Waiting & Hoping

While standing on the platform, expecting a train to Machu Picchu, I noticed the sign to the waiting room. In Spanish, a waiting room uses the word associated with hope (‘la esperanza’): it is the ‘sala de espera’. At times it can feel in the UK that ‘hope’ would be a more fitting description for a waiting room on our less reliable routes. However, it led me to ponder whether there is any real distinction between waiting and hoping. Looking up the Spanish led me to an interesting thread, which includes discussion about the Bible translations of the two terms. Although there are alternative words in Spanish, in many cases – where either waiting and hoping would be used in English translations – it is the single verb ‘esperar’ that is favoured.

Perhaps the principal difference lies in the passivity of waiting. As with the example of a train station, waiting is what precedes movement and change. On the other hand, hope can be part of the journey. The people who travel from across the world to Europe, or across the border in the USA, are hoping to find safety and a new way of life. Writing about hope and waiting in the lives of migrants, Bendixsen and Eriksen ask questions about the different ways in which this can be experienced by people in an uncertain state of seeking refuge:

“What is it that we ‘do’ when we wait for something, given that waiting is normally defined as the opposite of ‘doing’ something? In what way can waiting be converted into political resistance? Waiting does in fact entail an engagement based on anticipation – an in-order-to motivation – of an improved life. How do conceptualizations of the future influence the ways in which people wait? And what can we say about people’s capacity to act in future-oriented ways even in a condition of temporal limbo?”

Bendixsen, S., & Eriksen, T. H. (2018). Time and the other: Waiting and hope among irregular migrants. Ethnographies of waiting: Doubt, hope and uncertainty, 87-112.

In his seminal book The Stature of Waiting WH Vanstone sees in the act of waiting the unfolding of Christ’s purpose. From the moment when Jesus is handed over to the Roman soldiers his willingness to be subject to the actions of others becomes the driving force of his mission. Here, waiting is not an absence of purpose but the only way in which salvation can come.

There are many things that can incline someone to journey hopefully. Often there is a life-long dialogue between the difficult experiences that are all too real, and the hope that is far more than simply wishful thinking. Such hope is strongly connected to the now, and sees the world as it could be and should be. Because of this connection hope itself is not static, but shifts as both our understanding and desire grow. Most often it is killed off by certainties we have decided are fixed and beyond change. For anyone finding faith difficult, Ronnie Scharfman expresses both the struggle to hope, and the hope-against-hope that faith might be found in the struggle:

I have always hoped
that struggling towards You
is You.
But I am never
sure.
And that is, perhaps,
You, too.

Ronnie Scharfman, ‘Prayer’ in The Poet’s Quest for God, 21st Century Poems of Doubt, Faith and Wonder, ed. Brennan, O., Swift, T., and Myddleton-Evans, C. Eyewear Publishing Ltd., London. 2016

The hope of faith during Advent requires courage. It is a time when the liturgy of the Church makes no bones about the darkness and suffering of the world, or the fact that the world as we know if will come to an end. Given the multiple crises assaulting the planet at the moment this seems less difficult to imagine. Holding any hope is an act of courage – a defiance of doom and a way to connect with others who share the idea that there is a better way. Perhaps this brings waiting and hoping back together, because our hopes are seldom realised quickly, and dissatisfied waiting can be a vocal irritant to the people who block the path to change.

Cartoon Catastrophe

In the cycle of the Church’s year we are now in the ‘Kingdom Season’. It lasts until Advent Sunday and features a lot of readings from apocalyptic Bible passages, with an emphasis on judgement and the end of the world. The season concludes next week with the last Sunday in the Church’s year – a celebration of Christ the King.

Sitting in Morning Prayer at York Minster during these days matches the appointed readings to the panels of the Great East Window. It is an experience that spans time. The Book of Revelations probably dates from the final years of the first century AD. The window was constructed between 1405 and 1408, and I ma sitting listening to one, and looking at the other, in the year 2022.

In some respects the window feels like a cartoon strip telling the story of the Book of Revelation. A way for people with limited reading ability to follow the Biblical account of the end times. The colours and depictions are vivid, with suitably grim and menacing monsters and angels variously inflicting several plagues. Each frame gives life to a passage from scripture, which can easily be followed with the excellent navigator website. Given the content of apocalyptic literature in the Bible, it is hardly surprising that it has enjoyed a very mixed reception. For George Bernard Shaw Revelation is “a curious record of the visions of a drug addict”. DH Lawrence hated it so much that he wrote his own commentary.

