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..

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.