Casting Out Fear

Throughout my ministry I’ve often listened to people who feel victim to forces beyond their control. Whether it’s illness or poverty, injustice or relationships, people can find themselves at the end of their tether. I’m quite sure that pastoral care and careful listening are helpful in such situations. However, sometimes those who listen to these experiences decide to do more. To do something that will alter the circumstances giving rise to fear is a rare and admirable action. Thankfully, there are some outstanding examples where this has happened and today – MHA Sunday – churches celebrate the continuing work founded by the efforts of one Methodist minister. They celebrate – but also look to continue the work of innovation in the way we enable people to live later life well.

It seems remarkable that the Rev’d Walter Hall had the vision and tenacity to instigate the creation of MHA during a world war. Surely this was something that gave ample grounds for delaying (or even shelving) the proposal? Yet Walter persisted; evangelised others to the cause; and had the wit to secure for the Methodist Conference the promise of a substantial donation if a charity was created. Now, 78 years later, ‘Methodist Homes’ operates over 160 residential sites as well as a range of services to help people live later life well in the community.

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The initial aim of MHA was to alleviate the fears Walter heard during his pastoral visits to ageing members of church. He heard too many stories of anxious people concerned that they were ‘one piece of bad luck away from the workhouse’. This was a fear which wasn’t dispelled by the creation of the welfare state, as residential care remains a sector occupied by a mix of charitable; not-for-profit; and fully commercial providers. In particular, MHA set out with the intention to make living in a retirement community a more dignified and positive experience. As people began to have longer lives the need for this kind of service is as pressing today as it has ever been.

In many churches today a passage of Mark’s Gospel has been read, in which Jesus speaks about the Kingdom of God being like a mustard seed. Small in itself, it grows to offer birds somewhere to perch. It is an enduring image of modest faith, and small deeds, growing far beyond the expectations felt at the start. Like The Samaritans and many other charities, the drive to achieve change for the better grew out of poignant experiences in the community. At their best, churches have the kind of cross-cutting connections that enable a particular kind of insight. The capacity to mind about the whole operation of a society, and perceive the often unseen gaps and needs. In some cases that ability to hear and understand can be changed into potent and transformative action.

When I look at Walter’s portrait in MHA’s central offices I often wonder what he would make of the charity today. The largest UK charity providing residential care for older people. Not only that, but a charity that continues to campaign to #fixcareforall. Surely, two years after the Prime Minister of the UK made a commitment to fix social care, it’s time he followed Walter’s example and turned words into deeds?

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.

1 John 4:10 NRSV

Fear still exists for many people as they age. Walter’s story is an inspiring example of the small steps that stem from the command to love our neighbours. Sometimes the start of projects may feel like planting the smallest of seeds – yet we never know how that tiny foundation might grow. Thankfully, we continue to see work begun that seeks to transform our communities for the better. We cherish and develop the works of compassion already began and look for those situations which still cry out for justice. At the end of the day, it is only when we care and support everyone around us that we will see a society which values each and every person. A society of which we are all proud to be a part.

Evensong Praised

On the eve of decimalisation, in 1971, my Uncle Alan gave me a few of the new coins. The owner of a draper’s shop in a Lancashire market town, he had them in advance of general circulation. At a young age this was exciting for me rather than strange, but it must have come as a shock to many people; a radical departure from the money familiar for generations. My only recollection of using the old currency was adding a modest contribution to the ‘penny miles’ which used to snake their way along the pavement in aid of a good cause. Much easier to achieve with the old penny than with the new.

The 1970s were full of change. As a family we attended the parish church which began to use the experimental orders of service offered by the Church of England. My earliest recollection is the ‘Series 3’ service, and I quickly came to know the communion liturgy by heart. For my parents and grandparents it must have felt jarring – or liberating – to shift the address to God from ‘Thou’ to ‘You’. Money changing; holy words changing – it was quite a decade.

In all the change that has followed for the Church, one service has remained largely untouched. Somehow, Prayer Book Evensong persevered in cathedrals and some parishes, although it has died out in many places. It feels to me that no other service reflects the time of day quite so fittingly. Traditionally held at 6:30 pm, the time has changed over the years, and now often takes place as early as 4 or 5 pm. Yet this hasn’t disturbed unduly the rhythm of the day or the sense that this service is connected with the waning of light and the approach of dusk. At St Cuthbert’s Lytham as a teenager, and St Mary Magdalene Ecton in rural Northamptonshire in the mid-1980s, I attended Evensong many times. Now I enjoy the same opportunity at York Minster. In spiritual and musical terms it is a spacious service, faithful and reflective in tone, it sits well as the business of day gives way to the evening hours.

