The Passing Present

I am always moved by the sight of ancient stone stairways. The sag of centuries worn stone looks like a gentle impress made on fabric. Our forebears used some of the most resilient materials available to bear the steps of millions. Over time, the micro-erosions of clogs, boots and heel plates have changed that steely strength into the smooth aspect of stone turned through the mill of human transit. Like the steady drip of water on granite, the repeated touch of soles has altered what seemed unchanging and certain. If we stopped an individual at the top of the stairs and asked if they had left a mark on the stone during their ascent, they would almost certainly look back and answer: ‘no’.

On Christmas Eve for sixteen years, at around 5:30 pm, I would hover by the entrance to the oldest part of the Leeds General Infirmary. It was here that I met the choristers of Leeds Minster as they arrived to sing carols around the wards. This time of day on the 24th of December was always remarkably quiet. Visitors had left – or they were leaving their visit until the following day. Wards were as empty as they could be. Creating capacity before Boxing Day seemed to be a major management priority, and I once went with the singers onto a ward where there was just one patient. That will not be the case this year.

After arriving, the choristers would bustle into the nearby Boardroom where a buffet tea awaited. Following this festive offering they changed into their choir robes and formed two lines on the tiled floor of Gilbert Scott’s ‘St Pancras of the North’. Then, in the silence of its Victorian grandeur, a lone voice would hit the first note of Once in Royal David’s City. The choir joined in and we all processed up the split stone staircase to the Chapel on the first floor, the choristers’ steps falling where their predecessors had walked on this same day for over a century.

Christmas can incline us to nostalgia. In a world where the present seems to pass very quickly, surviving and looking forward can preoccupy our thoughts. Those quiet moments in the busyness of Christmas may lead us to remember other festivities and look back (either happily or uneasily) to our childhoods. On Christmas Eve, in waiting for the choir, there was the space to reflect on the history of the hospital and all who had walked these corridors since the 1860s. The poor who had sought help here before the founding of the NHS; the rich philanthropists who created it; and the eminent doctors, proud of their place in a rising profession. It isn’t hard to understand why Christmas is synonymous with ghost stories and a strong sense of the past. For all those years, on Christmas Eve, I felt I was keeping company with my predecessors.

The Chapel, Leeds General Infirmary

Once again, this Christmas is likely to be unusual for many people around the world. For the second year in a row the infection and illness caused by COVID-19 is expected to curtail the extent of our celebrations. Countries are closing boarders and battening down the hatches. Even if laws are not changed, we are being encouraged to limit our contacts and make sure we are vaccinated. Already the hospitality and entertainment sectors are suffering cancellations.

Restrictions imposed in response to the pandemic hit the headlines, but they don’t tell the full story of how people are responding to the experience. We know from occasional media reports, and perhaps from first hand knowledge, that countless micro-acts of kindness have helped people journey through this difficult and isolating event. The cards, phone calls and messages that have enabled people to feel valued and connected. The delivery of food, or medicine, that has allowed neighbours to keep safe and have the things they need. The vast majority of these small deeds will pass unreported. Research is unlikely to capture the scale, extent or consequence of these tiny impressions of compassion. The people doing them generally appear to feel these actions amount to very little. Nevertheless, they are part of the fabric of our lives, shaping and sustaining the quality of our relationships. When news reports convey the scale of problems facing humanity there is both comfort and hope in the knowledge that so much unregarded kindness happens at a local level. Love expressed with no expectation of reward, but done for its own sake, and found in the bonds of human connection which, at Christmas, are hallowed by the Incarnation.

People, look east. The time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the guest, is on the way.

Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965)

Good & Bad Government

It is sobering to stand before the The Allegory of Good and Bad Government in the beautiful city of Sienna. The exquisitely detailed frescoes by Ambrogio Lorenzetti were painted in the mid-14th century and focus on the responsibilities and consequences of civic authority. It was created at a time when the Italian city-states were evolving efficient and pragmatic forms of government. Notably, as with Lorenzetti’s frescos, this form of politics was not channeled through the Church. Methods of organisation and management were viewed as some of the finest in Europe and provided models for institutions in other lands. For example, Henry VII drew on plans designed for running one of Florence’s hospitals to inform his work to found the Savoy Hospital in London.

The concept of governance, defined as “the way in which public power and authority is formed and used to control and manage society’s resources”.

Laver, R. (2010). ““Good News” in the fight against corruption.” The Review of Faith & International Affairs 8(4): 49-57.

During the Reformation in England there was a decided turn towards the centrality of governance. This isn’t unexpected given the King’s determination to consolidate his position at the pinnacle of authority. Nor can it be surprising that an assertive renewal of governance would clash with anything that might appear to trespass on sovereign power – not least the Church. From the mid 1530s ‘Henry remained insistent on his royal supremacy for the rest of his reign’ (Orme, 2005). The government of Church and State were to be united in the King’s person.

“and shall have and enjoy, annexed and united to the imperial crown of this realm, as well the title and style thereof, as all honours, dignities, preeminences, jurisdictions, privileges, authorities, immunities, profits, and commodities to the said dignity of the supreme head of the same Church belonging and appertaining”.

Henry VIII ‘s Act of Supremacy (1534)

The consequences of this spiritual and temporal unity ran wide and deep. Sovereignty was projected into public life in ways that proclaimed the place of the King as governor of all that lay in the Kingdom. It became customary to replace sacred images in churches with religious texts and the Royal coat of arms. Tellingly, among the options available to address God in prayer, the language of governance became more pronounced. The poorest in society, those availing themselves of re-founded hospitals, made their prescribed prayers to: ‘O Lord, our Governor’.

