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.

Photo by Dio Hasbi Saniskoro on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by Keegan Checks on Pexels.com

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

Different Boats

A year ago our awareness of an approaching wave of illness, like the virus itself, grew exponentially. From distant sympathy for the locked-down residents of Wuhan, to our late-March barracking of the population, the shift from normality to deserted streets was swift. Our lives changed fundamentally within days. While these events took place a dizzying pace, perhaps the most surprising element of the restrictions on daily life has been their duration.

Time and again it feels that just as a clear route to exit the crisis has materialised, in short order it has become narrower – or disappeared entirely. Today, as the UK’s highly successful vaccine roll-out continues, the picture on continental Europe has deteriorated. The prospect of much needed holidays in warmer climes is receding. The scientists, epidemiologists and politicians have started to speak once again about the tunnel at the end of the light.

A York Snickleway

As we head towards Easter, at best, it looks like we might have some return to normality within the UK. The opening of schools may have contributed to the levelling off of new cases but it appears that vaccination may be countering any more harmful consequences. Deaths and hospitalisation continue to reduce. The greatest risk is a variant that eludes much of the efficacy of the vaccines. This could undermine all the gains of recent months and put us more-or-less back to square one. It’s not something any of us wishes to contemplate.

“Our health, our economy, the taken-for-granted ease of travel, will all be changed for years to come by what is happening now.”

Spirituality; Connection and; Covid-19, Chris Swift WordPress, 22 March 2020

A year ago I decided to write regular blogs during the pandemic. Starting on 22 March these enabled me to bring some focus and discipline to my thoughts about this unprecedented crisis. At the time I argued that chaplains must bring “renewed energy, vision and invention to the task of preserving spiritual connection”. This has certainly taken shape over the past 12 months with churches and individuals acquiring new and unexpected skills in Zoom, Teams and YouTube. The internet has allowed people to stay in touch and share in some sense of community and unity. Of course, this has not been for everyone and concern about digital poverty and exclusion cannot be ignored. As one church minister shared with me, people on data tariffs are unlikely to use their scarce allowance to watch church services. In some cases personal notes and hand-delivered newsletters have been an important corrective to a digital-default.

Soul Boats suspended in Birmingham Cathedral. Designed by artist Jake Lever.

While the analogy of same storm/different boats may have become overused in the pandemic, it remains a helpful image. Some are aboard state-of-the-art cruisers with an abundance of resources; others are shipping water like there’s no tomorrow, and look likely to sink. The inequalities revealed and widened by a global health crisis cannot be ignored. All this death, illness, isolation and economic decline, cannot be brushed over. The idea that somehow a public inquiry in the UK might be downplayed or delayed is unthinkable. We must get an accurate overview of what is occurring and understand its differential impacts across society. Only then can public policy identify and address injustices that have emerged. Not least we need to understand why the safety of older people in residential care was so distant from scientific and political priorities.

It will take accurate, detailed and impartial analysis to begin to form the questions we need to address as a society. If disability and age are acceptable criteria to impose a ‘do not resuscitate’ (DNR) order, then let us say this is what we are doing, and debate it. A year ago it felt that – politically speaking – an invisible ‘do not bother’ order was hanging on the front door of the nation’s care homes. The lessons available for us to learn from have been bought at huge cost. Let’s not squander what they can tell us, or ignore how they can help us steer with clarity to a form of society we are proud to name and fearless to promote.

The Religious Stuff

A year ago I was leading a retreat in Yorkshire. Always challenging but rewarding, it was an opportunity to address Christian ministry in a changing world. At that point few of us knew quite how changing. The attendance of one person was doubtful because he had just returned from the Far East and needed the outcome of a coronavirus test. It arrived in time; it was clear; and he attended. The innocence of a crowded room, all unmasked, with many people over 70, seems like another world. We sang hymns heartily and shared the peace. Some small measures were beginning to appear, such as the bottle of hand gel amongst the silver and wine, but otherwise things felt fairly normal.

I wrote last week about the changing place of the Christian faith in the UK over the past six decades. It was a Lenten theme, focusing on the BBC plays making up Jesus of Nazareth, shown on the Sundays leading up to Easter Day in 1956. A world where such a production was a landmark event drawing high level viewing figures. A story already known to most people was given flesh and blood, costume and context. It had a powerful impact. Yet the decades which followed have seen the continued ebbing of the ‘sea of faith’. In Arnold’s poem containing this famous phrase, it is perhaps the language and rituals of faith which have been most marked in their regression. The recognisable outer shape of faith which touched and connected so many aspects of Britain’s common life. The moments in particular when, as Larkin wrote, human compulsions are ‘robed as destinies’.