It is certainly true that outside the context in which it was written, the text is often puzzling and perplexing. When I did a course on the Book of Revelation in the 1980s, I recall being told that the text was meant to be heard – to be read aloud. Maybe it sits uncomfortably on the page because the visions and drive of the apocalypse is designed to be a crashing and pulsating narrative. The various sequences and repetitions suggest that this may be right.

In March 2020 many may have felt that apocalyptic events were unfolding in our own time. Perhaps there was an expectation that, however difficult, this was a trial humanity had to undergo before sunnier days would commence. Writing in the final weeks of 2022 it now appears that crises of major proportions are fact of life. Maybe there is something in the Book of Revelation that suggests an initial calamity precipitates subsequent disruptions? In choosing ‘permacrisis‘ for its 2022 ‘word of the year’, Collins Dictionaries is reflecting the challenge people are experiencing in attempting to return to turbulence of more familiar proportions. Along with the continuing lack of inter-governmental action on climate change, evidenced by the debates at Cop27, there is growing awareness of the plummeting diversity of species on the planet. It is certain that climate change and loss of biodiversity are connected issues. More and more of our planet bears the fingerprints of human involvement and, consequently, there is a vanishing number of true wildernesses in our world. On top of which, this year is likely to be the warmest on record for the UK.

Perhaps in the last 50 years we have become accustomed to a significant level of control in our economic and social order in the West. This is an exceptional experience for any human society, but there is plenty of compelling evidence to speculate that some fundamental issues may overpower us. In this respect at least, we have something in common with those who first heard the revelation of St John the Divine. Individually there is only a small amount we can do to meet the permacrises of the present. It requires a bigger and more international solution.

The apocalypse literature of this season encourages us to consider the shape of the future if we don’t change. The books of Daniel and Revelation suggest that we cannot predict the future as confidently as we should like. The dizzying imagery of these visions remind us that we sow today what we shall reap tomorrow. Both in personal faith and actions of collective responsibility, we cannot ignore the consequences of our actions. Apocalyptic literature should focus our minds and stir our spirits to work for a future where there is hope for our world.

Shock and Fear

In the suburbs of London it was odd to read a report where the cost of civic responsibility was described as the price of avoiding revolution. The article was in a local Barnet newspaper in 1910, and the revolt referred to which it referred was the French Revolution of 1789. The reference shows the very long shadow cast by that event across European popular thought. The comment arose in a discussion about the cost of poor relief in the borough. Business and property owners were moaning about the expense of looking after the poor, and it took a female member of the group to remind them that ‘charity’ was the price they paid to retain a system from which they benefitted considerably. Today, with the rapid rise of the ‘Enough is Enough’ campaign – uniting all kinds of people under the banner of unacceptable price increases – it appears that the prospect of popular agitation will force the hand of the next Prime Minister. However, rather than alter the operation of an economic system that favours the wealthy, just enough money will be dispersed to appease the masses. It remains to be seen whether we can continue as we are when an ever greater number of people fall into, or hover just above, poverty.

With what seems like a void at the heart of Government, there has been plenty of space for experts to voice their concerns about this unfolding energy crisis. Martin Lewis was clearly very angry when he spoke on Radio 4 on Friday. With appealing directness he defended ‘catastrophising’ for the very simple reason that, in the absence of Government aid, the energy price rise is a catastrophe. As someone who normally advises the less well-off about ideas to manage their funds more effectively, he had reached the point where he had nothing left to give. With a reputation built on creative solutions, the prospect of a financial dead-end for countless people had pushed Lewis to the edge.

It seems unlikely that the incoming Government will be able to replace the entire cost of rising energy prices across the economy. The suggestion so far is that low and middle income household will be supported – but it’s unclear what aid there will be for industry. This matters because without support industries will have little option other than to pass on price rises to consumers. It follows that inflation will remain high and, with below-inflation pay rises, people will be poorer. For this reason, even if there are funds to offset energy price rises, everyday life will in any event become more costly. People will have less cash, and even if gas and electricity bills remained the same, households would have to achieve savings in order to make ends meet. Heating or eating will remain a pressing question, because it is unlikely that government action will wholly mitigate the price rises that will touch every part of our economic system. The cost would be astronomical.

Macron said France and the French felt they were living through a series of crises, “each worse than the last”.

