Misperception

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Long Shadow

Rarely do leaders weigh the consequences of conflict. The human cost is terrible, and so too is the loss of homes, wildlife, heritage and communities. Things that take centuries to create are gone in an instant. The destruction wreaked by war has perhaps never been as visible as it is in Ukraine. From mobile phones and social media sites there is moment-by-moment reporting, independent of the channels of news that previously controlled the narrative of world events.

The photo at the top of this blog, taken in South Shields, is not a relic of the first or second World Wars. The Trow Rock Disappearing Gun was a prototype that could be retracted or elevated from its mount, but never went into mass production. The gun in the picture is a replica of the Victorian original. Across the UK, in all sorts of places, we can still see the detritus of war – pillboxes left standing as a reminder of the coastal defences that once surrounded the British Isles. Conflict lingers in the landscape for centuries.

The Chapel of the Royal Foundation of St Katherine, London, stands on the site of a parish church destroyed in 1940

The human (notably male) propensity for fighting appears to be travelling at a far slower pace of evolutionary progress when compared with the speed of new armaments and their technical delivery. A primitive willingness to go to war is now housed in the terryfing world of novichok and thermobaric bombs. Growing up in the 1970s I was well aware of CND and its opposition to the philosophy of ‘mutually assured destruction’. I was 14 when Russia invaded Afghanistan and remember feeling anxious about where this might lead; how the world would react; and whether military escalation would follow, drawing in an ever wider circle of armed forces.

Today is Mothering Sunday, the midpoint of Lent in the Western Church. Tragically we are witnessing many mothers with children fleeing to neighbouring nations, leaving partners behind fighting for the defence of Ukraine. It is a sad reality that many of those seeking refuge will not be reunited with their loved ones. This adds poignancy to the partings that we see on train platforms across unoccupied Ukraine: people do not know whether the separation will be temporary, or final.

Few, few shall part where many meet!
The snow shall be their winding-sheet,
And every turf beneath their feet
Shall be a soldier’s sepulchre.

Hohenlinden by Thomas Campbell

We seem to have lost the energy to seek peace and pursue it. Perhaps there was too much hope invested in the interconnections of capitalism as an impediment to war. Putin has shown us that massive economic losses do not outweigh the decision to invade a neighbour. I’m not sure there can be great hope for humanity if all our energy is put into technical advances with token interest in peace studies; ethics or responsible disarmament. Whether in prayer or mindfulness, we each need to reflect on our own contribution to peace – and find ways to resolve differences without a clash of arms or the long, long shadow of war.

“Friends, let us hold in the Light the people of Ukraine. Let us hold in the Light the people of Russia. Let us hold in the Light the people of Afghanistan. Let us hold in the Light the people of Ethiopia. Let us hold in the Light the people of Myanmar. Let us hold in the Light those affected by conflicts we have forgotten or have never even heard of, because the consequences of war will scar lives just as they are doing in Kyiv. Let us hold in the Light the people working for peace. Let us hold in the Light the people who are not”.

https://www.quaker.org.uk/blog/ukraine-faithfully-maintaining-our-testimony-against-war

The Question

President Zelensky’s address to the UK Parliament was a masterful presentation of truth-telling, conviction and heartfelt oratory. Touching lightly on classic speeches of British history and literature, he appropriated the words of Hamlet to sum up his country’s plight – and the question ‘to be’. As Shakespeare’s character suggests, the choice to continue living is not without cost or consequence. Some may see the determined resistance of Ukraine’s fighters as a hopeless last stand – almost suicidal in the face of overwhelming odds. Others can only applaud with both awe and admiration the courage of people unwilling to let go of their life, freedoms and sovereign identity.