I have often felt that there is a valuable study to be made into the vanishing presence of civil religion. By this I mean those times when the church presides, often fleetingly, over collective moments. We still have these on the national stage, such as Royal weddings and funerals. However, at a much more modest level there has been a long history of momentary religious observance. Until at least the year 2000 the chaplain at a fairly ordinary West Yorkshire General Hospital would say grace before the canteen sittings for the staff Christmas dinner. In the Leeds Teaching Hospitals a Christmas Day consultants’ carol service continued until about 2008. Doctors gathered with their families on the morning of the 25th of December for a tradition which went back to the days when they would have then gone to the wards to carve the turkey. Like many other such moments, it has gone.

The Chapel, Leeds General Infirmary

It seems very unlikely that these days will return, even if we thought that was a good idea. The Church appears to teeter on the edge of moments in our personal and collective lives. An increasing number of funerals are presided over by civil celebrants and little is of automatic right for the clergy of the Established Church. Today humility is not only a desirable spiritual quality; time and again the Church has been shown to have much to be humble about.

Hopefully, as we emerge from lockdown and the restrictions made necessary by COVID-19, there will be fresh opportunities to serve and witness. As people move to a place where the pandemic is neither approaching nor raging, there will be time to take stock. When COVID-19 is firmly in the rearview mirror I have no doubt that there will be deep moments of reflection, even distress, as we comprehend what has happened. We have been shaken, and the ground may never quite feel the same again. The aftermath of the virus will be with us for years in many spheres of life.

One of the continuing strengths of the Church of England is the extraordinary stock of spiritual places in its care. As things begin to open up again, what an amazing opportunity to make these places open and available. To allow all and sundry to use these largely ancient places as somewhere to be; to reflect; to ponder. With creative purpose there can be opportunities to remember who or what has been lost in people’s lives. Knitted hearts to hang on tree branches; thoughts and prayers to write; and the simplicity of silence. The stillness of ‘a serious house on serious earth’ – a place Larkin felt would always be needed when we experience that surprising hunger to know a wisdom at peace with our mortality.

The Church, Little Gidding

The title for this Blog came from a recent conversation with a chaplain who was extolling the chance to be involved in things that were not simply ‘the religious stuff’. One of the challenges for the church is that religion has come to be seen very narrowly. This is a sad development with which we should not collude. In reality religion is all those things that bind us together within a sense of being loved, guided and created. I’m quite sure that some of the most truly religious things ever done have not needed the labels of religious language. In an age when it has become ever harder to speak without misunderstanding, or being reinterpreted, perhaps our open and patient presence is, and should, be enough. On a Sunday when we remember Jesus clearing the Temple, I can do little better than conclude with the passionate words TS Eliot put into the mouth of Thomas à Becket:

Unbar the doors! throw open the doors!

I will not have the house of prayer, the church of Christ,

The sanctuary, turned into a fortress…

The church shall be open, even to our enemies.

Change of a Lifetime

It was probably a gift for my baptism. Today the pages are well thumbed, and the dust jacket is faded, curled and torn. A brief inscription on the flyleaf , written by my godmother and dated, suggests that this was the second Sunday of Lent in 1965. From conversations with my mother during her lifetime I know that there may have been a poignant sense of thanksgiving at the time. I had nearly died within weeks of birth. With understandable feeling my mother once spoke about an exchange with her mother during those difficult days. Packing some clothes to take to me in hospital my grandmother said to her: ‘do you think they’ll be needed?’ Clearly she did not expect me to survive.

An illustration from the book

The BBC series which gave rise to the book Jesus of Nazareth by Joy Harrington was a landmark. Only a change in censorship laws allowed an actor to portray Jesus in a public performance. In 1956, across eight episodes, the BBC broadcast this groundbreaking series. It was billed as ‘a cycle of eight plays’ – perhaps echoing the tradition of mystery cycles which once took place in many towns and cities. Scheduled on Sundays leading up to Easter it was at the time of day when children’s programming was shown. However, it proved a very popular production for adults as well. The care taken with the series included a number of ‘firsts’. While most of the content was live when broadcast, there were inserts of footage taken on location in Galilee and Jerusalem.

“Our aim is to awaken the interest of children in the origins of the most significant influence in their lives, and help them to understand something of the background against which the Christian story was enacted”

Freda Lingstrom, Head of Children’s Television, interviewed in the Radio Times in February 1956.