“You’ve got to enjoy yourself. The evening’s the best part of the day. You’ve done your day’s work. Now you can put your feet up and enjoy it. That’s how I look at it. Ask anybody, they’ll all tell you. The evening’s the best part of the day.” 

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

Choral Evensong is available to anyone with an internet connection anywhere in the world. Each week BBC Radio 3 broadcasts a service (occasionally played from its archive) and there are countless other options on YouTube and elsewhere. This is not a weekly festival of past musical triumphs, but strives to include new compositions and innovation that adds to the spiritual range of the service. Recently Radio 3 broadcast Evensong from St Pancras Church in London. It was a live event during the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music. About 7 minutes into the service there was the world premier of an introit ‘Troparion’ by Renāts Cvečkovskis. It struck me as a remarkably haunting piece of music. Marking the season of the Ascension the music rose and fell in the ancient church. At one point the wail of a siren penetrates the walls and become part of the music. I’ve no idea which arm of the emergency services it came form, but this sudden intrusion of everyday-London didn’t seem out of place in the contemplation of a departing God.

“the presence of contemporary music in an ancient cathedral, especially its more angular dissonance, serves as a reminder that the worship being offered, although in beautiful and ancient surroundings, is not remote from the anguished and urgent realities of the present day”. 

Simon Reynolds, ‘In Praise of Evensong’ The Church Times 7 May 2021
The Great East Window, York – which with fading light, is a frequent backdrop to Choral Evensong

As Simon Reynods wrote a few weeks ago, attendance at Evensong has been growing in recent years. Perhaps this is linked to a new interest in monasticism (in which our evening worship was formed). Or it may be a rediscovery of pilgrimage – a meaningful journey to a place or moment of spiritual significance. Either way, it is a service with sufficient self-confidence to allow seekers, enquirers and tourists to attend. Being at Evensong is an immersive experience combining the deep roots of Judeo-Christian worship with an English language forged in the heat of exceptional times, as the great vowel shift left an enduring mark on our liturgy.

When Lord Rees won the Templeton Prize there was some debate as to why an agnostic astrophysicist had been awarded £1 million by a religious foundation. Described as a churchgoer who doesn’t believe in God, Rees responded that his visits to Evensong in his college chapel were simply ‘the customs of my tribe’. This disarming answer puts a spoke in the wheels of both ardent atheists as well as religious purists. I would like to think that, for Rees, the difficulties of knowing which lie at the heart of faith are a refreshing exposure of uncertainties, which abound in science but are far less often announced in public . His comments certainly hint at this:

“Doing science made me realise that even the simplest things are hard to understand and that makes me suspicious of people who believe they’ve got anything more than an incomplete and metaphorical understanding of any deep aspect of reality,”

Lord Rees, quoted in The Guardian 6 April 2011

It would be wrong if what I have reflected on to this point was not questioned. Is Evensong elitist? The music is often of the highest quality and there are no doubt people who look at the menu of settings and anthems before deciding to set out for a service. The power of the liturgy relies to some extent on the evocative silences and echoes between the notes and words. An occasional intrusion of noise may sometimes add to the service, but not always. Not everyone can be silent and still for an hour. While freedom from vocal participation can be liberating, for others it is frustrating and disempowering. Sometimes Evensong sermons are inclusive and engaged with a God alive in the world, but they can also be inward looking and riddled with churchy language and ideas. The question of culture in worship is something Giles Fraser has addressed, and it continues to be a live debate for the Church. Fraser reflects on his time attending Evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral:

The silence would stop me and calm me down. The prayers and readings would slowly format my thoughts. But it was the music that stole for me a glimpse of heaven. And it was often unspeakably beautiful.

Giles Fraser, Unherd – blog following the announcement of Sheffield Cathedral’s choir being disbanded

Evensong is a rich and important part of worship. Knowing what is being offered and where to find it is much easier now there is a dedicated website. The internet’s offering of liturgy, including Evensong, has become much more extensive during the pandemic – there is a wealth of material to discover. Radio 3’s weekly broadcast is now in its 95th year. I have no doubt it will make the centenary, and endure long, long into the future. It is a jewell in the crown of English worship and will continue to be a vital part of a living spirituality. Not for everyone – but for an eclectic mix of doubtful seekers and faithful pilgrims. When so much continues to change, Evensong has lightened the darkness for people across the centuries: a precious moment of reflection, praise and peace.