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep

Seldom do heads of state face the suddenness of the question as to whether their nation should be – or not be. It is little wonder that European minds turn back to the 1930s when looking for a comparison with the present crisis. Countries falling under the sway of an aggressor who refuses to listen to the voices of other nations, but is more than willing to deploy military force against civilians. Propaganda and brutality at home: fear abroad. It is an approach used by dictators for as long as human history. Like all bullying it is effective only until one slash with the sword suddenly echoes with the ring of steel. What was supposed to be quick and easy meets its match – mettle answers metal. I cannot believe that President Putin imagined that the conquest of Ukraine would be so slow; so costly in Russian lives; or so devastating to the Russian economy. There has been a miscalculation or a misunderstanding; delusions of power or the fear of a successful, prosperous, democratic neighbour. Or perhaps he simply doesn’t care, confident that gradual escalation will lead to ultimate victory.

Part of the reason it is so moving to hear President Zelensky’s speech is the possibility that he may not be alive for very much longer. He has chosen to stay in Kiev, and must be the number one target for Russian forces. It is difficult to think that Ukrainian defiance will be quite as determined or as effective without this charismatic leader so visibly present in the war.

One of the oddities about Hamlet’s soliloquy alluded to by Zelensky, is its departure from what many would regard as orthodox thinking about death. For the Church, the afterlife was much more than a dream filled sleep. There is only one implicit reference to religion, describing death as ‘a consummation devoutly to be wished’. In this soliloquy it seems there is no heaven; no Christ; no God; no judgement. Vladimir Brljak’s paper entitled ‘Hamlet and the Soul-Sleepers‘ identifies the presence of popular 16th century beliefs about a state of sleep which preceded the general resurrection and last judgement. This belief was initially advocated by Martin Luther and was shared by other Reformers in England. The audiences for Hamlet would recognise this heresy in the words of the young Prince studying in a city at the heart of the Protestant Reformation. With reference to the First Quarto edition of Hamlet, Brljak finds even stronger evidence for this wayward doctrine was the basis for Hamlet’s soliloquy.

… the sleepers saw themselves as pious Christians, but their opponents relentlessly misrepresented them as denying the immortality of the soul and consequently bordering on atheism.

Brljak, V., 2018. Hamlet and the Soul-Sleepers. Reformation & Renaissance Review, 20(3), pp.187-208.
Vancouver

In the space of just two weeks the people of Ukraine have been forced to face urgent questions of sovereignty and mortality. In their response to the Russian invasion the two things have been welded together, with countless examples of individual sacrifice and tenacity. If the primary issue is the survival of a nation, there is also an implied question for other democratic countries. If this can be ‘allowed’ to happen, what else can be done by a powerful totalitarian state without the threat of consequences? If Finland begins an application process to join NATO we may discover just how far Putin will go to ensure neighbouring states conform to his wishes. At a time when Ukraine is facing an existential threat, there are other countries now living with a question about the scope of their freedom ‘to be’. If the West tries to sleep through this crisis, hoping it will eventually go away, we may all learn to our cost just what kind of nightmares might suddenly become our reality.

Peripheral Vision People

A long time ago I worked as a bread-wrapper at ASDA. It was on the Isle of Dogs in London’s East End and the rumour was that the store had 110% staff turnover per annum. It certainly felt a very transitory workforce, and my own employment lasted just under a year. From the Docklands Light Railway I would gaze down from a train to see work underway on the foundations of Canary Wharf. It was a time of huge upheaval for the local population and the East End as a whole.

In my work of wrapping and stacking I experienced something a lot of people will recognise. Wearing my bakery uniform I noticed that people never looked at me. Workers doing basic (but essential) jobs know how easily they become peripheral to people’s attention. The scope of this disregard is extensive and is manifested not only in personal interactions but in pay, conditions of service and benefits. With rising inflation, a hike in National Insurance payments and spiralling energy costs, many of these workers are now facing an unacceptable decline in living standards. MHA is one of many charity’s and operators calling on the Government to do more to support the sector and help employees be given the recognition they deserve.

