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December 22 2011

At this time of year, let's thank God for churches | Simon Jenkins

Believer or not, Christmas is a reminder of what these places of worship do so well – maintaining and expressing community

God has blessings, even for atheists. Chief among them is the British Christmas. Cleared of its commercial and religious clutter it has become the nation's collective version of a Buddhist sabbatical, an increasingly extended retreat into family and self almost devoid of externalities. It is a time when Britons behave quite unlike they do for the rest of the year. In other words, they behave quite well.

The preliminary clutter is ever more dire. Compared with any other city in Europe, London's decoration is tatty and hideous. The archbishop of Canterbury contributes a platitudinous musing on riots and St Paul's protesters, with no hint of meaningful conclusion. The prime minister declares desperately that "the United Kingdom is a Christian country" and that "we should not be afraid to say so", as if we were. His seasonal intervention recalls HL Mencken's maxim that "people say we need religion when what they mean is we need police".

Even Christmas shopping, once deplored as an irreligious commercialisation, has morphed into a public service duty, a dig for victory. "Hopes of Christmas boost for economy," cry the headlines. Analysts examine the returns from M&S and John Lewis like priests round sacred geese. Will Christmas save us from double-dip recession? The din of collective misery is insufferable.

Suddenly all goes quiet. Britain now stretches what in the US is one day off into 10. There seems nothing else to do. The volume of public life is silenced. Family is acknowledged before colleagues and friends. Duty is paid to household gods in an annual census of filial piety. Family quarrels are supposedly suppressed, while children and old people acquire a brief moment in the spotlight. We know of the strains and stresses of Christmas, but I wonder how many families have been repaired and rescued through its ritual kindnesses. What if there were no such moment?

Throughout history, church charity boards record the gifts to be made to the poor at Christmas time. They record the communal services to be performed, the visits to be made and donations acknowledged. Christmas is more than just a much-needed rest, it is a ceremony of domestic and communal pleasantry.

The festival may have replaced Easter in pre-eminence largely thanks to the Victorians, but it is none the worse for that. Charles Dickens' demolition of Scrooge's cynicism – A Christmas Carol is a harder-edged novel than any of its dramatised versions – captured popular imagination the world over. Like the Muslim obligation to hospitality, the Christian obligation to generosity at Christmas is near universal. It is not enforced or even formalised, but it is, and deep in Britain's cultural gene.

Millions of Britons do at Christmas what they never do at other times in the year. They become "pray-for-a-day" worshippers. They see in their church a repository of good neighbourliness without which the community would be poorer. The Anglican church has a genuine talent for sustaining this communal centrality through thick and mostly thin. This role in the local "establishment" is far more plausible than the state version.

Going to church at Christmas keeps alive a sense of what the Germans call heimat, an attachment to home and place of birth, a refreshment of roots, an acknowledgement of continuity and tradition. This Christmas is deeply conservative. As Roger Scruton argues in his forthcoming book Green Philosophy, it reflects a "desire to live among things that endure" that should, in his case, be harnessed to the challenge of climate change.

I constantly find myself in churches. I find them aesthetically appealing, a constant source of pleasure (or sometimes pain). They were designed for a liturgy of contemplation and repose. They are good places to sit and think, in a landscape where such places are in short supply. As Philip Larkin wrote, they are temples where our "compulsions are recognised and robed as destinies/ And that much never can be obsolete". This may have nothing to do with religion, but it is undeniably a religious legacy and I do not mind thanking someone's god for it. The world is full of unintended consequences.

As government continues to enervate and disempower communal life in Britain, churches retain their physical and emotional centrality. In most settlements, rural and urban, churches are hopelessly oversized for their congregations. Yet the great medieval buildings remain a dominant presence in the community, the architectural expression not just of its ageless faith, but of its ceremony, its history, its family life, its arts and crafts, its tithes and taxes. They are increasingly reborn as theatre and concert halls. Where else would one want to hear The Messiah?