Thym Tryeth Troth

In the depths of the Northumbrian countryside is Wallington, a substantial house and estate managed by the National Trust. The walled garden is idyllic, with a wealth of colour and a sense of tranquility, accompanied by the soft trickle of flowing water. A place of calm, colour, order and reflection.

The house at Wallington bears the motto of the Trevelyan family: ‘thym tryeth troth’. Otherwise rendered as time tries faith, it is a reminder that loyalties can be made in a moment but are proven over time. If we ever think about the word ‘troth’ it is probably in the words of marriage service according to the Book of Common Prayer. It is here that people plight their troth, giving both a pledge and their ‘truth’ to one another.

Time tends to reveal many things – not least that apparent truths in one age can become questionable and dangerous opinions when viewed from a distance. Often, even at the time when purported truths hold sway, there are lone voices which query the assumptions underpinning these claims to truth. As the UK woke up to the reality of pandemic there were already those who had seen and set out in detail the implications of the impending crisis. On 12 March 2020 Rory Stewart was willing to voice what was happening and the actions that were needed.

There are also times when the truth about the past continues to have serious political weight. At a Downing Street briefing on 5 May 2020 Matt Hancock characterised the Government’s response to the COVID risk in care homes as an attempt to provide a protective shield. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a political statement being made and been so certain of its mendacity. Being fully aware of what was happening in care homes the idea that any serious Government effort had gone into protecting people was absurd. Even the data in the public domain made it clear that deaths in care homes were running at twice their rate compared with recent years.

“Right from the start it’s been clear that this horrible virus affects older people most. Right from the start, we’ve tried to throw a protective ring around our care homes”

Secretary of State for Health Matt Hancock speaking at a Downing Street briefing on 5 May 2020

All the evidence suggests that care homes were off the Government’s radar. Early models for the pandemic failed to take account of the way care homes are embedded in communities and what that might mean for transmission. Despite early evidence that once established in a care home COVID could be lethal, rapid and unstoppable, the political determination to halt the spread to homes was weak at best. In fact, as the evidence from Dominic Cummings suggests, not only were care homes unprotected but decisions to discharge untested NHS patients to homes caused illness and death. This is the detail which undermines the claim that any serious attempt was made to throw a protective ring round our most vulnerable citizens.

In the walled garden of Wallington all this seems far away. Places of tranquility invite us to take the long view and consider how humanity has lived through many different moments of crisis. Time continues to flow and every age can learn from critical experiences, drawing on painful episodes in order to become more just and merciful – or choose instead to entrench social inequalities with a spirit of fear and suspicion.

The walled garden, Wallington

If building back better means anything it must be about more than an exaggerated version of the past. From the degree of social inequality, to the environment, political apathy and consumerism, we owe the people who have died more than a warmed up version of previous policies. The pain of loss during the last 15 months is continuing to emerge. During Radio 4’s weekly phone in show, ‘Any Answers?’ a grieving widow noted not only the death she had experienced but its circumstances. Loss of contact in the months before death was a devastating cost in a marriage that spanned many decades.

In the months ahead – and through the promised inquiry – the detail of individual truths will be tested. However, these details of response (and lack of response) must come to inform the greater truth of how we live as a society and global community. Failing to do this will be a betrayal of the multiple losses experience during COVID-19, and the lessons that have come at such great cost. We need a better vision coming out of this crisis. A vision with a much stronger commitment to ‘love one another’. William Temple once said that it is impossible for governments to love individuals. However, there is an alternative way for this to be expressed. He commented: ‘love in social organisation is justice’. Let’s not deny future generations the justice they seek and deserve.

A Narrowing Path

In April I achieved a level of optimism about the pandemic which was entirely new. The success of the vaccine programme in the UK, combined with the lockdown, was delivering results that exceeded expectations. Numbers of cases and deaths weren’t just declining, they were tumbling. The BBC’s map of COVID infections was changing from the deep colours of danger to the lighter greens of relative safety. Everything looked set for joyful reunions on May 17, as indoor visits and restaurant dinning become possible. This optimism began to level off as reports of a new and more transmissible strain of the virus began to circulate.

The primrose path that seemed tantalisingly close has been replaced by the prospect of a more fraught road ahead. This is a narrow path with steep falls in either side. There is the real risk that tomorrow’s easing of restrictions will accelerate the transmission of the new strain. Given the huge response to vaccination in the UK this may appear to be excessively pessimistic. However, we are now experienced in COVID-19 and know that wherever there is an opportunity this virus thrives. Even with the shield of immunity for many, the pandemic will find the cracks in our defences. The people who haven’t been vaccinated; the people for whom the vaccine will not work as it should; the people whose health means that even mild symptoms push them into crisis. A much more transmissible version of the virus will find these people and fill the beds of the NHS.

