Two or Three

Understandably, Evensong is about the ending of the day. As I have written before, it offers a space for reflection and prayer rendered in words that are centuries old. Once a staple ingredient of the worshipping diet of the Church of England, fewer and fewer churches hold the service with any regularity. Cathedrals still maintain its place as a mainstay of their existence and many are rewarded with appreciative congregations. York Minster saw many hundreds of people at its Easter Sunday Evensong, but this is the exception rather than the rule.

Recently I attended Evensong in the pretty port town of Whitby. I was fortunate in that my stay coincided with the one Sunday in the month when Evensong is held in one of the Anglican churches. This information wasn’t difficult to find on the internet – but I note that the local paper, the Whitby Gazette, no longer carries a listing for local church services. The publication has always felt a little retro (I’ve no idea how common the practice is) but until the pandemic there was always a sizeable entry reporting all the service times for Whitby and the surrounding villages for the forthcoming Sunday.

‘The other response to decline has been the creation of complex patterns of rotation of services’.

Bruce, S. (2011). Secularisation, church and popular religion. The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 62(3), 543-561.

The service I attended took place at 6 pm in the large Victorian church of St Hilda, built in 1844. As I have found with a number of churches at service times, there was no external indication of what was about to take place. Admittance was by a modest door that stood open, but with no signage inviting entry. Coming to this service required a confident churchgoer. While there was no one there to greet worshippers, books with a service pamphlet were prepared and waiting on a table. Arriving just a few minutes before the service time I found that I was one of three worshippers sitting in the nave. On the hour a crucifer and robed choir in double figures entered via what appeared to be a side chapel, and the service began.

It was a good service. Three hymns were sung, all familiar to me and strongly led by the choir. There was no sermon. Yet in a town of thirteen thousand souls, with many more visiting as tourists on a Bank Holiday weekend, the congregation never rose above three (two of whom were clergy). I’m not very interested in nostalgia, but there may well be a place for lament. For Evensong aficionados the service was listed in the Choral Evensong website, but that made no discernable difference to the attendance. Although over a decade old, I think Steve Bruce identifies accurately many of the problems of religion in these coastal communities, and more widely. Numbers have dwindled; clergy are fewer; sustaining services across multiple benefice parishes has led to complex timetables; as churches have closed a wider network of folk religion has diminished. In all the counting done by church strategists, the existence and role of popular religion is mostly neglected. The people whose children went to Sunday school; who attended the Carol services and coffee mornings; who turned to the church for occasional offices. Throughout my ministry, this group has been a vital part of my pastoral ministry, whether as residents in a Lancashire suburban parish; as patients in hospital; or amongst the people now living into their tenth decade and beyond. The mood music of the C of E seems to require this group to make a decision: be a disciple or be gone.

‘a notional sense of affiliation and occasional and peripheral involvement in churches and chapels requires that there be functioning churches and chapels close at hand’.

Ibid.

While there are groups now fighting a rearguard action, such as ‘Save the Parish‘, the spiritual capital already squandered through closure, complexity and theological withdrawal, will not be regained. It was built over centuries and lost in a generation. To many of us the ‘disciple’ mantras from the centre sounds like an ever-narrowing agenda. The ark may have escaped our reach, but we are downsizing to lifeboats in order to accommodate the faithful few and float over an ocean of the un-saved. This pays little regard to the everyday sacred; the resources of our churches as wonderful places to ‘be’ (when they are open); the honest striving of people to make sense of their lives.

In the glories of High Church Victoriana, Evensong can feel like the faithful performance of am-dram Shakespeare. A mystery play forged through the fires of Reformation England, with local actors adding their accents to the long, long tradition of Anglican spirituality. Words that name our wretchedness, speak of the dead and lay hope in the resurrection. In a town where the physical landscape is used to such good effect, and where jet became the jewellery of mourning, I wonder if there is any chance that new life might be breathed into this ancient worship? Before we give up the ghost on this liturgy, perhaps we should consider the possibility of new links and relationships. Surely, if any piece of worship was ever made for the Goths who congregate in Whitby, it’s Choral Evensong.

