23 December 2020

Sing a New Song!

A disturbing trend is evident on this blog. At or around the new year, I seem to be full of good intentions. The evidence is that the intentions don't last, but despite this reality I'm having another go. The English Country Parson idea didn't seem to go anywhere so I've decided to concentrate on LankyAnglican as a place where I can spout all of my drivel.

So at the busiest time of year in a uniquely challenging set of circumstances brought by COVID-19, I decided to put up a new Podcast episode. Follow the link to find a chat between me and James Walton, the winner of the 2020 BBC Radio 3 Christmas Carol Competition.

I'm making no promises about frequency of posts, but now I have the gear to do good remote interviews and the podcast is set up, there's really no excuse! 

Here's James' carol in its Radio 3 incarnation:

15 January 2019

A New Era... An English Country Parson

It's been a very long time in gestation, but my new venture is finally here. An English Country Parson is a new podcast where I hope to explore some of the issues about ministry in a rural setting. Please subscribe!
The first episode is an interview with Bishop Graham James, outgoing Bishop of Norwich, as he reflects on 20 years in this quite rural English Diocese.

31 May 2018

Hear, hear!

Yesterday was a big day for me. In so many ways it was ordinary; Prayer Breakfast in the morning, a  meeting at church and planning meeting with a wedding couple. Then in the afternoon I had an appointment at the hospital in Cromer.
When I was an infant, I suffered with pneumonia. A result of being poorly at a critical stage of development was that my hearing was impaired. In my right ear, I've only ever been able to hear the lower frequencies. I remember going for annual hearing tests throughout my school years, and being told that the impairment was permanent, but that I would probably get along just fine.
Since then, I've found noisy and busy environments difficult. If there's a lot of 'chatter' or background noise, I lose people's voices and can't follow conversations. This is one of the reasons I was never much into pubs and clubs when I was younger. They were so often a miserable and isolating experience. It's probably also one of the reasons why I enjoy sound engineering and radio production - sound technology is a great leveller!
About 10 years ago I felt like my hearing might have got a bit worse, so I went to the GP and was referred for a test. The test showed that my left ear was perfect and that my right ear was impaired, just as I remembered it, in the high frequencies. Due to hopping around between health authorities, they couldn't compare with my childhood records, but the consultant felt that as I'd coped with it for so long, I would probably continue to cope without any intervention. He felt a single hearing aid might just confuse my brain and make it worse. I suppose I was reassured that everything was OK, and I carried on as before.
Then came a change of career. In the last 8 years, I have gone from office-based work to the life of a parish priest. Now, being a vicar involves a fair bit of desk work, but the biggest part of it is being with people and interacting with them. Sometimes it's easy because, like my Wednesday engagements, the numbers of people are small and the environment is quiet. But quite often, people choose to tell you deep and meaningful information over coffee at the back of church, whilst the organ is still playing. Or in the pub over a pint. Quite often, the important bits get crowded out by the noise.
Of course, I've learnt lots of tricks to try and keep up with conversation. I try to sit with my good ear towards people, I cup my hand around my ear, I read lips, and I guess an awful lot. But after nearly 8 years of ministry, it became clear that I needed to explore my options. I'd admired a friend's new hearing aids (which he said were brilliant), and I thought I'd go back to the GP. He referred me to the ENT department, and I went for a test. The test showed what I already knew; that I can't hear high frequencies in my right ear, and it doesn't seem like much has changed since my last test.
When I saw the ENT consultant this time, I explained my situation, and he thought a hearing aid
might be worth a try. The technology has come on a long way, and he thought I'd be able to cope with it. So yesterday I went back to the hospital for a hearing aid fitting. And what an excellent experience it was. My audiologist was superbly skilled and knowledgeable, and after 20 minutes I came away with my very own hearing aid.
Now it's very early days (it can take 3 months to adjust to hearing aids) but the signs are good. As I left the hospital, I heard the birds singing through my right ear with a clarity and beauty that I have never experienced before. I suppose that given my left ear is perfectly fine, that might seem like an odd thing to say. I've heard birds before, so what's the big deal? But it was a strangely spiritual and emotional experience for me. There's probably some deep theological reflection I could do on the topic, but for now it's enough to note the experience. And that's why I chose to write a post this evening. I wanted to mark an important moment in my life with a few thoughts and reflections, before the sound of birds in my right ear becomes thoroughly normal.
And before I sign off, I need to applaud the NHS. Whilst it's taken a while to get to this point, I've been absolutely impressed by the level of professionalism and care by an organisation under incredible strain. Keep up the amazing work!

