The Land the Sunset Washes

It was a very warm mid-afternoon. Cycling had ended for the day, and our tent was pitched. I was 18 years old, sitting with my back to a tree by a babbling brook somewhere in Belgium and reading The Portrait of a Lady. A book that opens with an idyllic description of afternoon tea in a beautiful Thames-side garden during ‘the perfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon’. The kind of writing that lends space and warmth to the image it creates, a picture conjured when the full heat of day was ebbing: an hour which ‘expressed that sense of leisure still to come’. While it is an image steeped in privilege, the leisure and heat of a perfect summer’s day is something many of us have been fortunate to experience at one time or another.

There is an unpredictability about the climate in England that lends a sense of unexpected gift to weather events. Whether it is the warmth and stillness of a summer’s day, or snow falling at a time we are able to enjoy it, nothing in the climate can be taken for granted. A year may pass with hardly any glorious summer days – and winter can fizzle its way through drizzle and damp without the spectacle of a world transformed in a sheet of white. Perhaps we talk about the weather so much because we lack the certainties taken for granted in other countries. Yet even there, climate change means diminished confidence in weather patterns familiar for generations.

Summer in the northern hemisphere can be a time when many people are away and the pace of life seems to slow, just a touch. For classical music lovers The Proms season begins and, to quote Sir David Attenborough’s in this year’s BBC trailer, ‘a kind of light comes into the diary’. Watching Ralph Fiennes’ stunning performance of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets at York Theatre Royal last week, I was reminded of the reference to ‘summer, the unimaginable Zero summer’. Perhaps this is the kind of perfect day that lives in our memory and is also expressed as a future hope. The pause at the close of an August day, when nature is full and still, and when the warmth feels comfortable and enduring. In a culture when we are so often invested in the last thing, or planning the next thing, a rare moment when we attend to what is at hand.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

The final lines of Adlestrop by Edward Thomas

It is this kind of moment, set against the horror of WW1, that made Adlestrop so popular. The poem by Edward Thomas captures the heat-filled moment of a train pausing at a rural station. Long before the rise of mindfulness, this unexpected stop allows the poet to drink in the reality of the moment – from meadowsweet to birdsong. Its uneventfulness somehow achieves a transcendence, even as the moment slips away and the train resumes its journey. It was a picture of peace published just weeks after Thomas lost his life in the war, and it became a touchstone for people longing for the ordinary beauty and peace his words evoked.

In a more recent poem Sean O’Brien reflects on another train journey, this time lost in marking adjudication as the engine draws the carriages through an England of past and present. A daydream lacuna of stillness when work is set aside and the landscape passes like a film.

“This green reserve where no one comes or goes and all

Are necessary as the weather, and where no one seeks

Coherence greater than this afternoon suggests, and where

To all intents and purposes the living and the dead may pass

Their time beneath a sun in cloudy splendour.”

Sean O’Brien , The Lost of England, from The Beautiful Librarians 2015 Picador Poetry
View from Route 66 of the National Cycle Network near Dunnington

As we attempt to recover from the worst effects of the pandemic we need these moments of pause and reflection more than ever. They cannot always be planned, but when they occur we should sink into their stillness. Moments of tranquil and transcendent beauty, when the burdens of past and future are lifted and we are simply required to ‘be’. Entering into such stillness is not a luxury but a vital ingredient of being human. A fleeting pause which, if well observed, becomes food for our journey.

For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.

TS Eliot, The Dry Salvages, The Four Quartets

Peregrination

It is an eerie and frequent sound heard around the Minster. Peregrines screeching at one-another (or a passing pigeon) from dawn until dusk. Somehow the falcon’s wing shape feels fitting for a Medieval structure, angular and evidently strong, they combine speed with a sharp eye for distant prey. At height various parts of the cathedral’s platforms and towers show evidence of the peregrines’ success as predators. Pigeon carcasses as strewn about with abandon. Hilary Mantel’s depiction of Thomas Cromwell’s life in the company of Henry VIII sees Bring Up the Bodies open with the protagonist using hawks. Imagining Wiltshire in 1535, Mantel reflects on these skilful, amoral and focused carnivores.

“Their lives are simple. When they look down they see nothing but their prey, and the borrowed plumes of the hunters: they see a flittering, flinching universe, a universe filled with their dinner.”

Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies, 2012

There is little doubt that the reader is meant to connect the behaviour of these prized birds with the unflinching determination and modus operandi of Cromwell. Just as the hawk seems patterns hidden from sight at ground level, Cromwell is surveying a landscape inaccessible to all but a few. The breadth of his experience, from the narrow and stench ridden back streets of London, to the privy chamber, enabled him to see the connections of the body politic in a way that facilitated his inexorable rise to power. Mantel’s literary construction of this complex figure in English history is a masterpiece in itself, linking the diverse threads that come to make such a sumptuous story.

“The Peregrine sees and remembers patterns we do not know exist: the neat squares of orchard and woodland, the endless varying quadrilateral shapes of fields.”

J A Baker, The Peregrine

Gaining the kind of strategic overview exemplified by Mantel’s Cromwell requires more than elevation. It is one thing to see, another to interpret correctly and to understand. When we are in the thick of events this becomes very hard, as the jumble of information is likely to bury the facts which history will come to establish as definitive. Holding the puzzle together feels as if we have the pieces of the jigsaw without any picture to help us judge where to place them or connect them.

At times we have to resign ourselves to the fact that some key questions of our time cannot be resolved. The challenge is not how to rush to some precipitate interpretation of limited facts, but how we live well with the knowledge that events refuse to reveal their outcomes. When we lack the razor sharp detail the peregrine can see, we still need to find our way through the tangle of information and decisions that lie before us. It is here that our ethics and convictions provide a steer urging one course of action over another. To trust in the received wisdom of people who have travelled before us in similar territory, finding a way through huge complexities to arrive in a place that offers some greater clarity and a deeper sense of peace. It is not a trust which should be uncritical or lacking enquiry, but must recognise that humanity’s most frequent experience is to live with uncertainties.

The name peregrine derives from Latin meaning foreign, also linked to pilgrim – or traveller. TS Eliot’s writes in Little Gidding of the ‘spirit unappeased and peregrine’, caught between two worlds, past and future. We cannot live without a knowledge and interpretation of the past, neither can we live as though the future is already decided. Whether it is COVID or climate, there can be little question that decisions now will have far reaching consequences. Mindful of this the task of the present is to perceive and evaluate reality as clearly as possible. In his seminal work about the peregrine, JA Baker begins with a reflection on the disparity between the clarity and scale of a peregrine’s picture in a book and the fleeting blur of the real thing in flight. The static compared with the ‘passionate mobility of the living bird’. The ornithology book distills many examples of the bird into its archetypal specimen – in the wild each bird has its own character, hunting ground and eyrie. Paying attention to the living detail, rather than allowing the book or abstract data to overlay our perception, is vital if we are to see and understand the experiences through which we are living.

The capacity to retain fresh vision, alert even to the familiar, matters a lot. Classification can be useful, whether of birds or people, but it also holds dangers. Identifying a few characteristics so that we can order our world means that we may miss the exceptional and unexpected. It is one of the most moving themes in the ministry of Jesus that he refuses to see the world in this kind of way. He meets people on their own terms, with their own identity, even when that means they should be sidelined and ignored. A woman at a well; a Roman officer; the leprous and the unclean; people of religious power and the children in the streets. To allow the world to be as it is in that moment, erased neither by history nor personal attributes, is a rare and remarkable achievement. Doing all we can to improve the way we see the world might be one of the most important things we can do with our time: because it has the power to change everything.

“The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there”

J A Baker, The Peregrine

Freedom for Whom?

Landmark days are often false dawns. Think of George Bush standing on the USS Abraham Lincoln under a sign announcing ‘Mission Accomplished’. The irresistible political pull leading a politician to make this kind of announcement is the knowledge that it’s what most people want to hear. Even as George Bush spoke, plenty of commentators baulked at the implication of the banner’s message. It is increasingly likely that ‘Freedom Day’ in England will be yet another fictional waymarker, an illusion of normality which will run up against the reality of a strained health service and exponentially rising infection.

Promised, delayed and now hedged about with caution, the date when all legal restrictions in England are lifted comes at a moment when the virus seems to be everywhere. Data, modelling and research are telling us that a swift abandoning of restrictions will fuel a fire-storm of transmission leading to rising deaths and more people experiencing long-COVID. The Government expects the success of the vaccination campaign to blunt the cases, deaths and debilitation, but they will still come. It appears that we have decided to accept the cost of 200 daily COVID deaths in order to open the economy and allow life to return to normal. In all likelihood these will be deaths amongst the unvaccinated; people from minority-ethnic communities; the poor and those with underlying health conditions.