My own experience of being peripheral was minuscule and fleeting. For many people, including women; people living with a disability; and people whose ethnicity is in a minority; being peripheral is part of everyday living. I am as susceptible as anyone for allowing ingrained attitudes to influence my looking and the way I value other people. It is something we all need to struggle to overcome. At ASDA the only people who gave any real attention to me and my co-workers were children. Children who found the world fascinating and intriguing and hadn’t yet learned the kind of seeing that channels our gaze to the people and things we have been taught to see as important. In her recently published collection of essays Esi Edugyan discusses race and identity with reference to works of art:

Perhaps my ambivalence also comes from certain threads I sensed missing. For these exhibitions represented renditions of the same Western story, a story of wealth and expansion. Black people are present, but as footmen, slaves, lady’s maids, magi… Black bodies are less living, breathing people than repositories for cultural anxieties. Blacks are an expression of status, of Christianity’s reach, of white morality. They are rarely, until the twentieth century, just human beings, living human lives.

Esi Edugyan, Out of the Sun: Essays at the Crossroads of Race, Profile Books Limited 2022

While we cannot see everything all of the time, we need to be aware that we all face limitations to our vision. However, that doesn’t mean we should accept our outlook or leave it unchallenged. When Jesus extolled the virtue of childhood to his disciples I wonder if he had in mind the capacity of children to be engaged in the world without acquired prejudices. To remove the blinkers we are given, or choose, in order to see people as central to the mission inspired by the statement that ‘God so loved the world’. A world containing a remarkable variety of people. To be born again surely means – if nothing else – to grow again and to see again. The ability to expand our vision of the world is the condition which precedes our capacity to be changed. Only through our transformation can we then be of any use in building that Kingdom which is rooted in a peace the world cannot give.

We must always contest our inclination to let people drift into our peripheral vision. It is good that many of us are being stirred into action to support the people of the Ukraine. Yet there have been many wars in far-away places for which many people we have felt too little concern. It is likely that our sense of identification with the people under attack is the key to the different responses the world makes to various disasters. Ensuring that we are in dialogue with a rich variety of people, and reading and watching things that expand our horizons, acts to prevent a tendency to insularity. As Christians head towards Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent, it is a good time for each of us to ask who is in our peripheral vision – and why are they there? We may discover that zoning-out people with certain characteristics, including those carrying out minimum wage jobs, is robbing us all of a richer life. Life in a community that is radically different from our accepted models, where no one is peripheral, and the gifts and distinctiveness of everyone are valued and affirmed.

The Wrong Way

We had decided to visit the Reina Sofia gallery in Madrid ‘temprano’: early. Somehow, in our confusion of language and signage, we ended up going in by the exit. We didn’t mean to, but nobody challenged us on our route. Unsurprisingly, as Picasso’s Geurnica is the highlight of the collection, it sits in a room close to the completion of people’s visit. On this particular day it also meant that it was almost the first thing we came to and, for probably 8 whole minutes, we were alone with the masterpiece and its security guard. Usually the key work of a gallery throngs with people getting their look at one of the wonders of the world. For us that day brought the unexpected privilege of silence, space and the opportunity to gaze at the artwork without the jostle of others. It was quite a moment.

Guernica is named after the Basque town which was reduced to rubble after bombardment by German and Italian warplanes in 1937. The scale of destruction served the propaganda purposes of Franco who wished to promote fear as a way to defeat his opponents. For Italy and Germany it was an opportunity to test their weapons and capabilities before the full horror of global war was unleashed. As is so often the case, in the fog of war, the accounts given at the time varied widely. Berlin denied any involvement and the rumour was propagated that Republican forces had done it with explosives as part of their retreat. As the saying goes, ‘The first casualty of War is Truth’. As we contemplate military manoeuvres on the Ukrainian border the risk of intended or unintended hostilities – when the truth of what is transpiring is so doubtful – is frighteningly real. Time and again in human history a spark has led to conflagration.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Over the years I have spoken with people who experienced life in terrible places of fear and death during conflict. I have listened to a personal account of horror told by a survivor standing beside a cattle-truck in Auschwitz. From the same war, but in a very different setting, I have heard about the experience of someone who spent years as a prisoner of war. At the moment I’m reading Herta Muller’s novel The Hunger Angel, which centres on the experiences of Leo in a Soviet labour camp. While we view these experiences from the perspective of history, a recurring theme for all these voices is the uncertainty of when or how the experience would come to an end. In winter especially, the hardships and suffering of people detained in the horror of the camps appeared to be an unending tale of misery. It is remarkable that anyone emerged alive from such places, either physically or spiritually.