Photo by George Morina on Pexels.com

What’s even more remarkable about the 1918 flu, say infectious disease experts, is that it never really went away. After infecting an estimated 500 million people worldwide in 1918 and 1919 (a third of the global population), the H1N1 strain that caused the Spanish flu receded into the background and stuck around as the regular seasonal flu.


The History Channel

This is quite depressing. As millions of people across the world continue to be infected, the changes that take place in the virus through transmission will intensify. When it came to the flu pandemic following the First World War the reduction of infection took place in a world where travel was enjoyed by the few, and a lot of journeys happened very slowly. Will COVID-19 recede so quickly in a world where normality in the West means an immense amount of rapid international travel? In the first lockdown in the UK it is calculated that there was a ‘74% reduction in the average daily number of contacts’. Normalised Western interactions in the 21st century are the perfect conduit for a disease that can be asymptomatic and spreads with remarkable ease among human beings. The role of ski resorts in gathering, infecting and dispersing people around the world is a microcosm of the global village.

Eleven months into the pandemic, we know that ski resorts played a significant role in seeding the pandemic across Europe 


World Health Organisation, Regional Office for Europe 16 December 2020

Both with the UK Government’s initiative to incentivise visits to restaurants, and the prospect of eased restrictions for Christmas, well-intended stimulus to human interaction fuelled transmission. The disheartening experience is that, as easing of measures approaches, time and again we have found the way ahead vanish in mists of uncertainty. The key difference this time is the high rate of vaccination – a factor which may turn the tide of any new surge. The simple fact is that we don’t know. However, we do know enough about the consequences of making a mistake in the freedoms we allow to incline us towards caution. It’s not what anyone wants to hear, but the reality of risk for the NHS, for care home residents, and for vulnerable individuals and communities cannot be discounted.

The government initiative (‘Eat Out to Help Out”), which cost around £500 million, caused a significant rise in new infections in August and early September accelerating the pandemic into its current second wave.


The University of Warwick
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While it is unclear what will unfold this week (and it may take two weeks to emerge) there is every sense that the path ahead is narrowing. Too many times we have failed to give the risks associated with the virus the respect they deserve. Of course we need to resume near-normal living as soon as possible. We know that there are many twists and turns in the pandemic, and harmful consequences can arise where least expected. Nevertheless, some risks are clear and should be avoided as far as possible, especially when so much is unknown.

As we chart the way ahead there must be a balance between the devil-may-care attitude of abandoned caution, and the doom-mongers who can only see risk on the horizon. A hundred years after the last pandemic, when that virus is still with us, we need to learn to live with the reality of COVID-19. As the first pandemic to occur in an age of rapid and plentiful transportation, the solutions we find to live with the virus will need to be new and innovative. Otherwise this won’t be a blip at the start of the 2020s – but the beginning of a decade of damaging restrictions.

Ashes Under Eboracum

Around the age of seven I went on a trip to Hadrian’s Wall. My parents took us to Housesteads, then on a walk along the wall from Steel Rigg. It is a dramatic and evocative setting, with the wall climbing the contours high up onto the Whin Sill. For whatever reason, it started an interest in Roman Britain that lasted well into my teens. The Lancashire town where I lived had Roman heritage, and a military shield boss found locally is in the British Museum. Encouraging my developing interest, my parents then arranged a tour in York – Roman Eboracum – with a local archeologist.

Living in that same city more than forty years later I’m mindful of the history lying just below the pavement. At least one of the sewers built by the Romans survives in excellent condition under Church Street in York. From Romans, to Saxons and Vikings, this patch of earth has been the centre of influence in the north for thousands of years. The Minster’s foundations stand in the remains of the heart of the Roman fortress – an empire of spiritual life supplanting the temporal forces that once ruled the city.

History has been in the news in the UK following the announcement that two modern universities plan to cut courses. There is concern that only elite centres of study will continue to offer history degrees. In a world where science is offering so much in responding to COVID-19, it isn’t difficult to see why some universities may be reviewing what they offer. Yet how short-sighted. Without doubt both humanities and the arts offer a vital dimension to our understanding and outlook. As I commented many blogs ago, when it came to COVID-19, our best academic modellers lacked the insight or imagination to appreciate how care homes interacted with their local communities. Without the disciplines that explore lived human experiences key dimensions of our understanding are absent. That absence can result in a failure to register vital elements of the reality we are addressing.

