Will God Get COVID?

This might sound like a rather abstruse theological question – along the lines of angels and pinheads. However, it isn’t as far as I’m concerned. Since auditioning for the York Mystery Plays‘ forthcoming wagon productions, I have become God’s understudy. I’m not sure whether this kind of role existed before, but the shadow of COVID has meant directors are more concerned about having ‘first reserves’ for the main speaking parts.

Some years ago I encountered the York Mystery Plays while undertaking research connected with the history of hospital chaplains. This involved visits to the York Minster Library to access records and materials connected with the large hospital of St Leonard, developed out of an infirmary built over a thousand years ago. It was here that I came across a reference in the prayer of the Barber Surgeons which addressed the Lord ‘as Sovereign Leech’. It’s a small expression of the visceral and earthy content of the plays, bringing the stories told in Latin in the pristine interior of the Minster down to the vernacular of the Shambles. A narrow lane where the butchers of York conducted their trade, and the cobbles no doubt ran with blood.

The play in the cycle which I’m supporting is The Flood. Given some of the inaccessibility of the language it’s helpful to have a story which is well known, even outside Christian circles. The cast has reflected on the question of what kind of god saves one family and kills everyone else? This may have been less troublesome to Medieval tellers of the tale or their audiences, where the traditional explanation of ‘sin’ is the accepted reason offered for the mass slaughter. God repents of creating humanity and decides to ‘work this work I will all new’.

Sithen has men wrought so woefully
And sin is now reigning so rife,
That me repents and rues fully
That ever I made either man or wife.

I’ve no doubt that official toleration of the plays depended to some extent on the text more or less following the official story known to the literate people of the day. However, it would be fascinating to know what some thought about this mass extinction when plague had been part of their experience. Times when everyone would have known someone who had suffered and died in the frequent outbreaks that occurred in urban centres. In the second half of the 14th century York’s population fell from 15,000 to 10,000. As the deaths undoubtedly fell unevenly, some families and professional Guilds would have experienced dire losses. Questions about the link between sin and an early grave may well have vexed the minds of citizens, especially given the suffering that took place with very limited medical aid.

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

At the very least, after the plagues, the story of the Flood may not have seemed quite so innocent or uncomplicated. Unlike many, this does not give me concern from a biblical perspective. Like the story of Job, I do not view these as literal accounts in the sense that they describe physical happenings as we would evaluate them today. Very often these accounts are addressing theological and philosophical questions that were real and pressing for people. Why do sudden natural events wipe away large number of people? Where is God in this destruction and loss of life? Are human beings living the way God is calling them to live? Can we make a fresh start? One view about the demise of Mystery Plays across Europe suggests that a growing diversity of beliefs meant that vernacular plays were no longer uncontroversial accounts of an agreed theology. This both placed people’s souls at risk (of error) and posed challenges to civic authorities attempting to maintain order in fractious times.

The plays are full of hints and winks that add ribald humour to the narrative and no doubt contributed to the popularity of the plays. For example, we are left to wonder whether one of the daughters became pregnant in the ark when she remarks towards the end of the flood: ‘Nine months past are plain Since we were put to pain’ (both the timespan and reference to pain – Genesis 3:16 – appear to leave little doubt). As with so much community theatre, the allocation of roles could also lead to mirth. Might some of the humour be subversive, casting a teetotaler as Noah or a reprobate as God? We know from the contemporaneous Canterbury Tales the character of Medieval discourse and popular humour or, at least, the kind of humour that found a ready audience. In a dissertation by Asier Ibáñez Villahoz, it is suggested that both the Mystery Plays and the Tales draw on a form of carnival subversion. While I disagree with Villahoz’s claim that sexual humour is absent, it may certainly have been more obscure or toned down when compared with the Tales due to its public performance.

Carnival subversion appears in the way some characters as the adulterous woman or Noah’s wife are depicted connected to that anti-feminist tradition. Misogyny is a major issue in these plays: not only Eve is represented in a negative way but also other women that have just been mentioned do not behave the rigid orthodox way of behaviour they should have.

https://uvadoc.uva.es/bitstream/handle/10324/33297/TFG_F_2018_35.pdf;sequence=1

The resurrection of the Mystery Plays in a modern setting may reflect the relative decline in the UK of religious disagreements as a cause for public disorder. The audiences appear happy to regard the wagon plays as public spectacles, with historical interest and a spirit of local pageantry. Seeing them performed in full for the first time since the pandemic may cause some to reflect on the recent inundation of infection. Whether this unforeseen loss of life will raise theological questions is uncertain and, despite the inevitable temptation, I genuinely hope that God does not come down with COVID.

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

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.

Dust and Ashes

Today I shall remind people that they will die. It is a curious and perhaps shocking element of the Church’s witness that on Ash Wednesday we are reminded viscerally of our mortality. Not only in words, but with the touch and mark of ash, we recognise that our constituent parts add up to very little. Our bodies change and decay. This life is not forever and time will undo us as it undoes everyone.