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.

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

Practiced Preparations

Last Sunday the kitchen was filled with the rich aroma of Christmas cake. Part of the counter-narrative to convenience food lies in the enduring appeal of homemade seasonal treats. Many people bemoan an ever earlier Christmas, but the truth is that timely preparations have always been a part of autumn. If I had a pound for every time someone has said to me ‘it’s only one day’ I would be a lot wealthier. While that may be true for many, there are others whose thoughts turn to Christmas early in the second half of the year. Someone I met one August, sadly bereaved of one of his few friends, wondered what would happen at Christmas? He spoke fondly of the annual visit that would see a special bottle opened, with conversation that mingled past and present. For some people, Christmas is the axle on which the year turns.

My grandmother, in a ritual practiced by many gardeners, would acquire some forced hyacinth bulbs and make sure their growth was managed in order to bring colour to Christmas. They became gifts for friends and family and filled her home with scent and brightness. The whole process takes 10-12 weeks, so this kind of preparation begins long before darkness starts to fall at an early hour. With a keen eye and careful foresight, presents were bought at various times earlier in the year and put away until needed. Sometimes gifts would be handmade, drawing on her skills in needlework. Again, this couldn’t be managed at short notice – planning was needed to ensure sufficient time to complete the project. Christmas was in mind long before it became a matter for discussion.

If of thy mortal goods thou art bereft,
And of thy meager store,
Two loaves alone to thee are left,
Sell one, and with the dole
Buy hyacinths to feed thy soul.

Saadi, Persian Sufi poet, in Gulistan (The Rose Garden), 1258

With trees up and decorations out, Advent can feel a bit late in the day, which is more appropriate than many might imagine. The themes, music and liturgy of Advent convey the sense that time is running out – salvation is at hand. Our progress through darkening days to the bright feast of the nativity is marked by ominous warnings that the end is closer than we think. We need to wake up and be alert because salvation ‘is nearer than when we first believed’. It can feel that the pots and pans of Christendom are being struck in a cacophony of anticipation and warning, just when the idea of hibernation is most appealing.

Advent is fleeting. Few places observe its daunting themes with sustained focus – there are understandable demands for nativity plays and carols to fill the Sundays up to Christmas. Yet overwriting of the season robs us of a purposeful time and some of our most profound liturgical moods and music.

In Advent, we set our sights toward the horizon of God’s future, and allow that horizon to reframe our present-day attitudes.

Witvliet, J. D. (2008). “Sing to the Lord No Threadbare Song”: Theological Angularity in the Face of Advent Sentimentality. Interpretation62(4), 402-417.

Preparation is part of our waiting. We are promised judgement. In contemplating the apocalypse we see a settling of accounts that could be horrific. What may appear overwhelmingly bleak is countered by the promise that love is born into the cataclysm. A non-sentimental love that knows who we are and helps us find a peace unavailable in our world, but freely given to those who seek it. The discomforting purpose of Advent is to allow the future to question our present. To ask, perhaps (in a post-colonial world riven by inequality) whether we have some responsibility for the people whose lives were lost in the English Channel last week? To consider how much we are complicit in our own misery. Even when observed only partially, Advent holds the space for this kind of reflection and, I can only hope, for action that becomes ever more aligned with a compassionate future to which we are being constantly nudged; invited and called.

When the tracks towards Christmas are well laid and long established there’s the risk that fresh insights will be missed. Practiced preparations can be a great distraction from the work of Advent to feed our souls and animate our awareness. There is so much to do, and a promised satisfaction if all our careful plans and preparation come to fruition. We might even gaze with smugness as we watch the panic of the foolish virgins who have left gift-buying to the very last minute. Surely they knew this day was coming? How incompetent!

Advent, in all its sombre glory, tells us about another day that is coming. Not the 25th of December but a far more significant and consequential day. It is a season that speaks over the fuss of festivities and asks big questions. Questions with a relevance and urgency we disregard at our peril.