A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.


Marcus Garvey

History offers us perspective. As we study the past we encounter people very confident about how much they knew and how human life should be governed. These understandings have changed over time, and an important lesson for today should be the provisional nature of our knowledge. Science operates on the basis that there is more to know and, consequently, that what we take today to be certain may be questionable tomorrow. Many years ago, when running an elective course for medical students, I asked what proportion of all that could be known about medicine they thought was known today. With commendable candour one student pronounced it was ‘diddly-squat’. Our learning increases all the time and, when we look back at the past, we can experience horror at the medical procedures people once endured. Our great-great grandchildren may feel much the same when they look back at our response to the pandemic.

History has the power to teach us humility. It tells us that people made choices which seemed rational and wise at the time, only to realise that seeds of disaster were being sown. Understanding the past is vital if human beings are going to learn, change and live well in the future. Simply doing what we want in one generation fails to recognise that we are part of the future, and our choices have consequences that endure. This is perhaps one of the most important lessons in the response to climate change.

To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.


From A Shropshire Lad 31: On Wenlock Edge the Wood’s in Trouble, by A. E. Housman

Housman’s poem reminds us that for all the power and reach of the Roman Empire, today it is a layer of ash under Wroxeter. The Roman remains of York are impressive and have endured a long time, but the people who built them and ruled here are gone. Much of the understanding about how the world works has changed over those centuries and, while some things may remain, human self-perception moves on. It will continue to evolve and change, hopefully with the aid of the arts and humanities bringing their own unique learning to our understanding. To lose that knowledge is too great a risk when we know how quickly human life can change. Living humbly with the limitations of our knowledge might be the most significant contribution history conveys to help us make wise choices today.

Vain Repetition

Mistakes are good. They help us learn, change and improve. A ‘defect’ is a mistake which goes undetected for a long time – an error repeated at both increasing risk and cost. The circumstances that have led to the Church of England’s woeful record of institutional racism reveal terrible defects in the way the Church has attempted to fulfil its mission.

The Church of England has been a part of my life for the whole of my life. My grandfather was a churchwarden in a Lancashire market town, and my grandmother a founding member of the local Mothers’ Union. I climbed up into the pulpit at an early age while gran was arranging the flowers. She told me off and made me come down. In my mid-teens I told my grandfather that I was feeling a call to ordained ministry. He left the room immediately and without a word. When he came back I asked him what had happened – he said that he’d gone to be sick. He had worked with the clergy at close quarters.

Many clergy would attest to attitudes and actions which have hampered their ministry or prevented its development. Couples where both parties are clergy have stories of unfair treatment and a lack of facilitation in supporting two people in parish ministry. At one level it feels that the Church can occasionally be encouraged across the threshold of change, only to fail substantially in taking the steps that enable change to become a reality.

I am one half of a clergy couple. Across 30 years of ordained ministry there has never been a time when we were both in parish ministry. In various meetings and in correspondence before we married, it was made clear that it would be impossible for us to both continue in full-time stipendiary positions. The fact that we have enjoyed fulfilling roles despite these attitudes is not a mitigation for a Church that focused on legislation with little thought for implementation.

The Weekend Telegraph Saturday 2 July 1994

In 2008, along with two colleagues, I was involved in the research and publication of an article which explored some of the characteristics of Anglican health care chaplains in the NHS in England. We had not anticipated being surprised by the basic demographic data which formed the first part of the survey. However, it revealed that 27% of participants were married or partnered to someone in ordained ministry. Also, from the whole cohort, 20% of respondents stated that they were in a same sex relationship. This kind of data begins to reveal something of the silent processes which channel clergy into particular roles.

I was invited to present the findings to the Church of England’s Council for hospital chaplains. It was a full meeting, stacked with the good and great, and I talked through all the key insights from the study. There was one person who pushed back on the implied correlation between clergy couples and people in same-sex partnerships moving into chaplaincy. ‘Maybe there were other things that linked these individuals – did they all have grand pianos?’. Apart from that, nobody spoke (but everyone knew).

While some issues may be couched in the language of modernity and innovation, the reality is that people have always faced cultures that suppress aspects of identity.

Some of the most pernicious forms of prejudice lie just below the surface. Silently they nudge choices one way and not the other. Excluding candidates from roles for which they are eminently qualified and allowing an unrelated characteristic to lead, ‘mysteriously’, to their non- appearance on a short-list. I would love to see a study into the way people change roles when senior leadership moves from one Diocese to another. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that prior association is a key driver in Church appointments. In 2017 The McGregor-Smith Review (independent review) reminded us that “organisations and individuals tend to hire in their own image”.