The website Television Heaven quotes an interview published in 1956 in the Radio Times which gives an idea of the gravitas attached to the production. At a time long before liturgical developments would move the Church of England beyond the routine use of the Book of Common Prayer, these plays were given in contemporary language. The Times Educational Supplement described the book’s publication as ‘an event of incalculable importance’.

The book was no less popular than the TV series and mine is a 4th impression, with the look and feel of a very different world. Lingstrom speaks with an unchallenged assumption that Christianity was the most significant influence on the lives of young people. These are not remarks made about children who go to church, but the children of the nation. It reflects a continuing confidence in the 1950s that Christianity could weld the country together – and formed the values and outlook of society. A young Queen had ascended the throne and there was no doubt about her commitment and sense of duty for the faith she had sworn to defend.

A church service in West Yorkshire, 2019

The Queen is still with us, but the presence, influence and power of the Church of England is a shadow of its former self. Much religious broadcasting has been pushed to the margins (or over the edge). A series such as Jesus of Nazareth would commend a fraction of the audience it did in 1956 (‘as a BBC survey showed, next to the Coronation of 1953 in national appeal‘).

There are a vast array of reasons why these changes have taken place. Society has diversified in a range of ways which have contributed to the decline of churches. There is a plurality of religions; Sundays are no longer the exclusive preserve of Christian activity; as fewer people attend churches the social presence of religious language and ideas has eroded.

This kind of change in language has been addressed recently in a study by John Bernau in the USA. He examined in forensic detail the contents of a leading pastoral care journal over several decades to identify how the language had changed since the 1950s.

“To gain legitimacy in this secular space, chaplaincy has to eschew overt religious language in favor of modern individualistic spiritual conversations”


Bernau, J. A. (2021). From Christ to Compassion: The Changing Language of Pastoral Care. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Chicago

This question of language and meaning has been a recurrent theme during the 30 years of my ordained ministry. As most of this has been spent in chaplaincy the need to find words to build bridges between different contexts has grown. Perhaps the bridges have needed to be longer as the distance between the religious and other professions has grown. While much has changed for the good – not least a wider inclusiveness in ministry – the transition from Christendom to a post-Christian society has been rapid and far reaching.

In my next Blog I’ll consider where this swift and extensive change leaves the Church of England and Christianity in the UK today.

Our Trespasses

I have no doubt that it is the first set of words I learned by heart. Not only a poem, but a prayer taught to me by parents, as their parents had, receding into a pre-Medieval time when some landowner, or Lord or Laird decided to accept the new religion. A curious collection of words first spoken two thousand years ago in Aramaic and translated into every language on the planet. Words said in every place where human beings have walked..

At a time when public knowledge about Christianity in the UK has certainly declined, along with the number of active worshipers, the Lord’s Prayer is perhaps the final vestige of faith for many. When I once attended a Delivery Suite to bless a still born baby the mother and her mother discussed with me what to include. ‘Oh you know’, the mother said, ‘what was that prayer gran liked?’ I wondered for a moment what collect or unusual prayer might be named but it was – as you’ve guessed – the ‘Our Father’.

From the poem Dead End by Nancy Mattson in The Poet’s Quest for God ed. Brennan et al.

I have been reminded of this while reading Stephen Cherry’s excellent Lent book Thy Will Be Done. It is a timely reminder of the centrality of this prayer in the life of both individual believers and the Church. During 20 years working as a hospital chaplain there was hardly an occasion when I would not use this prayer. At the bedsides of the dying, from the hours old to patients over 100. In emergency marriages with young people to the celebration of a Chapel’s 150th anniversary. Nor will I forget the patient who told me that he always began to say the Lord’s Prayer silently when he was finding it difficult to sleep – a mantra that would still his mind and bring rest.

At times it feels as though the prayer fits in my mind like a much turned stone sits in the hand. It is strong and enduring yet also fitting and weathered. Hard and weighty, it is familiar and comforting. As much a part of me as, I hope, I am of it and the God it addresses; the Son who taught it; and the Spirit that is the vital bridge between then and now, here and there; creator and created; me and us. One of the early reflections Cherry offers is a focus on the repeated us of the adjective ‘our’ rather than ‘my’. A key feature of the prayer is that reiterates the Christian understanding of our place in relationship, both with God and with our neighbours. The approach we make to God is in company and never wholly alone.