Dumb Oratories

In The Eve of St Agnes Keats created a poem that can cause a shiver even on a summer’s afternoon. Like the accrual of snow, or the gradual appearance of frost, the poet adds layer upon layer of freezing imagery. Into this icy world Keats introduces the fire of youthful passion, dangerous and agile, breaking convention and stealing away into the night. The chill of the poem goes hand-in-hand with a general sense of the supernatural and of a world that vanished ‘long ago’, but is brought to life through the magic of poetic imagination.

The poem includes references to funerary monuments: ‘The sculptur’d dead’. It is these figures of noblemen and women that Keats describes as ‘praying in dumb orat’ries’. Often we find the depictions of the deceased in our churches and cathedrals placed in a pose of intercession. In some religious understandings this may suggest that virtuous people who have died continue to support us through their prayers. Although not in church (but more significantly in heaven) the good continue to be in relationship with us through the prayers they offer on our behalf. It was the theology that powered an industry of intercession in the Middle Ages, with the sick, poor and clergy in particular, paid to intercede with the Saints for the souls of the wealthy seeking admission to paradise. Keats describes one of these ‘beadsmen’, someone typically pensioned in order to pray, using his rosary for those he was tasked to remember.

Numb were the Beadsman’s fingers, while he told
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seem’d taking flight for heaven, without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin’s picture, while his prayer he saith.

John Keats, The Eve of St Agnes, 1819

For anyone who has experienced a close bereavement this may not seem to be very surprising. The dead are seldom forgotten by those who were caught up in their living. The deceased continue to be with us in our thoughts, dreams and daily living. I cannot count how many times I have heard hospital patients speak about a visceral experience of a loved one being present with them. Sometimes it takes place in a dream, but it can also be an experience that appears to be as real as anything else. It was these encounters that led me to write a paper in 2014 with Stephen Sayers, discussing these experiences and suggesting how NHS staff might support such events during a patient’s admission. Interestingly, I think it is the only paper to which I’ve contributed that remains entirely uncited. This lends support to our contention in the paper that the clinical world is inclined to dismiss experiences that don’t make sense, and categorise them as evidence of mental illness. Awareness of this culture is something people discern and it is likely that many experiences like this are never shared with anyone. It seems that we lack a narrative for experiences which are real and meaningful for many, but fail to fit in with our sense of rationality.

On All Hallows’ Eve, and with All Souls’ Day this week, people around the world will be reflecting on those who have died. Given that our awareness and thoughts about the dead are often private and internal, this week offers a rare moment for names to be spoken and people remembered in public. Despite the continuing growth of a playful and scary Halloween, the serious, quiet and moving act of explicit remembrance offers a less spectacular but deeper moment when we acknowledge our continuing bonds with the departed. Remembrance Sunday adds to the sense that November has an inclination to memorial.

We continue to have traffic with those we have loved but see no more. There are particular moments, such as a family wedding, when those attending may think of the people who are absent – but whose blessings would be with the couple and their future. Choices we make in life may lead us to ponder what the deceased would think of our decisions. For better or worse, the silent prayers of the dead circle our experience and commune with our conscience. What may seem to be dumb and frozen out of our reality is never wholly gone. In different ways Halloween; All Hallow’s; All Soul’s and Remembrance Sunday remind us of this truth and allow a fleeting moment for what is hidden to be spoken and named.

We die with the dying: 

See, they depart, and we go with them. 

We are born with the dead: 

See, they return, and bring us with them.

TS Eliot, Little Gidding

Send Thine Archangel

I’ve always loved Michaelmas. Perhaps it’s about the time of year when the feast of Michael falls, with schools back and universities about to start the academic year. Or it could be to do with the dedication of the church where I grew up, St Michaels’ Kirkham, and the C of E primary school I attended. For whatever reason, St Michael has always occupied by thoughts in September.

Much of the understanding of angels has shifted over the centuries under the changing winds of theological fortune. At the Reformation many physical representations of angels were lost, albeit that interest in angels continued in other ways. For Milton they were towering figures of supernatural power; of a grandeur hard for humans to gaze upon, yet also imbued with a compassion that is equally reflective of the God they serve.