Quoted in The Guardian, 24 August 2022

Last week President Macron (according to Truss, a former ally of the UK), gave a very sombre speech. While criticised in some quarters for appearing to ignore those already suffering in France, Macron heralded the ‘end of abundance’. For the middle classes upwards this is perhaps an accurate description of recent decades and a warning that these days are over. To be fair to Macron, he described recent years as those which ‘could have seemed an era of abundance’. Perhaps, as we progress through the 2020s, there will be a growing appreciation that any sense of abundance belongs to an ever-shrinking group of people.

I have written previously that, by many measures, we are living in unprecedented times. The rise of food banks will now be augmented by the opening of ‘heat banks’. Public places where people can leave cold homes and gain some warmth and company. Quite what it will be like for people unable to leave their homes, or too far from heat banks, is yet to be seen. There are a host of medical conditions that will be aggravated by the cold, and in some cases it will lead to deterioration requiring hospital care. Once again we will have exceptional winter pressures in the NHS, whether or not COVID re-emerges as a significant issue.

One of the most worrying elements of the current crisis is the way it is impacting on households where two people are in work. When once this would have achieved enough income without support, people are facing in-work poverty. Even hospitals are contemplating hosting food banks to support their staff. A major achievement of the welfare state is that it moved support away from charity and promoted it as the organised actions of a just society. People didn’t need to feel ashamed or grateful. It was what ‘society’ meant, and offering support as a basic requirement was what people should expect. When Liz Truss, who is very likely to be our next Prime Minister, spoke about not wanting to give people ‘handouts’ it flies in the face of the post-war conception of society (but is very Thatcherite). A society which perpetuates a system excluding more and more people from a basic quality of life cannot go on indefinitely. I’m not advocating revolution – but it is something that becomes ever more likely as more and more people reach the point where ‘enough is enough’.

Where wealth accumulates

Wharram Percy is perhaps England’s most celebrated deserted village. What had been a thriving community set in the rolling and rich landscape of the Yorkshire wolds, expired from a range of causes. There is probably no clear identification of a seminal bow, but a host of factors eventually led to the eviction of the last two families, Even if the Black Death had not impacted on the village directly, it led to a host of vacancies in city trades and no doubt acted as a magnet for younger workers who sensed that the tide was turning on rural life. Famously, in The Deserted Village, Oliver Goldsmith depicts a bucolic haven that gradually gives way to the corrosive influence of commerce and the appetite for wealth. Goldsmith’s observations omit the pressures and constraints of rural living, but the gist of the changes he describes have left echoes across England. It is estimated that 3,000 villages became deserted during the Middle Ages.

‘Here as I take my solitary rounds,
Amidst thy tangled walks, and ruined grounds,
And, many a year elapsed, returned to view
Where once the cottage stood, the Hawthorne grew,
Remembrance wakes with all her busy train,
Swells at my breast, and turns the past to pain’.

The Deserted Village, Oliver Goldsmith, 1770

A generation earlier a similar theme was explored by Thomas Gray in his famous Elegy. The subject here is not a deserted village but rather the individuals who lived and died in an English village. Like Goldsmith’s later work, the virtues of a simple life are extolled and contrasted with the vanity and pomp of new wealth. It marks the emergence of a theme which lasted for the following two centuries – and includes the work of the Romantic poets. It was becoming clear that a way of life was ending in England and there were plenty of people who lamented its loss. It must be said that, on the whole, these writers were not the ones living without the convenience of a growing range of emerging technologies or, if they did, it was through choice. Even today, wi-fi access is an issue where rural communities often have to wait long after towns for the delivery of services most people take for granted. This was true for everything from measures to improve public health to electricity and the telephone. On a personal note, it was my parent’s generation which was the last in our family to have a living connection to people still working the land. In the 18th century most urban dwellers would have had links to relatives living and working in a rural context. They would have heard at first hand how life was changing.

Beside other examples of graffiti at the main door at St Mary’s Wharram Percy, a small carved cross

In more recent literature, such as Remains of Elmet by Ted Hughes, the focus is not on deserted towns or distant generations, but on the supplanting of one people by another. Hughes observes changes that saw one set of trades giving ground to new occupations – or no occupation. He writes reflectively on life in the Calder Valley as industries declined and nature reclaimed the land while sealing the scars of human labour. In poems such as Crown Point Pensioners Hughes commemorates the ‘survivors’ who reached advanced age despite the legacy of war and the demise of traditional industries. Published in 1979 the collection of poems could not have been more timely: it was the year when Thatcherism began to eviscerate much of the North with devastating effect. Today, nature has indeed reclaimed many places once reduced to rubble, but the damage wrought by political change in towns and villages has passed down the generations. As Dr Jane Roberts observes in a paper published in 2009, drawing on her experiences as a GP working in Easington, government policies have frequently had the effect of disadvantaging people in communities where structural violence has had the greatest consequence. Narratives of individual improvement only add to the sense of failure for those whose life-opportunities have been dismantled and removed.