Before the final restrictions are lifted, crowded streets in York’s Medieval centre

There must be people in other parts of the world (and the UK) looking on in disbelief. Much of the argument seems to run economy/wellbeing against restrictions/safety. Yet if the cost of delayed freedom is high so too will be the long term price of COVID organ damage; psychological harm; and the risk of rapid transmission producing new variants against which vaccines are less effective. I appreciate that the UK Government, like all governments, is making hard choices on limited data. However, ‘learning to live with COVID’ could mean accepting some permanent changes in society rather than simply giving up on attempts to contain levels of transmission and the associated risks. It appears that our accommodation with COVID will suit the hale and hearty, while shifting the emotional, physical and psychological cost to those individuals and communities already disadvantaged in our society.

“as we are aware, the impact of these government policies will disproportionately affect already disadvantaged groups. Michael Marmot’s recent report shows us that the fall in life expectancy due to covid has been much greater in some regions, leading to even greater health inequalities. The social determinants of health inequalities have become wider during the pandemic, and any further mass infections and lockdown will simply make matters worse”.

“Freedom Day” is on the horizon, and brings with it the risk of mass covid-19 infection, 16 July 2021 BMJ Opinion by J S Bamrah, Chairman, BAPIO and Kailash Chand, former deputy chair, BMA

At the start of the Government’s roadmap to unlocking our arrival at a day without restrictions seemed reasonable. Yet on this narrow path of balanced risks we are straying ever closer to a reckless blow-out with consequences which, if the NHS is overwhelmed in summer, will cause major damage in delayed treatment for non-COVID patients (not to mention staff burnout). It is a missed opportunity that the interruption of routine living has not led to a deeper reflection on what a new normal might look like. There is every indication that many individuals have done that reflection, opting for altered lifestyles and early retirement (where possible), but the idea that we might live differently has bypassed political analysis. Even the modest change to greater working from home has been met with political statements about the need to return to the office.

We cannot live in lockdown indefinitely and few are suggesting that we should. However, with rocketing infection rates the wisdom of removing all legal restrictions in England feel like an irresponsible act. Having observed behaviours in a city during the last few months, let alone watched the antics of crowds at Euro 2020, the idea that most people will choose to observe the use of face covering etc., is ludicrous. An age-divide may well emerge in the way precautions are taken, which is ironic given the fact that younger populations have a lower level of vaccination. What was a disease of the elderly may end up taking a toll on the lives of countless younger people, whether in preventable loss of life or an enduring legacy of damaged organs and tissues.

More than anything else COVID-19 has posed a fundamental question about how we live. How the freedoms some of us assumed and took for granted enabled the rapid spread of a new disease around the world. As people took their holidays, or jetted across the globe for meetings and conferences, the virus went with them. While the lockdowns curtailed some of the human impact on the environment, with fewer journeys, this hasn’t stopped the effects that have burned the west of the USA and Canada, or led to the devastating deluge in Germany. On two life-defining issues, unqualified access to a seemingly infinite range of choices is likely to lead to calamity.

To reach the point of ‘freedom’ it feels like we have othered the virus. With the sustained campaign of vaccination the illness now belongs to those who have failed to understand its importance and declined the jab. Today it is a disease for the poor around the world, the people with no access to immunity or healthcare. At worst it is a minor inconvenience for the wealthy and well-resourced. Something to deny us our well deserved holiday abroad. Maybe all this will be true – but this is a disease about which we know very little. Long-COVID is only just being investigated and understood. No one knows what variant will emerge triumphant from the unimpeded production of virus copies being knocked out every day in the UK. Hundreds of thousands of transmissions every week. The angst being felt by the growing number of people ‘pinged’ by the COVID app should not be seen as a needless disruption to life. The Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson got it right yesterday. As a motley group of silhouetted figures dance down a hill towards a town the caption reads: ‘Never send to know for whom the app pings”. As the Health Secretary and PM discovered today (eventually), it pings for thee.

