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.