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.

Dawn Leads on Another Day

The break of day is a moment that divides and defines the ambit of our experience. Perhaps we find it mundane and predictable, but each dawn is momentous. For most of us it stirs us to waking and unfolds the day ahead. I never fail to feel that each day is unique and marvellous – a never-to-be-repeated opportunity. Of course, days will recur: but never the same day. Like the blare of a siren we are aware of their approach, and with rapidity they fall behind us. There are countless days we shall forget and a small number that will remain with us until the grave. In literature the risks and possibilities of each day have been a foil for playwrights and poets:

Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.
I must be gone and live, or stay and die.

Romeo and Juliet Act 3 Scene 5

It is little wonder that in Genesis the first words attributed to God are: ‘let there be light’. It is the division between light and dark which forms the fundamental aspect of life, perhaps the first element of conscious human awareness. It grants us the experience of time. In Mark 16, just as God created the first day, so the women go to the tomb ‘when the sun had risen’. It is another day; a second creation; the moment when ‘light shines in the darkness’ and humanity no longer has to dwell in night. For, although in creation day was divided from night, when the Psalmist thinks about God: ‘even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you’ (Psalm 139). Whether in the darkness of rooms behind locked doors, or when, ‘just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach’ (John 21) the resurrection stories contrast night and day. Easter is a daybreak that will never darken.

Converting 4 million tons of matter into energy every second, the sun constitutes about 99.86% of the mass of the Solar System

Perhaps the reliability of the sun’s daily appearance dulls our appreciation of what is taking place – both in space and time. Our brief lives are lived in orbit around this ancient and enduring fixed point. It was not always here, and it will not last forever, although in all probability it will outlive humanity. While its output fluctuates, to our senses it is constant and unchanging. Our days, months, years and hours are defined by its appearance. Like so many things, including historic perceptions of earth’s centrality to the universe, the sun’s significance is estimated from a human perspective. Despite all our technology and progress we have no ability to alter or influence its existence.

Of course, when the dog stirs at first light, I am not enamoured with the shift to longer days in the Northern hemisphere. (I think 05:30 is the limit of my tolerance for greeting the new day with a spring in my step). Watching the inexorable rise of the sun out of the sea is certainly a spiritual experience and prompts metaphysical questions. It is little wonder that many religions have tied their prayer times to reflect such moments, responding to the natural world with practices that invest meaning, seek relationship and prompt contemplation. Perhaps uniquely in the ancient churches of the world, only the Armenians developed a ‘Sunrise Office’. Touchingly, it describes monks ‘having awakened in awe’, instantly moved to pray. The service came to stand apart from Prime or Matins and included Psalm 112, a text reflecting on those who fear the Lord: ‘They rise in the darkness as a light for the upright; they are gracious, merciful, and righteous’.

This prayer signifies the second coming of Christ and the resurrection of humanity from the tombs on the first day of the week at the first hour. For the resurrection of all human natures will take place at that hour… he is the morning and the beginning of the dawning of the sun of righteousness, and it will take place at that first hour of the great day.

Findikyan, M. D. (2000). On the origins and early evolution of the Armenian office of sunrise. Orientalia Christiana Analecta, (260), 283-314
Sunrise, the North Sea, 29 April 2022

Rich with Yeast

Allelulia, The Lord is Risen!

In a hot climate, the poet AE Stallings writes of the difficulty of locating a family grave in a cemetery. Someone goes in search of information to find the right place:

Then you came back
With the coordinates, and snagged a priest
Glistening in polyester black,

Who, at the grave, now found,
Spoke of the rest and rising of the dead
As if they were so many loaves of bread
Tucked in their oblong pans
In a kitchen gold with sunlight, rich with yeast.

From A. E. Stallings, ‘Memorial (Mnemosyno)’

He is Risen Indeed. Alleluia!

