Only Connect

Only Connect: Worship and Liturgy from the Perspective of Pastoral Care, is a book by Robin Green published by DLT in 1987. It argues for the importance of liturgy connecting with the experiences of people, rather than simply meeting the preferences of the person leading liturgy. I read it while serving as a curate in Lancashire in the early 1990s and its persuasive argument helped shape my ministry. Many years afterwards I came across an early observation of how service content can fail to engage with lived experience. Charles Dickens, visiting a workhouse on a Sunday, attended the chapel service and listened to the sermon:

The service was decorously performed, though the sermon might have been much better adapted to the comprehension and to the circumstances of the hearers.

A Walk in the Workhouse, Charles Dickens

Although connecting faith and life is the task of every Christian, a minister is often seen as holding a particular and public responsibility for this work. When bereaved parents asked ‘why?’ they saw me as being in some way responsible for explanation. For reconciling this loving God with the wrenching pain of parting which, of course, cannot be done.

The experience of bearing the symbolism of myth in daily life is rarely a comfortable reality. It was often with eagerness that patients in a mental health hospital would seek conversation as soon as I was on the ward. Perhaps for those struggling to establish a coherent world the idea of a link with God offered some hope for reconciling contradiction. Yet, as was so often the case, words were a poor offering for the kind of answers that were being sought. Silence was probably nearer the mark. Not infrequently I wondered whether the experiences of patients arose from the accuracy, rather than the error, of their perception. As Jeanette Winterson observed: ‘To be ill adjusted to a deranged world is not a breakdown’.

The installation and performance artist Chiharu Shiota created a work of art in the 18th century former chapel in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. The picture at the heading of this blog comes from a visit I made to the installation in 2018. In the void of the building these seemingly infinite connections and crossings are peppered with stray sheets taken from hymn books. The work appears to introduce thin memories into the space, evoking the notes and words of well known lyrics such as ‘We plough the fields and scatter’. A spell of time-travel woven by this careful crafting of line, word and melody. The faithful witness of generations in this rural corner of Yorkshire appeared caught; fragile yet stilled. It as as though the winds of time have been frozen for a moment and the memories fixed and held.

As I reflect on the role of the chaplain I have often mused about the nature of site and connection. In a hospital I was asked with regularity ‘where’s your church?’ A minister is automatically connected with a place of worship and the community it serves. Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of one of the first empirical studies of chaplaincy in the UK – Michael Wilson’s The Hospital a Place of Truth. The project which led to the publication arose from the need to provide a chapel in a new hospital. The fact that the chapel’s construction was linked so strongly to the role of the chaplain says a lot. It seems hard to avoid the conclusion that for many people sacred space is connected to what is seen to be a sacred person. If this affinity is real, then a chaplain on a ward represents a skein of connection spanning holy places; family history; future hopes (and fears) as well as the defining moments of life, whose recollection is proffered so quickly in pastoral encounters. Perhaps, in the threads of the chaplain’s presence, we catch both the stray pages of the past as well as the thin notes that sound the future.

In understanding the chaplain’s role we need to pay more attention to these dynamics of presence. While much work is being done to establish the metrics for outcomes of spiritual care we should not ignore the significance of the chaplain’s identity. Just as the identity of a doctor or nurse shapes the character of interactions on the ward, so the nature of the chaplain also provides the context for a particular kind of discussion and disclosure. However, unlike many others working in a hospital or care home, the chaplain may mark the intersection of widely divergent narrative threads. As a religious building evokes particular thoughts and reflections, so the links of sacred space spill over into the perceived identity of the chaplain. In order to understand the value of spiritual care provided by a chaplain these issues of identity should not be ignored. Without them a crucial dimension of what the chaplain offers could be lost – and we may fail to ensure that what chaplains provide is adapted to the comprehension and circumstances of the hearers.

Did we opt for amputation?

As we consider the range of responses to Covid-19 around the globe it is clear that some strategies are being more successful than others. Nations such as Germany and New Zealand are having experiences of Covid-19 which differ markedly from countries elsewhere. In the UK the approach appears to have shifted during the course of the pandemic. The mortality figures are now disturbingly high. One commentator refers to epidemiologists’ concept of ‘harvesting‘, and wonders if this was the de facto public health policy for the UK. He goes on to suggest that if we need a lens through which to understand Covid-19 there is an obvious candidate:

Today, if you need a lens to examine any country’s response to coronavirus, look to its nursing homes. 

‘Harvesting’ is a terrible word – but it’s what has happened in Britain’s care homes | Richard Coker

Nursing homes already offer a dispiriting insight into this particular harvest. As Covid-19 sweeps the world it leaves in its wake a catalogue of devastated care facilities. In February multiple deaths linked to the virus were taking place at Kirkland, Washington State. By March there were reports of abandoned care homes in Spain and the discovery of deceased residents found in their beds. In Italy the death toll in homes was astonishing and, in at least one case, is now the subject of a police investigation.