There’s no such thing as a winnable war
It’s a lie we don’t believe anymore

Sting, Russians, 1985

Studying the history of conflict and genocide is an important task in every generation. For me part of the power of Guernica is the reminder that we arrive in horrific places via a whole catalogue of other atrocities and mundane acts of human indifference. Evil is built, rather than suddenly appearing. It’s why some of the most important struggles against tyranny are fought in the foothills before the full scale of disaster is both blindingly obvious and seemingly irresistible. The present prospect of war in Europe must urge us to work and pray for leaders to weigh the full cost of conflict. Even when things appear confused and uncertain we need to seek peace and pursue it – to stand up for a world in which war is never viewed as the right way to settle disputes.

Dear Lord

Author of all peace who through your son reconciled us to yourself, we pray for peace in our world at a time of heightened tensions.

We pray

for our governments and political leaders – for wise counsel and sound initiative to defuse tension

for diplomats – that they may have space to negotiate

for the people of Ukraine – that their close ties with the people of Russia and other neighbours will remain strong even in the face of military threat.

We pray that all governments commit time to dialogue and understanding, respect the will and freedom of all peoples, invest in welfare and alleviation of poverty and reject militarism and the threat of violence.

May Christ’s teaching and example be our inspiration, may hearts and minds be changed, and may your holy spirit be at work transforming each of us day by day,

Through your everlasting grace and mercy.

Amen.

A Prayer for Ukraine – The Methodist Church

Plague and Pestilence

At the time of writing I have COVID. It’s something I believe I’ve avoided for two years although, without the benefit of testing, it is impossible to say for certain. Thankfully, due to vaccination, I have no more symptoms than those of a heavy cold. I remain confined to home until Tuesday at the earliest – maybe longer if the lateral flow tests are positive. I am experiencing what millions of others have endured, but thankfully without the hospitalisation and critical illness that came to so many before the advent of the vaccines and continues to be a reality for many people across the world. I have the virus at a time when some scientists are concerned about the political and media drive to normalise COVID, even as the USA approaches a total of one million COVID deaths. Writing in Scientific America, Steven Thrasher refers to “the manufactured consent to normalize mass death and suffering”.

The UK Government is putting out a clear message that it’s time to move on from COVID. The fit and healthy, the young and the vaccinated, want to get on with life and leave the misery of lockdowns behind. If wishing made it so. This is still a new disease, with no evidence about long term effects or what will happen if we simply resign ourselves to a virus whose tide will ebb and flow for years to come. It is quite possible that the current mood of Government is to accept 80,000 COVID deaths a year as a reasonable price for ‘normality’.

Quoted at https://twitter.com/chrischirp/status/1492234692741025793

Whether individually or as a community, difficult experiences can lead to transformative change. Perhaps the most notable example of this in the UK’s history is the creation of the NHS. War had demonstrated that the central organisation of resources by the State could defeat an evil. The Beveridge Report published during wartime made the argument that 5 ‘Great Evils’ could be overcome if the resources of the State were marshalled and coordinated. War inevitably broke many patterns of social interaction and expectation, and this also created a moment of opportunity. Labour’s 1945 election victory bore witness to the appetite for change and the determination to see genuine improvements across a range of social situations. The NHS was launched in 1948.

At this point in the COVID pandemic, with a growing consensus that we are over the worst, the opportunity for lessons learned appears to have been missed. National political leadership has degenerated into a blustering determination to push past every criticism and crisis. When the Prime Minister is accused of lacking ‘shame’ I wonder whether the word has any meaning for Mr Johnson. There is a school of thought that finds merit in denying responsibility, marching forward and seeing anyone who admits shame as fundamentally weak. What’s the use of shame when you can dazzle, distract and deny – and live to fight another day?