‘As long as we fail to acknowledge and confront the realities of patients whose illnesses and distress are often the manifest expression of the structural violence which encapsulates their lives we collude with the system and deny patients their basic human right to health and equal access to healthcare resources’. 

Roberts, J. H. (2009). Structural violence and emotional health: a message from Easington, a former mining community in northern England. Anthropology & Medicine16(1), 37-48.

The last two families in Wharram Percy were evicted sometime around 1500 (to make way for sheep). It is hard to imagine what it must have felt like to abandon the village and make a fresh start elsewhere. There will always be change in the economic and social life of communities, but there is no doubt that some forms of change are better supported than others. When we understand that structural violence is a choice, rather than an inevitability, we create space for society to act in ways that promote a more inclusive social justice. In England, in the 2020s, we may all be forced to learn what the victims of capitalism around the world have known for centuries. Our economic way of life accelerates the acquisition of resources by the rich as it simultaneously increases the relative (and absolute) poverty of the people who generate that wealth. The question as to whether our economic system can continue to widen this gap will become more urgent this winter with steep rises in energy costs. To paraphrase Goldsmith, the deserted villages are a graphic example of the dramatic change ‘Where wealth accumulates’ and people rot.

Thy Neighbour’s Ass

We don’t hear a lot about coveting these days. What was once a sin, a transgression of Commandment number 10, seems to pretty much be the basis for modern economics. No longer a failing or flawed characteristic, wanting what others have is seen as aspirational and positive. In the late-Medieval and Reformation shift of religious ideas, where churches were once kaleidoscopes of Christian iconography, the new thinking put words at the heart of everything. In the now closed and re-purposed church of St. Michael Spurriergate, York, the Commandments occupy a central position behind the altar. The increased placement of inscriptions in churches was both a cause and effect of growing literacy.

“During the later Middle Ages images came to be supplanted by written texts: a format that was destined to outlast images and to dominate the interior landscape of churches after the Reformation”

Orme, N. (2021). Going to Church in Medieval England. Yale University Press p. 113

Coveting is not the same as feeling envy. The latter is regarded as a negative emotion and is one of the deadly sins. The former is a longing to enjoy the same possessions as someone else. However, it is easy to see how the two are closely related: coveting might become envy. The problem with commandments is that they are easy to announce (and to read) and far more difficult to enact. This can result in the stigmatisation of emotional responses that are to a large extent beyond our mental capacity to control. In other words, we long to have lawnmower quite as splendid as the one owned by our neighbour; we know that we should not be feeling this envy; but thought alone cannot dispel the desire.

“Envy is an emotion characterized by intense coveting of what another has (see e.g., Smith & Kim, 2007). Social life presents us with a wealth of opportunities to covet what another person has. Indeed, there is always somebody who is more moral, more intelligent, more attractive, more popular, more prosperous, more skilled, or more successful than we are. There are no boundaries to what we can desire in envy”.

Rodriguez Mosquera, P. M., Parrott, W. G., & Hurtado de Mendoza, A. (2010). “I fear your envy, I rejoice in your coveting: On the ambivalent experience of being envied by others”. Journal of personality and social psychology, 99(5), 842.

One recent response to the topic of envy suggests that psychologists and philosophers can work together to overcome the perception that envy is reprehensible. The authors of the paper conclude that envy is a more neutral concept than commonly believed, and that envy can be ‘functional or dysfunctional’. However, interesting as this approach might be, I would argue that there is a wealth of evidence that in the digital age, where image can be seen to be everything, envy is both more pervasive and more destructive than ever before. In the society which received the Ten Commandments covetousness of a neighbour’s possessions or lifestyle probably meant someone across a fence or down the road. Now anyone can click online and take a virtual tour around the homes of the mega-wealthy; gaze at the bodies of super-models; or find any one of thousands of lifestyles that might be envied. Capitalism is driven by our dissatisfaction and desire for more and for better.

