This week has been declared Transgender Faith Action Week by the Interfaith Coalition for Transgender Equality, a fact to which I was drawn by Becky Garrison‘s article for Cif Belief. This comes after the wonderful 4thought.tv (which airs short personal statements on controversial subjects after the evening news on Channel 4) spent a week discussing “Is it wrong to change gender?

The week began with a video by Christina Beardsley, a Church of England priest, hospital chaplain and vice-chair of Changing Attitude. Beardsley transitioned a decade ago, after 23 years of ordained ministry, and gave a succinct and compelling 105 seconds on the church and transgender. After introducing herself, she loses no time in making the point: “There is no theological objection to someone changing gender”. No ifs, no buts, no cautious relative clauses, and it is a quote she takes from George Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, and one who in no way could be labelled as a liberal. If that were not shocking enough for many people ­Christian and non-Christian alike — she continues by lauding the Bible for being transgender friendly. I really enjoyed seeing her hard-hitting approach, made all the more necessary due to the inherent prejudice against transgender, despite strong theological arguments to the contrary.

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