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 command 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.

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.