The parish church is thus the one building in any neighbourhood that is worth saving, together with God's acre, the churchyard. Since there will for sure arise a movement within the church to abandon such monuments – under the cry "we are a church, not a museum" – there will be a corresponding need to champion their survival. I have no trouble with the German system of taxing parishes for the upkeep of the church (with a voluntary opt-out). The Germans, like the French and Scandinavians, enjoy a civic tradition that permits them to keep their mayors and town halls. In Britain an increasingly faithless land finds itself ironically turning to faith institutions as symbols of local cohesion. Long may such places survive. At Christmas we salute them.


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December 19 2011

Would-be saviour of £15 million paintings hits back at Church Commissioners

The unholy saga of the Francisco de Zurbarán paintings at Auckland Castle just gets worse and worse. Our religious correspondent Riazat Butt reflects.

To Durham, where there is not much in the way of festive cheer now a £15m art deal has bitten the dust, and a fascinating insight into the Church of England, power and politics.

While the sale appeared to be on shaky ground for some time, the story has sprouted legs thanks to a remarkable and revealing article from banker and would be art-buyer Jonathan Ruffer, who blows the whistle in the latest edition of the Church Times on his spat with the Church Commissioners, who manage the Church of England's investment portfolio, and its top dog, Andreas Whittam Smith. Yes - that one.

Stokesley-born Ruffer was to buy Francisco de Zurbarán's paintings from the Church Commissioners and keep them at Auckland Castle, which Ruffer proposed should be restored, held in trust and become a major heritage attraction.

I am indebted to the Northern Echo for carrying an interview with Ruffer and excerpts from the article, which is by turns, astonishing and exquisite:

Andreas Whittam Smith is by nature a buccaneer: quick to offer the hand of friendship, decisive and brave. He generously accepted an apology for a remark I made which had hurt him. Andrew Brown is a very different character, the antithesis of the smutty joke: he is wholesome, serious, and dutiful. He would make an excellent minor royal. Yet these men have managed to torpedo two deals, to the detriment of one of the neediest regions of the UK.

If you'll indulge me I'm going to paste entire paragraphs from the Church Times piece - I assume you don't have subscriptions and this fine Anglican organ does go behind a paywall - so do please read on.

Ruffer continues:

Andreas and Andrew are neither mischievous nor malicious. They are decent men who have gone wrong. Through a historic accident, and a few 'myths of convenience', they appear to be no longer accountable to dio­cesan bishops or even the arch­bishops.

True, the diocesans get to elect an acting chairman, and the Archbishop of Canterbury is the actual chairman, but I have seen at first-hand how the present incumbents are treated. The acting chairman's offerings are treated as "suggestions", and I witnessed last month the Primate of All England pleading for the future of the Castle. The Archbishop pleading; Andreas untouchable, untouched (my italics).

It suits the First Church Estates Commissioner to promote this chimera of absolute power. Here is Andreas in the General Synod, swatting the bluebottles of outrage at the disposal of the Octavia Hill Estates: "The assets committee of the Church Commissioners under the law establishing the Church Commis­sioners has exclusive control over the assets.

And Ruffer keeps landing those blows:

I have had to deal with these people not only with the Zurbaráns but also in my position as chairman of the Auckland Castle regeneration project. The evasions and disappointments have come like grouse — sometimes singly, sometimes in coveys.

I had to look up covey in a dictionary, I thought he had misspelled convoy, but no.

Amazingly, he has enough outrage to plough on. He concludes by saying that he issued the Church Commissioners with a deadline, it passed, thereby

...making it two slaps in the face for County Durham from the First Church Estates Commissioner and his chief executive.

Brilliant stuff.

But Ruffer insists he has not abandoned the deal altogether. He told the Northern Echo:

I'm still absolutely up for it. I will dare to make a suggestion out of my own pocket to square the circle – I am offering to put a lot more money in and I am hoping they will help me.

