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St Margaret and the dragon of ecclesiastical bureaucracy

16 December 2010

St Margaret (Marina) of Antioch

Bob Gallagher, a fellow student with me at St Chad’s College in Durham, England, is now the vicar of St Margaret of Antioch Church in Toxteth, Liverpool, England. Here’s an extract from his Advent letter, which I found rather sad. It seems that the the parish had a small school, which provided a real service to the local community, but the ecclesiastical bureaucracy of the Church of England decided to close it down.

This is what Bob wrote:

The School was small, and one among many ‘Good’ Small Schools for South Liverpool, and for cost-benefits should be closed. But if anybody could appreciate the real benefit of a ‘good small school’, it has to be the ‘Church’. However, the Diocesan Board of Education (under the Bishop of the Diocese’s patronage) chose “Confidential Consultation” with the Local Education Authority, under some illusion that it had any power to close schools. There was no prior Consultation with the School, nor with the Church of England Parish the School served, nor with this Parish Church of St Margaret and its Vicar whose predecessor founded the School as part of his, and my, Service for this Community (The said predecessor, James Bell Cox, was imprisoned by the ‘Church’ for his ‘High-Church’ practices. Within weeks he was released through outcry, not from the ‘Church’, but from the ‘Community’).

Nor was there Care from ‘Diocese’ in our ‘Dying’, and at our ‘Death’.

The School,.. with its reputation of Service for Good, according to Government Inspectors, the Local Police, a Diocesan Synod, neigh-bouring Vicars, the Synagogue, the Mosque, the anecdotes of the Community/Parish, and the many interested and intrigued visitors over the years,.. was worth fighting for.

During my 3 month lay-off after my heart-attack, I regularly met Children in the Parish asking when the School Eucharist was coming back; and Muslim Children asking when I, the CofE Vicar, was coming back to School Assembly. You don’t let go of these  moments  very easily.  We got as far as ‘Adjudication’. That was a Wonderful Coming Together,.. Vocal, Passionate, Numerous, Humorous and Moving. We were Children Teachers and Parents, ‘Poor-White’, Liverpool born Black, African, Middle Eastern and Somali – with those who couldn’t speak English still spoke, their words translated by a friend – with those who ‘couldn’t speak’ finding their voice – Christians, Muslims, ‘no Faith’ – with Jewish Elders, Mosque Representatives, express permission from the Imam to this CofE Vicar to put his views (his Children came to the School) – with Church of Rome and Church of England Priests – Community Leaders, Health Workers, and OBE’d Elders. As the Evening Progressed, it became ‘Song’ and ‘Dance’ and Laughter and Generosity of Manner. If you are familiar with the New Testament, it was a ‘very good impression’ of Koinonia.  ‘Alleluia – what a way to go.’

The Adjudicator appreciated ‘the collective commitment, passion and sincerity, of the lay and professional’, but concluded for the LEA’s Proposals and provision of primary education in our part of Liverpool.

‘Growth’ – But of what? ‘Fresh Expressions’ – But of what?

At this time of the Closure of our School, we are suffering the Bishop and the ‘Diocese’ telling us “don’t let anybody tell you numbers don’t matter’. This is done with selective Biblical texts, and that ‘blackmail’ about the ‘successful’ Evangelical wing of the Church. So the Bishop and the ‘Diocese’ re-open a derelict church on the edge of this Parish, with man-power and money from ‘the National Churches Trust for the saving of a Parish Church for its community’. The ‘parish’ is its derelict graveyard, ‘perfectly legal and signed by the Queen’ said the Archdeacon – a ‘rotten borough’ said our Church-warden – so that it can ‘quota’, ‘tax’ the ‘parishioners’ taken from another’s parish. The community is burdened with churches, some more successful at ‘infantilism’ by taking members from others. Meanwhile the Community has long been more ‘grown-up’.

Is any of this culpable?  ‘God damn awful .. ’ as one old colleague put it.

“I thought the Archdeacon’s report of your ‘edginess’ and ‘combatitive-ness’, pathetic .. no appreciation of how we are going for broke every Sunday Morning.” ~ Church-warden David

At St Thomas Hyde, we had the ‘enforced’ Retirement Eucharist, by the Bishop of Chester, of the Revd Fr Phillip Benison. The Church is threatened with Closure because of small congregations – Yet serves the tragic-sacred Parish of the activities of Myra Hindley, Ian Brady, and Dr Harold Shipman.

