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Easter; Reflections

Love Answering Love

Easter Day Sermon preached at St Andrew, Bishopthorpe

Last year we were not in church on Easter Sunday. April 2020 was the deadliest month of the first wave of the pandemic, and our hospitals and care homes were facing their toughest days. Many of us joined a service on the internet, but church buildings were empty. Few of us imagined that we would be in another lockdown during Easter 2021. Yet here we are – thankfully in Church, but still living with the changes which COVID-19 has brought to our lives.

I’m sure that in Bishopthorpe the time between these two Easters has been filled with many unrecorded acts of kindness. Neighbours looking out for one another; people mindful of those who are vulnerable; finding ways to help our front-line workers feel supported.

We shouldn’t underestimate all this compassion and care. It expresses something that flows out of our Christian faith. I’m not suggesting that people of other faiths and beliefs don’t care; we know that they do. Yet there is a shape to Christian living which is distinctive and reflects a choice of faith giving rise to action. A response to God rooted in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

The moon just before dawn – the growing light catching the cockerel weather vane of All Saints North Street on Easter Day

Last week I commented that, at present, a gathering of 13 or more people in an upper room is illegal. Eating together in such a setting is also banned. Except here. Thankfully, in this spacious building, we can meet together and share this meal. The need for services to be held remotely is understandable, but – at least for me – it has never felt quite the same as being here. Perhaps our fast from meeting and eating together has borne spiritual fruit: a new awareness of what presence means and the privilege, when possible, of being together. Many continue to live this enforced fast, and our prayers are with them.

Part of the reason why I feel that being here matters, is that when Christians meet in worship we inhabit our spiritual home, and speak our mother tongue. It is not about the building – and yet the building is designed to emphasise elements of our faith. Following on from St Paul’s description of Christians as ‘ambassadors for Christ’, this place has the all hallmarks of an Embassy. A place filled with the things from home: the customs, the quirks and the idiom of that ‘other country’, where our souls belong.

Over the years I’ve led services of Holy Communion in many different places. With a few friends on the Isle of Iona, to inner-city care homes, people’s houses, in prison, in countless churches and chapels, with the sick and those about to leave this life. Every time, no matter what the setting, I have said the words that pattern a Christian’s sense of belonging. Words that remind us there is no hierarchy in God’s kingdom – all have sinned; self-worth is not the coin that can buy this sacrament. Love and longing invite us where there is no entitlement to be. All we can do is lift up our hands, for the food which comes by grace alone. 

Love answering love, in an open palm.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Who knows where we shall be next Easter. It’s certainly true for many of us in this pandemic that ‘Today’s trouble is enough for today’ (Matthew 6:34). As the women walking to the tomb were anxious about the huge stone that would obstruct them, we sometimes find that God has gone on ahead of our anxieties – and what we imagine is sealed, stands open.   

This Easter I simply want to encourage you to nourish the roots of this faith. To be fed, strengthened and built up in the calling we receive in baptism. In our faith, and the way we live, to witness to God. As ambassadors striving to be faithful, living the truth of the Kingdom which is our home. Always seeking and knowing that in our acts of service we bring a message of life; finding wherever we go, that the Risen Christ has gone before us.

“Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth… He has been raised; he is not here… he is going ahead of you… there you will see him, just as he told you”

Words from the Gospel of Mark chapter 16, from verses 6 & 7
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Reflections

What is Truth?

There is something very beguiling about the assumed certainties of an age. Every epoch has a zeitgeist, a spirit and momentum that permits and promotes certain ideas while suppressing others. Although it is easy to see that many things believed 50 years ago would be disregarded today, we somehow lack the skill to use that knowledge to inform our current certainties. Many of our closely held truths resist even the hint that their confidence might be presumed and fleeting. Scientific enquiry is based on the conviction that there is always more to discover and learn. Our curiosity tells the implicit truth that what we know today will be overshadowed by what we know tomorrow; in a hundred years, or in future millennia.

Ecce Homo, José de Ribera

The French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote about the ‘archive’ which dictates what can and can’t be said at a certain time. Increasingly it feels that religious language and discourse is constrained by apparent self-certainties which have limited faith to a territory of personal eccentricity and unproven beliefs. Like many of the clergy, I am keen to promote the witness of Christian faith in the world, yet it feels like religious buildings are one of the last physical spaces where such discussions are sanctioned. The other place is in the micro-spaces of pastoral care, where both desire and disillusion provide a temporary framework for encounter – a tent of meeting.

