Seasons for Everything

It always felt like the first intimation that summer had ended. When I was a vicar in north London in the early ’90s, the opening week of September brought an invitation to speak to the local Cub Scouts. After the holidays and warmer days of August this annual meeting marked the start of all those activities that punctuate the remaining months of the year. There might be warm days, or even brief heatwaves, but they always felt borrowed out of season. The trajectory of shortening days continued notwithstanding the gift of unexpected heat.

York has been exceptionally busy this month. It has been impossible to get a table for dinner at a reasonable hour even when you try to book the day before. The streets hum with the chatter of tourists discovering (or rediscovering) the charm of England’s northern capital. When the sun is out the river side pubs and open spaces fill with drinkers and sunbathers alike.

This weekend York has hosted a balloon fiesta and crowds have filled The Knavesmire. People have come from far and wide to visit the fair or hear the acts performing on the open air stage. On the whole this looks and feels like a return to 2019 normality, with little mask wearing or social distancing. The joy of these once familiar freedoms at an outdoor event no doubt adds to the delight of those attending. Yet it is hard to feel entirely at ease when so many concerns circle the globe. From the disastrous exit from Afghanistan to a UK COVID rate 26 times higher than a year ago. The problems we face show little sign of diminishing, even though vaccination has thankfully transformed the severity of the risk associated with the pandemic.

We need ordinary pleasures. During the past 18 months many of us have rediscovered a connection with nature, from walks to wild swimming. In places this has created its own pressures on the environment and local facilities, but there are plenty of less crowded locations of outstanding natural beauty. As I know from working with older people, the vivid differences we see in each of the four seasons can be both orientating and affirming. To look at a tree tells us where we are in the year. The deep greens of August promise the glorious transformation to browns, yellows and golds still to come.

The interplay of human activity and the seasons is captured brilliantly by Ali Smith in her quartet series. Here the personal, the political and the natural are meshed together in a vivid reflection of how the seasons shape our thoughts and interactions. I can’t imagine living where both daylight and weather alter very little across the year, but perhaps smaller changes simply become more significant. During a year I spend in South America that certainly seemed to be the case.

“The days are unexpectedly mild. It doesn’t feel that far from summer, not really, if it weren’t for the underbite of the day, the lacy creep of the dark and the damp at its edges, the plants calm in the folding themselves away, the beads of the condensation on the webstrings hung between things.” 

Smith, A. (2016). Autumn (Vol. 1). Penguin UK.

The Church’s year is clearly marked by a Christianity that developed chiefly in the northern hemisphere. As the months march on to the year’s end, gathering darkness is met by the gift of light. The imagery and significance of saints’ days, fasts and feasts parallels the natural world and walks hand-in-hand with the changing seasons. It feels that liturgy and the seasons are welded together.

I have no doubt that age and experience influence the ways in which we respond to the stations of the sun (to quote the title of Ronald Hutton’s book). While some may feel melancholy at the approach of autumn, the Cubs of Barnet were full of enthusiasm and energy as they gathered together after the summer holidays. For them, the season of ghost stories and fireworks ensures that darkness is not without excitement; and explosions of light are brilliant only because they are set against the backdrop of night.

Chronic Emergency

Halfway down the Shambles in York is a shop that closed just before Christmas 2019. Perhaps a victim of an increasingly difficult retail environment, Zatchels ceased trading before the pandemic. However, COVID-19 is almost certainly the reason that this shop has remained sealed and unchanged since its demise. Closing when it did, the window brings a hint of Narnia with its winter decorations and a Christmas that never came. Complete with snowflakes and tinsel it has seen out two summers. In a street which millions normally visit every year the longevity of this winter scene is a small sign of the crisis through which we are living.