Examining the UK’s early response to events David J Hunter writes about the way British attitudes may have influenced decisions. Hunter recounts a senior academic’s response when they heard suggestions that the UK was talking seriously about herd immunity. The only way the academic could make sense of the idea was by assuming “that this proposal was meant as satire“. There is every indication that Britain was being prepared to accept a major loss of life, with the statement from the medical director of the NHS that anything under 20,000 deaths would be a good result. At the time of writing the UK is approaching a point where it will report 40,000 deaths and estimates of the true figure put this north of 50K.

There is every reason to believe that the UK government was prepared to accept a major loss of life and to see this is a tragic but necessary reality of Covid-19. New Zealand is reporting 21 deaths with a population about 1/13 that of the UK. If the UK had the same rate of loss we would now be recording about 273 deaths. The difference is monumental and, in time, we may understand more about why this has happened. Of course there are many variable factors which may affect the rate of deaths, ranging from social structures to physical environment. However, it is likely that in time we’ll arrive at a comprehensive and robust analysis of all the factors involved and which were the best, and worst, national strategies to adopt. At the moment we already know that there is a major loss of life among older people, and people at particular risk include those who are BAME; living with dementia and/or disability; and people who survive on very limited economic means.

In the light of this I wonder whether ‘harvesting’ is the right term, or if ‘amputation’ is a better description?

Field ready for harvest near Little Gidding

While harvesting implies a general and equal cut, amputation removes a part of the body in an attempt, very often, to save the whole. It is sacrificed. The emerging data and evidence suggests that sections of some communities in the UK are being surrendered as a necessary cost for the country. At the top of the list are people of advanced age with complex health needs. The people most likely to be in a place of residential care.

As a nation the UK chose a confusing path with the Prime Minster suggesting there was a balance to strike between ‘taking it on the chin’ and more extreme restrictions on personal life. The Government did not use comprehensive testing in homes for a considerable time, even though it was obvious that this is where there were people with the greatest vulnerability. Compared with the NHS most residential homes support people who cannot co-operate well with restrictions. As I know from personal experience, purposeful walking by residents is hard to manage. The situation of nursing homes in several countries offered evidence which the government should have heeded and acted upon. However, we must consider the possibility that the NHS – rightly encouraged to be concerned about its capacity – effectively seeded Covid-19 positive patients in care home communities. If this proves to be even partially true, there will need to be a period of national soul-searching followed by a commitment to comprehensive, dynamic and enduring reform in the relationship of health and social care. Reform that doesn’t just regard social care as an expendable limb of the body politic, but as an essential part of what makes up the services that ensure we are a compassionate and just society.

Manna in the Wilderness

Before Covid-19 became the topic of daily news I was not taking church services. To be more precise, I had not presided at Holy Communion since mid-October 2019. As Maggie’s appointment meant a move to York I needed to go through the process of applying for ‘Permission to Officiate” or PTO. The granting of PTO allows a priest in the Church of England, who isn’t licensed to a particular church, to assist in services for the diocese. Thankfully, before the lockdown began, I gained PTO and started helping on Sunday services in February. At the beginning of March I was able to lead a retreat for lay leaders – Readers – which concluded with a service of Holy Communion on 8th March.

I am not a priest whose custom is to have daily communion. When I trained at Westcott House I joined the silent reflection before Morning Prayer, but hardly ever stayed for the communion service which followed. Maybe it was the ‘Lancashire low’ of my childhood, but the importance of Holy Communion was expressed more in its rarity than its frequency. This is not to pass judgement on the different approaches people take to this sacrament. While I was at Westcott I spent four months in Switzerland studying at the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey, where representatives from approximately 20 different Christian denominations studied together. During that time I came to appreciate many different eucharistic practices, which all expressed in their different ways a common sense of significance.

In my pre-Covid experience the lack of opportunity to celebrate Holy Communion began to make me feel restless; uneasy. It was becoming a wilderness. While I haven’t been a parish priest since 1997, the opportunity to lead Communion services was always there, either helping out in a local church or at the bedside in the NHS. When I started work as a chaplain at Leeds Teaching Hospitals in 2001 I didn’t feel settled in until I took a communion service for the first time with colleagues. In all the other things I did across the hospitals of the Trust, I feel at some level they were all linked back to those moments when I would stand beside bread and wine and announce that this was broken, and given, for people. Having the realisation of a wounded body at the heart of the Eucharist spoke volumes for me in the hospital. Here was fracture; loss; wounding; and exposure – offered not as despair, but rather as a future hope we can taste today.