Perhaps part of the difficulty in modern circumstances is the growing gap between the biblical world and our experience. Visiting Tanzania some years ago it was noticeable just how routine many aspects of the Bible continued to be. Shepherds and goatherds were part of most communities, and meeting someone at a well or watering hole was an everyday event. In the West, by contrast, many people are distanced from these experiences. During the pandemic this has been taken a stage further, when it is only in the mind or via video that a Palm Sunday crowd can be experienced – or even a supper with twelve friends.

Photo by Keegan Checks on Pexels.com

However, several key elements of the Holy Week narratives may have found fresh life and relevance during the pandemic. As we see in Ribera’s painting, being alone, semi-hidden and suffering, is a central image of what transpires between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. This coming week is about loss, in all its manifold forms. Friends disappear; strangers inflict pain; even God is gone at the moment of dereliction and expressed in the cry from the cross. For those who seek it, Holy Week opens the window to a God who walks this most painful road. Whose sinews, breath and bones know what it means to be human, to suffer and to die.

Since I first came across it many years ago I never pass through Holy Week without picking up my copy of Vanstone’s Stature of Waiting. It is an insightful and scholarly engagement with the days ahead and was a source of inspiration when I became a hospital chaplain. There is so much waiting in health care. In many ways waiting is the chief role of a chaplain, coming with open hands to handle with gentleness the precious narratives of wounded lives. To allow people time to articulate the experiences and consequences of illness. It is not a waiting anyone would choose, but as Vanstone argues, it is not without meaning.

Let us notice first that any kind of waiting presupposes some kind or degree of caring. One cannot be said to wait for or upon something which is a matter of indifference.

This Holy Week and Easter many more people are waiting than in recent years. Waiting for a longed reunion with a friend or family member; waiting for a holiday; waiting to resume work. Sadly, in many instances, waiting to hold a memorial service for the friends and family of a loved one who died in the last year. We wait for these things because of our longing and our care – and no doubt many wait for a fairer and more just society. Waiting isn’t easy, but it’s full of meaning. As we approach Easter let’s consider the Gospel accounts afresh, revisiting them with our current experiences and needs. To offer ourselves in stillness and reflection to the God who longs for us to understand and pursue our true vocation. We should never underestimate what emerges when we put aside the business of life and make space to consider what, for us, is true.

Vanstone, W. H. (2006). The stature of waiting. Church Publishing, Inc..
Chicago
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Reflections SARS-COVID-19

Different Boats

A year ago our awareness of an approaching wave of illness, like the virus itself, grew exponentially. From distant sympathy for the locked-down residents of Wuhan, to our late-March barracking of the population, the shift from normality to deserted streets was swift. Our lives changed fundamentally within days. While these events took place a dizzying pace, perhaps the most surprising element of the restrictions on daily life has been their duration.

Time and again it feels that just as a clear route to exit the crisis has materialised, in short order it has become narrower – or disappeared entirely. Today, as the UK’s highly successful vaccine roll-out continues, the picture on continental Europe has deteriorated. The prospect of much needed holidays in warmer climes is receding. The scientists, epidemiologists and politicians have started to speak once again about the tunnel at the end of the light.

A York Snickleway

As we head towards Easter, at best, it looks like we might have some return to normality within the UK. The opening of schools may have contributed to the levelling off of new cases but it appears that vaccination may be countering any more harmful consequences. Deaths and hospitalisation continue to reduce. The greatest risk is a variant that eludes much of the efficacy of the vaccines. This could undermine all the gains of recent months and put us more-or-less back to square one. It’s not something any of us wishes to contemplate.

“Our health, our economy, the taken-for-granted ease of travel, will all be changed for years to come by what is happening now.”

Spirituality; Connection and; Covid-19, Chris Swift WordPress, 22 March 2020

A year ago I decided to write regular blogs during the pandemic. Starting on 22 March these enabled me to bring some focus and discipline to my thoughts about this unprecedented crisis. At the time I argued that chaplains must bring “renewed energy, vision and invention to the task of preserving spiritual connection”. This has certainly taken shape over the past 12 months with churches and individuals acquiring new and unexpected skills in Zoom, Teams and YouTube. The internet has allowed people to stay in touch and share in some sense of community and unity. Of course, this has not been for everyone and concern about digital poverty and exclusion cannot be ignored. As one church minister shared with me, people on data tariffs are unlikely to use their scarce allowance to watch church services. In some cases personal notes and hand-delivered newsletters have been an important corrective to a digital-default.