Kenneth Leech, a boy of the Parish, preached. As a boy, he had walked into his open Parish Church of St Thomas, and found himself ‘in Prayer’. This led him into a life of Faith, Adventure, and Writing. He told the story of Bishop Colin Winter banned from his Country and Diocese of Namibia by Apartheid South Africa, holding Confirmations through the razor-wire at the Frontier.

On the Toxteth Riots of 1981, Kenneth Leech wrote, “When all has been said about the damage done, do we not need to acknowledge that if, as a result, some powerless people have been empowered, have been given an identity, have made their voices to be heard… that the hand of God was at work?”

On the ‘enforced’ Closure of St Margaret’s School, the Revd Fr Phillip Bennison wrote, “I’M REALLY SORRY, IT’S DEVASTATING THIS PREOCCUPATION BY THE CHURCH FOR THE ‘SUCCESSFUL’.”

“Poor you; you have suc-ceeded. You have got what you wanted. Nothing could be worse than that. We want to think we are better than others, so we do so. But in fact we are not as good as all that. Courage! Rejoice in your inferiority. Be glad that you are a mess, a disaster. The last are the ones that are first … There is none of that delusion in Jesus crucified, only complete failure … He had not hung on to life, or goodwill, or self-respect, or anything that gave him a purchase over other people. He went so far down, he kept nothing that could come between him and us.”
~ John Fenton’s ‘Christ The King’ in his book ‘More About [St] Mark’

Took time recently with a much-loved Relative with Alzheimer’s, and came to know that utter powerlessness. We were reduced to just Being with Her, .. a ‘hint’ of Utter Presence.

.. A ‘nudge’ too for the ‘Mission’, the Love-without-capital-interest for a hard-bitten place, like ‘St Margaret Toxteth’.

“The presence of an otherness that is ultimately quite inaccessible to me and resistant to my control, .. it is an otherness that seeks itself in me, and enables me to seek myself in it, not a diminution of my own solidity but the condition for it, .. nor a solid presence invading my weak and under defended territory, but a presence that offers to nourish and augment what I am. In the world of human relations, this is precisely mutual answerability and taking responsibility.”
~ Rowan Williams’ ‘Dostoevsky: LANGUAGE, FAITH AND FICTION’

[We love Rowan Williams Archbishop of Canterbury’s comments on Society, ‘his Parish’; the theological discernment of ‘what is really going on’, dense and allusive, as he should do as Archbishop Priest and Chaplain to the ‘King’.]

“In those days, after the suffering, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man [Daughter of Woman, Mags for short] coming in clouds with great power and glory.”
~ Jesus of Nazareth according to St Mark’s Gospel and a Reading for Advent.

Bob Gallagher wrote and read this Story for the Final Multi-Faith Multi-Race Whole-School Assembly for St Margaret of Antioch Church of England Voluntary Aided Primary School, on its Closure at 3pm that Afternoon of 9th July 2010.   We are still with FIREY FURY.

Little Miss Firey had red hair, full of wild red curls. She lived in a tiny house, but a firey house. It was painted red all over, from chimney pot, down to front door step … Inside, however, this firey house was wall-papered blue, icy blue, so that sometimes Little Miss Firey could cool down. Her tiny firey red house, with icy blue inside, was in a forest. Wild animals lived in that forest, because that is were they felt safest, and they felt safe with Little Miss Fiery, because she was a bit wild.. And Little Miss Firey, whose real name by the way was Margaret, or Mags for short, loved the wild animals because they were a bit like her. Though there was one wild animal everybody was afraid of, and that was the Dragon. He didn’t live in the forest tho’ … He lived in a far off Cave, breathing Fire.

One day, Little Miss Firey, or Mags for short, was cooling off in front of her ice blue wall paper, when there were loud knocks at her door, .. not just one or two knocks, and not just quiet knocks either … but lots of knocks, and LOUD. She opened the door. And there jumping up and down on her red doorstep, in quite a state, were three Little Misses. There was Little Miss Late who looked as tho’ she had run a mile in ten seconds, to catch up, … and Little Miss Neat, who didn’t look neat any more at all, with her hat sideways on her head, and her glasses sideways on her nose, … and Little Miss Bossy, who didn’t look bossy so much as positively apoplectic. [Apoplectic? What a wonderful word. It means absolutely furious.] “They’re closing our School”, all three shouted at once, tho’ Little Miss Late was a bit late. “THEY’RE CLOSING OUR SCHOOL!! .. OOL!!”

