Reflections on the Musings from Maulden

Who would have thought, within six years after I first started writing my weekly Musings and within just three and a half years since I stopped, that I would have had such an acrimonious parting from the parish church which featured periodically therein and, indeed, that I would no longer be living in Maulden, let alone in Bedfordshire?

I am writing this in August 2018; it is already time to look back and to reflect on the Musings and to consider what has changed in the relatively short time since they were written.

The Musings 

Every week, reading the Church Times, I would be both enraptured and angered by Ronald Blythe's column on the back page, entitled "Word from Wormingford". Enraptured because the column would usually be about the things I loved and provided a real, imaginative escape, not least after all the often depressing and turbid contents of that periodical in the preceding pages; enraged because Ronald's style often seemed to me piecemeal, unconnected, rambling, incoherent.

Quite simply, I thought I could do better.

That was why I began, each week, to write my own piece, which I called "Musings from Maulden", adhering rigidly to a similar word count as the "Word from Wormingford" column and submitting each article, always before the publication deadline, to the Editor at the Church Times, from whom I received absolutely no reply the whole time, not even an acknowledgement. In some ways this did not surprise me but I think I was hoping that Christian politeness and courtesy would be shown, even if it was a "thank you for your efforts but please don't keep sending these". As each week passed without any sign from the Editor that I even existed, so my determination increased to continue to send in my articles, thereby - as I thought - establishing my abilities and bona fides.

I was particularly angered on a couple of occasions when the "Word from Wormingford" column did not appear, perhaps because Ronald had been ill or through some other misfortune. What really galled me was that at those times the column was completely dropped by the Church Times, with a minor note being added at the bottom of the page saying "Word from Wormingford will return next week". It was never substituted with a column written by anybody else and certainly not one written by me, which it could so easily have been, given my weekly submissions before the deadlines and a healthy stock of my previous submissions readily to hand.

Clearly the Church Times had no intention whatsoever of communicating with me or using my material and, reluctant to see my efforts simply go to waste, that was why I decided to bring together first a year's worth and then another eighteen month's worth of the Musings and to publish them in book form. I never expected to make much, if any, money from these publications but did hope they might reach some sort of audience, particularly as I was often writing about Anglican Religious Communities, which most people - even worshippers in the Church of England - did not even know existed and which few other writers, if any, were actively promoting.

The books were mildly well received - which is always encouraging to an author - but really only by those who understood what I was trying to achieve. Despite my mobilisation attempts there was minimal media interest and endeavours to change that were eating considerably into time which I did not possess. Also, by the time two and a half years had elapsed, I felt I was beginning to run short of new material. Yes there was a wealth of past events to which I could refer and reflect upon but that lacked the immediacy and freshness of the weekly diarisations thus far and actually threatened to throw me back towards a style more akin to Ronald Blythe, relying on ever distant memories simply in order to find something to say each week.

Thus, I decided to stop writing the Musings.

The format

In hindsight, had I continued writing there actually would have been plenty of fresh, interesting material and many new things to say but, as I eventually began to appreciate this, it also started to dawn on me that what I would have been penning and, actually, already had been, were in reality something akin to personal "blogs" (defined by Wikipedia as as a discussion or informational website published on the internet consisting of discrete, often informal, diary-style text entries). 

I had never really taken much notice of "blogs" on the internet - only very rarely reading those which struck a particular interest subject-wise at the time - but this form of communication had really burgeoned and, looking back, it would have been the perfect medium and vehicle for my Musings to reach a wider audience, rather than me thinking that people still bought and read books (many, of course, still do but my meagre and in many ways specialist publications could never have achieved a proper "look in" amongst the hundreds of new titles published each week).

It seemed that technology had overtaken me, that I had misunderstood the market and that I was grossly over-expectant that people might be remotely interested in anything I had to say by way of the printed word.

My one consolation from all this is that, in my two Musings books, at least I actually possess something tangible which has been brought about through my own achievements (with, of course, a little help from those who printed them) and I still feel a sense of pride on those extremely rare occasions when I happen to see a copy of one or other of my books anywhere.

Before going back over the contents and taking a look at the surprising number of things which have changed since I wrote the Musings, I feel I need to explain in some detail how I came to sever my connections with Maulden church and encountered a bitter and deeply distressing experience of the Church of England fighting against me.