He said he was defending his reputation with the article:

I am explaining how someone can give a £15m gift and then go back on it – that seems a dishonourable thing to do and I look cowardly and untrustworthy.


The bishop of Durham, the Church Commissioners and Ruffer will meet this week to resolve the issue. Oh to be a fly on the wall at that summit - but not a bluebottle.


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November 21 2011

Tiny Tyneside church beats Canterbury cathedral and Gormley in arts competition

Engraved glass so delicate that frost can change its nature helps scoop top prize for Northumberland. The Northerner's arts monitor Alan Sykes reports

A tiny church high above the Tyne valley has beaten off competition from the likes of Canterbury Cathedral to win this year's Art in a Religious Context award from the charity Art & Christian Enquiry.

The biennial award was made for two commemorative stained glass windows commissioned for St John's church, Healey, in Northumberland, by artists Anne Vibeke Mou and James Hugonin.

Anne Vibeke Mou was born in Denmark and graduated with an MA from the Royal College of Art in 2005 before moving to Newcastle. She has shown in Denmark, Prague and London as well as at the National Glass Centre at Sunderland University. Her work for St John's, which lies between Hexham and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, is a sheet of glass covered with thousands of tiny impact marks made by hitting the glass with a tungsten point, creating swirling, cloud-like forms which can be seen from the outside of the church as well as from its interior. A hard frost can affect her window, giving it an extra layer of depth.

James Hugonin was born in county Durham and graduated from the Chelsea School of Art in 1975. He has shown at the Baltic and Kettle's Yard in Cambridge as well as in London, Edinburgh and Germany. He is shortlisted for this year's Northern Art Prize www.northernartprize.org.uk which opens at the Leeds City Art Gallery on November 25th. His window is made of small rectangles of glass, some transparent and some translucent, mainly red, blue, yellow and green. Although totally abstract, a double helix form can be made out in the patterns of colour.

The two windows were commissioned as a memorial to his parents Julian & Virginia Warde-Aldam by local landowner, Hotspur magazine editor and churchwarden Jamie Warde-Aldam, a relation of the Quaker Robert Ormston who built the charming neo-Norman church in 1860 (at the third attempt, the nave having collapsed twice during the building process). Jamie says:

Everyone in the parish is delighted with the award. Working with James and Anne Vibeke on the project for a year has been a deeply rewarding, educational experience. They both have the highest standards, are meticulous in their respective methods and showed a sensitivity to each other's work as well as for the character and fabric of the church. Without their generosity, patience and friendship, this commission would not have happened.



The prize is worth £4,000, with £1,500 each going to the artists and £1,000 to the church. Other finalists for the award included sculptor Antony Gormley, who created another of his human figures, this time made up of old iron nails, for Canterbury Cathedral, Jonathon Parson's grid-like Cruciform Vision for Guildford Cathedral, Thomas Denny's Transfiguration stained glass window for Durham Cathedral, and Katy Armes' NoThing for Hellington Church in Norfolk. The judges were chaired by the Dean of Chichester, the Very Rev Nicholas Frayling.

Laura Moffatt, Director of Art & Christian Enquiry, comments:

This year's ACE Awards have once again revealed the depth and diversity of artistic practice among faith communities in the UK. Our short-lists included an Islamic Hall of Remembrance and a major new stained glass window in a cathedral, as well as some very high quality works of art and architecture in small rural parish churches.


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April 18 2011

Pat Russell obituary

Calligrapher and church embroiderer renowned for her resplendent copes

Pat Russell, who has died aged 91, was renowned as both a calligrapher and a church embroiderer. One of her most prestigious embroidery commissions was for St Paul's Cathedral, in London, to commemorate the Queen Mother's 80th birthday, in 1980. The resulting set of festal copes (ceremonial cloaks) was used at the wedding of the Prince and Princess of Wales the following year.