Soul Boats suspended in Birmingham Cathedral. Designed by artist Jake Lever.

While the analogy of same storm/different boats may have become overused in the pandemic, it remains a helpful image. Some are aboard state-of-the-art cruisers with an abundance of resources; others are shipping water like there’s no tomorrow, and look likely to sink. The inequalities revealed and widened by a global health crisis cannot be ignored. All this death, illness, isolation and economic decline, cannot be brushed over. The idea that somehow a public inquiry in the UK might be downplayed or delayed is unthinkable. We must get an accurate overview of what is occurring and understand its differential impacts across society. Only then can public policy identify and address injustices that have emerged. Not least we need to understand why the safety of older people in residential care was so distant from scientific and political priorities.

It will take accurate, detailed and impartial analysis to begin to form the questions we need to address as a society. If disability and age are acceptable criteria to impose a ‘do not resuscitate’ (DNR) order, then let us say this is what we are doing, and debate it. A year ago it felt that – politically speaking – an invisible ‘do not bother’ order was hanging on the front door of the nation’s care homes. The lessons available for us to learn from have been bought at huge cost. Let’s not squander what they can tell us, or ignore how they can help us steer with clarity to a form of society we are proud to name and fearless to promote.

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Reflections

The Religious Stuff

A year ago I was leading a retreat in Yorkshire. Always challenging but rewarding, it was an opportunity to address Christian ministry in a changing world. At that point few of us knew quite how changing. The attendance of one person was doubtful because he had just returned from the Far East and needed the outcome of a coronavirus test. It arrived in time; it was clear; and he attended. The innocence of a crowded room, all unmasked, with many people over 70, seems like another world. We sang hymns heartily and shared the peace. Some small measures were beginning to appear, such as the bottle of hand gel amongst the silver and wine, but otherwise things felt fairly normal.

I wrote last week about the changing place of the Christian faith in the UK over the past six decades. It was a Lenten theme, focusing on the BBC plays making up Jesus of Nazareth, shown on the Sundays leading up to Easter Day in 1956. A world where such a production was a landmark event drawing high level viewing figures. A story already known to most people was given flesh and blood, costume and context. It had a powerful impact. Yet the decades which followed have seen the continued ebbing of the ‘sea of faith’. In Arnold’s poem containing this famous phrase, it is perhaps the language and rituals of faith which have been most marked in their regression. The recognisable outer shape of faith which touched and connected so many aspects of Britain’s common life. The moments in particular when, as Larkin wrote, human compulsions are ‘robed as destinies’.

I have often felt that there is a valuable study to be made into the vanishing presence of civil religion. By this I mean those times when the church presides, often fleetingly, over collective moments. We still have these on the national stage, such as Royal weddings and funerals. However, at a much more modest level there has been a long history of momentary religious observance. Until at least the year 2000 the chaplain at a fairly ordinary West Yorkshire General Hospital would say grace before the canteen sittings for the staff Christmas dinner. In the Leeds Teaching Hospitals a Christmas Day consultants’ carol service continued until about 2008. Doctors gathered with their families on the morning of the 25th of December for a tradition which went back to the days when they would have then gone to the wards to carve the turkey. Like many other such moments, it has gone.

The Chapel, Leeds General Infirmary

It seems very unlikely that these days will return, even if we thought that was a good idea. The Church appears to teeter on the edge of moments in our personal and collective lives. An increasing number of funerals are presided over by civil celebrants and little is of automatic right for the clergy of the Established Church. Today humility is not only a desirable spiritual quality; time and again the Church has been shown to have much to be humble about.

Hopefully, as we emerge from lockdown and the restrictions made necessary by COVID-19, there will be fresh opportunities to serve and witness. As people move to a place where the pandemic is neither approaching nor raging, there will be time to take stock. When COVID-19 is firmly in the rearview mirror I have no doubt that there will be deep moments of reflection, even distress, as we comprehend what has happened. We have been shaken, and the ground may never quite feel the same again. The aftermath of the virus will be with us for years in many spheres of life.

One of the continuing strengths of the Church of England is the extraordinary stock of spiritual places in its care. As things begin to open up again, what an amazing opportunity to make these places open and available. To allow all and sundry to use these largely ancient places as somewhere to be; to reflect; to ponder. With creative purpose there can be opportunities to remember who or what has been lost in people’s lives. Knitted hearts to hang on tree branches; thoughts and prayers to write; and the simplicity of silence. The stillness of ‘a serious house on serious earth’ – a place Larkin felt would always be needed when we experience that surprising hunger to know a wisdom at peace with our mortality.