Unvarnished Truth

It is the thing which shouldn’t be there. High up in the crossing above the worn-smooth stones of the Cathedral floor. It is visible across the nave of the building, raised in front of newly refurbished organ pipes resplendent in gold and bright vermilion. Millions were spent bringing this huge instrument back to a state of excellence. Every note sounding pitch-perfect, and accompanying a choir of international renown. Below the organ pipes is the screen. Elaborate stonework and gilded kings – the work of master masons long departed this world. The Cathedral harvests the best that can be had, filling this barn of a building with the finest sculptures, carpentry and glasswork. During Lent, into all this splendour, is lifted a rough-hewn cross. As basic as you can imagine, two planks of unpolished, unvarnished and uninspiring timber hanging in space below the central tower.

Liturgy, and the context it inhabits, has a knack of creating paradox. When it seems that the church has been enthralled by worldly standards, with a hierarchy of clergy, the splendour of an Archbishop or Pope is cast aside on Maundy Thursday as they kneel to wash people’s feet. All the grandeur is subverted by the truth that the least will be greatest in the Kingdom of God, and the last shall be first. Stitched into our services is the recurring message that things will not always be as we expect. God can, and does, disturbs us in surprising ways.

The Lenten cross is yet another jarring sign of this unsettling truth: just when we think everything is polished and perfect, the rough and the ready is what we need to tell us what God is about.

“But lying there long while, I,
troubled, beheld the Healer’s tree,
until I heard its fair voice.
Then best wood spoke these words:
“It was long since – I yet remember it –
that I was hewn at holt’s end,
moved from my stem.”

The Dream of the Rood

Theology could not function without paradox. Christianity is not – and can never be – something that reconciles every aspect of human experience in a divine plan. Our worship requires us to recognise and name the most difficult aspects of human living. In baptism we say that this new life will one day die. At every marriage ceremony we are reminded that the commitments are made ‘until death us do part’. There is no shying away from these fundamental truths of human life. Yet our commitment to the limits of human existence is held in tension with a great hope. A hope which, on Good Friday, we affirm even in the shadow of the cross; the Healer’s tree. We cannot disregard the injustice, suffering and humiliation of this public execution. We see it and name it.

For some people it will not be Good Friday that is difficult. Human suffering is obvious and ubiquitous. The step of faith to Easter Day is the part of Christianity that stretches their credulity. Yet for those who follow the way of Christ, our response to suffering is lit with a hope that radiates from the empty tomb. Yes, suffering is real – but it is not all.

He hung there limply on the frame,
His body beaten black and blue.
Exposure was the thing; humiliation, too;
To which the nails seemed superfluous
When all you had to do was die of shame;
Quietly expire, a minimum of fuss.
But what a noise you made, Silent Messiah,
Your humbling death, so nakedly exposed,
Conquered forum, basilica and the choir
Of poets with the love you interposed.

N. S. Thompson, ‘Silent Messiah’ in ‘The Poet’s Quest for God’ Eyewear Publishing 2016

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.

Melancholy

Last Sunday, as I begin to fill in the Register at a church where I’d just lead a service, my fountain pen broke in two. It was quite dramatic. Large blots of black ink formed on the page; my hand was doused in the stuff; a small amount pooled onto the floor. As far as possible, using tissues and wipes, I remedied the damage – but left an indelible mark of my (first!) visit to the church.

Returning home I turned to Google to see if I was alone in my experience. Apparently not. This trusted model from a good brand was known to suffer the occasional failure of a welded section, causing the split I had just experienced. I also learned that it is reparable, and during the week I parcelled up the parts to send to a UK agent for assessment and onward travel to Germany. Like many items we might have as we get older, not only was it – until this point – a reliable mainstay of my writing, it was also a gift from my father for my 50th birthday.

Although I have only caught glimpses of the BBC series The Repair Shop, it isn’t difficult to understand the popularity of the programme. Things that have aged and become damaged are brought back to their former glory. Through the process of repair we are connected with the past as heritage skills are used by the experts to restore the items. Of course, in the process, the person who has presented the treasured artefact tells us the story about its origin and arrival with the current owner. Often these accounts will involve bereavement and the role of the heirloom has a tangible connection with a vanished world.

The Repair Shop

It may be that this programme appeals to younger people – but I suspect the larger audience will be at the older end of the scale. People who have inherited items or been gifted them by friends or relatives when inevitably downsizing as the years advance. Perhaps some personalities are more invested in such things than others, but I imagine that almost everyone can recognise the feeling that an item from the past evokes a sudden sense of connection to a world where we once lived, and which is now past. Watching Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast last night led us to remark that it was like watching our childhoods, not because of the circumstances of growing up in Northern Ireland, but because of the consumer products, Christmas decorations, gifts and furnishings that were featured in the film.