Well Little Miss Firey, Mags for short, really got firey them, RED HOT ALL OVER. “I KNOW”, she shouted, “LET’S GO SEE SOMEONE I KNOW, ABOUT ALL THIS, … ACTUally she’s St Margaret.” So off they set.

On the way, they met three Mr Men, and they knew they knew them, but they did look different. There was Mr Messy, even more messy, in fact in a complete mess. There was Mr Bump, who they really couldn’t recognise, because he was covered all over in bandages. And then there was Mr Small, whom they almost couldn’t see, he’d shrunk so much more small. They shouted, and squeaked, at the tops of their voices, “THEY’RE CLOSING OUR SCHOOL.”

“WE’RE GOING TO See St Margaret,.. tag along with us” said Mags, just starting to calm down a bit, as she thought she knew what to do. “Actually, I know her well.” So off the Magnificent Seven set.

Then they met, Mr Happy, who didn’t look happy at all, and Mr Nonsense who didn’t look any different. “We’re going to see St Margaret about it all”, said Mags, before they could get an un-happy or nonsense word in. “ACTually, I know her .. We’re related .. WELL ACtually, she’s my Grandmother. She’ll sort this.”

Well these Magnificent Nine, came to St Margaret. She lived in a fine house with big windows, on a big hill, more a mountain, so she had great views all around, on the world she loved.

The Nine had run out of shouting now, and jumping up and down, and they knocked on Little Miss Firey’s, Grandmother’s, St Margaret’s, front door.

Mags’ Grandmother was a magnificent woman, red firey curly hair like her Grandaughter, and icy blue eyes, like her Grandaughter’s wall paper. Saint Margaret … Great Miss Firey and Cool.

“They’re closing your school”, said the Magnificent Nine together. “I know,” said St Margaret. “But that’s terrible … Can’t you stop them,” the Nine said again together. “I know,” said St Margaret, “and I can’t help you now … Because you see, from my house and its big windows, I can see that Dragon far off, and he’s coming for me … to swallow me again.” “That IS terrible,” said the Nine. “I know” said St Margaret, “and know this, … that I loved you, … and do love you now,.. tho’ I can not help you .. It IS terrible, and you will feel terrible for a while … and then, in time, in your own time, you will remember my Love for you … you will remember what I gave you,.. and what makes you the Magnificent Nine you are.” “And Now I must go, to meet Dragon, and see if I can love him again, I pray” said Margaret, Mags’ Grandmother, and then she disappeared.

Well the Magnificent Nine, not feeling very magnificent, turned round and set off back home. They didn’t know what to say to each other, nor what to do when they got back home, …. but they had that sneaking suspicion, that maybe, .. just maybe, .. they would ……. …………And Mr Happy’s smile, just began to return.

Little Miss Firey, whose real name was Margaret,.. Mags for short,.. began to pray .. May God make safe to you each step: May God make open to you each pass: May God make clear to you each road, and May He take you in the grasp of His own two hands. And she just knew that one day, she would live in her Grandmother’s House on the Big Hill, looking out of those big windows on a world she would love, and upon the Dragons who would come, and the Dragons whom she would learn to love.

For those who don’t know StMargaret, here is her story.

The Holy Great Martyr Marina was born in Asia Minor, in the city of Antioch of Pisidia (southern Asia Minor), into the family of a pagan priest. In infancy she lost her mother, and her father gave her into the care of a nursemaid, who raised Marina in the Orthodox Faith. Upon learning that his daughter had become a Christian, the father angrily disowned her. During the time of the persecution against Christians under the emperor Diocletian (284-305), when she was fifteen years old, St Marina was arrested and locked up in prison. With firm trust in the will of God and His help, the young prisoner prepared for her impending fate.

The governor Olymbrios, charmed with the beautiful girl, tried to persuade her to renounce the Christian Faith and become his wife. But the saint, unswayed, refused his offers. The vexed governor gave the holy martyr over to torture. Having beaten her fiercely, they fastened the saint with nails to a board and tore at her body with tridents. The governor himself, unable to bear the horror of these tortures, hid his face in his hands. But the holy martyr remained unyielding. Thrown for the night into prison, she was granted heavenly aid and healed of her wounds. They stripped her and tied her to a tree, then burned the martyr with fire. Barely alive, the martyr prayed: “Lord, You have granted me to go through fire for Your Name, grant me also to go through the water of holy Baptism.”