11 April 2018

Change and Decay

Back in February, the Southlands Hotel in Sheringham was ablaze. Unspectacular news in so many ways - the demise of a disused hotel in an English seaside resort is hardly going to make the headlines of the News at Ten. But this was the hotel where DrLanky and I had our wedding reception (17 years ago this August), so I have a sentimental attachment to the place.

Today, we visited Sheringham with the children. We're there quite often as we have lots of family there and now live quite close by. We parked in South Street, and this was the view of Southlands. Quite different from the countless scenes of wedding day happiness and family celebrations which have graced its doors over many years.

Whilst I concede a degree of sentimentalism over the demolition of Southlands, I can't help
wondering what it signifies for Sheringham, and for seaside towns like it. When we were married, there was a choice in the town of two hotels which could cater for a reception like ours. Now there are none. I find myself asking if the market for these hotels has disappeared, and that must surely be the case. The bread and butter business for places like these was in residential customers coming on their holidays. The wedding receptions were handy additional business, but it was the holidaymakers who paid the bills. I suppose that business has simply gone now, and that in 2001 we experienced the tail-end of this part of the seaside business landscape.

Of course, this isn't news. The rise in mobility, the growth in affordable air travel and the globalisation of culture have all had a massive impact on our economy; though I don't suppose many communities have felt these changes as keenly as the traditional seaside resorts.

But it's not all doom and gloom. Sheringham remains a desirable place to live and a great place to visit. The hotels and large guest houses may have gone, but the town still seems to be thriving. So, yes there is change, and I suppose there is a sort of decay. But surely it's all part of a cycle of life and death, which seems to exist in business just as it does in the rest of life. 

5 February 2017

1/40 West Runton Beach, Norfolk

On the 18th August 2001, DrLanky and I were married in the church at West Runton, and you might think that, given the connection, I would be well acquainted with its beach. The truth is that before this trip, the nearest I'd ever got was the cafe at the end of Water Lane.

Given the importance of West Runton to us and our family history, it seemed quite appropriate that this would be the first of our forty visits. It also helps that our first trek was not too far, West Runton being only half an hour from our home in Cawston.

Of course, I'm well aware of the exciting fossil finds along this part of the North Norfolk coast, and that was part of the attraction for our first jaunt. In Clitheroe, our previous home, fossilised crinoids could easily be found in the stone walls of buildings, and NotSoLittleLanky has been fascinated by fossils ever since. So the prospect of a bit of mammoth hunting on a beach was a fairly easy win from a family point of view!

The black feature you can see at the bottom of the cliff on the top picture is a layer of sediment called the West Runton Freshwater Bed. Read all about it here. Here's a close up where the tide has been working away at it - there's nothing particularly interesting in the picture, I just liked the swirling patterns of colour.

The beach is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and it's easy to see why. Even in our short time there, and with untrained eyes, we could clearly see lots of fossilised bits and pieces. No mammoths or rhinocerous bones (as reported by the BBC this week), but fascinating nonetheless.

Part of the plan with the forty visits is to make the effort to go to some of the places on our doorstep, and another is to get out and about as a family. Now that our family has expanded in a canine way, there's also an added incentive to find places where Basil the Sprocker can run off a few of his innumerable calories. Beaches are great for this! We discovered that Basil has a good digging instinct and he certainly has no fear of water. So I suspect there may be a subset of beach visits within this 40/40 challenge.

So now our minds turn from West Runton to the next adventure. Thanks for the suggestions already left in comments. Who knows where we'll get to next? Keep the suggestions coming.

40/40 Vision

So this is the year when I will turn 40. For some deep-seated reason we seem to put great importance
on numbers ending in a '0'. I'm not sure I understand it, but never mind!

A friend in the parish also clocks up 40 years in 2017, and she has been set a series of 40 challenges by her wonderful family. This got me thinking; something that doesn't happen so much these days.
As well as being the year of my 40th, this is also a time of change for my family and me. We're a year in to our Norfolk adventure and it seems like we've only just arrived in so many ways. There are so many ways in which we do feel well settled, but for a Lancashire lad whose longest exile was less than 2 years in Cambridge, Norfolk is still quite new.