Now in his late 80s, the unconventional former leader of the Episcopalian Church in Scotland, Richard Holloway, has been reflecting on melancholy in his latest book, The Heart of Things. Holloway’s writing in recent years has been a great blessing, not least because he is sharing with us considerable insight, intelligence and feeling from what might be called ‘the front line of later life’.

“Melancholy has become a kind of grateful sadness at what life has given us but which we can never cling to, because it is constantly passing, disappearing into the past. Melancholics find it impossible not to keep looking back at what time has wrought as it slips away behind them like the wake of a ship”.

Richard Holloway, ‘The Heart of Things: An Anthology of Memory & Lament’ Canongate 2021 p. 9

It is little wonder that so many of us enjoy repairing things from the past and re-lustering what has become dull over time. Through these physical fragments of heritage we achieve something we know is impossible for ourselves. We can pass on these keepsakes in near mint condition, while recognising that we share with their first users the reality of our own change and ultimate demise. Like Holloway, I don’t find this a depressing thought, and will be glad to receive back my fountain pen in one piece and use it for a while longer.

Religions typically invite their adherents to avoid investing excessive attachment to things. Whether it is putting wealth into barns or clinging onto power, the behaviour of Jesus in the wilderness is to reject the beguiling shortcuts to food and sovereignty. In his life and teaching Jesus makes clear that false attachments become a barrier to a spirituality that endures. We can live well with ‘things’ but need to be mindful that everything is lent to us for a time. Jesus doesn’t reject possessions entirely, but questions what his hearers ‘treasure’, aware that material things are not eternal. Living at ease with an awareness of irretrievably passing time can help us all live each day well. It is folly, like the example of Cnut, to think that the sands of the hour glass can be diverted or prevented. We live within their falling, and might live better lives if we were at peace with this reality – and our custody of things for a season.

Useless Beauty

Sadly, neither music nor sculptures stop tanks. Military bands, uniforms and insignia may all demonstrate the way art can be conscripted into morale boosting service, but these are details rather than the main event. Many people will be tempted to see artistic talent in current circumstances as a ‘nice to have’ at a time when many people in Ukraine are searching for bread, shelter, safety and warmth. Yet the countless social media clips of singing children, firefighter violinists, and heavily sandbagged civic statues, suggest a deep determination to make sure that a people’s culture endures.

I am a great admirer of the ceramic sculptures created by Antonia Salmon. In a recent circulation to her contacts, Antonia reflects on the state of the world and the point of art:

“In one sense it could be easy to regard the arts as frivolous at a critical time such as this. Both the quality of our Presence and regard for our fellow human beings, and for our planet as a whole, is vitally important at this time. I’m certain that in whatever way you are able you will contribute to the awareness and growth of human connection, to love and to beauty.”

Antonia Salmon, Spring Update 13 March 2022, email quoted with permission
Detail of ‘Winged Form’ by Antonia Salmon

In the same week as receiving Antonia’s email I heard an excellent reflection on lament. This was given by Wendy Lloyd in a Lent series for York Minster. With the title Prayer as Lament and Hope, Wendy set out the idea of prayerful lament as a way of ensuring we continue to hold the vision of how things could (or should) be, especially when life is at its most difficult and destructive. All the acts of art or culture we are seeing in Ukraine suggest that in adversity people need to sustain a vision that amounts to far more than nostalgia. It constitutes a progressive hope focused on a time when all these slivers of Sabbath become the life we lead. As we maintain and re-pattern our creative senses and connectedness, art can make us restless with many aspects of the world in which we are living. As such, lament prevents us colluding with the failings and distortions of the world. In her reflection Wendy quoted an excellent article from a recent issue of The Financial Times:

Lament understands that naming reality is part of what enables one to address it and move towards a new reality. It is a way of bearing witness to injustice when we see it, to the unfairness of life, and yet also to a deeper belief in a world where we can seek help and have the agency to make decisions and take action so that pain and suffering are not the accepted order of the day.