St Margaret and the Dragon

Hearing the word “water”, the governor gave orders to drown the saint in a large cauldron. The martyr besought the Lord that this manner of execution should become for her holy Baptism. When they plunged her into the water, there suddenly shone a light, and a snow-white dove came down from Heaven, bearing in its beak a golden crown. The fetters put upon St Marina came apart by themselves. The martyr stood up in the fount of Baptism glorifying the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. St Marina emerged from the fount completely healed, without any trace of burns. Amazed at this miracle, the people glorified the True God, and many came to believe. This brought the governor into a rage, and he gave orders to kill anyone who might confess the Name of Christ. 15,000 Christians perished there, and the holy Martyr Marina was beheaded. The sufferings of the Great Martyr Marina were described by an eyewitness of the event, named Theotimos.

It is also daid that the devil appeared to her in the form of a dragon, to intimdate her, but when  he tried to swallow her, the crossw she carried disagreed with him, and he spat her out again. And it seems that the dragon of ecclesiastical bureaucracy has now swallowed her school.

And there is more here, and here and here.

Greatmartyr Marina (Margaret) of Antioch in Pisidia
Troparion – Tone 4

Your lamb Marina calls out to You, O Jesus, in a loud voice:
“I love You, my Bridegroom, and in seeking You I endure suffering.
In baptism I was crucified so that I might reign in You,
and I died so that I might live with You.
Accept me as a pure sacrifice,
for I have offered myself in love.”
Through her prayers save our souls, since You are merciful.

Kontakion – Tone 3

Adorned with the beauty of virginity,
you have been crowned with unfading crowns, O Marina.
Having shed your blood in holy martyrdom,
and radiant with the miracles of healing,
you have received from the hand of your Creator the prize of victory.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 16 December 2010 10:57 pm

    While I cannot exactly know the situation – in spite of the detailed description – it reflects a lot on the state of the church which I find myself drifting away from: not from faith but from leadership (and sometimes their congregations) that are ignorant, staid, and stultifying.
    Where is faith in provision? This does not seem to get a guernsey. Where is constructive modern community engagement? Appears to be non-existent. There are great tools around – but, too frequently, the social sciences are not considered scientific and therefore are disregarded. I also wish that the church trained its people a little less in theology and a lot more in sociology and the study of communities. As if we need one more exegist with a pass degree in Theology and the colleges are churning them out and they all want God jobs!

    No – let’s have an understanding in the church of community, the whole wide many strata-ed community inside and outside the church. Jesus, in the story of the dishonest steward, marvelled at the smarts of the worldly that were lacking in the children of the Light.

    It is possible to have some this-worldly smarts and not be dishonest. Many of us who do darken the door of a church do have them…but on Sunday we mustn’t bring them to church, it seems. I believe in God’s provision for what He wants done and how it is to be done. I find no discussion of this in the story of the school – just its is-ness and its small-ness.

    I also think that the church is about the worst discerner of the signs of the times. It needs to understand how the world operates but it must beware to be in the world and not of it. If we mind the signs of the times, we will also understand how an ever-changing world operates and we will do our best to manage our affairs accordingly so that we are not caught unawares and left to the mercies of the remote powers within church and bureaucracy (who make excellent bedfellows because of the way they operate).

    It sounds to me like people might not have been providing full and sufficient guidance in all ways to the little school and the little school was left small and powerless. Greater understanding of and reliance on God’s provision matched with the smarts that are available might have been able to provide some counterbalance and perhaps a different outcome.

    • 17 December 2010 7:50 pm

      When I was at St Chad’s College I experienced that kind of bureaucracy at first hand. We (students) went for four years to visit three Durham mining villages, which were about to be swallowed up to “Washington New Town”. The Washington Development Corporation took over civil government enmtirely, and played God with the inhabitants. Unelected, it looked and behaved like the similar apartheid monstrosities back home. And the church was the same. The diocese decided that they were going to build a new church with the Methodists, and wanted to parish to saw how many cupboars they wanted in the kitchen so the Archdeacon could present their “demands” to the Methodists. What never occurred to the diocesan bureaucacy was that the people in the parish could meet the local methodists and sort it out between them, instead of having bureaucratic negotiations done on their behalf.

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