Tragically, what we are experiencing in domestic politics is no less true for international relations. At one point it felt that lessons were being learned and attitudes were changing and warming. Speaking at the World Policy Forum in 2020 Dennis Snower sounded an optimistic note:

The pandemic has revealed a vast sea of kindness and benevolence in our communities around the world. It has led to countless acts of selfless heroism in hospitals and care homes. It has impelled many of us to use our greatest strengths to serve our greatest purposes, suddenly giving our lives new, inspiring meaning.

Opening Address to the Digital Global Solutions Summit 2020

If anything it feels that the most significant legacy of the past two years is for people to focus their thoughts closer to home. The wave of early retirements suggests that people may want to disengage from workplace commitments and concentrate instead on family and personal pursuits. It feels that the pandemic has done nothing to enhance international co-operation, or patience or kindred feeling. Fear of disease has given way to fear of conflict and we stand on the verge of war in Europe. At the same time, most if not all of the pre-pandemic conflicts around the world remain unresolved.

from plague, pestilence, and famine, from battle, and murder, and from sudden death, Good Lord deliver us.

The Book of Common Prayer, 1662, The Litany

In the Bible disaster usually brought people to a realisation that things could not continue as they were. Generally that led to a recognition that doing what they wanted, and ignoring God, was not the right way to proceed. As I have written previously, lamentation was often the response that led to an honest recognition of disaster and a desire to renew the relationship with God. Conditioning people to live with a sustained number of excess deaths is not lament – but instead a further confirmation that preventable deaths limited to some sections of society are acceptable. Whether or not people believe in God, it is clearly true that not everything is under human control or manipulation. Admitting this reality might be one way to understand the past two years and begin to generate the sense of common humanity which is surely the only way we will learn, change and survive. Sadly, it is hard to see how this mature reflection might begin.

Drawing Life

Recently I attended a life drawing class at York Art Gallery. It has been a few years since I took courses at Leeds College of Art, and it was both frustrating and rewarding to pick up charcoal once again. Frustrating because the drawings never look like I think they should – rewarding because in the concentration and application, the time flies. More than anything else life drawing is about looking at the figure, rather than being guided by the idea of the human form we carry in our heads. It requires attention to negative spaces; the shapes within the human form; and the relative size of limbs at different angles. To respond to the uniqueness of a given model, on a particular day, requires deep concentration and endless practice.

This is the reality, and the intrigue, of the human figure: not the ubiquitous muscular young athletes presented to us in textbooks. Nike Okunade, in her second year at Southampton Medical School, was struck by the individuality of the life drawing models. “I loved the idea of getting to draw different kinds of people, different genders, shapes, and sizes.”

Price-Kuehne, F. E. (2010). Life drawing for medical students. BMJ, 340.

Turning up to these classes as a participant can also offer the opportunity of activity without the burden of role. While for many people the profession of someone may be irrelevant, clergy often experience altered interactions when their identity is known. In some cases people censor their language, or apologise for swearing. This may be a minor detail but it betokens a change to behaviour that may run deeper than simply the use of colourful language. I imagine many people find this when their profession is known, from police officers to funeral directors. Simply being present, focusing on the person we are to draw, has the benefit of company, sensitivity and a common task. At the same time it is humbling, engrossing and nourishes the soul.

Despite my frequent lament that it appears we wish to return as soon as possible to our pre-COVID lives, there is evidence that many people have re-evaluated their lives and priorities. Writing about a renewed passion for nature following lockdowns, the New Jersey journalist Ambreen Ali wrote last week about how the pandemic has changed her family life: ‘My children rolled in the sand and escaped into their imaginations, oblivious and content’. Whether in nature or art, crafts or cooking, some people have discovered fresh priorities. It may account in part for the high level of retirements at the moment.

Life-painting by Euan Uglow

Once we are beyond childhood it can feel that the world around us is largely assumed. Memory informs our sight and steers us through the journeys and activities of daily life. It is a way of living that makes a lot of sense – experiencing everything afresh every day could be exhausting. Prior experience helps us cut to the chase and get stuff done. Yet it also comes with risks. When we assume we know what we see there is the chance that we miss unexpected qualities. Perhaps what astounded people about Jesus was his capacity to see and speak the world differently. Little wonder that a child became the symbol of how his followers could enter the Kingdom of God. Being born again requires us to grow again and move beyond the kind of thinking that leave us acting on auto-pilot.