The most helpful thing I watched before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic was Chernobyl. The Netflix mini-series is pitch-perfect in its portrayal of an unfolding crisis. Events progress from initial denial, to hastily constructed counter-measures and finally to a realistic assessment and response to the catastrophe. Tragically, like the nuclear accident, it is certain that the consequences of COVID-19 will be with us for years to come. Looking back I’m sure there are many lessons that will be learned and a host of things that would have been done differently with hindsight. In the case of Chernobyl, collateral health consequences and psychological harm were (and are) a significant legacy of the original event – and arguably more damaging than the effects of radiation itself. There has even been the suggestion that relocating residents away from the disaster area to cities such as Kiev caused more deaths and ill health due to pollution compared with the probable outcomes had residents remained in place. It may well transpire that elements of our COVID response likewise caused unintended consequences that outweigh the initial dangers.

There is a human fascination with the consequences of an overwhelming event. Perhaps Pompeii and surrounding cities may be one of the oldest examples of this tendency. These are times of accelerated human analysis and response, when unprecedented actions are taken. It is claimed that the eruption of Vesuvius led to the first attempt at the mass evacuation of a civilian population by a military force for the purpose of rescue from natural disaster. Critical moments can generate unusual thinking and actions, leading in turn to developments which might otherwise have taken decades. I’ve no doubt that the strides made in creating vaccines in 2020 will have speeded up the capacity to design effective pharmaceuticals in the future.

Pompeii – the focus for the launch of a military attempt to evacuate citizens out of the path of disaster

There is little disagreement that a world-changing event such as the pandemic moves through phases. For some time now colleagues in the NHS have characterised this as a ‘chronic emergency’. The immediate response has been made, and now we are living with a high level of daily cases and a steady population of patients in hospitals. The crisis hasn’t ended but we know far more about what we are dealing with and have both vaccines and new forms of authorised treatments. Yet there is little indication that COVID is going away. Despite the high level of vaccination in the UK population we have not entirely halted serious illness, deaths and disruptions to daily life.

The concept of chronic emergency may help explain the high rate of job vacancies in the UK. One report notes that 22% of workers over-50 are planning to bring forward their retirement plans. The unending crisis caused by COVID is sustaining pressures within organisations such as the NHS. Just how long this can continue without staffing issues becoming critical is uncertain. As we drift into the final days of August, with daily cases approaching 40,000, the prospect of schools re-opening; university students re-connecting; and an inevitable turn in the weather, must raise concerns that there is yet another mountain to climb. Just how many summits must be reached before the chronic emergency degrades to a manageable pressure is unknown. Even this uncertainty is a stress on staff who see and experience the impact of the pandemic, not as a set of figures, but as lives ended or changed forever.

“our previously world-beating health service is at risk of moving to the middle of the pack”

Siva Anandaciva, the chief analyst at the King’s Fund, The Guardian, 4 /8/2021

At some point there will be an evaluation of how different response to COVID-19 led to different outcomes. It was sad to see in the most recent evaluation of health systems by the Commonwealth Fund that the NHS has slipped from first to fourth. While this is not entirely attributable to the pandemic there can be no doubt that absorbing the care of thousands of patients with COVID-19 has come at a cost to the NHS. Few other countries have placed so much strain on their health resources during the past two years. If the plan is to ‘learn to live’ with the virus we need to provide the health service with the means to carry out its usual care as well as support people with COVID and its consequences.

In many ways the UK is returning to normality at a pace that will surprise many people. Walking round York and visiting a supermarket, it appears that mask wearing is on the wane. The emergency is slipping from public view and becoming focused in hospitals and GP services. This may be fine for the moderately wealthy, fit and well, but the pressures that continue in health and social care will not remain isolated from wider society. Keeping the standards of the NHS at a high level requires funding that will increase the staffing levels needed to cope with normality plus COVID. That’s no small challenge, but without it the medium and long-term consequences may outweigh the original crisis. We forget the lessons of history at our peril.