Throughout her working life Pat never stopped exploring lettering, using different tools and techniques. Her use of abstract and symbolic designs, as well as letterforms – the shapes of letters as they are written or drawn – established her reputation for breathing new life into church embroideries. She was also an inspirational teacher, mainly at Oxford School of Art (now Oxford Brookes University), where she taught lettering from 1951 to 1988. Her distinctive approach was captured in two successful books, Lettering for Embroidery (1972) and Decorative Alphabets Throughout the Ages (1989).

She was born Patricia Cooch in Wembley, Middlesex, and moved with her parents to Farnborough, Hampshire, where she was first introduced to calligraphy at Farnborough Hill convent college by Minnie Hall (who had been taught by Edward Johnston). Pat attended Chelsea School of Art (1938-39), where she was taught by Graham Sutherland and Henry Moore. One of her earliest commissioned pieces was a hand-lettered poster for a small exhibition of Sutherland's work.

She studied under the calligrapher MC Oliver at Hampstead Garden Suburb Institute (1953-54), where her fellow students included Heather Child and William Gardner. She cited Oliver as a great influence – "a good, sound teacher who taught in a practical manner". Pat was elected a member (now fellow) of the Society of Scribes and Illuminators in 1954.

Many formal calligraphic commissions followed.

After a brief spell in advertising, she returned to Farnborough when war broke out and went to work at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) – first in the accounts department and then in the aerodynamics department. It was while at the RAE that Pat met her future husband, Birrell Russell, who was responsible for erecting the radar aerials along the south and east coast to identify enemy aircraft. After the war, Birrell worked at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell, Oxfordshire. While working on an experiment there, in 1949, he fell from a ladder and died, leaving Pat with two small children. Forced through economic necessity to return to work, she started teaching graphic design evening classes at Oxford School of Art.

Inspired by the dedication of the new Coventry Cathedral, the Bear Lane Gallery in Oxford arranged an exhibition in 1964 entitled Modern Art in the Church. Pat decided to submit a cope with lettering around the orphrey (the band of embroidery bordering a vestment). This was a big undertaking as buying the fabric was expensive. Fortunately, she had already invested in a Bernina sewing machine. The lettering was designed in freely cut paper, each letter being built up of little strips. In between each word she inserted a cross form. "In a church service," Pat said, "the priest doesn't want to be read up and down, but the letterforms must be there, decipherable if not easily readable." Different colours and textures of yellow, gold and brown were used in this cope, irrespective of whether for background or letter, the lettering being hidden in a richly patterned band.

In response to a commission for Worcester Cathedral, the Very Rev Tom Baker, who was dean at the time, praised her "sensitive awareness of the demands of liturgy and architecture on all embroidery work".

Throughout her embroidery career, Pat continued to work on calligraphic commissions. She collaborated with the binder Ivor Robinson on a number of books. For Pat, a manuscript book, made by hand, did not need to conform to the usual parallel lines of text and rectangular format, and could employ more unusual handmade papers. A special style of lettering could be developed appropriate to the tone of the subject matter.

Pat travelled widely throughout the latter part of her life, especially in Japan, Australia and Canada, where she was much in demand to lecture on church embroidery and lettering. After retirement from church embroidery at the end of the 1980s, she was free to indulge her passion for experimental lettering, working in paper pulp, on silk and then on a Mac (a 70th birthday present from her son). She was thus able to continue the work she had commenced, on receipt of a Crafts Council bursary in 1978, "to investigate the influence of tools, materials and techniques on the character of letterforms". She continued to teach and exhibit until her mid-80s.

Pat served as chair of the Society of Scribes and Illuminators from 1989 to 1991; she was a founder member of the Letter Exchange and the Calligraphy and Lettering Arts Society; founder member and president of Oxford Scribes; and a member of the Art Workers Guild.

She is survived by her daughter Jennifer, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Her son, Graham, predeceased her.

Patricia Mary Russell, lettering artist, born 17 August 1919; died 12 March 2011


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