Christians bear this stamp of mortality in a way that is both provocative and hopeful. Through Lent and into Holy Week we follow in the footsteps of someone whose life seemed little more than dust. Born long ago in a distant province of the Roman Empire; regarded as illegitimate; a Rabbi who didn’t come through the normal route of family connection and privilege, but out of a carpenter’s workshop. Despite a brief ministry that attracted crowds and controversy, love and fear, Jesus of Nazareth died as a criminal in the most humiliating of executions.

In the poem Dust, Elizabeth Jennings begins with the same basic reminder that is the message of Ash Wednesday: ‘We are made of dust’. But this is never the end of our story. ‘Blown to the back of the earth, Stormed at, broken, defiled’ we have both a ‘living mind’ and spirit, and are met by a grace that goes to the end of the earth. We are dust, yet this dust is:

A place for visions, a hope
That reaches beyond the stars,
Conjures and pauses the seas,
Dust discovers our own
Proud, torn destinies.
Yes, we are dust to the bone.

Elizabeth Jennings, Dust in ‘Collected Poems’ 1986 Carcanet Press Ltd.

In a similar way, reflecting on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s participation in the Bradford Declaration against the Nazification of the German Church, signed by German Christian pastors working in England in 1933, the poet Diane Pacitti writes: “out of dust a new world can be formed”. The Christian conviction, expressed at every baptism and on every Ash Wednesday, is not a denial of mortality. We name the reality of death more often than we might imagine – just think of the marriage service. It is simply that in following Jesus Christ we believe that death can become something else. That dust can be the basic thing in which new life is written, born and liberated.

Photo by Irina Anastasiu on Pexels.com

As the pandemic lingers and war erupts in Europe, dust still has its part to play. However far humanity thinks it has come, the basic terms of our existence contain recurring themes. The horror of war haunts us with ever more terrifying weapons, and something akin to Medieval plague has kept us in quarantine and ended millions of lives. As Job found after all his adversity, destruction, losses and sickness, sometimes we need to sit in the dust before things can change. Avoiding or denying the dust risks an unhinged response to the realities of life – a denial of our four score years and ten. It might take a brave priest to ash the forehead of Vladimir Putin and say: ‘remember you are but dust and unto dust you shall return’. However, perhaps only a reminder of this reality can stay the hand of someone who appears bent on terrible destruction. Today people will fast and pray for peace – may their prayers be answered.

When they saw him (Job) from a distance, they did not recognise him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.

Job 2: 12-13

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.

Known Unknowns

Much mocked at the time, Donald Rumsfeld’s response to a press question is a largely accurate assessment of the murky evidence on which we attempt to make decisions. Sometimes we know that we don’t have the data about something. Equally, we know that there will be things that blindside us – key pieces of information that come out of the blue. These are the unknown unknowns. Realising that this is the reality in which we work, we need a wise humility about the scope of information that is available to us. One of the dangers inherent in the decision making process is the temptation to only see the information our data tools are designed to collect. This appears to make perfect sense, as we have proven and validated methods to acquire certain kinds of evidence. However, it may also mean that we give scant regard to the unknown unknowns – the inevitable and significant factors that are not amenable to the measurements we can use. These exist, but operate outside our frame of reference.

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult ones.

“Defense.gov News Transcript: DoD News Briefing – Secretary Rumsfeld and Gen. Myers, United States Department of Defense (defense.gov)”. February 12, 2002. Archived from the original on March 20, 2018.

There are useful philosophical approaches to the basis of our knowledge. Often there is a distinction made between analytical (or Anglo-Saxon) philosophy and continental philosophy. The former is very much focused on the known knowns; the latter is more concerned with lived experience and the role of language in the nature of our perception. It follows that continental philosophy has a healthy regard for the scale of information that isn’t amenable to our existing forms of analysis and measurement. Many years ago I was involved in the delivery of a learning module for medical students at a Russell Group university. At one point I asked the 30 or so students to imagine everything they could ever conceive might be known about human physiology and clinical care. The I asked them to tell me how much of that they felt we knew today. With commendable insight and honesty one student responded: ‘sweet FA’. We tend to place great confidence on our current knowledge, which his understandable, but the story of science is that what we knew in 1922 is largely inferior, wrong or misguided, compared with what we know today. The corollary of this is that what we know today is likely to be seen in the future as clumsy, partial or lacking critical information.

It is encouraging that the Templeton Foundation has awarded funding to the University of St Andrews for a project entitled “Widening Horizons in Philosophical Theology”. This work has led to a host of international research studies co-ordinated to inform the development of a renewed philosophical theology, drawing on insights from the approaches of continental philosophy. This is intended to generate an “holistic approach to exploring questions of spiritual discovery and growth”. All this involves close attention to the lived experience of people as we share in relationships and learn more about ourselves and those around us.