DrLanky and I were married in 2001, and since before then I've been coming to Norfolk to visit family. This means I'm very familiar with the A17 and the town of
Sheringham, but it also means that my experience of Norfolk has been fairly limited.
All of this led me to think that I need to get to know my new home a bit better, so why not copy Amelia's idea, but with a personalised twist. So during this momentous year, I'm going to visit 40 places I've never been to before. The plan is that many of these will be in Norfolk, but that some will be further afield.

I'm the kind of person who likes to meander around the countryside discovering new places. This is the way I get my bearings and learn the territory. So the project is both symbolic and practical. Each visit will bring forth images and videos, and these will be recorded here on the blog.
If you have any suggestions for places (particularly in East Anglia) that we should visit, please comment! 

16 June 2016

Heritage and Mission

Having been in Cawston for seven months now, I feel like I'm getting to grips with my new mission context. I knew when I applied for the job that I would be taking on the stewardship of some impressive buildings, but actually being here and trying to work within this rarefied setting (architecturally speaking) brings the issues into sharp focus.

Last week, I found out that the biggest church building in my care, St Agnes Cawston, had been listed by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) as having one of the twenty most significant ancient floors in the United Kingdom. Here's some of the coverage:
(It's a shame there was a mistake with our building's dedication in the original press release, but I pointed it out before it hit our local press - too late for the Church Times article, though.)

This news goes with our inclusion on Historic England's Heritage at Risk Register and our Grade One listing. The medieval church building in Cawston is clearly of great historical importance, and in a state of relatively poor repair.

My comment, which the North Norfolk News reported in full in their print edition, illustrates the nature of our biggest tension:
‘It’s a great privilege for Cawston Parish Church to be mentioned in this list of historic floors. Parts of our floor at Cawston are truly ancient and impressive, but we need to work to stabilise it for future generations. There’s always a tension with old church buildings between the preservation of our heritage and the practicalities of a public worship space. We hope the publicity of being on this list will bring more visitors to Cawston and raise the profile of this important church building and help us to preserve it for the future.’
Looking further at the information published by SPAB this week, as part of their 'History at your Feet' campaign, there's a sense of lament for those cases where stewards of ancient buildings feel compelled to make major changes to ancient floors, and I understand this heritage view of ancient artefacts and buildings.  It seems to be of objective value to preserve our built heritage; I wouldn't wish to challenge that ideological standpoint.

However, the church building in Cawston was built and dedicated to the glory of God through the worship and community events it facilitates. Worship of God was the primary function of the building from its beginning, and practical changes through the years show us that this has always been the case. The medieval backless pews were (mostly) altered for comfort by the later addition of backrests (though a large number of backless pews remain), the floor in many parts of the building has been levelled for safety, and a dais has been introduced to facilitate a tasteful nave altar as the character of Christian worship has evolved. All of this points to the fact that churches change over time; buildings and people. It has been this way for 2000+ years.

Our floor in Cawston (pictured on page 17 of this guide) is something of a patchwork. Some parts are thought to be medieval, whilst others are much later. The oldest parts of the floor actually give us problems. They are terribly uneven and loose, posing a possible health and safety risk to users. The bricks are also decaying quite quickly, being of a relatively soft and crumbly composition.

The heritage approach would be to repair it where needed, but to leave largely alone (SPAB advise against relaying bricks apart from in the most extreme cases (See this guide to caring for ancient floors)). But this would leave us with an entire side-aisle which is essentially 'off limits' for many of our congregants due to the risk it poses. Even the people who come to see the medieval floor would have to view it from a distance to avoid its further degradation. Clearly the preservation of our ancient built heritage, whilst objectively laudable, cannot be at all costs! In my view, it should not be at the cost of the building's primary purpose, to facilitate the worship of God (which continues to change and develop over time).

As I said in my comments to the press, we can only hope that increased attention from the heritage bodies will help us attract further funding from new sources, but I can't help feeling that retaining the missional focus of this building along with the changing nature of our church community (with Messy Church, Café Church and other community events) will be an uphill battle. Hopefully the church’s faculty system should help to balance the heritage view of the building with the genuine need for adaptation to the changing missional context.