Whereat Michael bid sound
The archangel trumpet; through the vast of Heaven
It sounded, and the faithful armies rung
Hosanna to the Highest

Paradise Lord, book VI

Angels persist in popular imagination and are major figures in many world religions. Especially connected with children, there have been several funerals I’ve conducted for babies where Robbie Williams’ Angels has been played and poems about angels have been read. The contemporary artist and poet Roger Wagner depicts angels across the full spectrum of his work. Often he creates contemporary scenes in which these spiritual beings are as real as the cooling towers of a power station. Through their presence in his illustrated translations of the Psalms, Wagner’s angels are given a consistent appearance across the arc of human history – hinting that human structures are temporary and fleeting set alongside the presence of these ageless entities.

Michaelmas Daisies , Museum Gardens, York 2021

And in that summer evening’s fading light
I saw his angels gather in the wheat.
Like beaten gold their beauty smote the air
And tongues of flame were streaming in their hair.

‘I Saw the Seraphim’, Roger Wagner 2019

Angels probably surface most in Western countries towards the end of the year. Whether on Christmas cards, at nativity plays, or their ubiquitous presence in carols, it feels that December is the month when we allow these strange creatures to enter our imaginations. In the child-like play of creativity that the festive season invites, these bright beings connect with a nostalgia that appears to bring wistful comfort to some. Yet angels aren’t all about sweetness and light.

When the second Adam appears, angels fly like sparks at the moment the human and divine are forged into one. The shepherds’ experience of overwhelming glory is countered by the threats of infanticide and the flight into Egypt. In the Shepherd’s Farewell by Berlioz, the lyric is tinged with a sense that even Christ must journey through a wilderness, and the shepherds petition God’s blessing on the holy child.

That is how life goes–we send our children into the wilderness. Some of them on the day they are born, it seems, for all the help we can give him. Some of them seem to be a kind of wilderness unto themselves. But there must be angels there, too, and springs of water. Even that wilderness, the very habitation of jackals, is the Lord’s.

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

It feels to me that angels occupy that ever-present and boundless wilderness of the unknown. As we understand more about the universe its scale seems to widen, and within human life there is an equal expanse of the yet-to-be-known. These glittering creatures may have cast us out of Eden, but they are also with us on our journey, ciphers of the realms of which we are only dimly aware. When Milton pictures Adam and Eve leaving the garden, they go to meet a world that ‘was all before them’. Into this great unknown they go ‘hand in hand with wandering steps and slow’.

This and the first picture are depictions of angels in the stained glass of the Great East Window (1405-1408). Photos by the author.

God protect you,
guide you safely through the wild!

The idea of angels and their depiction in the arts may seem far removed from our reality. What they represent still has lessons to teach us, and in their glow they carry the embers of eternity. They are in the dark places as well as the daylight, the unexpected glimpse of something wonderful and beyond our comprehension. Signs heralding life’s ultimate goodness and the hope of returning home. For all our advances in the world, Shakespeare’s words convey with simplicity what remains true today: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth…Than are dreamt of in your philosophy’. The infinity of angels reminds us of a vastness which cannot be fathomed, and a God who is dazzling glory – and the faintest flicker of hope in our darkness.

Nor Wanting Nor Wasting

Many people who participate in religious worship have missed singing. Thankfully, it is returning to churches and other places of worship. Singing once again has reminded me of the rich resource of both melody and poetry that makes up our finest hymns. Last Sunday featured Immortal, Invisible, God only wise at Evensong in York Minster. The phrasing and economy of the text allows a rich vein of theology to flow throughout the hymn. The paradox of a God who is hidden in light; lacking nothing, and yet whose bounteousness isn’t wasteful. Neither growing nor diminishing.