Enuma Okoro, The Importance of Lament, The Financial Times, March 4 2022

When we see courageous acts of creativity and beauty in the midst of horror it reminds us all that we cannot afford to abandon the very things that make human beings their best selves. The arts have an invaluable role in both naming the injustices of life whilst simultaneously expressing the hope and possibility of something far better. In Lent, for Christians, the temptations of Jesus illustrate the tawdry shortcuts that will never achieve the splendour of what might be – of the time when all creation finds its true peace and purpose.

The featured image is an overview of ‘Holding Piece’. Antonia Salmon’s website: http://www.antoniasalmon.co.uk

To Break Every Yoke

I have been fortunate in my life to know very little of war. It has been a distant experience, vicariously brought nearer by television, conversations, films and books. Only once have I ever felt the uncertainty and apprehension that comes with sudden military action. This was in Argentina in 1987, while spending a year in the country working with a mission organisation. I was based in Córdoba where, in April of that year, a Major in the army began a mutiny. A few days later this was followed by a military revolt in Buenos Aires in support of the Major’s action. It was Holy Week, and in the student hostel where I was staying in Córdoba a man in plain clothes took up sentry just outside the property. Some of the students asked who he was and phoned the local police station to check his credentials. Back in the UK my family saw film on BBC News of tanks rolling through the streets of the capital.

Thankfully what became known as ‘the Carapintada’ mutiny was short-lived. The elected President regained control and peace was restored across the country. In places unfamiliar with recent armed conflict it seems unimaginable that life can change so quickly. Yet, in Ukraine, we are witnessing the terrible cost of war in Europe in the 21st century. Destruction is so quick and devastating – building and establishing civil society takes much more effort and far more time. Even if there was a permanent caseation of hostilities and withdrawal of Russian troops, it would take years for Ukraine to be restored to what it was just couple of weeks ago. Given that the conflict is unlikely to end soon I wonder whether I will ever see that country return fully to peace, stability and prosperity in my lifetime.

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
 and to break every yoke?

Isaiah 58:6 NRSV

Religions as a whole have a mixed track record when it comes to conflict. Many people don’t describe themselves as ‘religious’ due to the way in which religious groups have behaved when it comes to war. More often than not people in the West see religious differences as part of the problem rather than the solution. Without doubt there is truth in the view that just as religions can be brilliant at binding people together, shaping their identify and offering a sense of purpose, so too that cohesion can come into conflict with other groups holding different convictions. Even now we see two Orthodox churches each supporting leaders who are commanding their nations in a war. There are certainly dissenting voices, but the leadership of the churches appears to be supporting the Governments of both countries.

A student from Ukraine speaking at a demonstration in York UK on Saturday 5 March 2022

Speaking at a rally in York yesterday the Archbishop of the city suggested that we have taken peace in recent years for granted – and that ‘peace is something you have to work at’ (BBC Breakfast at 1:18 minutes). Undoubtedly this is a Western perspective as many part of the world have been mired in conflict in recent decades, but it has not been at our door. The challenge for us is to reflect on the extent to which racism has shaped our responses to various crises, which must prompt soul-searching and a change in our attitudes. There is no question that our response to Ukraine is the least we can do – but in many other conflicts there is almost certainly more that we could have done.

For Christians attempting to observe Lent this year there are plenty of passages in the Bible that tell us God is uninterested in token sacrifices. Isaiah describes God’s fast as an active confrontation with the injustices of the world. When you loose the bonds of injustice and let the oppressed go free not everyone is pleased. Pursuing God’s call for us to confront the evils of our age will bring us into conflict with the people doing the oppressing and keeping people captive. This Lent let us recognise injustice and heed God’s call to confront it so that people are freed from suffering. Let us also ask in our hearts why we do not always feel equally motivated to do this for all peoples around the world. Maybe, this year, Lent will begin to break the yoke of our prejudice and allow us to become the people who let the oppressed go free, irrespective of who they are.