The vocational pathways experienced by clergy are an accessible and easy way for the Church to understand the negative forces which shape the deployment of ministers. Forces neither benign nor divine.

It has always appeared to me that the most charismatic element of the Gospel is the offer of radical inclusion. At a time when birth defined status, opportunity and religion, Jesus founded a tribe like no other. A community where nothing is a barrier to belonging and the Church is called to continuously pattern a way of life that prefigures the full coming of the Kingdom. In its words, worship and service, the Church has the most wonderful and amazing job in the world.

Each of us has an obligation to speak and act in this situation. We cannot allow the defects of our mission to continue as the vain repetition of past errors and failings. It is time the Church was recalled to its fundamental, exciting and life-changing role for individuals, communities and society.

Being Well

With good reason there is a growing swell of concern about our mental health and wellbeing. Over a year into the pandemic, with no conclusive outcome in sight, there is a palpable cost to people’s sense of security, coherence and peace of mind. The first rallying response to the steep rise of infection and deaths in April 2020 has been followed for many by exhaustion. The King’s Fund has explored this through the lens of past disasters and produced an illustration of indicative peaks and troughs – a long and winding road.

Already there is debate over the reality of long Covid – reminiscent of disagreements about some other complex conditions. No doubt the debate about this will continue even as its effects become clearer over the course of time. What cannot be disputed is the simple reality that all our lives have changed. This is true all the way from the pocket-check before we leave the house (‘have I got a mask?’) to the relentless addition of zeros to the national debt.

March 21 2020 – the day I encountered the weird appearance of a takeaway with ‘waiting boxes’ for those coming to collect their food

A new broadsheet in the UK is a rare occurrence, but in 1983 The Independent appeared with its own style and ambitions in the news industry. Around that time I was in Preston railway station juggling a bag, coffee and a copy of the new publication. I dropped it and a kindly stranger picked it and suggested that perhaps I wasn’t quite as independent as I thought I imagined.

Independence is a beguiling aspiration. If we could simply have greater control over our lives, choosing to do what we want when we want, then all would be well. Without a doubt there is plenty of this kind of thinking in our world, matched by a marketing machine ready to offer us the perfect solution – almost before we are conscious of our need. With algorithms and artificial intelligence, our anticipation and desires are nudged. The greener grass is just around the corner, if only we can afford the fare.

Life is a hospital ward, and the beds we are put in

are the ones we don’t want to be in.

We’d get better sooner if put over by the window.

Or by the radiator, one could suffer easier there.

From The Wrong Beds, by Roger McGough

McGough’s poem includes the line: “The soul could be happier anywhere than where it happens to be. Anywhere but here”. Perhaps more than ever, the pandemic has prompted the thought that we need to be somewhere else – maybe even in another time.

Photo by Lukas Rychvalsky on Pexels.com

When the flood of sickness subsides there will come a counting of the cost. The 130,000 excess deaths over 12 months; cases of long-COVID, both physiological and psychological; the economic debt; the emerging narrative of what has taken place. There will be a continuing focus on well-being as the bereaved come to celebrate lives and make memorial. The impetus for economic recovery and educational catchup may jar with the needs of people who require a pause and time to digest.

Much of the focus on well-being can feel individual and bespoke. There are countless initiatives to help people manage their emotional life and strengthen resilience. I hope that at the same time sufficient attention will be given to collective well-being and how communities can be guided to increase the mutuality of support to create the ecology in which people can be well.

A recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement carries a review of a new book by Frank Tallis, The Art of Living.

In his review Antonio Melechi notes the risk that the self-help and self-improvement culture born out of the pop-psychology of recent decades omits a critical ingredient. Focusing in the manageable and measurable, it has neglected the enduring truth that ‘the self is a social artefact’. As we move beyond this critical phase of the pandemic, there will no doubt be a flourishing of tips and tactics to make us feel better, calmer, more resilient. None of which will deliver the promised goods unless we also live in communities which are life-giving, creative and supportive.

Rather than forever longing to be in a different bed can we find common cause to make it a better ward; a better hospital; a better town? Maybe, when our endeavour is invested in community, we might find that coveting other beds is not quite so appealing. That being well can only truly be found in the well being of others.

