Summer Daze

It is unsurprising that I have seen few swifts in the centre of York. One evening there were some high up above the Minster’s central tower – and now and then I spot a solitary bird above the garden. The preference of these birds is the open spaces of Yorkshire, rather than the urban quarters. Cycling back from Beningbrough recently we traveled beside open fields near Overton, a very small village mentioned in the Domesday Book. As I looked up to my right I suddenly noticed a sky full of activity – a large number of swifts darting and diving above the land.

They are remarkable birds to watch. High up, flitting among the clouds, swifts dart, spin and slice their path through dense summer air. They are in the element where they spend a remarkable amount of their lives. It is now well established that swifts can remain airborne for months at a time; eating, sleeping and finding moisture on the wing. Given this propensity for flight they aren’t the easiest birds to observe, often circling high up on a summer’s day. Their visits to the UK from Africa usually last about 4 months.

The poet Edward Thomas is not alone in responding to a mood that midsummer can stir in the hearts of many who rest and watch in a landscape steeped in life and heat. In Haymaking the poet is observing the countryside just before dawn, with the pre-mechanised task of harvesting about to begin. Birds in nearby thickets are already singing:

While over them shrill shrieked in his fierce glee
The swift with wings and tail as sharp and narrow
As if the bow had flown off with the arrow. Edward Thomas, Haymaking

The scimitar curve of the swift is perhaps its chief identifier, and the bird’s call is captured beautifully in Thomas’ ‘fierce glee’. An arrow’s flight is a good simile for the speed of the creature, and the idea of the bow going with the arrow captures the taut shape of the swift’s wings.

A swift I photographed last week against light cloud at Lanercost Priory, Cumbria

When you can see a swift at close quarters they become more noticeably different from other birds with which they are often associated, such as swallows. Swifts have a body shape that seems almost prehistoric – which reflects their early divergence from many other species. As Katherine Rundell put it in an excellent 2019 article in the London Review of Books, their antiquity means that they were on ‘nodding acquaintance with the Tyrannosaurus’. In this piece Rundell notes that swifts were one of the inspirations behind the legendary ‘martlet’, which never landed and was believed to have no feet.

In heraldry, the swift is one of the inspirations for the imaginary martlet, a stylised bird without feet. Unable to land, the martlet is a symbol of restlessness and pursuit: of the constant search for knowledge and adventure and learning.

Consider the Swift, by Katherine Rundell LRB Vol. 41 No. 16 · 15 August 2019

The North Yorkshire wildlife artist Jonathan Pomroy (@JonathanMPomroy) is a keen observer of swifts, and in the recent heatwave he noted the way these, and other birds, achieve some extra release of warmth: they dangle their feet in flight. Jonathan’s watercolours capture the detail, beauty and speed of the birds, which is certainly a challenge when the air is so hot that watercolours don’t perform as they should.

Our brief summer visitors were placed on the ‘Red List’ at the end of 2021, following a decline of more than 50% in the last 25 years. There are many reasons for this, with one major factor being the rising number of building conversions. Swifts are creatures of habit and return to the same site to nest. Renovation work might close gaps and holes that are essential for their survival. If the nesting place has disappeared it makes it less likely that a pair will breed. Many agencies are advocating the use of swift nest boxes and encouraging people to consider the consequences of building works. It would be a devastating loss if these summer visitors vanished from a landscape which they fill each year with life, beauty and dazzling displays of aerial brilliance.

Feature photo by:

Decennium Horribilis

The Queen famously reflected that 1992 had been, for her, an annus horribilis. At the moment if feels like the 2020s might come to be known as the decade of horror. Even as we wobble (possibly), out of a devastating pandemic, the world’s worst nightmares of climate change are becoming a reality. In the coming days the UK will experience temperatures never before known. For several days, the sun will extend its scorching heat all the way from the cool cloisters of Oxford colleges to York Minster; from the industrial north, to the vast storage heater that is our capital city. In all their antiquity, buildings will be placed in the stress of temperatures for which they were not built, and from which they may not survive unscathed.

A word that became over-used in the pandemic was ‘unprecedented’. Yet here we are again, facing a very different health emergency. As is so often the case, Shakespeare expresses this experience with economy when he puts the following text in the mouth of Claudio:

“When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions”

Hamlet, Act IV, Scene V

Michael Rosen, writing in yesterday’s edition of The Guardian, hits the nail on the head when he reflects from personal experience that we have not even begun to digest the catalogue of pains which have touched us all: “we are chewing over several levels of trauma at the same time: personal, social, national and possibly global”. I suspect that for many of us these traumas have been shelved, as much as they can be. The rapid succession of crises means that even as one drops from the headlines, a fresh assault has already muscled into prime position. It was all COVID; then a connected string of economic shocks, labour shortages and inflation; a war in Europe and displaced people to support; spiralling energy bills; and now a sustained period of temperatures we normally associate with Andalucía. I’ve probably missed some, and there are certainly other emerging concerns snapping at our heels.

Coastal resorts will offer some cool respite from the high temperatures, for those able to travel

For the privileged and well resourced these challenges are inconvenient, rather than definitive. Isolation for the well-heeled may not have been welcome, but it came with interior space; expansive gardens; and possibly gyms or swimming pools. Excessive heat might be worrying, but it will be tolerated in large rooms, behind thick walls and with high ceilings. Perhaps, even, with air conditioning. For the poor in our society it will be a different story. Small spaces, tower blocks, no private garden, an infrastructure of roads and pavements that will absorb the heat throughout the day and emit it during the night. In the 1980s I was staying in Argentina during a spring heatwave with temperatures in excess of 40°. I was in student accommodation, sharing a small room, close to the centre of Córdoba. During a sleepless night I reached out to touch the wall and found it still warm, stalling the drop in temperature for which we were all waiting. People survive in these temperatures, but they do not thrive.