Hymns have the capacity to connect our hearts, spirits, minds and emotions in powerful ways. The enduring presence of Songs of Praise on Sunday TV is testimony to the need people feel to hear these much loved tunes and words in their lives. Hymns continue to be sung at some football clubs before matches, and Abide with Me is a part of the traditions of the FA Cup final. Radio 4’s Soul Music has featured a number of hymns and told both the story behind their creation and the impact they have had on people’s lives.

Last week I listened to another Radio 4 programme which set me thinking about all of this. Start the Week took on the ambitious topic of consciousness and how we have a sense of self. Deep waters indeed. One of the speakers was Tiffany Watt Smith, Director of the Centre of the History of Emotions at Queen Mary University of London. In her contribution to the programme Tiffany focused on the idea that language enables emotions. In other words, that “language allows us to notice those inchoate physiological experiences”. The implication is that if we lacked words to express our sensory experiences it could create a degree of inner tension and psychological difficulty.

This makes a lot of sense to me, especially when I think about the capacity of the language of poetry to express those feelings and thoughts that teeter on the edge of perception. So that my worship of a God hidden in light can find shape and expression in the combined effect of music and words. Nothing else will do this nearly so well. Dr Watt-Smith gave some examples during the programme of cultures that had a word to describe a feeling for which we no longer seem to have a use – and words we had in the past to express this, which have now dropped out of use. Perhaps ‘melancholy’ might be one example?

A cursory review of contemporary Western societies suggests that the ebbing of religious language does not represent the loss of religious experience. The growth of spirituality; the interest in phenomena such as eclipses; and the turn to mindfulness, all demonstrate a search for the transcendent. What the atheist Philip Larkin described in Church Going as an unexpected ‘hunger’ to be more serious. In the current edition of the Church Times the reviewer Andrew Brown notes the ‘uncharacteristically tentative article’ in The Economist about the state of the Church of England. The Economist article ends with words reminiscent of the experience of Larkin. Are some things timeless and beyond price?

The experience of working with people living with dementia provides vivid examples of the anxiety and frustration that are generated when words to express feelings elude. Following Watt Smith’s argument, this is not simply a problem in the communication of feelings: the lack of language impedes the development of feeling itself. If we cannot tell, then we are unable to experience hearing our own words being spoken, heard and reflected back to us.

“The Christian worldview is shaped by a variety of forces: community praxis, scripture, prayer, and perhaps supremely, participation in the liturgy”.

White, S. J. (2006). “Sing to the Lord A new song”: Christian Hymnody and the Scientific Worldview. Liturgy, 21(3), 41-50.

It may be that faith cannot be shared and developed when the language of belief has waned. This is not a purely technical problem in sharing faith, but a fundamental obstacle in allowing religious sentiments to grow. A hunger may be felt, but how will that appetite blossom and flourish? The resources that animated an inner sense of God were once plentiful and rich. Now it feels that there are gaps and holes in the discourses available to us, and a central theme with multiple facets has become a landscape of disparate ideas, struggling to sustain a core.

The Jewish people in exile asked how they could sing the Lord’s song when they had been ripped away from the fabric of of community and context. It is a question that is highly relevant for Christians in the West today as societies become ever more distanced from Christian culture and heritage. In the midst of exile it is never easy to see how liberation might come – yet time and again God’s people eventually found the freedom to re-establish a culture of faith.

We need the poetry and music to re-pattern the narrative of faith, even as we search for ways to live faithfully in a land that may feel unfamiliar and strange. In Susan White’s paper, there is a widening gap between a scientific world and a Church singing hymns reflecting a pre-modern world. I echo her conclusion that unless we find new ways of faith in the 21st century ‘we will find ourselves wandering directionless between the two worlds’. We need poets and musicians who can use the kind of economy , skill and depth illustrated by Immortal Invisible. This is no easy task, but unless we renew the culture of faith in the West, religious feeling will reach for words that can no longer be found.