The Faculty for Children's Furniture at St Mary the Virgin, Maulden

(What follows are facts which can be fully supported by written documents which I am happy to place in the public domain at any time, so don't even consider bringing legal action)

Anybody who has read my Musings will probably be able to make a fair assessment of my character, in terms of the things which really matter to me and about which I am (or, at least, I was when I wrote them) passionate. One of these is the sacredness of churches and their beauty, architecture and historic contents and connections. Another is worship, i.e. respectful, focussed, liturgical worship, rather than that which so often passes as "worship" in much of the Church of England these days. Another is the veneration of Mary; not something I go over the top about but nevertheless, to me and to many others, an important dimension to worship when the occasion is right. Another is respect for the Faculty Jurisdiction which covers all consecrated Church of England buildings, meaning that no additions, changes or disposals can be made without the matter being determined as part of a structured, legal process administered by one of the oldest Courts in the land (the "Consistory Court").

There are probably many other facets of my personality and thinking which come out through my writings but the foregoing are the pertinent ones in connection with the disastrous doings at Maulden church.

In short, the Rector (by her own admissions to me and to others on a number of occasions) held no truck with the Blessed Virgin Mary or with her veneration, despite the dedication of the church being to "St Mary the Virgin" and the church possessing a Lady Chapel. Whilst the latter is very far indeed from the most glorious I have come across, it nevertheless is dedicated as (and the dedication is formally recorded) and is widely recognised as being a Lady Chapel. This was where Morning Prayer, Wednesday Communion and reflective services in Lent, Advent and at other times took place and it was used by individuals for private prayer. It also happened to be the oldest part of the church building and contained, or had close by it, a number of genuinely historic artefacts and accretions, which coupled with the nature of that particular space spoke - at least to me - of that part of the church building as being something extra special.

It manifestly did not speak thus to the Rector, who it became clear - in my opinion - was absolutely determined (and I mean determined) to eradicate this space as being a sacred Lady Chapel.

Whilst I had never objected to facilities being made available for children during Sunday services on a temporary basis in the Lady Chapel, I remained deeply concerned that children were simply being left to play and run around there on a Sunday, completely unsupervised, having nothing whatsoever to do with the service and with not one iota being instilled in them of why they were there and what was going on around them. However, all that is almost an aside. Not everybody at church felt the same so I would grin and bear it on a Sunday morning knowing that at least the Lady Chapel would be restored to its usual self after the service for the rest of the week.

It was the formal request to the Consistory Court (by means of a "Faculty" application) which brought matters to a head as it became apparent that restoring the Lady Chapel to its functionality as such after Sunday services was never the Rector's intention but, instead, she was adamant that it should effectively be turned (actually by stealth, as there was never any application for a change of use) into a children's area, with entirely incongruous bright plastic children's furniture and a panoply of toys, games and teddy bears being permanently placed there. No account whatsoever seemed to have been taken of the sacredness and special nature of the area and it is apparent that absolutely no regard whatsoever was given to the historic artefacts therein. Thus, following the necessary process, I formally objected to the Faculty application and remained hopeful that the Chancellor of the Diocese (the Judge in the Consistory Court) would recognise my valid objections.

As I was to discover, however, the Chancellor was in fact told in writing by the Rector that the Lady Chapel was not a chapel at all - Lady or otherwise - and this undoubtedly influenced him in his determination of the case. He granted the Faculty and the children's furniture was subsequently introduced, sweeping aside the entire character of that part of the church and achieving the Rector's objective.

However, my blood was up. In achieving her ends, an ordained minister of the Church of England had lied, yes lied, in writing to an English Court of Law and, it was subsequently revealed, had also misinformed the Diocesan Advisory Committee (on whose advice the Chancellor relied) and had made seemingly contradictory statements to members of the congregation. How could this go unpunished by the Church authorities? I accordingly made contact with the Chancellor through the Diocesan Registry (he refused to enter into further correspondence about the matter), the Archdeacon and the Diocesan Bishop (who delegated the matter straight back to the Archdeacon). Nobody in the Diocese appeared to be taking in any way seriously the plain fact of one of their Ordained Clergy behaving in what, to me (and to a number of others), seemed to be a duplicitous and downright deceitful way. I daily expected action to be taken but, with continued prevarications by the church authorities, I finally asked the Diocese to ensure the matter was addressed by a specific date, promising to stay my hand until then (which I did).