Photo by Lagos Food Bank Initiative on Pexels.com

I think there is a distinction between this envy of what others have, and a desire for the improvement of life-chances for everyone. We might ‘envy’ a country for its health system or treatment of older citizens. This is not about our own possessions but about the wellbeing of the community as a whole. In some quarters the aspirations of Trade Unions for better pay and conditions is attacked with a suggestion that workers are engaging in wealth-envy. The language of class warfare is used to imply that people who have failed to become rich are simply jealous of those sitting in their mansions with millions. This is to misunderstand the anger of those who believe that people in full-time employment using food banks in a wealthy society is both immoral and unacceptable.

Holy Zadok

Handel’s anthem, composed in 1727 for the critical moment of a coronation, the anointing, is the only piece to have been used on all subsequent coronations. It is not hard to understand why. It is magisterial, with a substantial introduction which swells and calms, sustaining a growing sense of expectation. When the choir enters, it is with a sudden and dizzying burst of sound. The text from 1 Kings is brief. In many respects it is a prosaic passage, describing with an almost matter-of-fact tone the actions of a priest and a prophet. Centuries later, in the hands of Handel, it is transformed to embellish the coronation of a British sovereign, conveying an auspicious announcement and the response of the people.

Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet
anointed Solomon king.
And all the people rejoiced and said:
“God save the King!
Long live the King!
May the King live forever!
Amen! Amen! Alleluia!”

The text of the anthem from 1 Kings chapter 1

In its context the words used in the anthem signify rejoicing after uncertainty and discord. Another of David’s sons is attempting to take the crown, even as his elderly father still lives. The promise of succession had been given to Solomon, but this suddenly looks precarious. To avert civil war or other disorder, David orders Solomon to be taken to Nathan and Zadok (two figures who had not sided with the contender) – so that he can be proclaimed King. This action seals the succession and prevents any violence.

The BBC Radio 4 episode of Soul Music which centres on Handel’s anthem is a fine reflection on the technical achievements of the work as well as its past and present reception.

Hearing Zadok the Priest played for the Platinum Jubilee in York Minster this weekend, with the organ recently restored, has been a highlight of the celebrations. The well known notes, the tension of the moment and the release of expectation, never lose their power, despite their familiarity. As with so much of the symbolism of a coronation, each reference carries links to other times and occasions. Sometimes these feel fully justified, while at others it can amount to a forced connection which may be far removed from its original meaning. The text in 1 Kings, with its reference to Zadok and Nathan, appears to convey social order; the fulfilment of lawful succession; righteousness and fidelity.

David and Solomon, The Great East Window, York Minster

Events conspired to bring Elizabeth II to the throne – it could easily have been otherwise. Across seventy years her presence has provided stability in the winds of political change. Perhaps one day we shall know what the Queen thought about the political leadership and direction of the country. I cannot imagine that the last decade will have filled her with satisfaction as her long reign enters its twilight years. In the UK, even as the pandemic began, 27% of children were living in poverty. Recent rises in energy costs and the overall impact on the cost of living are likely to increase that figure, despite Government assistance. The gap between wealth and poverty has ballooned during the pandemic and it will take more than charity to transform this dismal trajectory.

Zadok and Nathan ensured orderly succession. Prophets, priests and kings did not always agree – but the tensions between these roles could work creatively for the people as a whole. Checks and a recognised dispersal of power are always needed for good governance, but so too is a common desire to see the whole community flourish. There has been much that is good over the last 70 years, but the reality of an ever-widening gap between wealth and poverty requires determined action if we wish to see everyone enjoy both peace and prosperity. This weekend has witnessed a rightful sense of celebration, but to honour the Queen and her unique role in British public life we cannot pass by the pressing issues of our time. A fitting legacy for this remarkable reign will be a society in which the fear of injustice, and of poverty, will begin to fade.

In Memory of God

Sometime in the late 1930s or early 40s, my father was very naughty. He used to tell me the tale with a chuckle, as he recounted the time he carved his initials into a church pew. What remained most notable in this memory was the rationale that accompanied his telling off. He was told, rather sternly I imagine, that he: ‘shouldn’t do that because people pay a lot of money to have their names inscribed in church’. As always in Lancashire, people cut to the chase.

On a recent visit to St Paul’s Cathedral I was reminded of this as I walked amongst the multitude of monuments. To amble down the aisles of this cathedral is to be surrounded by the ghosts of Empire – set out either in the commemoration of notable clergy who converted people around the world, or in the words written across the tombs of generals; admirals; and sea captains. I doubt there are many omissions from the references to far flung parts of Empire that once came under British rule. Across the acres of white marble I was left wondering what untold stories lie behind the eulogies of these historic leaders. In contrast to the praise of their actions, the voices of the acted upon are absent.