We the Passengers

For all its faults, limitations and breadth, the Church of England has embodied a particular way of service and witness. Planted in every community, the Parish Church is a focus for spiritual expression, history and continuity. The buildings of the Church tell the story of God’s presence in the world; the death and resurrection of Christ; the connection of the here and now to a Kingdom that is becoming. They are the public expressions of Christian faith and offer the community a place to pray; to seek; and to find. The presence of these buildings is a testament to centuries of worshippers and a space of invitation ready for future generations. They are not often the buildings we would construct today – nor do they always meet the needs of modern congregations. Yet time and again creative alterations have enabled a balance to be struck between history and necessity; the beauty of a former age, and the inspiration of the present.

“Lay-led churches release the Church from key limiting factors. When you don’t need a building and a stipend and long, costly college-based training for every leader of church . . . then actually we can release new people to lead and new churches to form”. 

‘Vision and Strategy update for Synod’ The Church Times Friday 2 July 2021

The rich but daunting legacy of the Church has been questioned in a recent report in which Canon John McGinley has identified the limiting factors facing the institution. It would appear that his answer to the challenges facing the Church is to move away from virtually everything that defines the C of E. Fewer paid clergy; less investment in the education of ministers; getting rid of buildings. There is an attractive naïveté in this view of the world – the investment in a bright future of low-budget Jesus-clubs with vastly reduced overheads. What’s not to like?

Well, quite a lot. This kind of arrangement already exists across a broad range of churches, it hardly needs inventing. There is nothing particular that the Church of England would bring to these house churches, and a huge amount to lose. Shifting the focus from public worship to private homes has all sorts of implications. Everyone has a right to attend worship in their Parish Church: domestic settings can be more choosy. As large amounts of money are invested in new expressions of Church it is important to ask why such funds can’t be allocated to strengthening the resources that sustain the parish system. Over the last thirty years the direction of travel has been to merge churches; group congregations; and share vicars. The stretch has become wider and wider with no end in sight to the melancholy, long withdrawing roar, of well-educated, professionally trained and locally visible clergy.

Amongst at least some clergy there is a clear distaste for the kinds of people who attend church. Just over a decade ago this was palpably clear in the disastrous ministry of a former vicar of Wetherby. Of course people can be difficult (that’s clear in the Epistles) but brow-beating the laity into the preferred theology of the minister is seldom a success, from whichever tradition the vicar comes. The disdain for people who don’t engage with the current liturgical fashion has to stop. I’ve known serving bishops refer to attendees at early morning worship as those who prefer ‘non-contact sports’. In other words, people who come to church but don’t engage: passengers. This is a disturbing and wholly anti-pastoral characterisation. In my experience many of these faithful people are wounded or grieving and this is the service that saves than from well-meaning but overbearing compassion. They are not passengers. They participate by being there; receiving the sacrament and praying. It is very dangerous to measure things by a standard that isn’t calibrated to capture the dimensions of what is under examination. In the current meeting of General Synod there has been reference to measuring the ‘depth of discipleship’, not simply its quantity. How this is developed will reveal much about the prevailing perception of what matters in the C of E.

It appears that much of the energy driving this kind of proposal comes from a desire to succeed. As Martyn Percy has commented in this debate, there are gendered and indeed sexual elements to this ambition. The attempt to achieve growth and public profile in Christian mission feels at times like an exercise in countering personal insecurity. The kind of new churches being talked about feel a million miles away from the deep, gritty, faithful and radiant ministry of the chaplain portrayed so skilfully in the recent Jimmy McGovern BBC mini-series Time.

“God left us with a very troubling model of success. I think success for the Church has to be something measured by the degree to which the compelling radiance of God comes through.”

Rowan Williams quoted in The Church Times, 9 September 2009

Even as I write this blog it feels paradoxical that most of my ministry has been spent outside the pay of the Church Commissioners. Being with people in prison breaking bread; talking with prisoners about faith and sharing in Bible study. Sitting by a hospital bed where two or three pray together and face the tough realities of suffering, loss and mortality. Singing hymns with 40 people on a Sunday evening in a retirement complex. Most of the time I have done these things, the interest of the institutional Church has been limited. For example, these moments of ministry tend not to be counted. Rather than launch some grandiose scheme of suburban sitting-room religion why don’t we invest more in recognising, supporting and growing the ministry that is already happening and proving so well received and valuable? I think we would be surprised just how much is already going on in our communities.