It is wonderful that despite the many losses caused by the pandemic there are people who have found fresh excitement and creativity in the world. A global crisis is not a desirable way to help us re-evaluate our lives – but it would be remiss not to reflect on our lives in the wake of suffering. All experiences have the capacity to teach us. If we are able to do so, there are opportunities to take that draw life back into us. Moments and activities that revitalise our sight, and allow us to question our assumed world in the face of one we see (again) for the first time. A seeing that can draw life out of what we think we know – and reminds us that in creativity we are working with the life-bringing spirit of God.

Sternly Spoken

At some point during my BA studies at the University of Hull I encountered The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. I was taking a degree in English Literature and Theology, and Sterne’s renowned work cropped up in a course on Augustan Literature. It felt a disorderly work compared with other writing from the period, but its many digressions are also its captivating quality. Like a fairground roller coaster, there are hairpin bends in this fictional tour de force. Little did I imagine that a few decades later I would be living quite so close to the places Sterne would have known during his life. Near to York Minster there was Sterne’s publisher. His uncle and patron Jaques Sterne was precentor in the Minster as well as Archdeacon of Cleveland. This morning I led the service at Priory Church of Holy Trinity Micklegate, where one of the characters thought to have been lampooned in his work is buried. Dr John Burton’s pioneering work in obstetrics appears to have inspired the figure of the ‘man-midwife’, Dr Slop.

It may well be that Sterne attacked Dr Burton in this way due to the religious politics of the time. Burton was a Jacobite and Catholic sympathiser, something that landed him in goal at the instigation of the Precentor. Sterne was ordained by the time he wrote Shandy and it says something about the times that a cleric could publish something so candid about the realities of life and human follies. The novel came in at number 6 in a Guardian list of the best one hundred novels.

“Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine;—they are the life, the soul of reading;—take them out of this book for instance,—you might as well take the book along with them;” 

The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

For all the playful style of Tristram Shandy there is political weight in its portrayal of 19th century life. It is a book designed to wield influence, and in its hints and winks it would have tantalised people across a breadth of classes and situations. In an edition of In Our Time dedicated to the book, it was pointed out that the fictional writings of Sterne were seen as a way to increase the sale of his printed sermons, rather than the sermons advertising the novel. It reminds us how very different times were in Georgian England and how significant preaching was considered in this era.

While there is a lot to criticise about the way religion and politics has mixed in the past, there is also scope for concern about a church that walks away from politics. After all, politics is about the way we live – what governance permits or outlaws. It can no more be something the church should avoid than the preaching of the Gospel. The idea that Jesus wasn’t a political figure is ludicrous – in his clashes with the authorities, and teaching about the operation of institutions such as the Temple, he was entirely political.,

It has felt in recent years that the Church has had a vanishing presence in the political arena. Declining attendances combined with a focus on personal salvation have chipped away at the place the C of E once occupied. This is not the Church of Faith in the City, nor do parish clergy have the time they once enjoyed to participate extensively in civic life. Of course there’s a very good argument that laity ought to be doing this in any event, as the people of faith embedded in the community. However, the perspective of a person set aside to focus on spiritual concerns – with the experience of living and working in several communities – has a value that is unique.

Instead of providing strength, solace, inspiration, and communion, churches are decidedly human institutions comprised of the eccentric, the stupid, and the venal. 

The failure of organized religion in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy by David Dobbie Tull, 1991

The recently launched Archbishops’ Commissions may be a hopeful sign that the Church wishes to speak in the public square. Given recent goings-on in British politics surely there is a need for a moral voice (and possibly lampooning)? What took place concerning the scrutiny of MPs suggests a political leadership that is shameless of its self-interest, only responding when its fawning supporters in the media announce that things have gone too far. Today Sterne would have ample material for a new novel, without the need for very much invention. Despite all its constraints and interested parties, the Church is called to speak from its experience, beliefs and commitment – and sometimes that speech must be stern in making clear the yawning gap between the ideals of public service, and the shameless pursuit of personal interest.