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A World Entire

The death of anyone represents the loss of unique experiences and relationships. People may have similar pathways through life, but they are never identical. One of my favourite quotes from recent years was in The Guardian and came in an article reflecting on the mind in a self-help culture. It touched on ‘solipsism’, the idea that the self alone is real. The humour reminds us that when someone dies their particular perception of the world – of us – goes with them.

The theologian Alvin Plantinga claims once to have visited a university department where one elderly, frail professor was a solipsist. “We take very good care of him,” a younger academic told Plantinga, “because when he goes, we all go…”

Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian 2014

Familiar figures pass out of life every year, with the certainty of an ebbing tide. Yet since March 2020 this has taken a dramatic turn for many, with losses far in excess of recent years. For some families it must feel less like the gradual melt than a sheering away of substantial heritage and personal association. I’ll never forget the family I met in the early 1990s who requested the simplest funeral I could arrange: they had attended too many in recent months. While COVID-19 may have taken far more people into the shadows of multiple bereavements, it has always been a feature in the lives of the few. At the same crematorium, on another occasion, I led the funeral of a husband and wife – dying just days apart from unrelated conditions.

We die with the dying: 

See, they depart, and we go with them. 

TS Eliot, Little Gidding

The departure of people who are prominent in our lives causes a moment of disturbance for many. When Nicholas Parsons died in January 2020 it connected me instantly with memories from my grandmother’s kitchen. As a very young child I recall her delight with the new radio show, Just a Minute (1967), which she found an entertaining companion while cooking. People whose voices we hear, and whose images we see, are part of the social world we inhabit.

Jewish teaching and the Quran both emphasise that saving a life has the value of saving a world. Perhaps this recognises the sense that we each have a unique perception of existence and, when we go, this distinctive experience of the world is lost. Others will come – but none will be the same.

“whoever saves one life […] saves an entire world”

Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5

Yet for each of us ‘there is a time to die’, and for all of us there is the experience of loss. Physical life cannot be extended forever. How we travel with this knowledge and experience is a key part of what it means to be human. Can we be at peace with it and live well while recognising the loss which death brings?

I hope that in the aftermath of the pandemic a new openness about mortality might be born. Before COVID-19 arrived there were already initiatives to encourage people to talk candidly with family and friends. Eventually, when we can gather together and grieve, perhaps we can find new courage to have much needed conversations. To live with greater transparency the reality of limited time in this world – and enable our unique experience of life to be known, shared and honoured.

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Love Answering Love

Easter Day Sermon preached at St Andrew, Bishopthorpe

Last year we were not in church on Easter Sunday. April 2020 was the deadliest month of the first wave of the pandemic, and our hospitals and care homes were facing their toughest days. Many of us joined a service on the internet, but church buildings were empty. Few of us imagined that we would be in another lockdown during Easter 2021. Yet here we are – thankfully in Church, but still living with the changes which COVID-19 has brought to our lives.

I’m sure that in Bishopthorpe the time between these two Easters has been filled with many unrecorded acts of kindness. Neighbours looking out for one another; people mindful of those who are vulnerable; finding ways to help our front-line workers feel supported.

We shouldn’t underestimate all this compassion and care. It expresses something that flows out of our Christian faith. I’m not suggesting that people of other faiths and beliefs don’t care; we know that they do. Yet there is a shape to Christian living which is distinctive and reflects a choice of faith giving rise to action. A response to God rooted in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

The moon just before dawn – the growing light catching the cockerel weather vane of All Saints North Street on Easter Day

Last week I commented that, at present, a gathering of 13 or more people in an upper room is illegal. Eating together in such a setting is also banned. Except here. Thankfully, in this spacious building, we can meet together and share this meal. The need for services to be held remotely is understandable, but – at least for me – it has never felt quite the same as being here. Perhaps our fast from meeting and eating together has borne spiritual fruit: a new awareness of what presence means and the privilege, when possible, of being together. Many continue to live this enforced fast, and our prayers are with them.

Part of the reason why I feel that being here matters, is that when Christians meet in worship we inhabit our spiritual home, and speak our mother tongue. It is not about the building – and yet the building is designed to emphasise elements of our faith. Following on from St Paul’s description of Christians as ‘ambassadors for Christ’, this place has the all hallmarks of an Embassy. A place filled with the things from home: the customs, the quirks and the idiom of that ‘other country’, where our souls belong.

Over the years I’ve led services of Holy Communion in many different places. With a few friends on the Isle of Iona, to inner-city care homes, people’s houses, in prison, in countless churches and chapels, with the sick and those about to leave this life. Every time, no matter what the setting, I have said the words that pattern a Christian’s sense of belonging. Words that remind us there is no hierarchy in God’s kingdom – all have sinned; self-worth is not the coin that can buy this sacrament. Love and longing invite us where there is no entitlement to be. All we can do is lift up our hands, for the food which comes by grace alone. 