The answer may be that these places and people don’t fit the image of the youthful, successful and heteronormative family life so often equated with success. The picture of shining disciples who just ‘get on with it’ rather than wrestle with theological dilemmas and pastoral complexities. In a nation of increasing diversity, not least in matters of religion, this simplicity may sound appealing but it comes with considerable risks. Leading and serving the church in the 2020s certainly isn’t less challenging than it’s been in the past.

Clergy don’t need cheaper training – they need enhanced training. This training is likely to be more expensive than the training provided today. Why would we want the clergy of the future to be less able to recognise, understand and manage the responsibilities they hold? We need people who don’t simply safeguard against physical abuse but leaders who know the wisdom of ensuring people are able to make open and balanced choices about belief. Placing an overriding emphasis on recruitment and growth is likely to generate behaviours that increase the risks of abuse. The telling observation by the Leeds sociologist Zygmunt Bauman is often at the back of my mind and can serve as a salutary reminder that religious ministry is enmeshed in powerful and potentially dangerous inter-personal dynamics:

“One of the most insidious of the many shapes of domination (pastoral power), as it blackmails its objects into obedience and lulls its agents into self-righteousness by representing itself as self-sacrifice in the name of ‘the life and salvation of the flock'”

Zygmunt Bauman, Postmodern Ethics

Maybe we have arrived at a moment when the Church of England needs to engage in a consultation about its future. A consultation which will include people who don’t attend church but value its presence; people in extra-parochial settings who experience its ministry; and the people who come faithfully and frequently to experience the joy and peace of worship. Surely, for something so richly present in the landscape of England, the future direction of the institution deserves wider consideration. Perhaps even the passengers can have their say?

Getting High

Elevation has a connection to altered states as old as humanity itself. It is unsurprising that height is a metaphor for intoxication, a sense of elation rising above the mundane and everyday. For many people reaching the summit of a mountain is a transcendent experience, the kind of perspective described by William James as a moment when “we can experience union with something larger than ourselves and in that union find our greatest peace”.

Standing watch over Whitby are the remains of an abbey, where a church has stood since the year 657. The choice of location reflects a common practice of placing churches on prominent sites overlooking a village or town. Nor is this practice confined to Christianity – it is a phenomenon which can be seen in countless world religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism.

This architectural preference reflects the belief that spiritual matters are ‘above’. Whether that is simply the place where God dwells, or a parallel world of saints and angels, heavenly beings are consistently elevated; on high; raised up. Placing a church above the everyday existence of home and work illustrated these metaphysics. Not only was this done by the elevation of the building, it was often reflected in the interior, where steps were set at key points suggesting a gradual ascent towards perfection: nave to choir; choir to sanctuary; sanctuary to high altar.

In 1 and 2 Kings, high places are a matter of considerable discussion. Here the bamah (plural bamot) are places where shrines and altars are established. Customarily, many of these were at the summit of hills and mountains and it is understandable that translators often took the idea of raised places to render this word. However, the book of Ezra describes bamot in ravines or valleys, suggesting that these were places of high religious significance, but not necessarily always placed at physical altitude.

Getting to the summit of a mountain holds a human fascination. Whether it’s Everest, or the 282 munros to bag in Scotland, getting to the top offers a sense of achievement and exclusivity. Not everyone makes it, and many don’t ever begin. Reaching such a goal implies physical fitness and mental determination. Those achieving such targets become part of club with limited membership.

Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.

Isaiah 40:4

When it comes to the prophet Isaiah there’s the suggestion of a divine ‘levelling-up agenda’. Elite places of encounter are flattened – what was accessible for the few becomes an opportunity for the many. The Christian faith finds in Jesus Christ the incarnation of this vision, the revelation of a God as close to us as we are to ourselves. A holy presence that comes to meet us wherever we are: in a stable, in temptation, by a well, at supper, or on the cross. A relationship that takes us out of ourselves, dispelling the illusion of a self-centred existence. These connections beyond us, to God and neighbour, become paramount ways to live a good life and see ourselves in perspective.