The Diocese did absolutely nothing so the only course left open to me upon expiry of the deadline was to file an official complaint against the Rector under the "Clergy Discipline Measure", which I did. In due time this was determined - by the same Bishop who had previously delegated the matter to the Archdeacon! Incredibly, the Bishop's determination was to take no further action. My only right of "appeal" against this was to make a submission to the President of Tribunals, which I did. I place the word appeal in inverted commas because under the regulations the only thing I was allowed to do was to explain to the president of Tribunals why I believed the Bishop's decision to take no action was plainly wrong.

I had no difficulty in formulating my submission and this can be read in full here. It goes back over the case and examines many other facets which I have not detailed here. When reading this, please remember that this is the paper in which I set out why I believe the Bishop's decision to take no action was plainly wrong (the only sort of submission I was permitted to make) and this is why it is worded as it is.

Unbelievably the President (actually his Deputy) of Tribunals, having considered my submission, decided that the Bishop was right to take no further action. 

The Rector had won, the Lady Chapel was now effectively no more and nobody seemed to care about how this had come about. Although I did have a number of communications and conversations of support from many individuals, by this time the media had got hold of the story and had totally misrepresented it as being about me fighting against the welcome of children into church, which could not have been further from the truth. I was being made out to be the nasty protagonist when all I had set out to do was to try and preserve, by some sort of sensible balance or compromise with the perceived requirements of the parish, the sacredness of the church and, especially, the Lady Chapel . 

Throughout the whole process the Rector (apparently supported by what many saw as her puppet Churchwardens and PCC) showed no intention whatsoever of compromising and has never once indicated that she even recognises or repents of her actions so my dealings with Maulden church, sadly, were at an end. This was the church where I and my family had worshipped for a number of years, where my son had been confirmed and where one of my daughters had been married. I had contributed heart and soul to the life of that church and had even become an authorised Lay Leader of Worship there. All that had been completely thrown in my face and, as a result, I wanted to be anywhere on this planet other than at the church of St Mary the Virgin, Maulden, Bedfordshire.

This, I hope understandable, loathing of what I once held very dear led, in due time, to my moving out of the village of Maulden, out of Bedfordshire altogether and out of the Diocese of St Albans.

Please also see the Facebook Group "Reinstate the Lady Chapel at Maulden Church", which you are invited to join if you wish.

The changes

The above, therefore, are the two major changes which have happened since the Musings were published (and the reasons for them). What else is now different? Re-reading all the Musings, the following are the things which struck me most:

Musings from Maulden

The Ants (30 July, 2012) - It was curious reading about the "prolific vegetation" which was present on the lane up to the church because, when I left the village, concerted efforts had been made to hack away as much as possible of this vegetation, reducing everything to ground level. Different people; different thinking, I suppose. One of the reasons for this drastic action was so that the Church Hall (which it was mooted should be rather grandiosely re-named "St Mary's Rooms") could be visible from the lane. It did strike me as somewhat ironic that a person seeking the Hall could actually be within just a few feet of it and still not have sight of it. Not having returned to the village for a while, I don't know the present state of things but given the nature of flora I suspect that the saw and secateur has only encouraged the copious fronds to shoot up even stronger and denser than before!

To Prayer (19 August) - The Convent at Wantage still survives but only just and in an increasingly different form. Following the departure of many of the Sisters to the Roman Catholic Ordinariate in 2013 and after a number of deaths amongst the mostly more elderly Sisters who remained, the Community is a very pale shadow indeed of its former self. It has decided to put some of its rambling buildings to other uses, embarking on major works to make them fit for purpose for the Diocesan Schools department. The few Sisters still there have largely withdrawn into the original part of the building. The large chapel, where I saw the speck of sunlight, is still there but is only very rarely used, the great majority of services now taking place in the smaller Mary Magdalene Chapel. The Community, one of the oldest surviving - having been founded in 1848 - once had (I won't say "boasted" as nuns don't "boast") many hundreds of Sisters across numerous sites both in the UK and Overseas. How the mighty have been humbled.

Perspective (2 September) - The trains are no longer blue and yellow; the franchise has changed hands and the new railway company is rarely out of the news due to its disastrous timetabling and ongoing operational inefficiencies.

The Bats (9 September) - Recently there appears to have been a steadily growing backlash against bats as people begin to question what is more important, the ancient churches and their interior artefacts or the needs of the bats, which could - it is said - go elsewhere if necessary. I am not sure which side is winning the debate at the moment!

The Wedding (16 September) - The once happy couple have now divorced.