There is no doubt that these monuments signify both money and power. Set in the midst of the City of London, the figures can be seen as the immortalised heroes of a mercantile thirst that brooked little opposition. The inscriptions carry numerous references to the East India Company. There is something very disturbing about a spiritual place that glorifies colonial power and is silent about a legacy still blighting people around the world. This substantial void at the centre of Capitalism – Conrad’s ‘heart of darkness’ – is a fitting mausoleum for the sons of Empire.

In the current issue of Crucible, The Journal of Christian Social Ethics, Carlton Turner writes about the possibilities of decolonising theology. This is a challenging task as theology was recruited into the work of colonisation from the outset, or at least from the moment when a faith smelted in the experience of military occupation was integrated into government. The statue of the Emperor Constantine outside York Minster is an ever present reminder that Christianity, once on the margins of Empire, suddenly came to occupy a place at the centre.

… for people within the colonial situation, the very way theology has been done, and continues to be done, is problematic and perpetuates their own annihilation.

Turner, C. ‘Give us Healing Balm: Decolonising Theology Through African Caribbean Eyes’, Crucible April 2022 pp. 16-23.

The theology of the privileged never fully absorbs the theology that germinates in ‘base communities’, but the struggle and cost of sustaining local and authentic theologies is far from easy. For some theologians, acquiescence to the status quo is tantamount to self-harm or accepting an unchosen and enforced sacrifice (in favour of the West). Trust in Theological Education, written by Eve Parker and just published by scm press, adds further consideration and challenge to the assumptions of a theology written mostly in places of privilege and power.

When we listen to a greater variety of voices we have the opportunity to understand the damage which our theology has created, and the risks arising from a ‘normative’ Christianity applied across a range of contexts. For observers from these contexts it must often seem that these fine statues glorify man and, at best, give a modest nod to the memory of a God who made the inconvenient choice to be born amongst the poor of our planet. Every day in St Paul’s the following words are said or sung. The incongruence feels too large to reconcile:

He hath shewed strength with his arm :
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat :
and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things :
and the rich he hath sent empty away.

The Magnificat, Book of Common Prayer (Luke 1)

Donne and Dusted

I was very sad when John Donne died. This wasn’t recently (in fact, 1631), nor is it a plot spoiler, but is retold in the culmination of Katherine Rundell’s absorbing recent biography of the poet. Like so many in his generation Donne had a momento mori close by on his desk – a reminder of mortality present at all times. To modern sentiments this may seem mawkish, but in an era when sudden death was far from rare, it was wise to live with an active awareness that your current experience could came to an abrupt full stop.

The awareness of death is a characteristic consistent with Donne’s relentless attention to the material world, no matter how grim or gritty it got. There was nothing too impolite or unseemly to be dragged into the pulpit of St Paul’s Cathedral and shared with the multitudes. Life, Donne told his hearers, is like a journey between a goal and a place of execution. A short trip that ran from crime to punishment, darkness to death. Except that this wasn’t the lesson of his analogy. Donne was provoking the congregation to contrast our human inattention with the alertness of someone knowingly going to their death. As he put it, on the journey from Newgate to Tyburn, no one sleeps. Yet, Donne argues, we are heading towards the same certainty spending significant parts of the journey asleep. His call echoes the Biblical and Advent theme that ‘now it is time to wake out of sleep’. To be stirred up, ‘now, in the time of this mortal life’.

Donne is not a wholly attractive figure. As a financially challenged poet his obsequious letters to various grandees grate in a more egalitarian age. His rise to high office in the Church of England required careful nurturing of royal connections. Despite this, he brought to the Deanery a fierce intellect; an astonishing mastery of language; and a theological sensitivity to the complexity of the times. The combination of his gifts and experiences enabled Donne to further what we might now call ‘the Anglican Project’ – establishing the groundwork for an expression of Christianity shaped by the heritage and nuances of English experience. There was certainly an appetite for his approach, with large crowds flocking to hear him preach. A few years ago, an experiment took place to see how audible Donne’s sermons would have been from the outside pulpit at St Paul’s, surrounded by hundreds of people.

The memorial to John Donne, St Paul’s Cathedral

Perhaps the most curious, visceral and haunting detail in Rundell’s book describes Donne’s preparation for death. As the end approached Donne saw its prospect as one final dramatic moment. He ordered an urn and shroud to be made, then lay in the shroud so an artist could sketch his appearance at full scale. This became the image from which his statue was carved following his death – still in St Paul’s today, one of very few to survive the Great Fire of 1666.