The Greatest Temptation

Judging by the queues and packed rooms of the Thomas Becket exhibition at the British Museum, the story of the tension between Church and State continues to hold fascination. Archbishops of Canterbury tend to come and go without too much fuss, and seldom leave anything approaching the legacy of Becket. The impact of this Archbishop’s murder catapulted Canterbury into the top flight of European destinations for Medieval pilgrims. The elaborate shrine that housed the remains of the Saint drew visitors from far and wide. It is the cause of the journey that features the many characters of The Canterbury Tales, drawing into one text figures from a range of classes.

The exhibition is in its final week and appears to have been very popular. The alabaster reliefs, elaborate reliquaries, and fine stained glass portray the channeling of wealth in honour of a saint whose significance across the continent lasted until the 16th century. At the same time, as Chaucer’s fiction depicts, the motives of pilgrims varied considerable. The corruption of spiritual practices through avarice is evident in The Canterbury Tales. Nevertheless, the portrayal of corruption demonstrates a common agreement about the the kind of life clergy should lead and the way in which the Church should carry out its vocation. The ‘poor parson’ is a priest unswayed by wealth or the social standing of the parishioners. We are told that ‘first he wrought, and afterwards he taught’.

For if a priest be foul in whom we trust
No wonder that a common man should rust;
And shame it is to see – let priests take stock –
A shitten shepherd and a snowy flock.

The most notable work of literature in the 20th century which focused on the life of Becket was penned by TS Eliot. Many years ago I was a member of the the cast for an eleven performance run of the play in a parish church. At the interval one evening I overheard someone telling their friend that they had come thinking Murder in the Cathedral was a whodunit – but they kindly stayed for the second half. Of course, at one level, any consideration of the events of 1170 involves reflection on who was truly responsible for the deed.

Both Chaucer and Eliot explore the concept of the decisions and choices made by Christian leaders. Whether in a parish or at a cathedral, the doing and saying must be closely aligned. Eliot’s rendering of Becket shows the power of temptation to deflect the pilgrim from their path – to choose an accommodation with sin rather than try to confront and resolve our true calling. Like Jesus in Gethsemane, Becket is in the path of inexorable events. There is a moment for possible escape, and in both cases soul-searching arrives at a point of spiritual peace and steadfastness.

In all the various discussions about the future of the Church of England I hope that somewhere this same kind of spiritual examination is underway. I fear it isn’t. There is understandable angst among the hierarchy that the trajectory of attendance figures and finances will ultimately undo the C of E. As this likelihood marches towards us, it seems that our concerns are narrowing to focus on how best to escape this apparent failure. I think the lesson of Becket gives us a different model for how to confront our demise.

The Church is renewed all the time by the food it offers to Christians seeking to discern the best way forward. Patterns of Bible readings ensure that we are guided by the wide sweep of religious experience and thought, not becalmed by the vagaries of a particular day. For anyone reading this who hasn’t discovered it, the Church of England Daily Prayer app is an excellent resource, now with an audio option. Reading the Hebrew Scriptures at morning prayer this week has reminded me of the pith and power of wisdom. Here is thought distilled through faith and experience – the kind of guidance the Church needs today more than ever. Rather than haste and urgency a greater stillness and listening to God is required. As the parish priest David Ford argues in last week’s Church Times, the excitement of those bent on evangelising their way out of decline appears not to register the faithful, quiet and fruitful witness of many parishioners.

“The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom,

and whatever else you get, get insight.

Prize her highly, and she will exalt you;

she will honour you if you embrace her.

She will place on your head a fair garland;

she will bestow on you a beautiful crown”.

Proverbs 3: 7-9

There is much in Scripture about not making a show of faith or kindness. Jesus is clear that performing self-righteous prayers in public, and brandishing conspicuous generosity, are to be avoided by his followers. He knows from his harrowing in the wilderness that there are temptations in religion which can give even the holiest human a moment’s hesitation. Lesser mortals need to live with clerical identity and its claims with as much humility as possible. When have a divine conviction that our course of action is the right one, or the only one, we risk falling prey to a sin that is both subtle and persuasive.