Since leading my last church service on 15 March I have preached, but not presided, in Zoom services. Today that changed as I conducted a service via internet for Holy Trinity Micklegate. There was a small ‘virtual’ congregation on the call, and in so many ways it felt a very limited and inadequate experience. Disembodied voices sing, not always in tune, nor in unison, and rarely in time with the music. Verbal responses become a small chamber of echoes. It is easier when a single voice leads a reading or offers the prayers, yet I wouldn’t wish to silence the other voices which carry the faith of their owners.

As I read the Eucharistic Prayer I felt very moved. It hit home that I wouldn’t be pressing bread into anyone’s hand, or placing a sign of blessing on those not receiving. It felt wrong to keep the physical part of this celebration to myself. I miss the hands, always so different and bearing the marks of life, which get held out in desire and anticipation. The people who look me in the eye as they say their ‘amen’, and those whose gaze is downward, hardly daring to look at this moment of God-fed intimacy.

It will return. Holy Communion will be shared again. For now, perhaps sorrow is not a bad feeling for those who long to share once more in broken bread and a common cup. Yet how much worse it would be, and how telling of our faith, if this strange time occasioned no sense of loss. These meals that model a new way of being, with felon and gaoler side-by-side (yes, I’ve broken bread in prison). This banquet that promises a very different kind of power and community is not wholly or only about those present. It is about the world re-made. Perhaps, when it returns, we shall see this more clearly.

In his faithful interweaving of daily life and the Eucharist, Geoffrey Howard’s Dare to Break Bread is perhaps a fitting reading for these days. His chapter entitled ‘Real Presence’ ends with this:

Where Jesus is present and how he is present in this Eucharist, is still a mystery to me. But, that he is present is beyond doubt. Only Jesus of Nazareth could gather together round one table such beautiful and diverse people. The Lord is here and his presence is with us.

Howard, G. Dare to Break Bread: Eucharist in Desert and City DLT, London 1992 p., 53

In the era of Zoom-communion I have even less idea about this mystery, but take comfort in the knowledge that God continually surpasses our meagre expectations.

Using the Time Aright

One of the most remarkable episodes of my work as a chaplain began innocuously enough. As I was working in the office at a hospital in the north of England a volunteer walked through the door and wanted to discuss something. She went on to tell me that during her visiting she met a patient reading the Bible. Although rare, this was not unknown, and I wondered what had made this encounter so striking. “He was reading the Bible”, she told me; “in Greek”.

Patients reading a Bible in Greek were certainly very unusual (especially if they weren’t Greek!) What unfolded was an astonishing story about a minor episode in history of which I was unaware. Not only was the Bible in Greek but, when I visited, I found it carried an approval stamp featuring an eagle with outstretched wings. It transpired that the patient had been a prisoner in Germany during the Second World War. As the camp was for allied officers, it contained a number of captured chaplains. As they reflected on their forced confinement, the chaplains decided that they shared enough knowledge to deliver a course in theological studies, which might prepare men for ordination after the war. So the chaplains asked the troops if anyone thought they might have a calling to ministry and, if so, whether they’d like to sign up for study.

It seems quite amazing that these resourceful chaplains, without the aid of a theological library, managed to provide a comprehensive training programme. Some items were sent to the camp and approved for use, and there I was in the late 1990s, looking on this much loved and well-worn Greek New Testament. The officers even sat ‘General Ordination Examinations’ posted to them from London – while somewhere in the distance American bombers could be heard delivering their payload. Today is vocations Sunday, and my past experience reminds us of the strange circumstances in which a calling can come.

This encounter has remained with me as a powerful reminder that choices can still be made even when the circumstances of life seem very limited. People have a remarkable capacity to be creative; to think beyond the immediate challenges of life, and to see a way forward although things are very tough.

As we continue to live with the many consequences of the pandemic, we see each day the way in which people are using this moment for great creativity. At the same time, there are people finding this experience both overwhelming and soul-destroying. As we plot our way through the current crisis we need to enable people to use time well, while recognising and supporting those who struggle. As we learn more every day about the disparities of impact for different sections of society, our greatest resolve should be to ensure we come through this experience together; more united; and more strongly committed to limit the evils of inequality.

At the end of this week we’ll be marking VE Day. The unimaginable impact and consequences of war changed many societies, including our own. Not least it ushered in the National Health Service, whose continued operation has been so vital for combatting the impact of Covid-19. War could only be fought effectively if it was a co-ordinated national effort – and in the creation of the NHS, the lessons of war were applied for the purposes of peace. Our national response to the virus is reminding us that only concerted action can deliver positive outcomes to our greatest difficulties. Maybe it’s time once again to seize the good that can come out of turbulent times, and pursue a resolve to become a society that won’t tolerate anyone being left behind.