The Church of England

The village church is a gem of a building, a plot of holy ground that has been knelt on for at least a millennium. An iron door hinge depicts a Viking longship, perhaps in tribute to the defeat of the invading Norwegian army that sailed up the River Ouse in 1066. The church features many Norman carvings which, for their variety and quality, are considered to be some of the finest 12th century sculptures in England. It is fabric of exquisite design, a thread of gold pulled across centuries of English Christianity. On the Sunday I attended the congregation consisted of five people. There was no organist and little expectation for a structured liturgy. Together we found two hymns in the church’s copies of Mission Praise which we felt confident enough to sing unaccompanied. It is a story similar to another church I attend, where pre-pandemic double figure attendance has been reduced to seven or eight.

This year I shall have been a priest for 30 years. A curacy began in 1991 with a pattern that seemed relevant and long-established. Sundays could be busy days with an 8 o’clock Communion; 10:30 Parish Eucharist; afternoon baptisms (there were over 80 Christenings one year); Evensong, ending the day with a vibrant Youth Group. Then a move to become a Team Vicar and hospital chaplain on the edge of North London. A small church, but still three services a Sunday, plus the growing work of a chaplaincy that began to be given increasing recognition by the hospital. This led to a departure into full-time chaplaincy with a move back to the North of England. Employment in the NHS lasted for 20 years in total, throughout which I helped out in urban, suburban and rural churches. They were not all thriving, but in each there was a recognisable pattern of Anglican worship, with the Eucharist central to the liturgy of the parish.

It is said that the pandemic has accelerated many changes. The high street is one example as shops struggled to survive the worsening of already difficult trading conditions. I suspect that churches will also find a decline that comes from a mixture of related COVID consequences; a significantly higher mortality rate amongst older people, greater anxiety for some in social mixing; broken patterns of religious practice that will struggle to re-emerge. More broadly, the Church has not been in great evidence during the past two years – it has appeared overly risk averse and hesitant. In an article published recently Rob Marshall writes that once reopened ‘it was immediately clear that there was no swift return to the old ways of doing things’ (The Journal of Christian Social Ethics Jan 2022 p. 56).

The most pressing need for the church is to be an authentic presence, articulating a humble faith expressed in a humane spirituality. It feels that this is something that has become rarer and rarer. Embodying faith and a passion for social justice, Desmond Tutu is no longer with us. Rowan Williams remains a bright light of spiritual coherence and integrity, able to understand and interpret the contemporary world without casting it as the enemy of the Gospel. Listening to Williams speaking in Cardiff in July 2019 I found his analysis accurate, realistic and hopeful. That’s a trinity which is increasingly scarce, and becomes starker as theology departments in England close and vanish. When I studied theology at Hull in the mid-1980s I came to a department already being run down by cuts and unfilled vacancies. I wonder whether other departments of humanity felt (at some level) that this might shift more students in their direction. Voices in support of theology were muted. However, the rest of the humanities must now be realising that what began with theology was not a one-off, but represented a direction of travel. It is likely that history, art, English Literature and the like will soon be subjects for personal hobbies rather than a cornerstone of the academy. Finding value for subjects beyond the physical sciences is getting harder.

In this environment, can the Church of England still have a role? I’ve little doubt that there have been doom mongers in every generation when it comes to the C of E, but the evidence on the ground suggests that things cannot continue as they are for very much longer. As the sea of faith withdraws there will be rock pools that feel as though the tide is still with them, but under the midday sun that illusion will not last long. We cannot go back to some Call the Midwife nirvana – because that never existed. However, there was a time when most people in England knew about their local church – probably even knew the name of the Vicar. Not so much in 2022. Vibrant churches of all traditions are the exception, and look increasingly like islands of survival rather than vanguards of renewal.

The Church of England has mostly been about worship and service, offering a framework of relevant and local spirituality accompanying people’s lives. I don’t think we can or should abandon this – or what’s the point of the C of E at all? We need clergy trained with the knowledge and skill to bridge the cultures of faith and meaning in a post-pandemic world, working with the many gifted people of our parishes. This isn’t simple, but faith is seldom about the easy road – it needs our best efforts of mind, spirit and creativity. It requires love. It’s not clear to me that communities today feel loved by an institution that is asset stripping (vicarages) and reducing professional ministry (vicars). Is it too late to turn that around and give back to places people equipped to care, to teach, to live beside, and to love? To reverse what Paul Hackwood has described as ‘a journey from the local to the central’. Without a serious and realistic commitment to sustain and develop parish ministry, the Church of England risks losing both its purpose and its peculiar genius.