The Church, Little Gidding

The title for this Blog came from a recent conversation with a chaplain who was extolling the chance to be involved in things that were not simply ‘the religious stuff’. One of the challenges for the church is that religion has come to be seen very narrowly. This is a sad development with which we should not collude. In reality religion is all those things that bind us together within a sense of being loved, guided and created. I’m quite sure that some of the most truly religious things ever done have not needed the labels of religious language. In an age when it has become ever harder to speak without misunderstanding, or being reinterpreted, perhaps our open and patient presence is, and should, be enough. On a Sunday when we remember Jesus clearing the Temple, I can do little better than conclude with the passionate words TS Eliot put into the mouth of Thomas à Becket:

Unbar the doors! throw open the doors!

I will not have the house of prayer, the church of Christ,

The sanctuary, turned into a fortress…

The church shall be open, even to our enemies.

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Reflections

Change of a Lifetime

It was probably a gift for my baptism. Today the pages are well thumbed, and the dust jacket is faded, curled and torn. A brief inscription on the flyleaf , written by my godmother and dated, suggests that this was the second Sunday of Lent in 1965. From conversations with my mother during her lifetime I know that there may have been a poignant sense of thanksgiving at the time. I had nearly died within weeks of birth. With understandable feeling my mother once spoke about an exchange with her mother during those difficult days. Packing some clothes to take to me in hospital my grandmother said to her: ‘do you think they’ll be needed?’ Clearly she did not expect me to survive.

An illustration from the book

The BBC series which gave rise to the book Jesus of Nazareth by Joy Harrington was a landmark. Only a change in censorship laws allowed an actor to portray Jesus in a public performance. In 1956, across eight episodes, the BBC broadcast this groundbreaking series. It was billed as ‘a cycle of eight plays’ – perhaps echoing the tradition of mystery cycles which once took place in many towns and cities. Scheduled on Sundays leading up to Easter it was at the time of day when children’s programming was shown. However, it proved a very popular production for adults as well. The care taken with the series included a number of ‘firsts’. While most of the content was live when broadcast, there were inserts of footage taken on location in Galilee and Jerusalem.

“Our aim is to awaken the interest of children in the origins of the most significant influence in their lives, and help them to understand something of the background against which the Christian story was enacted”

Freda Lingstrom, Head of Children’s Television, interviewed in the Radio Times in February 1956.

The website Television Heaven quotes an interview published in 1956 in the Radio Times which gives an idea of the gravitas attached to the production. At a time long before liturgical developments would move the Church of England beyond the routine use of the Book of Common Prayer, these plays were given in contemporary language. The Times Educational Supplement described the book’s publication as ‘an event of incalculable importance’.

The book was no less popular than the TV series and mine is a 4th impression, with the look and feel of a very different world. Lingstrom speaks with an unchallenged assumption that Christianity was the most significant influence on the lives of young people. These are not remarks made about children who go to church, but the children of the nation. It reflects a continuing confidence in the 1950s that Christianity could weld the country together – and formed the values and outlook of society. A young Queen had ascended the throne and there was no doubt about her commitment and sense of duty for the faith she had sworn to defend.

A church service in West Yorkshire, 2019

The Queen is still with us, but the presence, influence and power of the Church of England is a shadow of its former self. Much religious broadcasting has been pushed to the margins (or over the edge). A series such as Jesus of Nazareth would commend a fraction of the audience it did in 1956 (‘as a BBC survey showed, next to the Coronation of 1953 in national appeal‘).

There are a vast array of reasons why these changes have taken place. Society has diversified in a range of ways which have contributed to the decline of churches. There is a plurality of religions; Sundays are no longer the exclusive preserve of Christian activity; as fewer people attend churches the social presence of religious language and ideas has eroded.

This kind of change in language has been addressed recently in a study by John Bernau in the USA. He examined in forensic detail the contents of a leading pastoral care journal over several decades to identify how the language had changed since the 1950s.

“To gain legitimacy in this secular space, chaplaincy has to eschew overt religious language in favor of modern individualistic spiritual conversations”


Bernau, J. A. (2021). From Christ to Compassion: The Changing Language of Pastoral Care. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Chicago

This question of language and meaning has been a recurrent theme during the 30 years of my ordained ministry. As most of this has been spent in chaplaincy the need to find words to build bridges between different contexts has grown. Perhaps the bridges have needed to be longer as the distance between the religious and other professions has grown. While much has changed for the good – not least a wider inclusiveness in ministry – the transition from Christendom to a post-Christian society has been rapid and far reaching.