We the Passengers

For all its faults, limitations and breadth, the Church of England has embodied a particular way of service and witness. Planted in every community, the Parish Church is a focus for spiritual expression, history and continuity. The buildings of the Church tell the story of God’s presence in the world; the death and resurrection of Christ; the connection of the here and now to a Kingdom that is becoming. They are the public expressions of Christian faith and offer the community a place to pray; to seek; and to find. The presence of these buildings is a testament to centuries of worshippers and a space of invitation ready for future generations. They are not often the buildings we would construct today – nor do they always meet the needs of modern congregations. Yet time and again creative alterations have enabled a balance to be struck between history and necessity; the beauty of a former age, and the inspiration of the present.

“Lay-led churches release the Church from key limiting factors. When you don’t need a building and a stipend and long, costly college-based training for every leader of church . . . then actually we can release new people to lead and new churches to form”. 

‘Vision and Strategy update for Synod’ The Church Times Friday 2 July 2021

The rich but daunting legacy of the Church has been questioned in a recent report in which Canon John McGinley has identified the limiting factors facing the institution. It would appear that his answer to the challenges facing the Church is to move away from virtually everything that defines the C of E. Fewer paid clergy; less investment in the education of ministers; getting rid of buildings. There is an attractive naïveté in this view of the world – the investment in a bright future of low-budget Jesus-clubs with vastly reduced overheads. What’s not to like?

Well, quite a lot. This kind of arrangement already exists across a broad range of churches, it hardly needs inventing. There is nothing particular that the Church of England would bring to these house churches, and a huge amount to lose. Shifting the focus from public worship to private homes has all sorts of implications. Everyone has a right to attend worship in their Parish Church: domestic settings can be more choosy. As large amounts of money are invested in new expressions of Church it is important to ask why such funds can’t be allocated to strengthening the resources that sustain the parish system. Over the last thirty years the direction of travel has been to merge churches; group congregations; and share vicars. The stretch has become wider and wider with no end in sight to the melancholy, long withdrawing roar, of well-educated, professionally trained and locally visible clergy.

Amongst at least some clergy there is a clear distaste for the kinds of people who attend church. Just over a decade ago this was palpably clear in the disastrous ministry of a former vicar of Wetherby. Of course people can be difficult (that’s clear in the Epistles) but brow-beating the laity into the preferred theology of the minister is seldom a success, from whichever tradition the vicar comes. The disdain for people who don’t engage with the current liturgical fashion has to stop. I’ve known serving bishops refer to attendees at early morning worship as those who prefer ‘non-contact sports’. In other words, people who come to church but don’t engage: passengers. This is a disturbing and wholly anti-pastoral characterisation. In my experience many of these faithful people are wounded or grieving and this is the service that saves than from well-meaning but overbearing compassion. They are not passengers. They participate by being there; receiving the sacrament and praying. It is very dangerous to measure things by a standard that isn’t calibrated to capture the dimensions of what is under examination. In the current meeting of General Synod there has been reference to measuring the ‘depth of discipleship’, not simply its quantity. How this is developed will reveal much about the prevailing perception of what matters in the C of E.

It appears that much of the energy driving this kind of proposal comes from a desire to succeed. As Martyn Percy has commented in this debate, there are gendered and indeed sexual elements to this ambition. The attempt to achieve growth and public profile in Christian mission feels at times like an exercise in countering personal insecurity. The kind of new churches being talked about feel a million miles away from the deep, gritty, faithful and radiant ministry of the chaplain portrayed so skilfully in the recent Jimmy McGovern BBC mini-series Time.

“God left us with a very troubling model of success. I think success for the Church has to be something measured by the degree to which the compelling radiance of God comes through.”

Rowan Williams quoted in The Church Times, 9 September 2009

Even as I write this blog it feels paradoxical that most of my ministry has been spent outside the pay of the Church Commissioners. Being with people in prison breaking bread; talking with prisoners about faith and sharing in Bible study. Sitting by a hospital bed where two or three pray together and face the tough realities of suffering, loss and mortality. Singing hymns with 40 people on a Sunday evening in a retirement complex. Most of the time I have done these things, the interest of the institutional Church has been limited. For example, these moments of ministry tend not to be counted. Rather than launch some grandiose scheme of suburban sitting-room religion why don’t we invest more in recognising, supporting and growing the ministry that is already happening and proving so well received and valuable? I think we would be surprised just how much is already going on in our communities.