Older Age: A Time of Truth

The title for this blog echoes a publication celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. In 1971 Michael Wilson’s The Hospital – A Place of Truth was published by the ‘University of Birmingham Institute for the Study of Worship and Religious Architecture’. The snappy title of the Institute does little justice to the work it sent to print. Wilson’s study is the first thorough, academic and professional enquiry into the role of the hospital chaplain. It took place between 1967 and 1971, and is well-written, with a scope that is broad and deep. Inevitably couched in the culture of its time (and a national church which didn’t enable women to be ordained), there is a wealth of valuable insight and evidence in its 385 pages. For example, we learn that the first Muslim chaplain had been appointed the year before publication. This landmark research remains a seminal example of an approach which is still relevant to chaplaincy today. In particular, Wilson asked all constituencies in the hospital and local community about what they found important concerning the presence of a chaplain. If you wish to know more about the publication James Woodward’s “The relevance of Michael Wilson’s chaplaincy research for healthcare chaplaincy today” is well worth reading.

In the 1960s institutions had very clear boundaries. In many cases staff lived on the site of the hospital. Today those boundaries are more porous and there is a constant but incomplete drive to make health care about a pathway rather than a place. For example, it has long seemed inequitable and undesirable that the experience of end of life care should depend so much on location. The contrast of final days spent on a busy general medical ward and those spent in a hospice bedroom, could not be starker. Despite all the efforts of skilled and committed staff, we are still working to make palliative care equally excellent in all settings.

Nevertheless, I would argue that place in now relatively less important when it comes to care than it was in the 1960s. While still significant settings, hospitals are not the kind of ‘total institutions’ once described by Erving Goffman. When considering older age I’m inclined to focus more on the experience than on the location. Whether in homes or places or care, many characterises of ageing remain the same.

Nearly a year ago I reflected on the conundrum of how institutions embedded in almost every community seem to be politically invisible. Despite the fact that most scientists and politicians have visited these communities, or have relatives living in them, it appears that we choose not to think about the realities of their complex operation. In March 2020 wild and wholly irresponsible assumptions were made about the safety of care homes in a pandemic. In September 2021 the supposed solution to the funding of social care almost entirely misperceives the needs of these vital care settings.

“Staff are dealing with their own ageing whilst also observing the ageing of their patients and the reaction to this of the relatives. None of this is particularly easy and spiritual practices seemed to help staff manage these complexities”

Mowat, Harriet. “Gerontological chaplaincy: the spiritual needs of older people and staff who work with them.” Health and Social Care Chaplaincy (2013): 27-31.

Ageing confronts us with truths about ourselves, and about our neighbours. These truths are not always easy to contemplate. It can feel in contemporary British society that we side with Shakespeare’s characterisation of our final years: ‘second childishness and mere oblivion’. Yet this is to allow our fears to avert our gaze before we can take the time to understand ageing and its effects with greater insight. It is the time of truth in as much the mastery of self, and in particular the suppression of desires, may give way as our cognitive capacities change. While relatives may often say their relation is ‘different’, sometimes that transformation reflects a clearer sense of identity and personality. Unsurprisingly we may fear this kind of truth for ourselves as well. A controlled temper may lose its restraint as the years progress. The truth is not always easy or comfortable. Yet ageing may equally well diminish a sense of fear and trepidation. There has been more than one centenarian sky-diver.

Last week I was reminded in one of the reading options for Morning Prayer that ageing can be seen in a number of ways. There is not, and never has been, only one interpretation of getting older.

“For old age is not honoured for length of time, or measured by number of years; but understanding is grey hair for anyone, and a blameless life is ripe old age”

Wisdom 4:7

It feels that in the UK Government’s settlement for social care an opportunity has been missed to learn the truths of the experiences of older people. The focus has been on finances and asset-preservation, rather than the understanding and retention of wisdom. The elderly are a political problem to manage, not a wealth of personality, love and experience to value. Somehow we need to achieve a breakthrough in how we relate to older people in our society. The cloak of invisibility needs to be removed so that we can see ageing as an important time of truth for us all – and not just for others.