In my next Blog I’ll consider where this swift and extensive change leaves the Church of England and Christianity in the UK today.

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Reflections

Our Trespasses

I have no doubt that it is the first set of words I learned by heart. Not only a poem, but a prayer taught to me by parents, as their parents had, receding into a pre-Medieval time when some landowner, or Lord or Laird decided to accept the new religion. A curious collection of words first spoken two thousand years ago in Aramaic and translated into every language on the planet. Words said in every place where human beings have walked..

At a time when public knowledge about Christianity in the UK has certainly declined, along with the number of active worshipers, the Lord’s Prayer is perhaps the final vestige of faith for many. When I once attended a Delivery Suite to bless a still born baby the mother and her mother discussed with me what to include. ‘Oh you know’, the mother said, ‘what was that prayer gran liked?’ I wondered for a moment what collect or unusual prayer might be named but it was – as you’ve guessed – the ‘Our Father’.

From the poem Dead End by Nancy Mattson in The Poet’s Quest for God ed. Brennan et al.

I have been reminded of this while reading Stephen Cherry’s excellent Lent book Thy Will Be Done. It is a timely reminder of the centrality of this prayer in the life of both individual believers and the Church. During 20 years working as a hospital chaplain there was hardly an occasion when I would not use this prayer. At the bedsides of the dying, from the hours old to patients over 100. In emergency marriages with young people to the celebration of a Chapel’s 150th anniversary. Nor will I forget the patient who told me that he always began to say the Lord’s Prayer silently when he was finding it difficult to sleep – a mantra that would still his mind and bring rest.

At times it feels as though the prayer fits in my mind like a much turned stone sits in the hand. It is strong and enduring yet also fitting and weathered. Hard and weighty, it is familiar and comforting. As much a part of me as, I hope, I am of it and the God it addresses; the Son who taught it; and the Spirit that is the vital bridge between then and now, here and there; creator and created; me and us. One of the early reflections Cherry offers is a focus on the repeated us of the adjective ‘our’ rather than ‘my’. A key feature of the prayer is that reiterates the Christian understanding of our place in relationship, both with God and with our neighbours. The approach we make to God is in company and never wholly alone.

A ceramic hand-piece by Antonia Salmon

Perhaps for these reasons, at a moment I can no longer recall, I began introducing the Lord’s Prayer as ‘the family prayer of the Christian Church’. This became my practice when I was with people who may have been unfamiliar with the prayer or its place in the Christian faith. It brought into the isolation of a clinical room a sense of community and companionship. Links that were both local, to the homes and churches round the hospital, as well as offering connections to the past, a worldwide company of faith and the future. At many of these critical moments none of this was unpacked, but the prayer’s familiarity and depth travelled with those who left the hospital carrying their grief.

While spending a year in South America in my twenties it was one of my greatest frustrations that I couldn’t keep up with the congregation in saying the prayer in Spanish. At every service it felt like a moment when my separation from the other worshippers was most marked. However, in time, I learned and internalised the words and appreciated the new insights gained from the altered phonetics and different accent.

Visiting the Church of the Pater Noster on the Mount of Olives is an unforgettable reminder of this uniquely universal collection of words. Across the Church and its surroundings the prayer is written in over 140 languages. It would be easy to think that this familiarity generates a certain contempt, or failure to feel the heft of a form of language shared so far and wide. However, it navigates a set of relationships and obligations that continue to be radical and soul-shaping. This small piece of linguistic luggage travels with us with the reminder that humanity is about ‘our’ and not simply ‘my’. That daily needs cannot be taken for granted. nor the needs of our neighbours ignored. In seeking and addressing God we hunger for the Kingdom that is both different and better than our reality. As we talk to God about its coming rule, we express the desire to share in that ‘will’, playing our part in a world more aligned to God’s love.

If we are nearing the start of this pandemic’s ending, here is the prayer that will remind us that picking up where we left-off isn’t good enough. This is an experience we cannot leave without first seeking learning and wisdom. The pandemic has revealed the evils and disastrous consequences of allowing injustices to thrive in our world. Only when we can understand the trespasses that continue to sustain a frighteningly unequal world, can we begin to work with greater determination for that more perfect will for which we pray.

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Reflections

Picture Perfect

Recently I had a week’s holiday. As with most of the nation, this has become a rather trying experience of staying close to home and making the best of it – no great hardship, but not my destination of choice for a week in January. I decided to look round the web for a course to improve my photography and was delighted to find one on the RPS website led by Robert Harvey.