In a strange sense, I relish the challenge of working creatively with Historic England, SPAB, the DAC and other heritage organisations. We're about to embark on an ambitious programme of major repairs and improvement to this magnificent building. Our plan, like that of the medieval people who built the church, is to keep working at the building so that it continues to help us give glory to God, adapting to the changes in the community of the church.

7 April 2016


Since I last posted here there have been a lot of firsts. First services in a range of new (to me) churches, a first Advent and Christmas in Norfolk, then very quickly on to a first Lent, Holy Week and Easter. This week feels like the first opportunity to stop for air, so I thought I'd blog a bit.

First Rectory

So far, life in rural Norfolk is good. We've been made very welcome by the many communities we now belong to and we've settled in well to our new house. Confusingly, I'm a Team Vicar but we live in a Rectory. Slowly but surely, we're beginning to take the garden into hand, and the signs of Spring bring fresh excitement about the good times we hope to have here. We're gradually working our way round the house, making improvements here and there. It already feels like home and the children love having more space to play in.

First Animals

Of course, the cats have travelled with us through my training for ministry, but this week we have taken delivery of a new hen house which, weather permitting, will be assembled tomorrow. One of our friends from the Cawston congregation has a couple of bantams ready for us to take, so here comes the Good Life. There will be a couple more bantams and there's a hope that we might be able to add a dog into the mix at some point this year, but that will be depedent on money.

First time as a Vicar

On the work front, I've been very busy since starting in November. There's plenty to do in these apparently sleepy Norfolk villages. Getting started quickly with children's work has been really good. There's so much going on here already that we've really hit the ground running. At the other end of the age spectrum, I've been pleased to be involved in the busy funeral ministry of the Team. I've always found this to be a fulfilling and rewarding area of ministry.
After all the years of training, it's nice to finally be in a community where we can begin to lay down roots and make links with families through the twists and turns in their lives. I can already see the benefits of this kind of incarnational ministry in just five months as a Team Vicar. Curacy is an incredibly valuable preparation, but the knowledge that you will soon be moving makes it hard to have this experience in your training parish.

First time in a Ministry Team

I'm not new to team working, having spent much of my working life working in that context. But ministry in a team is new to me. There's so much for us all to learn about how we work together, but the early signs are good. The Team Rector is supportive and collaborative, and we look forward to the arrival of a new Curate in the summer (from Westcott) and a further Team Vicar after that. Needless to say, we work together with a range of retired clergy, lay readers and other lay workers, whose commiment to the church is admirable. This makes us a large team and I'm genuinely excited about the possibilities this brings.
Anyway, that's probably enough for now. I need to sleep so I can focus on building poultry accommodation in the morning before the rain comes.

17 November 2015

A New Chapter

The dust has started to settle on our mammoth move from Lancashire to Norfolk, and I have now been licensed and installed as Team Vicar (Designate) in the Aylsham & District Team Ministry. Before the move, we were given a wonderful send-off by the people from Clitheroe, Chatburn and Downham. This included a number of very generous gifts, which have helped us to furnish our new home. We left Lancashire with many happy memories and a tremendous amount of good will. We miss Lancashire but are starting to settle into life in East Anglia.
So now the next chapter starts as we start out in village life. Cawston is great! It has more than one would expect for a village of its size, with an excellent pub, deli and general store. As well as a Primary School and Village Hall. It even seems that this rural idyll is also home to more than its fair share of digital enthusiasts and professionals; amongst them one of our neighbours, Kaori.
So we're settling in and getting near to the end of the unpacking. The signs are good that we'll be very happy here, and I'm already enjoying getting stuck in to serving the parishes to which I'm licensed.
Look out for more updates...

2 October 2014

More on the Clitheroe Job Centre

Since my blog post the other day, I've had a flurry of visits to this blog, in fact hundreds of pageviews. Clearly people are interested in this issue.

So here's a final encouragement to get involved in the consultation. If you're in Clitheroe, fill out one of the postcards in your churches this weekend, or write to Steve Johnson. Also, let Nigel Evans know what you think. I did, and he got back to me straight away to say he was in complete agreement. The town council have also had their say in the consultation, voicing many of the same concerns you've seen on this blog.