“Donne made himself ready; part, perhaps, of a desire to have things done exactly as he had imagined them – an artist of ferocious precision, dying precisely. His last words – ‘I were miserable if I might not die.'”

Rundell, K, ‘Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne’, Faber 2022 p. 290

It is fitting that Donne is most often remembered for his poem beginning ‘No man is an island’. Fitting because it addresses two themes which ran throughout Donne’s life: mortality and connectedness. He lived at a time when the fusion of the material and spiritual, the sensory and the abstract, was an acceptable way to write about the world. Given the ubiquity of death, including young family members, mortality made Donne’s life an ever changing landscape. Undoubtedly these losses were never welcome, but they contributed to a vivid celebration of life and determination to be awake and alert. Donne notices the world in a way that comes from an acute sense that each and every day is gift that will not be repeated.

Two or Three

Understandably, Evensong is about the ending of the day. As I have written before, it offers a space for reflection and prayer rendered in words that are centuries old. Once a staple ingredient of the worshipping diet of the Church of England, fewer and fewer churches hold the service with any regularity. Cathedrals still maintain its place as a mainstay of their existence and many are rewarded with appreciative congregations. York Minster saw many hundreds of people at its Easter Sunday Evensong, but this is the exception rather than the rule.

Recently I attended Evensong in the pretty port town of Whitby. I was fortunate in that my stay coincided with the one Sunday in the month when Evensong is held in one of the Anglican churches. This information wasn’t difficult to find on the internet – but I note that the local paper, the Whitby Gazette, no longer carries a listing for local church services. The publication has always felt a little retro (I’ve no idea how common the practice is) but until the pandemic there was always a sizeable entry reporting all the service times for Whitby and the surrounding villages for the forthcoming Sunday.

‘The other response to decline has been the creation of complex patterns of rotation of services’.

Bruce, S. (2011). Secularisation, church and popular religion. The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 62(3), 543-561.

The service I attended took place at 6 pm in the large Victorian church of St Hilda, built in 1844. As I have found with a number of churches at service times, there was no external indication of what was about to take place. Admittance was by a modest door that stood open, but with no signage inviting entry. Coming to this service required a confident churchgoer. While there was no one there to greet worshippers, books with a service pamphlet were prepared and waiting on a table. Arriving just a few minutes before the service time I found that I was one of three worshippers sitting in the nave. On the hour a crucifer and robed choir in double figures entered via what appeared to be a side chapel, and the service began.

It was a good service. Three hymns were sung, all familiar to me and strongly led by the choir. There was no sermon. Yet in a town of thirteen thousand souls, with many more visiting as tourists on a Bank Holiday weekend, the congregation never rose above three (two of whom were clergy). I’m not very interested in nostalgia, but there may well be a place for lament. For Evensong aficionados the service was listed in the Choral Evensong website, but that made no discernable difference to the attendance. Although over a decade old, I think Steve Bruce identifies accurately many of the problems of religion in these coastal communities, and more widely. Numbers have dwindled; clergy are fewer; sustaining services across multiple benefice parishes has led to complex timetables; as churches have closed a wider network of folk religion has diminished. In all the counting done by church strategists, the existence and role of popular religion is mostly neglected. The people whose children went to Sunday school; who attended the Carol services and coffee mornings; who turned to the church for occasional offices. Throughout my ministry, this group has been a vital part of my pastoral ministry, whether as residents in a Lancashire suburban parish; as patients in hospital; or amongst the people now living into their tenth decade and beyond. The mood music of the C of E seems to require this group to make a decision: be a disciple or be gone.

‘a notional sense of affiliation and occasional and peripheral involvement in churches and chapels requires that there be functioning churches and chapels close at hand’.

Ibid.

While there are groups now fighting a rearguard action, such as ‘Save the Parish‘, the spiritual capital already squandered through closure, complexity and theological withdrawal, will not be regained. It was built over centuries and lost in a generation. To many of us the ‘disciple’ mantras from the centre sounds like an ever-narrowing agenda. The ark may have escaped our reach, but we are downsizing to lifeboats in order to accommodate the faithful few and float over an ocean of the un-saved. This pays little regard to the everyday sacred; the resources of our churches as wonderful places to ‘be’ (when they are open); the honest striving of people to make sense of their lives.