Good and bad governance is a persistent theme in many books of the Bible. The prophets in particular spoke out for just government and against corrupt or self-interested forms of leadership. Ruling with justice was seen as the fulfilment of God’s will for the people. The initial verses of Isaiah 32 convey the sense of desire for a sovereign righteousness that will bring peace. With the right King the ‘princes will rule with justice’ and be ‘like the shade of a great rock in a weary land’. The prophet articulates the longing of the people. The time for the rule of villains and fools has passed.

 “A fool will no longer be called noble,

    nor a villain said to be honourable”.

Isaiah 32: 5 NRSV
Photo by RODNAE Productions on

While it may sound like a festive after-dinner entertainment, ‘when is a party not a party’ involves far more serious issues than its frivolity suggests. It isn’t possible yet to calculate the sheer cost of lockdowns for people, only time will reveal the consequences of isolation and shielding. For some people the impact of COVID-19 deprived them of a last Christmas with their nearest and dearest.

We can all say silly things and forget the wider context of life around us, but at 10 Downing Street it feels more like an infestation of disdain rather than a slip of the tongue. A Prime Minster who began the pandemic bumptiously telling reporters he’d been to a hospital where there were COVID patients and shaken ‘everyone’s hand‘. Then he was in hospital – but appears to have learned little from the experience. It certainly didn’t appear to increase his determination to practice prudent infection control. A Government that didn’t even bother thinking what COVID would do to care homes, until the mounting death toll made it unavoidable. A Secretary of State for Health who broke the COVID rules and resigned. Vast amounts of money paid to poorly vetted suppliers, to do at huge expense what other countries managed far more economically. The handling of Brexit.

I can only begin to imagine the lurid frescoes Lorenzetti would need to paint to capture this litany of maladministration, self-interest and contempt. ‘Bad Government’ is too weak an epithet for what we are living through, experiencing and enduring.

The Speed of Love

I have always been intrigued by liminal places. The kind of setting that is neither here nor there, one thing nor the other. Sometimes they are the border lands where people live, perhaps working in one country and supporting a nearby football team in another. In places they are the dividing line – the point of passage from one landscape to a very different terrain. I associate this with the feeling of a sea crossing to an island, or the steep ascent and dramatic drop when crossing the North York Moors. These are generally uninhabited places where a crossing can be closed suddenly in winter weather. Often they assist the sense of separation from a familiar context – a good way to mark a different place and time; something unusual.

While they may not be crossing places from one kind of setting to another, even a country walk has the power to loosen our attachment to busy thoughts. Watching the excellent BBC 4 series Winter Walks I’ve been struck by the spiritual qualities of these seemingly ordinary country rambles. Unlike so much that grabs media attention today, these are not death-defying climbs up impossible slops, nor heroic marches across vast distances. Their route and length are decidedly modest. However, winter no doubt reduces the number of people the walkers encounter, so an awareness of the adverse elements and a spirit of reflective solitude emerge.

A good example of the spiritual qualities of a walk came in the episode featuring Alasdair Campbell. He began by a Yorkshire force (waterfall) with his surroundings covered in light snow. He went on to discuss his challenges with mental health. Reading a small inscription on a bench moves him to speak about the dead and how he still feels to be in their company. Family features, as it has so often, when he recalled childhood days spent in similar landscapes growing up in Yorkshire. There is a reflection on silence and sound. Throughout these episodes brief texts appear on screen stating the distance covered and the journey to go. There are occasional reminders of how many minutes it is until sunset, providing a factual commentary that complements the hints of finitude present in the walker’s words.

There is growing evidence that this kind of walking is good for our mental health. Sadly, as it appears to be the only measure we value, this benefit is quantified as a financial saving in the provision of health and social care services. This limits the broader recognition that many kinds of walking are primarily spiritual and holistic experiences. For people interested in faith and belief it comes as no surprise that these winter walks (mini pilgrimages?) stimulate this sense of spirituality. In 1980 the Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama published his book Three Mile and Hour God. The idea of a God who goes with us at walking speed has a lot of appeal. It can feel that in Western life there is an irresistible and inexorable drive to go faster tomorrow – to use our time efficiently so that there appears to be more time. Slowing down to a walking speed, as the BBC series illustrates, effortlessly foregrounds spiritual themes.

“God walks ‘slowly’ because he is love. If he is not love he would have gone much faster. Love has its speed. It is an inner speed. It is a spiritual speed. It is a different kind of speed from the technological speed to which we are accustomed. It is ‘slow’ yet it is lord over all other speeds since it is the speed of love”.

Koyama, K. (2021). Three mile an hour God. SCM Press.

Advent is a good time to think about journeys. According to Luke’s gospel, after the annunciation, Mary hurries to a town in the hill country to visit her cousin Elizabeth. It doesn’t sound like an easy journey, and Mary remains in Elizabeth’s home for three months before returning. This time (we assume) well into her pregnancy, and carrying a fragile flicker of hope through the world’s darkness. Other journeys will follow – for registration in Joseph’s hometown; for shepherds from the fields; and, in due course, figures from the East putting their faith in a star. This is without mentioning the flight into Egypt and the echoes of Exodus. These were mostly slow and risky journeys by our standards.

Some journeys are inevitable. No matter how ill prepared we are, the 25th of December will come (and go). Wherever possible people will travel to be with loved ones. Sometimes those journeys begin several days before Christmas – with visits to others along the way. There can be an inevitability about the distance to be crossed and the day that will come. How we use these times is very much down to us – to simply get to our destination, or allow the journey to sift our thoughts and feelings. Reflecting that all of life is a journey – until it is not.

“This year I don’t know how to find

the way to Christmas. Instead

my mind replays memories

I’d thought to burn – the first-blows

of my youth.

And yet Christmas

and my family will come;

have already begun their journey South,

and there is solace in that …

From ‘Midwinter’ by Anne Walsh