Chaucer’s poor parson or Eliot’s saintly Archbishop both demonstrate considerable wisdom. Perhaps having the insight to risk perishing while doing the right thing is not the least faithful route available to the Church. Who knows what good may grow out of the seeds of diligent pastoral care, or the hearts that will be turned to God by the witness of an Archbishop who resisted the greatest temptation of all: ‘to do the right thing for the wrong reason’.

The Land the Sunset Washes

It was a very warm mid-afternoon. Cycling had ended for the day, and our tent was pitched. I was 18 years old, sitting with my back to a tree by a babbling brook somewhere in Belgium and reading The Portrait of a Lady. A book that opens with an idyllic description of afternoon tea in a beautiful Thames-side garden during ‘the perfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon’. The kind of writing that lends space and warmth to the image it creates, a picture conjured when the full heat of day was ebbing: an hour which ‘expressed that sense of leisure still to come’. While it is an image steeped in privilege, the leisure and heat of a perfect summer’s day is something many of us have been fortunate to experience at one time or another.

There is an unpredictability about the climate in England that lends a sense of unexpected gift to weather events. Whether it is the warmth and stillness of a summer’s day, or snow falling at a time we are able to enjoy it, nothing in the climate can be taken for granted. A year may pass with hardly any glorious summer days – and winter can fizzle its way through drizzle and damp without the spectacle of a world transformed in a sheet of white. Perhaps we talk about the weather so much because we lack the certainties taken for granted in other countries. Yet even there, climate change means diminished confidence in weather patterns familiar for generations.

Summer in the northern hemisphere can be a time when many people are away and the pace of life seems to slow, just a touch. For classical music lovers The Proms season begins and, to quote Sir David Attenborough in this year’s BBC trailer, ‘a kind of light comes into the diary’. Watching Ralph Fiennes’ stunning performance of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets at York Theatre Royal last week, I was reminded of the reference to ‘summer, the unimaginable Zero summer’. Perhaps this is the kind of perfect day that lives in our memory and is also expressed as a future hope. The pause at the close of an August day, when nature is full and still, and when the warmth feels comfortable and enduring. In a culture when we are so often invested in the last thing, or planning the next thing, a rare moment when we attend to what is at hand.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

The final lines of Adlestrop by Edward Thomas

It is this kind of moment, set against the horror of WW1, that made Adlestrop so popular. The poem by Edward Thomas captures the heat-filled moment of a train pausing at a rural station. Long before the rise of mindfulness, this unexpected stop allows the poet to drink in the reality of the moment – from meadowsweet to birdsong. Its uneventfulness somehow achieves a transcendence, even as the moment slips away and the train resumes its journey. It was a picture of peace published just weeks after Thomas lost his life in the war, and it became a touchstone for people longing for the ordinary beauty and peace his words evoked.

In a more recent poem Sean O’Brien reflects on another train journey, this time lost in marking adjudication as the engine draws the carriages through an England of past and present. A daydream lacuna of stillness when work is set aside and the landscape passes like a film.

“This green reserve where no one comes or goes and all

Are necessary as the weather, and where no one seeks

Coherence greater than this afternoon suggests, and where

To all intents and purposes the living and the dead may pass

Their time beneath a sun in cloudy splendour.”

Sean O’Brien , The Lost of England, from The Beautiful Librarians 2015 Picador Poetry
View from Route 66 of the National Cycle Network near Dunnington

As we attempt to recover from the worst effects of the pandemic we need these moments of pause and reflection more than ever. They cannot always be planned, but when they occur we should sink into their stillness. Moments of tranquil and transcendent beauty, when the burdens of past and future are lifted and we are simply required to ‘be’. Entering into such stillness is not a luxury but a vital ingredient of being human. A fleeting pause which, if well observed, becomes food for our journey.

For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.

TS Eliot, The Dry Salvages, The Four Quartets