The answer may be that these places and people don’t fit the image of the youthful, successful and heteronormative family life so often equated with success. The picture of shining disciples who just ‘get on with it’ rather than wrestle with theological dilemmas and pastoral complexities. In a nation of increasing diversity, not least in matters of religion, this simplicity may sound appealing but it comes with considerable risks. Leading and serving the church in the 2020s certainly isn’t less challenging than it’s been in the past.

Clergy don’t need cheaper training – they need enhanced training. This training is likely to be more expensive than the training provided today. Why would we want the clergy of the future to be less able to recognise, understand and manage the responsibilities they hold? We need people who don’t simply safeguard against physical abuse but leaders who know the wisdom of ensuring people are able to make open and balanced choices about belief. Placing an overriding emphasis on recruitment and growth is likely to generate behaviours that increase the risks of abuse. The telling observation by the Leeds sociologist Zygmunt Bauman is often at the back of my mind and can serve as a salutary reminder that religious ministry is enmeshed in powerful and potentially dangerous inter-personal dynamics:

“One of the most insidious of the many shapes of domination (pastoral power), as it blackmails its objects into obedience and lulls its agents into self-righteousness by representing itself as self-sacrifice in the name of ‘the life and salvation of the flock'”

Zygmunt Bauman, Postmodern Ethics

Maybe we have arrived at a moment when the Church of England needs to engage in a consultation about its future. A consultation which will include people who don’t attend church but value its presence; people in extra-parochial settings who experience its ministry; and the people who come faithfully and frequently to experience the joy and peace of worship. Surely, for something so richly present in the landscape of England, the future direction of the institution deserves wider consideration. Perhaps even the passengers can have their say?

Getting High

Elevation has a connection to altered states as old as humanity itself. It is unsurprising that height is a metaphor for intoxication, a sense of elation rising above the mundane and everyday. For many people reaching the summit of a mountain is a transcendent experience, the kind of perspective described by William James as a moment when “we can experience union with something larger than ourselves and in that union find our greatest peace”.

Standing watch over Whitby are the remains of an abbey, where a church has stood since the year 657. The choice of location reflects a common practice of placing churches on prominent sites overlooking a village or town. Nor is this practice confined to Christianity – it is a phenomenon which can be seen in countless world religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism.

This architectural preference reflects the belief that spiritual matters are ‘above’. Whether that is simply the place where God dwells, or a parallel world of saints and angels, heavenly beings are consistently elevated; on high; raised up. Placing a church above the everyday existence of home and work illustrated these metaphysics. Not only was this done by the elevation of the building, it was often reflected in the interior, where steps were set at key points suggesting a gradual ascent towards perfection: nave to choir; choir to sanctuary; sanctuary to high altar.

In 1 and 2 Kings, high places are a matter of considerable discussion. Here the bamah (plural bamot) are places where shrines and altars are established. Customarily, many of these were at the summit of hills and mountains and it is understandable that translators often took the idea of raised places to render this word. However, the book of Ezra describes bamot in ravines or valleys, suggesting that these were places of high religious significance, but not necessarily always placed at physical altitude.

Getting to the summit of a mountain holds a human fascination. Whether it’s Everest, or the 282 munros to bag in Scotland, getting to the top offers a sense of achievement and exclusivity. Not everyone makes it, and many don’t ever begin. Reaching such a goal implies physical fitness and mental determination. Those achieving such targets become part of club with limited membership.

Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.

Isaiah 40:4

When it comes to the prophet Isaiah there’s the suggestion of a divine ‘levelling-up agenda’. Elite places of encounter are flattened – what was accessible for the few becomes an opportunity for the many. The Christian faith finds in Jesus Christ the incarnation of this vision, the revelation of a God as close to us as we are to ourselves. A holy presence that comes to meet us wherever we are: in a stable, in temptation, by a well, at supper, or on the cross. A relationship that takes us out of ourselves, dispelling the illusion of a self-centred existence. These connections beyond us, to God and neighbour, become paramount ways to live a good life and see ourselves in perspective.