A ceramic hand-piece by Antonia Salmon

Perhaps for these reasons, at a moment I can no longer recall, I began introducing the Lord’s Prayer as ‘the family prayer of the Christian Church’. This became my practice when I was with people who may have been unfamiliar with the prayer or its place in the Christian faith. It brought into the isolation of a clinical room a sense of community and companionship. Links that were both local, to the homes and churches round the hospital, as well as offering connections to the past, a worldwide company of faith and the future. At many of these critical moments none of this was unpacked, but the prayer’s familiarity and depth travelled with those who left the hospital carrying their grief.

While spending a year in South America in my twenties it was one of my greatest frustrations that I couldn’t keep up with the congregation in saying the prayer in Spanish. At every service it felt like a moment when my separation from the other worshippers was most marked. However, in time, I learned and internalised the words and appreciated the new insights gained from the altered phonetics and different accent.

Visiting the Church of the Pater Noster on the Mount of Olives is an unforgettable reminder of this uniquely universal collection of words. Across the Church and its surroundings the prayer is written in over 140 languages. It would be easy to think that this familiarity generates a certain contempt, or failure to feel the heft of a form of language shared so far and wide. However, it navigates a set of relationships and obligations that continue to be radical and soul-shaping. This small piece of linguistic luggage travels with us with the reminder that humanity is about ‘our’ and not simply ‘my’. That daily needs cannot be taken for granted. nor the needs of our neighbours ignored. In seeking and addressing God we hunger for the Kingdom that is both different and better than our reality. As we talk to God about its coming rule, we express the desire to share in that ‘will’, playing our part in a world more aligned to God’s love.

If we are nearing the start of this pandemic’s ending, here is the prayer that will remind us that picking up where we left-off isn’t good enough. This is an experience we cannot leave without first seeking learning and wisdom. The pandemic has revealed the evils and disastrous consequences of allowing injustices to thrive in our world. Only when we can understand the trespasses that continue to sustain a frighteningly unequal world, can we begin to work with greater determination for that more perfect will for which we pray.

Picture Perfect

Recently I had a week’s holiday. As with most of the nation, this has become a rather trying experience of staying close to home and making the best of it – no great hardship, but not my destination of choice for a week in January. I decided to look round the web for a course to improve my photography and was delighted to find one on the RPS website led by Robert Harvey.

During the course some of the conversation turned to the boundaries and ethics of contemporary photography. I quickly learned that what some people do is beyond the pale; while quite significant editing and alteration has become an accepted part of the digital world. I imagine that these boundaries are shifting constantly as technology evolves and more and more becomes possible. However, it raised the question for me as to what may or may not be a good idea when it comes to editing.

There are elements of this which touch on research I’ve undertaken in the past. When it comes to the written description of experiences we can’t include everything. Much is omitted and some aspects of a situation become foregrounded and significant. A while ago I began using ‘constructed case studies’. This involved combining real and authentic events presented as an additional, fabricated, case. In part I did this to protect the privacy of those involved. However, there was also something leading me to think that a fiction drawing on fact can sometimes communicate the truth better than the limitations of a single incident. A possible parallel to ‘stacking’ in photography, where many shots are edited in order to enhance the clarity and quality of the final product. This can be achieved because multiple shots of the same subject are taken from the same place with the focus on different items in the frame – resulting in more depth of field. Of course, the analogy isn’t perfect but it suggest that sometimes we need to be creative in order to be accurate. It’s impossible to focus on everything involved in one pastoral encounter.

There is no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth

Lessing, D. M. B. (1994). Under my skin: volume one of my autobiography, to 1949.
Chicago

Often I edit a photo because it doesn’t appear to reflect my naked eye observation of what I snapped. By changing a multitude of variables, the picture starts to look more like what (I believe) I saw. However, I can’t say that’s always the case and this morning I removed an inconveniently blurry pigeon from a photo of York Minster’s central tower! We can make images more representative of our perceived reality – or make them ideal, flawless and desirable. The latter is a significant issue for portraits when the gap is widened between a real appearance and one altered to an impossible standard of unblemished beauty. There is plenty of concern about the impact of impossibly perfect pictures on people using social media.

I write this at the start of the week when Lent begins. That may seem an unlikely segue, but I think there is a very natural link. On Ash Wednesday it is the tradition in many churches to place ashes on someone’s forehead. This isn’t a glamorous activity, and it is accompanied by words that assert the basic fact of our humanity: “Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return”. Nothing is done to disguise this fact, although the life and promise of faith is offered at the same time: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ”. Our reality is named, but we are not left without hope. In a year when we have been reminded more than ever of our human vulnerability, this ashing and calling seems to have greater relevance than over. A moment perhaps to hold two images in mind; the dust that falls between our fingers, and a glory no software can ever come near.