In attempting to understand hospital chaplaincy and my place within its practice, I spent time exploring the work of Michel Foucault, one of the continental philosophers. In reading Foucault’s work I felt a strong affinity with his attention to shifting regimes of power and what knowledge this permits or suppresses. As a chaplain I was aware of the authority of medical and managerial discourses and the ebbing regard given to religious and spiritual ways of knowing. As prevailing power relations often seem inevitable and invisible, my formation as a priest and a chaplain frequently seemed to jar with a view of knowledge that most people regarded as self-evident. There was certainly a counter-narrative of patient experience, but this was usually accommodated within, rather than allowed to alter, the terms of what counted as actionable information.


https://templetonreligiontrust.org/explore/new-directions-in-philosophical-theology/

Without doubt approaches aligned with analytical philosophy have delivered a huge amount for many people. It is equally true that a vast amount of knowable information lies outside the systems we use to gather data. These are often aspects of the complex and multi-faceted experience of living that we find difficult to disaggregate into measurable and reportable data. Researchers have designed approaches that attempt to translate this complexity into useful information, but it remains a challenge.

It presents continental philosophy as an open, discovery-oriented discipline whose questions, approaches and methods make it an important partner for a theology.

https://philosophical-theology.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/vision/

Given the scope and nature of theology, the recognition of inter-connection and open enquiry offered by continental philosophy has considerable potential to inform methods of theological research. Theology has no illusions about how little we know, and the enormity of potential knowledge that surrounds us. Understanding how to act in this context of partial information, in which lived experience is critical but often unamenable to study, is something a theology informed by continental philosophy could make more visible and help us live creatively within all that remains unknown.

The Year that King Uzziah Died

Our memories are often linked to significant events. Will people in the future say, I wonder, that for most of us 2020 was the year that COVID began? Sometimes it is personal recollections that mark the passing of time. Four years ago my father-in-law died on Boxing Day and my mother on New Year’s Eve. It brought to an end a year we shall never forget. For both its global significance and no doubt the sense of personal loss, 2021 will probably live with 2020 as a watershed in our collective perception of time.

It surprises some people that the demise of a King is the theme for a Christmas carol. Michael Nicholas’s composition ‘Twas in the Year that King Uzziah Died’, featured in an afternoon concert on Radio 3 recently and lies in a long tradition of settings for this text (including Dr Francis Jackson CBE, onetime Director of Music at York Minster). The words from Isaiah feel an incongruous and unpromising start to a carol, and perhaps explain why it doesn’t sit in the canon of popular nativity anthems. Equally, it is clear why this moment would remain with the prophet throughout his life. In that year, Isaiah had an astounding vision of the Lord. It was awesome and overwhelming, spectacular and sobering. At that moment, Isaiah sees himself in the presence of God and feels his unworthiness. The text in Isaiah builds the sense of scale and magnificence. The celestial speech of seraphs, and the music and cries of acclamation are so great that the pivots on the threshold shake.

And at their cry the lintels moved apace,
And clouds of incense filled the holy place.

From overpowering beauty Isaiah is asked to undertake a thankless task. He is called to prophecy the destruction of the people; the laying waste of the land; the failure of the crops. After Uzziah’s long reign, during which much of the security and fabric of Jerusalem was restored, the people are to face the loss of everything they possess. Isaiah’s task is to tell prophetic truth – as Alison Phipps puts it:

The beautifully excessive, poetic, edgy speech of the prophet who is experiencing a ‘surfeit of aliveness’ (Scarry 2001: 89) as conferred by the beauty of God’s right relationships marks out what Brueggemann terms a ‘counterscript’ (Brueggemann 2007). This ‘counterscript’ is a steady, careful truth-telling about the wrongness and wrongedness of present relationships between God and God’s (ex-) people; between people and people; between the more-than-human-world (creation) and human beings

Phipps, A. (2010). 7th February: 5th after Epiphany. The expository times, 121(4), 187-188

The message given to Isaiah was that after the terrible time to come, a stump would survive the desolation. Out of this unpromising remnant the life of the people would continue. The role of the prophet is to tell the reality of what is unfolding and foretell the hope that is to come. In this way the prophets steer Israel through times when a better future would have seemed impossible – the accuracy of their carefully narrated truth enabling the people to have confidence in the description of a better world that lies beyond their present troubles. Realistic about current woes, prophecy is capable of stirring people to work towards enduring change.

Photo by Ihor Lypnytskyi on Pexels.com

Last week we lamented the loss of a contemporary prophet – Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He was certainly someone who epitomised this ‘surfeit of aliveness’ and the relentless truth-telling that offered a counter-narrative to both the evils of apartheid and the temptation for retribution. Tutu did not hold his friends to a lesser standard than he held those who had operated and enabled segregation. He wanted to save the nation of South African for everyone and offer the world a different model of community.

As we embark on 2022 we need voices that expose the injustices of our world and challenge short-sighted self interest. The pandemic will not end until we have much better levels of vaccination across the world. Narrow self-interest must rise above the narrative of ‘me and mine’ to recognise and act on our responsibilities to humanity. What is true for COVID-19 is no less true for climate change. We cannot cut ourselves off and live lives disconnected from the poorer nations of our planet. The truth is that we are all in these defining issues together, and we shall prosper, live or die, together. Long may the prophets continue to trouble us – and hold out the hope of our salvation.