A Time to Sing

It is Sunday afternoon, on a rather cold Bank Holiday weekend. As I do from time-to-time, I combine baking with Radio 3’s broadcast of choral evensong. Both the listening and the production of shortbread are the kind of absorption that brings its own peace. It is not something I do routinely, but connects me with many moments across fifty years. A grandmother whose hands I can only ever remember as flour-dusted; the familiarity of a liturgy smoothed by the centuries; and a time of day that feels uniquely spacious.

The absence of live choral music, or any kind of group singing, has been striking in 2020. Sunday mornings do not feel the same without the hymns that bind a congregation and choir in a unity of intent. Words which should be sung feel flat if simply spoken.

In care homes singing has always been a powerful source of animation, bringing alive people who may have seemed lost in their own thoughts. At Methodist Homes (MHA) there is the added benefit of Music Therapists, combining the skills of musicians with the insights of psychology. A growing body of research underscores the value of music as a therapy which can be used effectively in the care of people living with dementia. The qualities of music to restore our senses and focus the mind go back at least as far as David’s playing of the harp for Saul (1 Samuel 16:23).

Perhaps this absence of singing will engender a new respect for something we too often take for granted. Music is for all seasons, and in our mourning and rejoicing it has a vital part to play. On Friday 4 September at 10:45 MHA will be holding a national memorial for everyone who has died during Covid-19. There will be a two-minute silence across all of MHA’s homes and schemes at 11 am. Sadly, the world will continue to lose people to the virus, but it feels right to pause at this point and recall those whose life on earth has ended. The online service contains pieces by our Music Therapists, and without them it would lack impact and the embodiment of our feelings.

Whether we are mourning or dancing, music lends any occasion a distinct dimension of expression and meaning. Without giving explanation, it can tell a powerful story. As we continue to journey through the days of Covid-19 we are in uncharted territory. The challenge is to find how we can sing the Lord’s song when the act of singing itself is the subject of concern. The absence of congregational singing removes one of our chief consolations at the moment we need it most. As choirs return I hope that we discover a new respect for the difference singing makes, and how music mingles with our souls.

Know Thyself

One of the scenes in Much Ado About Nothing sees the friends of Beatrice describe her faults. Beatrice supposes she is hidden, but the friends know full well that she is listening. When they have left, Beatrice steps forwards and concludes: “how happy are they that hear their detractions and can put them to mending”.

Self-knowledge and identity are themes that run through today’s readings in church. Isaiah’s message to those who seek the Lord:

Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.

Isaiah 51: 1b New Revised Standard Version

Our origins can be a significant part of our identity. In the Letter to the Romans members of the Church are urged “not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment” (Romans 12:3b). Having an accurate self-understanding requires work and commitment. Lastly, in Matthew 16, Jesus questions the disciples about his identity and, in the same moment, we learn of Peter’s role as the rock on which the church will be built.

Understanding our own incompleteness is a prerequisite for growth. Only when we recognises our strengths and detractions can we be open to learn and to change. Like most people I always hear criticism more loudly than praise. Peter may have felt lifted up by the words of Jesus but it’s only a moment later that he is rebuffed as he attempts to intervene to prevent the suffering Jesus will undergo.

While Beatrice may have heard her faults discussed in an ad hoc manner, modern approaches to understanding personality are more systematic. There are many tools available to help us learn in greater depth about ourselves are how we can become more constructive in the way we work with others. We can’t change the “quarry from which we were dug” but we can learn to understand what that means for us and the ways we behave.

All of this has something to say about the way our formation as people can be furthered. For Christians the values which inform our understanding are orientated towards community and service. Like St Peter, we’re called to be ourselves in God’s presence – warts and all – and to discover more fully who God calls us to be.

It is already clear that the Covid-19 pandemic is testing people’s capacity to cope with a world that has become suddenly more dangerous and less certain. It seems that everyone is anticipating a rise in problems of mental health and wellbeing. In 2013 the successor of Peter addressed bishops in Brazil and spoke about human formation:

it is important to devise and ensure a suitable formation, one which will provide persons able to step into the night without being overcome by the darkness and losing their bearings; able to listen to people’s dreams without being seduced and to share their disappointments without losing hope and becoming bitter; able to sympathize with the brokenness of others without losing their own strength and identity.

Address of Pope Francis: Archbishop’s House, Rio de Janeiro Saturday, 28 July 2013

Impetuous Peter always took the plunge, as he did in declaring Jesus ‘the Christ’ and leaping into waves in order to meet him. Sometimes we feel we are sinking, and when we do, we need the hand of someone set on firmer ground. Someone able to “step into the night without being overcome by the darkness”. As the consequences of disruption in 2020 reverberate across the world we need those who feel at peace with their origins. People who do not think of themselves more highly than they ought and who, more than anything else, know themselves well enough to help in all the mending that will need to be done.


Since Covid-19 restrictions eased York’s ghost tours appear to be more popular than ever. On most days it’s possible to see as many as three separate groups, all well attended, dotted round the Minster. Maybe it’s a consequence of other places of entertainment being closed, combined with recent warm weather, but it’s a niche part of the economy that appears to be thriving.