During the course some of the conversation turned to the boundaries and ethics of contemporary photography. I quickly learned that what some people do is beyond the pale; while quite significant editing and alteration has become an accepted part of the digital world. I imagine that these boundaries are shifting constantly as technology evolves and more and more becomes possible. However, it raised the question for me as to what may or may not be a good idea when it comes to editing.

There are elements of this which touch on research I’ve undertaken in the past. When it comes to the written description of experiences we can’t include everything. Much is omitted and some aspects of a situation become foregrounded and significant. A while ago I began using ‘constructed case studies’. This involved combining real and authentic events presented as an additional, fabricated, case. In part I did this to protect the privacy of those involved. However, there was also something leading me to think that a fiction drawing on fact can sometimes communicate the truth better than the limitations of a single incident. A possible parallel to ‘stacking’ in photography, where many shots are edited in order to enhance the clarity and quality of the final product. This can be achieved because multiple shots of the same subject are taken from the same place with the focus on different items in the frame – resulting in more depth of field. Of course, the analogy isn’t perfect but it suggest that sometimes we need to be creative in order to be accurate. It’s impossible to focus on everything involved in one pastoral encounter.

There is no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth

Lessing, D. M. B. (1994). Under my skin: volume one of my autobiography, to 1949.
Chicago

Often I edit a photo because it doesn’t appear to reflect my naked eye observation of what I snapped. By changing a multitude of variables, the picture starts to look more like what (I believe) I saw. However, I can’t say that’s always the case and this morning I removed an inconveniently blurry pigeon from a photo of York Minster’s central tower! We can make images more representative of our perceived reality – or make them ideal, flawless and desirable. The latter is a significant issue for portraits when the gap is widened between a real appearance and one altered to an impossible standard of unblemished beauty. There is plenty of concern about the impact of impossibly perfect pictures on people using social media.

I write this at the start of the week when Lent begins. That may seem an unlikely segue, but I think there is a very natural link. On Ash Wednesday it is the tradition in many churches to place ashes on someone’s forehead. This isn’t a glamorous activity, and it is accompanied by words that assert the basic fact of our humanity: “Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return”. Nothing is done to disguise this fact, although the life and promise of faith is offered at the same time: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ”. Our reality is named, but we are not left without hope. In a year when we have been reminded more than ever of our human vulnerability, this ashing and calling seems to have greater relevance than over. A moment perhaps to hold two images in mind; the dust that falls between our fingers, and a glory no software can ever come near.

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Reflections

Support or Illumination?

Numbers have never really been my thing. However, a few years ago I knew I needed to learn more. Having joined an NHS research ethics committee, I wanted to understand more about health statistics. Fortunately I had the opportunity to complete a postgraduate course in health research – which included a module on statistics. Despite my misgivings about data this turned out to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the course, shedding light on the use and abuse of figures to further an argument.

“Most people use statistics as a drunk … uses lamp-posts for support rather than illumination”

Attributes to Andre Lang

Now, in the light of the pandemic, the world is trading statistics like never before. Government scientists present graphs and tables each week, sometimes daily, to explain the R number (transmissibility); exponential growth; and much, much, more. Even where it might seem that there should be greatest clarity, for example the number of people who have died, there are typically three figures offered. The nuances of criteria and methods reveal just how much the nature of the question influences the form of the answer.

Dorothy Bishop’s bishopblog is one of many sites on the internet that have interrogated the presentation of data and called for greater clarity. Using the example of the difference between relative risk and absolute risk the case is made for the importance of accuracy when communicating data to the public. What might seem to be a huge increase in risk (e.g. 30%) may make limited difference in actual cases depending on the total numbers involved.

“we might hope that, in a pandemic, where public understanding of risk is so crucial, particular care would be taken to be realistic without being alarmist”.

Dorothy Bishop, bishopblog, accessed on 27 January 2021

When I was a curate on placement in a rural church near Lancaster I took part in a service in which the Bishop confirmed 25% of the population of the parish. This meant about 15 people, and it was a fairly rare event for the bishop to come to confirm – so several years’ worth of candidates were gathered up together. It seems astounding that in England in the 1990s a quarter of a parish’s entire population was making a declaration of faith all at once – context is everything.

There appear to be more opportunities for people unaccustomed to interpreting statistical data to find accessible information. Radio 4’s More or Less is a good example of how academic expertise can engage with the questions people are keen to interrogate. In response to the emergence of ‘alternative facts’ there has also been growth in the independent reality checking for which there is an increasing demand. Nowhere could this be more important than in the need for accurate information about the vaccines being offered to combat COVID-19.