There have been few decades in human history that have all been sweetness and light. In terms of the title of this blog, it is also worth considering the question: ‘horrible for whom?’ Just like the Queen, our perception of events can be very parochial. It may concern our home and our family, but touch little on a broader political context. Once out of the long Edwardian summer, European history of the 20th century is a sorry story of futile destruction; a second war that followed disastrous economic turmoil; the physical division of Europe and the threat of nuclear destruction. However, both with the pandemic and the UK weather forecast, there are measurable impacts which can only be described as ‘unprecedented’. This is not simply an endless human story of generational angst. These experience are either entirely novel or the fresh occurrence of a crisis last experienced a century ago.

As Rosen observes, talk of memorial events to recognise the 200,000 COVID deaths in the UK appears to have been kicked into the long grass. Our attention has moved on (but, perhaps, not our feelings or our analysis of events). I certainly meet many people who think of COVID as last-year’s news. As we move beyond the first quarter of this decade the signs are not good that peace and prosperity will be more prevalent by the end of 2029 than they were in 2020. The carousel of crises shows little sign of stopping and its pace certainly feels much faster. My hope and prayer is that we shall – eventually – begin to reflect on the cost of our inequalities and the toxic world they are creating. More importantly, that reflection and prayer leads to action and a stronger sense of how we, as a global community, act to ensure that the sorry story of the last couple of years does not become our permanent reality.

Holy God,
earth and air and water are your creation, and every living thing belongs to you: have mercy on us
as climate change confronts us.
Give us the will and the courage
to simplify the way we live,
to reduce the energy we use,
to share the resources you provide, and to bear the cost of change.
Forgive our past mistakes and send us your Spirit,
with wisdom in present controversies
and vision for the future to which you call us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

© The Anglican Church of Australia

The Smallest Twine

At the central crisis in Much Ado About Nothing, Hero is not only jilted at the altar but disgraced by means of deception. While the Friar advises a counter-deception, to right the wrong, Hero’s father is bewildered. When advised to accept the Friar’s plan, he responds: ‘Being that I flow in grief,
The smallest twine may lead me’.

Clergy and pastors are often with people at a time of bewilderment. We meet people who are in the midst of grief, or turning to a minister as a source of trusted advice. Of course this is not only a situation faced by clergy. However, for some people the legacy of respect for clergy, perhaps instilled in childhood, may assume that any advice is divinely guided and lacks any other kind of motivation. Sadly, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Manipulation by appeal to divine authority is nothing new. In the York Mystery play of The Flood, Noah struggles to persuade Mrs Noah to get onboard. Finally he tells her: ‘It was God’s will without a doubt’. Understandably, Mrs Noah is unimpressed with this approach:

What, thinks thou that will let thee quit?
Nay, by my troth, thou gets a clout.

An unimpressed Mrs Noah, played by Helen Wilson, in The Flood, York Mystery Plays 2022

Recognition of distinctive dynamics in pastoral care is an essential step in recognising that the nature and form of abuse may be nuanced. Religions typically mirror forms of kinship, and at its best church can be a family of chosen association – with a strong sense of communal love, support and care. While this is commendable we also need to remember that most abuse takes place in families, and it might be that the prevalence of abuse in church communities reflects similar vulnerabilities of trust, inter-generational contact, authority and power.

I have quoted in a previous blog the caustic observation of the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman:

“One of the most insidious of the many shapes of domination (pastoral power), as it blackmails its objects into obedience and lulls its agents into self-righteousness by representing itself as self-sacrifice in the name of ‘the life and salvation of the flock'”

Zygmunt Bauman, Postmodern Ethics

Certainly this is a powerful summary of the consequences that emerge when pastoral or spiritual power is abused and goes unchecked. Virtue is an excellent facade for many kinds of vice. If a leader claims that what they are doing is directed by God, when an individual has been shaped to believe that God must be obeyed, the opportunities for malfeasance become almost limitless. It is the kind of thing that has persuaded elderly people to leave all their estate to the church (or the vicar); for people to be induced into forming inappropriate relationships; or engineered the acceptance of unreasonable expectations about the use of time.

There is a growing literature about the significance and operation of pastoral abuse. This field is in its early development and there is considerable scope for deepening both the scholarship, and the practical advice that flows from it. For example, in her consideration of abuse through an examination of Ezekiel 34, Amy White notes that ‘self-sacrificial leadership for the sake of the lost was clearly lacking’. However, I have known many self-sacrificial clergy who have been perfectly capable of spiritual manipulation.

The very discomforting question which needs to be addressed in any examination of spiritual abuse is whether God is ever capable of it? In the stories of both The Flood and Job, God is described as causing or permitting apocalyptic suffering. If church leadership is invested in literal understandings of Scripture this question needs to be addressed. Alternatively, if the Bible is understood as a collection of books describing an evolving discernment about the nature of God, then we arrive at a very different place, and one in which pastoral power in the person of Jesus is open to both questioning and accountability: “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Given the weight and significance of religious ideas, the need to handle pastoral relationships with care is essential. Only in recent years, and largely when compelled to do so, have churches acknowledged the need for greater accountability. Ironically, it could be argued that this failure to take prompt action to prevent abuses arises from a limited understanding of sin. While happy to wag the moral finger at various minority groups, many Christians appear to have lacked a willingness to be curious about wrongdoings much closer to home. Although no system is a perfect solution to the misuse of pastoral relationships, a greater expectation and resourcing of professional supervision would go a long way to excavating and naming pastoral risks. This would both help people understand the bewilderment in which they often minister, and recognise the temptation to pull the twine to places where people should not be led.