It’s understandable why York Minster is such a good location for these nightly escapades. The sheer scale of the building lets it sit in the city centre with benign indifference. It is as old and cumbersome as a dragon. There are numerous details around the area which suggest a sense of history and the supernatural. Over a decade ago gas lighting was returned to the surrounding streets, lending a hint of Victorian melancholy. The high walls of the Minster are peppered with grotesques which glower down on the tiny figures bustling around its base. These contorted statues leap out at right-angles from columns and towers, daring lesser spirits to meddle with the sacred space they guard. To all intents and purposes they are ecclesiastical scarecrows, protecting the territory as its custodians sleep.

As you can tell, even writing about it makes me come over a bit Gothic! Into this context the leaders of the ghost tours weave their stories. At dusk the stories are told about the girl who died in the Plague House; the marching Roman soldiers who could only be seen from their knees up; and much, much more. By gas light, and down cobbled streets, the past is conjured into life.

This can all be very entertaining. Yet I wonder if there is a little more to the pull of these invitations to the supernatural? Some years ago I was involved in research into the experiences of people who bereaved due to traumatic loss. Following the interviews I was struck by how many people either had a visceral experience of the deceased, or attended places (such as the Spiritualist Church) where this possibility would be envisaged or even encouraged. The study concluded:

people are reluctant to share their experiences of post-death encounters with health professionals because they fear that they will be diagnosed with mental illness or ridiculed.

Chapple, A., Swift, C., & Ziebland, S. (2011). The role of spirituality and religion for those bereaved due to a traumatic death. Mortality16(1), 1-19.

It was striking that on a visit to somewhere badly affected by Covid-19 one of the first things I was shown was a photograph. In this recent picture of a living person it was said that the image of a person who died from the virus could be seen. In the aftermath of World War One, sightings of the lost were a regular occurrence and shared in the newspapers. When mortality exceeds our expectations we experience things that can seem both comforting and disturbing.

Perhaps when there are few avenues to acknowledge experiences which don’t fit, people find their own alternatives. When the world we anticipate and take for granted is transgressed, it helps to be in a context where we can at least consider other possibilities. As the virus continues to take away so much, we may need new frameworks to articulate and understand our experiences. I’m not suggesting taking a ghost tour (although they can be fun) but churches could do more to give permission for people to speak about things which other contexts implicitly silence.

Like a Thunderbolt

Once, writing a Passion Play for a church, the only text I felt happy with was the opening line: ‘I can tell you nothing about anything from the time before telling’. The words came out of reflection on the Gospel of John and the opening words of the Bible. It struck me that Genesis is not so much an account of creation, as an act of creation. When people took to their hearts a shared narrative of their beginning, they ceased to be individuals and became a community bound by a story. Even as the words were spoken, shared and ingested, the shape of a nation was being fashioned. Genesis may not be the account of creation so much as an active (and ongoing) process of creation and renewal.

I’ve written previously about the power of stories to mediate our understanding of the world in which we live. In particular, the way a story can help us make sense of calamities and begin to find a way to cope with events. As the twentieth century demonstrated, the power of our stories can also be used to generate horrendous division and destruction. Not all stories are good. Like the discoveries of science, the way we connect events and interpret intentions, can be used in ways that are profoundly damaging. Language is technology, and probably the most useful skill humanity has developed.

The moment I became aware of the power and capacity of language was in primary school, aged 7, rummaging in a corner of the classroom. Goodness knows what I was supposed to be doing! I came across a book of poetry byTennyson. One in particular struck me then and the memory of its impact has remained with me ever since. Called simply The Eagle it is the briefest description of an eagle’s plunge towards its prey. Yet in its six lines something was switched on in my brain and I saw how words could bear the impress of reality. Words which, arranged in a particular way and rising out of a depth of feeling, carry within them a visceral sense of experience.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls, He watches from his mountain walls, And like a thunderbolt he falls.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson The Eagle, 1851

Over the years my appreciation of poetry has changed, but I owe something to those few lines which inspired a passion. The poetic use of language can shake us out of the tram lines of prose and jar us into startled attention. It allows words to be placed in unexpected associations, often with a hint of playfulness mixed into the experience, all of which lends itself to creative thought.

In recent months I have been reflecting on the way our choice of words reveals a lot about our response to the pandemic. Among the swath of texts about the new virus are signs that say much about our evolving thoughts. Countries where people spoke warmly about how well they had weathered COVID-19 now find that the virus has returned. There was an assumption made to see this as a single event passing around the world, whereas we now see a picture which is more complex, dynamic and repetitive. By now we know it would be wrong to think COVID-19 simply arrives and leaves. The language used a few months ago reveals how our understanding has changed.

In the early days of the UK’s experience Simon Armitage wrote a poem featured in The Guardian, and this weekend there is a piece published by Barbara Kingsolver in the same paper. Entitled How to Do Absolutely Nothing it’s a ‘shape’ poem capturing in its form the gradual loss of things, concluding with the word leave standing alone. As we all continue to face restrictions in response to the virus this poem resonates with different experiences of loss. In the life changes enforced by COVID-19 we may all be trying to ‘Find out what’s left’, and see with a new sense of value what we once took for granted.