In the glories of High Church Victoriana, Evensong can feel like the faithful performance of am-dram Shakespeare. A mystery play forged through the fires of Reformation England, with local actors adding their accents to the long, long tradition of Anglican spirituality. Words that name our wretchedness, speak of the dead and lay hope in the resurrection. In a town where the physical landscape is used to such good effect, and where jet became the jewellery of mourning, I wonder if there is any chance that new life might be breathed into this ancient worship? Before we give up the ghost on this liturgy, perhaps we should consider the possibility of new links and relationships. Surely, if any piece of worship was ever made for the Goths who congregate in Whitby, it’s Choral Evensong.

Misperception

Life-drawing presents all kinds of challenges to the drawer – especially me. A fundamental issue is the need to unlearn our habits of seeing what we think is there, and focus on the reality of the subject. This requires careful attention to the relative size and scale of limbs and their disposition. For example, the face is only a small part of the head, even if our communication-centred focus leads us to privilege the eyes and the mouth. Drawing what we see as important delivers a disjointed and disproportionate view of the body.

For some time I have been intrigued by Anil Seth’s hypothesis that consciousness and our sense of self is best understood as a ‘controlled hallucination’. Reflecting on this I would be more inclined to amend the phrase to ‘collective’ rather than controlled. In every age there have been people who stood apart from a collective agreement about what constitutes a normal sense of self. Usually, they suffered for this nonconformity, even if their perspective later came to be an accepted view. For me the strength of Seth’s idea is not so much for people who share an agreed interpretation of objects and events, but as a way to explain behaviour when the hallucination is fractured. For example, with dementia, the way we order past and present might be rearranged. There is still engagement with the material world but this materiality might be significantly recast and reinterpreted. A husband and son are not recognised in these roles but instead named as the person’s father and brother. Sense-making appears to be less controlled and requires some lateral thinking in order to comprehend. In this example, in which I was involved, the person knew that these were her male relatives of different generations, but the designations were misplaced.

I noted some time ago that the pandemic has generated increasing interest in subjects such as those covered in York’s nightly ghost-tours. At the time I thought this was linked to increased mortality but in the light of a recent Guardian article I wonder if there is another reason. For example, whether the degree of social disruption has sent a significant earthquake through the ground of our perception. What was assumed to be certain was shaken, and many people are in the process of renegotiating the relative meaning and value we construct to make sense of the world. It is not necessarily the case that more people believe in ghosts, but they may be more open to the unexpected and the disruptive.

Prof Christopher French, head of the anomalistic psychology research unit at Goldsmiths, University of London, is not surprised to hear reports of a rise. “There is historical evidence for increased interest in, and reported experiences of, this kind of stuff at times of uncertainty, stress and turmoil.”

Emine Saner, ‘Spooky Britain: how ghosts became a national obsession’ The Guardian, 6 April 2022

How we draw a head, or how we order our experiences of the physical world, may not be as accurate as we would like to think. A significant aspect of religious experience is that the way we accept the world should be questioned and challenged. Today, Palm Sunday, is a day when the Church marks the start of a week in which the presence of Jesus questions a whole range of assumptions. Entering Jerusalem on a donkey, the expectation of sovereignty is placed in a posture of humility and service. This is a King who is not here to stamp authority on a subjugated people. Perhaps more potently, his action in washing the disciples’ feet on Maundy Thursday puts the teaching into action. Jesus’ words and deeds subvert the accepted relationships in society and open the possibility that we see and embrace a more proportionate understanding of our place in the world. A place where we see properly the people who are often peripheral to our vision; recognise our illusions of independence for what they are; and live at peace with our mortality. The foundational stories of the Abrahamic faiths all narrate how our clarity of sight has been corrupted and distorted. On our own we cannot see aright, and embracing this awareness should foster some humility and co-dependence as we seek to determine how best to live.

Outside York Minster on Palm Sunday 2022, the Processional Cross is ready to be lifted high

Christians live with a conviction that the world is not as it should be. The idea of the Kingdom of God points to an altered reality where a different kind of society lives in peace and justice. Having this belief may inspire discontent with the world as it is, as well as energise activity to aid this Kingdom emerge fully into our personal relationships and local communities. In this much there is hope, resisting the temptation simply to accept what is in front of us and ‘labour for what does not satisfy’ (Isaiah 55:2). When it is fully alive, the Christian story challenges false power by its persistent presence and emphasis on servant leadership. It questions those who misuse religious authority, and stands in profound silence before Pilate. At the end of this week those who oppose the petition ‘your Kingdom come’ find that even the certainty of a sealed tomb is not enough to extinguish this outrageous hope.