It seems to me that one of the problems faced by the desire for both clarity and accuracy is that the truth isn’t always simple. What is the difference between something being ‘safe’ and ‘completely safe’? When vaccines have been developed so quickly there are understandable questions about both immediate side-effects and longer-term consequences. Even a very good sample of people used in the testing phase of the vaccine development cannot be representative of every human characteristic. The question for me is not about the absolute safety of vaccines to be used on billions of people, but about their likely safety and the common good.

Born in a vicarage in the mid-1700s, Edward Jenner is usually seen as the founding figure in the development of modern immunology. At a young age he was given the maxim of William Harvey: “Don’t think; try”. We must be thoughtful, enquiring and considered in our choices – but there comes a time to act. It may be possible to wait for the complete clarity we desire, all the data weighed and balanced, but sometimes we need to make a judgement-call before we know as much as we would like. If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it is that if you wait until something is blindingly obvious you have left it too late. There is a stage in every pandemic when the damage being done is stealthy and silent – yet the foundations of tragedy are being laid comprehensively and irretrievably.

Perhaps one of the legacies of COVID-19 will be to create better systems of public education about risk and probability. Not that any of us will know everything, but – importantly – that each of us might be better able to ask the right questions. Numbers cannot tell us how to live. They provide illumination enabling us to see more clearly the context in which our choices are made. Used well, they support the priorities we have chosen based on our values and moral commitments.

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Reflections

Lonely Sits the City

The Book of Lamentations can hardly be described as a fun read. The concept of lament may seem old and irrelevant – a crying over spilled milk, rather than the ‘can do’ attitude needed to manage a crisis. Yet scholars have argued that this caricature misunderstands Lamentations. Rather than a self-absorbed despondency it is a book that reflects an accurate perception of tragedy. It names experience and seeks to convey the visceral reality of exceptional trauma in all its horror.

My eyes are spent with weeping;;

my stomach churns;

Book of Lamentations, 2: 11

Several writers have explored the meaning of Lamentations and its relevance for other situations of overwhelming loss. Certainly the writer of the book is engaged with an experience of catastrophic destruction, where a community has been ripped apart. It is common in many such experiences to search for meaning and interpretation, as well as to apportion blame. Garber has written about the relationship of this kind of literature with reference to trauma studies. He quotes O’Connor’s understanding of this type of text as an ‘ancient poetry of “truth telling”‘.

For vast as the sea is your ruin;

who can heal you?

Book of Lamentations, 2: 13

There will be many who will not link this kind of traumatic lament with the experiences of COVID-19. While much has changed there remains a level of functioning in Western societies which suggests huge stress rather than catastrophic collapse. Nevertheless the level of human loss, especially considering the many mitigations which have been put in place, is remarkable. In some families and sections of society the cost of COVID has been dear, with deaths, severe illness, reduced income, disruption to social structures and lost education. To name these experiences accurately will give rise to lament.

“there may yet be hope” Book of Lamentations 3:29

Lamentation has a number of consequences. It begins to articulate experience, putting words and sound to voice the inner turmoil when the immediate crisis is passing. In the Book of Lamentations it wrestles with both God’s presence in disaster, and simultaneous silence in the face of the people’s prayers, pleading and petitions. It may have the effect of affirming a sense of community and shared experience that lays the foundations for recovery. At the time of lament this may not be apparent but it may be a consequence of putting words to a crisis which might otherwise disband the survivors of a common trauma.

Lamentation is a form of stringent speaking. It sees through the gloss, the veneer of interpretation, and names the truth of desperate times. It is not a counsel for despair but a cri de coeur for accuracy and understanding. In this there is a prophetic edge. It challenges the superficial discussion of events that shatter communities and wreck the lives of individuals. The loss of life and suffering with over 2 million worldwide COVID-19 deaths, is surely worthy of lament.

“We’re grieving the world we have lost: normal life, our routines, seeing our friends, going to work. Everything has changed. And change is actually grief – grief is a change we don’t want”.

David Kessler quoted in an interview with Joanna Moorhead, The Observer 17 January 2021

David Kessler, who has spent his career in palliative care, describes us as a ‘grief-adverse society’. The consequence of this is the failure to recognise and experience post-traumatic growth. Only by exploring the parameters of loss can we begin to see any meaning which may emerge from tragedy. As many of us have known through the pastoral support of the bereaved, as well as in our own experience, it is unhelpful to speak of hope in the midst of crisis. Yet even unspoken, hope is often present, and although straggling and diminished it has a remarkable capacity to grow.