Law and Disorder

In the early days of my ministry I attended a prison. I had an interest in this that went back to the days when my mother worked as a secretary in a minimum security ‘open prison’, and facilitated a meeting for me with the chaplain. In turn that led a Sunday spent in the old Strangeways, with the remarkable Noel Proctor, and then to a visit to a prison where I was at university in Hull. I have no idea why I felt called to explore this, but it brought me into contact with a world often hidden from public view. Recently, much of the character of this concealed incarceration was portrayed with insight and skill by Jimmy McGovern in the outstanding BBC mini-series, Time. It has stimulated a much needed debate about the day-to-day reality of the criminal justice system.

“McGovern could be criticised for the sheer number of shocking scenes his protagonist witnesses and suffers. But there is nothing in the show that I have not seen first-hand during my time inside”.

“‘There’s nothing here I did not see inside’ – a former HMP inmate on Time” by Eric Allison in The Guardian 18 June 2021

These earlier experiences eventually led to a small role helping out the chaplaincy team close to where I served as a curate. Looking back I have no doubt that I was very innocent in my understanding of life behind bars. I was keen to make connections between this world and the local community and arranged two Sunday visits by our very large confirmation class. The prison Governor was happy to facilitate this on what was a reasonably quiet day of the week. Seeing some of the scenes in Time reminded me of these 11 and 12 year olds sitting in the chapel with many prisoners. The confirmation candidates experienced ‘church’ in a very different setting from the leafy suburbs nearby, and met people who had grown up in very different circumstances. I have no idea what lasting effect it may have had upon them.

The most striking part of McGovern’s drama was the realistic portrayal of corruption. It was not (and is not) a one-sided story. The drama portrays the small nudges and influences that push people further and further towards the edge of their usual behaviour.

“But ’tis strange: And oftentimes, to win us to our harm, the instruments of darkness tell us truths, win us with honest trifles, to betray’s in deepest consequence.”


Macbeth, Shakespeare Act I, Scene 3, lines 124-28

There are still many conversations and situations which took place during my brief chaplaincy that have shaped and informed my ministry. Seeing a Deputy Governor and a life-sentence prisoner side-by-side with hands outstretched, sharing Communion together. A prisoner feeling aggrieved about some injustice in the prison system, who started to tell me his tale but then decided: ‘but you haven’t got the power to sort it’ – and promptly walked away. A young man who had made a dreadful mistake and was determined to start afresh. The carol service which was both strange and deeply moving.

There is a chaplain in McGovern’s drama. It’s never easy to portray spiritual support in largely secular times but Time manages to achieve a sense of authenticity and purpose. So many things are beyond the chaplain’s power to resolve, but what can be done is very moving. It felt as though ‘Miss’ knew what she was about, nether colluding nor despairing, but walking a narrow corridor of integrity in a culture where violence was only ever a heartbeat away. A way of being that brought to mind the writings of Ety Hilesum.

“I know that those who hate have good reason to do so. But why should we always have to choose the cheapest and easiest way? It has been brought home forcibly to me here how every atom of hatred added to the world makes it an even more inhospitable place.”

Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life: The Diaries, 1941-1943; and Letters from Westerbork

Changing the dynamics that foster corruption and violence will never be easy. We need a spirituality that has no illusion about this reality but, like Hillesum, is equally if not more determined to resist the temptation to be less than we are. Thankfully, McGovern’s drama is not without realistic hope. At the outset it seems to lie only in the small frame of the chaplain, surrounded by forceful men on every side. She remains faithful to her task, even when help is rejected. As the storylines progress others find their own moment of resistance, often at cost, and discover a way through to somewhere that offers the possibility of redemption. To portray this in a realistic way is not easy – evil always seems more credible – but it is accomplished in this drama. Which is an important reminder that wholly giving way to despair is perhaps the greatest betrayal of all.