All that remains is for huge numbers of individuals to get involved too. I'm sure many have written in already, but if you haven't, please do.

30 September 2014

The Closure of Clitheroe Job Centre

Back in May when Clitheroe Christians in Partnership hosted a conference called Feed a Friend, we were challenged by the speakers to get back to 'old fashioned' campaigning. The instant nature of the internet and the ubiquity of online petitions and so-called 'slacktivism' have brought about a reduction in direct contact with decision makers. People seem less likely to correspond directly with their MP or with other representatives and more likely to simply 'like' a Facebook page, or change their Social Media avatar in support of a campaign.

We were challenged, at the conference, to put some more effort into our campaigning. Of course, the theme of 'Feed a Friend' was food poverty, but the principle holds for all other areas of social justice. The challenge was to get back to direct contact: postcards, letters, emails and MP's surgeries. We came away from the conference fired up, and many of us have tried to be more active in our campaigning for matters like these.

One of the things that's getting me fired up at the moment is the proposed closure of the Clitheroe Job Centre. Clitheroe is a market town. It sits in the splendid countryside of the Ribble Valley. It draws people from a wide area to use its services, cultural venues and retail outlets. Clitheroe is an ideal place for a rural job centre - the current centre's footfall may be comparatively low, but it draws clients from a wide, rural area. Public transport into Clitheroe from the outlying villages of the valley is reasonable and not too arduous. So why, then, are we faced with the closure of this essential service in such an ideal location?

The answer, as always, is about financial cost. The existing building is poorly suited to the services it now provides, and is far too large. Fine. I understand the need to reduce expenditure. But surely that can be achieved by looking at an alternative site in the town, rather than withdrawing the service altogether!
If the Clitheroe Job Centre closes, clients will have to travel to Accrington or Blackburn. Although these aren't very far away, and both are served by public transport, the people who have to make the trek will lose half a day in the process. They will also have to fork out for bus or train fares which they can ill afford. Additionally, the extra travel time will increase the risk of missing appointments, which will, in turn, lead to benefit sanctions. Those people will then be beating a path to the door of the Ribble Valley Foodbank when they can't afford to feed their families.  
Clitheroe Christians in Partnership have today launched a coordinated postcard campaign to protest at the proposed closure. Churches across the town will receive a batch of postcards in time for this Sunday's services, and we are encouraging our congregations to sign the cards, which we'll then deliver to the person leading the consultation.
We don't know what the effect of our efforts might be, but I think back to the postcard campaigns urging supermarkets to stock fairtrade goods back in the 90s. They clearly worked, so perhaps our local postcard campaign will make people listen.

The Local papers, the Clitheroe Advertiser and Lancashire Telegraph, have given the situation good coverage. We now need people to get involved as individuals. So if you want to fill in one of our cards, head to a Clitheroe church on Sunday. Or better still, email the man running the consultation, Steve Johnson. And of course, don't forget our MP, Nigel Evans.

The main message is, don't assume everyone else will do this. If you believe this is an important issue, then you know what to do!

8 May 2014

The road to Emmaus

Today we had our monthly children's church; a 1/2 hour service for pre-schoolers and their parents or carers. I looked at last Sunday's lectionary, and thought we should have a stab at the road to Emmaus. it's a nice visual story which children of this age can identify with. Often we use a technique we've called the 'Bible Storyboard' where we draw the story on a large (A1) piece of paper as we tell it, paraphrased from the biblical original. Sometimes we use a Godly Play story, with the appropriate set of toys. Sometimes we act out a story with props and accessories. Today I decided to look for a video, and I was not disappointed. We watched this video a total of three times, because they loved it so much:

We had a bit of discussion about whether Jesus was actually an elephant, but the children and adults all loved it.

At the end of our time of worship, we then all set about creating our own road to Emmaus scene using biscuits, ready made icing, gravel (coloured sprinkles) for the road, and jelly babies for the characters in the story. These went down well in more ways than one!

The most important thing about a service like this is that the children have fun in church. If they do that, they are more likely to remember the stories we tell them, and more likely to want to come back. Our numbers are small at children's church, but the children who come keep coming back.

So thanks to the people who put together the video we used - I'll be subscribing to their channel in case there's anything else we can use.