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.

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.