Watery Faith

Sermon preached at the Priory Church of the Holy Trinity, Micklegate, York Epiphany 2 2022

Today we continue in the season of Epiphany – weeks when in the darkness of winter we reflect the light of Christ come into our world. I was going to say, ‘reflect on’ – but the truth of Epiphany is not that we simply contemplate the light shining in the world, but that we invite this light into our lives – to bear something of the brightness of Christ in all that we do, day by day, and among those we meet.

It can feel at the moment, as we listen to the news, that there’s an awful lot of darkness compared with what we may feel to be our faint and flickering lights. Perhaps it was always thus – and our calling to hold our light steady is even more important when the shadows lengthen.

One of my most valuable books is a 1939 edition of William Temple’s commentary on the Gospel of John. Written in nearby Bishopthorpe, when he was Archbishop of York, his reflections on the Gospel are the wise words of both a pastor and a theologian. Yes, it comes bearing the marks of a different era, but many of the points Temple makes are pertinent today. Perhaps even more so in our recent experience because it was written in the upheavals of war. 

The turning of water into wine is the first miracle John describes in what we might call the long epiphany of his Gospel. Out of the four evangelists John is the most consciously theological – he conveys to us what the life of Jesus means for all places; for all times; and for all people. It is magisterial in its scope.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wedding_at_Cana#/media/File:Paolo_Veronese_008.jpg

Yet given the scale of what John addresses, his account of Jesus is rooted in the real and the everyday. There was a wedding. Across millennia and across cultures, weddings are profound moments of change. Two people become one. Families are bound together – friends rejoice and dance. If you’ve ever seen the Veronese painting ‘The Wedding at Cana’ you can’t miss the sense of overflowing conviviality on his vast canvas. Everyone is talking, laughing and rejoicing – apart from one figure: in serenity, Jesus gazes out at the viewer, a still point amid the commotion. In this picture the figure of worldly splendour is the groom. Decked out in his wedding finery he holds a champagne coupe, staring at it in perplexity as the chief steward tells his tale. ‘How could this have happened?’

John begins this account with the casual comment that it took place ‘on the third day’. Four words that for any Christian signify not the start of Jesus’ ministry, but its joyful conclusion. Another day of reunions and delight: the day of resurrection.

Christ is not a grim task-master in obedience to whom life becomes gloomy. He compared himself to children playing at weddings.

William Temple, ‘Readings in St John’s Gospel’ 1939, Macmillan

This is a miracle that marks the difference between the ways of men and the ways of God. The steward is bewildered. The organisers of this feast have not done what they were supposed to do: give the guests quality wine at the start, and then they won’t notice when you switch to the cheap stuff later. No. What God is doing in Christ isn’t about what we expect – it’s about what we need.

The 17th century Metaphysical poet Robert Crashaw described it with beautifully economy: ‘the modest water saw its God and blushed’.

Offered to God – brought before Jesus – what we may consider the modest water of our lives can be transformed. Perhaps we think the best years are behind us – that the time we have to offer now is weak and watery compared with our past vigour. Tell it to God.

Water become wine.

Faith is all about offering what we have, not what would be ideal. The disciples weren’t the intellectual stars of their generation. They weren’t conspicuously wealthy or influential, they don’t appear to have been known to the religious authorities. Jesus took what was offered and forged the foundations of the church. Time and again people came to him who had little to give, and he took it and blessed it and broke it – and it was transformed.

We may feel like we hold a flickering light of faith – so fragile a gust of wind might extinguish it. This Gospel says ‘don’t worry’. Bring to God what you have. Share what may seem watered down and weak, and Jesus will use whatever we have, and it will be changed. 

In a world where there is so much darkness God asks us to offer what we have. Because, when we place it into the hands of Jesus, who knows what it will become. Two thousand years ago they brought him water at a wedding: today we share wine that becomes the life-blood of our faith – and we go out refreshed, to be God’s light in our world.