Love answering love, in an open palm.

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Who knows where we shall be next Easter. It’s certainly true for many of us in this pandemic that ‘Today’s trouble is enough for today’ (Matthew 6:34). As the women walking to the tomb were anxious about the huge stone that would obstruct them, we sometimes find that God has gone on ahead of our anxieties – and what we imagine is sealed, stands open.   

This Easter I simply want to encourage you to nourish the roots of this faith. To be fed, strengthened and built up in the calling we receive in baptism. In our faith, and the way we live, to witness to God. As ambassadors striving to be faithful, living the truth of the Kingdom which is our home. Always seeking and knowing that in our acts of service we bring a message of life; finding wherever we go, that the Risen Christ has gone before us.

“Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth… He has been raised; he is not here… he is going ahead of you… there you will see him, just as he told you”

Words from the Gospel of Mark chapter 16, from verses 6 & 7

What is Truth?

There is something very beguiling about the assumed certainties of an age. Every epoch has a zeitgeist, a spirit and momentum that permits and promotes certain ideas while suppressing others. Although it is easy to see that many things believed 50 years ago would be disregarded today, we somehow lack the skill to use that knowledge to inform our current certainties. Many of our closely held truths resist even the hint that their confidence might be presumed and fleeting. Scientific enquiry is based on the conviction that there is always more to discover and learn. Our curiosity tells the implicit truth that what we know today will be overshadowed by what we know tomorrow; in a hundred years, or in future millennia.

Ecce Homo, José de Ribera

The French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote about the ‘archive’ which dictates what can and can’t be said at a certain time. Increasingly it feels that religious language and discourse is constrained by apparent self-certainties which have limited faith to a territory of personal eccentricity and unproven beliefs. Like many of the clergy, I am keen to promote the witness of Christian faith in the world, yet it feels like religious buildings are one of the last physical spaces where such discussions are sanctioned. The other place is in the micro-spaces of pastoral care, where both desire and disillusion provide a temporary framework for encounter – a tent of meeting.

Perhaps part of the difficulty in modern circumstances is the growing gap between the biblical world and our experience. Visiting Tanzania some years ago it was noticeable just how routine many aspects of the Bible continued to be. Shepherds and goatherds were part of most communities, and meeting someone at a well or watering hole was an everyday event. In the West, by contrast, many people are distanced from these experiences. During the pandemic this has been taken a stage further, when it is only in the mind or via video that a Palm Sunday crowd can be experienced – or even a supper with twelve friends.

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However, several key elements of the Holy Week narratives may have found fresh life and relevance during the pandemic. As we see in Ribera’s painting, being alone, semi-hidden and suffering, is a central image of what transpires between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. This coming week is about loss, in all its manifold forms. Friends disappear; strangers inflict pain; even God is gone at the moment of dereliction and expressed in the cry from the cross. For those who seek it, Holy Week opens the window to a God who walks this most painful road. Whose sinews, breath and bones know what it means to be human, to suffer and to die.

Since I first came across it many years ago I never pass through Holy Week without picking up my copy of Vanstone’s Stature of Waiting. It is an insightful and scholarly engagement with the days ahead and was a source of inspiration when I became a hospital chaplain. There is so much waiting in health care. In many ways waiting is the chief role of a chaplain, coming with open hands to handle with gentleness the precious narratives of wounded lives. To allow people time to articulate the experiences and consequences of illness. It is not a waiting anyone would choose, but as Vanstone argues, it is not without meaning.

Let us notice first that any kind of waiting presupposes some kind or degree of caring. One cannot be said to wait for or upon something which is a matter of indifference.

This Holy Week and Easter many more people are waiting than in recent years. Waiting for a longed reunion with a friend or family member; waiting for a holiday; waiting to resume work. Sadly, in many instances, waiting to hold a memorial service for the friends and family of a loved one who died in the last year. We wait for these things because of our longing and our care – and no doubt many wait for a fairer and more just society. Waiting isn’t easy, but it’s full of meaning. As we approach Easter let’s consider the Gospel accounts afresh, revisiting them with our current experiences and needs. To offer ourselves in stillness and reflection to the God who longs for us to understand and pursue our true vocation. We should never underestimate what emerges when we put aside the business of life and make space to consider what, for us, is true.

Vanstone, W. H. (2006). The stature of waiting. Church Publishing, Inc..
Chicago