Many people have special places, perhaps because they once offered a life-changing experience. High places and threshold places – such as any natural wonder – can have the capacity to give us a transcendent moment. It is no coincidence that for some of Jesus’ disciples it was a moment of revelation on a mountain that enabled them to see Jesus transfigured. These places and experiences have always belonged together in the human imagination. The good news is that faith can bring these elevated insights into the everyday. We only need to think of the diminutive field RS Thomas saw illuminated by the sun for a moment, the ‘miracle of the lit bush… the eternity that awaits you’, to know that spiritual transformation is only ever a moment away. All we need are the eyes to see it.

Law and Disorder

In the early days of my ministry I attended a prison. I had an interest in this that went back to the days when my mother worked as a secretary in a minimum security ‘open prison’, and facilitated a meeting for me with the chaplain. In turn that led a Sunday spent in the old Strangeways, with the remarkable Noel Proctor, and then to a visit to a prison where I was at university in Hull. I have no idea why I felt called to explore this, but it brought me into contact with a world often hidden from public view. Recently, much of the character of this concealed incarceration was portrayed with insight and skill by Jimmy McGovern in the outstanding BBC mini-series, Time. It has stimulated a much needed debate about the day-to-day reality of the criminal justice system.

“McGovern could be criticised for the sheer number of shocking scenes his protagonist witnesses and suffers. But there is nothing in the show that I have not seen first-hand during my time inside”.

“‘There’s nothing here I did not see inside’ – a former HMP inmate on Time” by Eric Allison in The Guardian 18 June 2021

These earlier experiences eventually led to a small role helping out the chaplaincy team close to where I served as a curate. Looking back I have no doubt that I was very innocent in my understanding of life behind bars. I was keen to make connections between this world and the local community and arranged two Sunday visits by our very large confirmation class. The prison Governor was happy to facilitate this on what was a reasonably quiet day of the week. Seeing some of the scenes in Time reminded me of these 11 and 12 year olds sitting in the chapel with many prisoners. The confirmation candidates experienced ‘church’ in a very different setting from the leafy suburbs nearby, and met people who had grown up in very different circumstances. I have no idea what lasting effect it may have had upon them.

The most striking part of McGovern’s drama was the realistic portrayal of corruption. It was not (and is not) a one-sided story. The drama portrays the small nudges and influences that push people further and further towards the edge of their usual behaviour.

“But ’tis strange: And oftentimes, to win us to our harm, the instruments of darkness tell us truths, win us with honest trifles, to betray’s in deepest consequence.”


Macbeth, Shakespeare Act I, Scene 3, lines 124-28

There are still many conversations and situations which took place during my brief chaplaincy that have shaped and informed my ministry. Seeing a Deputy Governor and a life-sentence prisoner side-by-side with hands outstretched, sharing Communion together. A prisoner feeling aggrieved about some injustice in the prison system, who started to tell me his tale but then decided: ‘but you haven’t got the power to sort it’ – and promptly walked away. A young man who had made a dreadful mistake and was determined to start afresh. The carol service which was both strange and deeply moving.

There is a chaplain in McGovern’s drama. It’s never easy to portray spiritual support in largely secular times but Time manages to achieve a sense of authenticity and purpose. So many things are beyond the chaplain’s power to resolve, but what can be done is very moving. It felt as though ‘Miss’ knew what she was about, nether colluding nor despairing, but walking a narrow corridor of integrity in a culture where violence was only ever a heartbeat away. A way of being that brought to mind the writings of Ety Hilesum.

“I know that those who hate have good reason to do so. But why should we always have to choose the cheapest and easiest way? It has been brought home forcibly to me here how every atom of hatred added to the world makes it an even more inhospitable place.”

Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life: The Diaries, 1941-1943; and Letters from Westerbork

Changing the dynamics that foster corruption and violence will never be easy. We need a spirituality that has no illusion about this reality but, like Hillesum, is equally if not more determined to resist the temptation to be less than we are. Thankfully, McGovern’s drama is not without realistic hope. At the outset it seems to lie only in the small frame of the chaplain, surrounded by forceful men on every side. She remains faithful to her task, even when help is rejected. As the storylines progress others find their own moment of resistance, often at cost, and discover a way through to somewhere that offers the possibility of redemption. To portray this in a realistic way is not easy – evil always seems more credible – but it is accomplished in this drama. Which is an important reminder that wholly giving way to despair is perhaps the greatest betrayal of all.

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.

Photo by Askar Abayev on Pexels.com

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 memory 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
Photo by Helena Lopes on Pexels.com

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.