The Island (15 October) - The island will now never reform because new drainage higher up the lane near the church largely eradicated the downward flow. More drastically, along the other fork three new houses have been built and the immediate area and its drainage is quite different. During their construction, much digging took place where the grassy island once was to connect the various utilities. When I last looked, the lines of the trenches could still be seen where the tarmac was slightly different and there now lies a manhole cover which is unlikely itself ever to be, well, covered! Another, albeit miniscule, patch of green gone forever.

Change and Decay (3 December) - The former Postmistress ended her days in a care home and has now died. How the village must miss her.

The Consistory Court (6 May, 2013) - The Chancellor subsequently gave permission for the painting to be sold. The Arts Council of England then granted an export license for the work and it was sold to a private American collection. Two years later, the painting was gifted anonymously to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts.

The George (10 June) - The pub did eventually re-open but not for a very long time. Its resurrection, when it did come, was as a substantially redesigned, very good venue for hospitality and word soon spread that this was the place to go for an enjoyable meal in attractive surroundings. It is now well known far beyond the parish boundary.

More Musings from Maulden

West Malling (29 July) - The toll kiosks at the Dartford Crossing have gone, in an effort to keep traffic flowing. Now all the vehicle number plates using the crossing are recorded electronically and one has to pay on-line within a day or so to avoid added charges.

Marsh Farm (21 October) - Whilst "ABC Parishes" still exist, they do so in a different form now, following something called the "House of Bishop's Declaration on the Ministry of Bishops and Priests" in 2014. Parochial Church Councils still need to vote for what is now more normally known as "Alternative Episcopal Oversight". Marsh Farm remains a parish under Alternative Episcopal Oversight but David has gone - he married and now lives in America, having left Marsh Farm in 2016. This triggered another two-year vacancy for the parish.

A New Incumbent (12 November) - How we looked forward to a bright new ministry and how many were subsequently disappointed! It wasn't long before complaints were being made to the media about the Rector's handling of the Churchyard Regulations and there was even, on Sunday mornings for a couple of weeks, a delegation with placards on the road leading up to the church chanting "Rector out"! That had only just died down when the media again trumpeted her name over the children's furniture debacle. As I write this, in late August 2018, the matter of the management of the Churchyard has again flared up and, once more, individuals have taken to social media to vent their spleen. It could all have been so different.

Diversity (18 November) - The Bishop of Oxford, John Pritchard, retired in 2014. As well as being the Diocesan Bishop, he was also the officially appointed "Visitor" to the Community of St Mary the Virgin. The new Bishop, Steven Croft, acted in this capacity for a while but the Community has now appointed as its visitor the new Bishop of London, Dame Sarah Mullally.

Pilgrimage (28 April, 2014) - Of the four in the photograph, two have moved on from the Cathedral. The former Bishop of Hertford, Paul Bayes, is now Bishop of Liverpool whilst the former Sub-Dean, Richard Watson, is now Vicar of St Saviour, St Albans.

The Footpath (9 June) - in 2018 the person (now a pensioner) who spent 26 years and his life savings of nearly £200,000 trying to have the public footpath that “leads nowhere” removed from his garden finally sold his home and the garden next to which the "path" is located. However, he retained ownership of the 200 yard strip of land known as "footpath 28", vowing to fight on until, he said, the Council "deletes the footpath, accepts it should never have been there, apologises for what they have put us through and awards us compensation". The case, as they say in news bulletins, continues.

Langford (25 November) - "The Boot" subsequently became a four bedroom detached house but, interestingly, part of the original pub land was sold separately and a meeting hall for the Plymouth Brethren was built thereon!

Postface (p209) - Much to everyone's surprise, the Victorian Society attempted to appeal the Court of Arches Judgment. This was the first time since the 1920s that a decision by the Court of Arches had been appealed to the Privy Council. In the third week of July 2015 the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, the Court of final appeal in the United Kingdom, decided not to allow the appeal to proceed. In a further twist, the Parochial Church Council at Hallaton in Leicestershire eventually resolved that it no longer wished to install the screen there, citing similar reasons to those offered by Penshurst to support its removal! Thus, until a new home was found for it, the screen continued to stand sentinel over the entrance to the chancel at Penshurst. When I last visited it was still there but I was told that it was soon to be dismantled and conveyed to another church. I am loath to return in case I find that actually happened for, in my view, the church would be much the poorer without it.

August 2018