I hope that there will be a willingness for society to lament. To trace the sharp edges of grief and in doing so, encounter unexpected gifts. Gifts that will arrive in their own time. I have already seen, as people write and paint and create in response to their suffering, the kind of lament that may yet lead to new meaning. The risk is that we will try to rush past this crisis and its consequences and silence the voices of those who recall us to the suffering that has been all too real. Hopefully, wisdom will remind us that a future of greater promise, fairness and compassion, cannot be built successfully on a buried past.

I pray that we shall both lament and learn.

Categories
Reflections

Bleak Midwinter

As a chaplain I often had conversations about Christmas, anytime from autumn onwards. For example, Fred spoke to me about a dear friend who had died recently. Every Christmas the friend would call round and the sherry would be poured. They would exchange memories of a shared childhood in the same town. As they recalled this past there would be humour and affection, as well as sorrow for the people no longer here. Even in September, Fred was thinking about the loss of that annual conversation and hospitable company. Who would he share the sherry with now?

When illness changes someone’s circumstances the prospect of Christmas, and how it will be celebrated, soon comes into focus. In care homes the festive season begins early and runs late. The great wealth of what is resonant and recognisable has real value for people beginning to experience dementia.

“I used to make paper chains like that with my Nan!”

Here is something in the middle of winter that touches all our senses as we celebrate with familiar festivities. A feast for the eyes; the smell of baking; the sound of carols; the taste of seasonal drinks; the touch of those we love.

Of course, this can stir sad memories, but it also offers the poetry of carols to console; the richness of food to comfort; and the frivolity of crackers and paper hats, to remind us we are all crowned with mortality – and we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously.

The Nativity screen below the East Window, York Minster.

This year the weeks leading up to Christmas, like almost all of 2020, have brought news that has been both unusual and unwelcome. Tighter restrictions on the lives of ever more people; damage to livelihoods and the economy; myriad losses experienced by almost everyone – from the lives of loved ones, to cancelled events we once took for certain. Planning for Christmas has meant choices about bubbles and the kind of gifts it feels appropriate to give. Yesterday afternoon we learned that for many people even the possibility of being with others from a different household has vanished.

“They have passed one after the other;

Father and mother died,

Brother and sister and brother

Taken and sanctified.

I am left alone in the sitting,

With none to sit beside.”

From “Christmas Day: The Family Sitting” by John Meade Falkner

I am not surprised that people are distressed by these changes. For many, Christmas Day is a time-lapse biopic. For those of advanced years, it’s an 80 frame story told from our earliest memories. A production rich with the appearance of new characters, and alongside this the sudden absences of much loved figures. The other elements of the day offer a social history of changing taste, expectations and technology. This won’t be the case for everyone but it is for many.

Never in my lifetime has the celebration of Christmas been curtailed for millions upon millions of people. The central fact of the festival isn’t cancelled, and places of worship will remain open and active. Yet it will be a Christmas like no other for countless millions of us. Amongst whom we mustn’t forget those who have marked many festive Decembers, but who this year will not be present with those they love. For people who have spent much time and energy thinking and preparing for the festivities, it may make a difficult and uncomfortable day “with none to sit beside”.

In this bleakest of midwinters we draw to the end of a dreadful year. A year in which 1.7 million people have died from a disease we were unaware of until twelve months ago. Countless others have been unwell, some with stays in intensive care which they will never forget. Tomorrow in the Northern Hemisphere is the shortest day – the old date for the Feast of St Thomas, when the darkness of doubt was greatest, and light seemed to hold least sway. At this fulcrum of the year we are reminded that doubt and uncertainty do not endure indefinitely, and that by using the gifts of tenacity and understanding even humanity’s greatest nightmares are eventually dispelled.

To all those who read this blog I wish a very Happy Christmas. I hope and pray that each of us will do whatever we can to make it a celebration with some good to remember. Arrangements may be rushed and last minute – and we may feel upset that our plans have not gone the way we wished. Yet perhaps we can be consoled with the memory of the Nativity, and life beginning in a makeshift bed far from home. Good things can come out of circumstances we wouldn’t choose. Maybe we simply need to recognise it is beyond our control – and offer what it is to God. Which of us can know what might happen when we share the imperfection of our plans with the God who didn’t begrudge a stable as the place to birth perfection?