Many people have special places, perhaps because they once offered a life-changing experience. High places and threshold places – such as any natural wonder – can have the capacity to give us a transcendent moment. It is no coincidence that for some of Jesus’ disciples it was a moment of revelation on a mountain that enabled them to see Jesus transfigured. These places and experiences have always belonged together in the human imagination. The good news is that faith can bring these elevated insights into the everyday. We only need to think of the diminutive field RS Thomas saw illuminated by the sun for a moment, the ‘miracle of the lit bush… the eternity that awaits you’, to know that spiritual transformation is only ever a moment away. All we need are the eyes to see it.

Evensong Praised

On the eve of decimalisation, in 1971, my Uncle Alan gave me a few of the new coins. The owner of a draper’s shop in a Lancashire market town, he had them in advance of general circulation. At a young age this was exciting for me rather than strange, but it must have come as a shock to many people; a radical departure from the money familiar for generations. My only memory of using the old currency was adding a modest contribution to the ‘penny miles’ which used to snake their way along the pavement in aid of a good cause. Much easier to achieve with the old penny than with the new.

The 1970s were full of change. As a family we attended the parish church which began to use the experimental orders of service offered by the Church of England. My earliest recollection is the ‘Series 3’ service, and I quickly came to know the communion liturgy by heart. For my parents and grandparents it must have felt jarring – or liberating – to shift the address to God from ‘Thou’ to ‘You’. Money changing; holy words changing – it was quite a decade.

In all the change that has followed for the Church, one service has remained largely untouched. Somehow, Prayer Book Evensong persevered in cathedrals and some parishes, although it has died out in many places. It feels to me that no other service reflects the time of day quite so fittingly. Traditionally held at 6:30 pm, the time has changed over the years, and now often takes place as early as 4 or 5 pm. Yet this hasn’t disturbed unduly the rhythm of the day or the sense that this service is connected with the waning of light and the approach of dusk. At St Cuthbert’s Lytham as a teenager, and St Mary Magdalene Ecton in rural Northamptonshire in the mid-1980s, I attended Evensong many times. Now I enjoy the same opportunity at York Minster. In spiritual and musical terms it is a spacious service, faithful and reflective in tone, it sits well as the business of day gives way to the evening hours.

“You’ve got to enjoy yourself. The evening’s the best part of the day. You’ve done your day’s work. Now you can put your feet up and enjoy it. That’s how I look at it. Ask anybody, they’ll all tell you. The evening’s the best part of the day.” 

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

Choral Evensong is available to anyone with an internet connection anywhere in the world. Each week BBC Radio 3 broadcasts a service (occasionally played from its archive) and there are countless other options on YouTube and elsewhere. This is not a weekly festival of past musical triumphs, but strives to include new compositions and innovation that adds to the spiritual range of the service. Recently Radio 3 broadcast Evensong from St Pancras Church in London. It was a live event during the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music. About 7 minutes into the service there was the world premier of an introit ‘Troparion’ by Renāts Cvečkovskis. It struck me as a remarkably haunting piece of music. Marking the season of the Ascension the music rose and fell in the ancient church. At one point the wail of a siren penetrates the walls and become part of the music. I’ve no idea which arm of the emergency services it came form, but this sudden intrusion of everyday-London didn’t seem out of place in the contemplation of a departing God.

“the presence of contemporary music in an ancient cathedral, especially its more angular dissonance, serves as a reminder that the worship being offered, although in beautiful and ancient surroundings, is not remote from the anguished and urgent realities of the present day”. 

Simon Reynolds, ‘In Praise of Evensong’ The Church Times 7 May 2021
The Great East Window, York – which with fading light, is a frequent backdrop to Choral Evensong

As Simon Reynods wrote a few weeks ago, attendance at Evensong has been growing in recent years. Perhaps this is linked to a new interest in monasticism (in which our evening worship was formed). Or it may be a rediscovery of pilgrimage – a meaningful journey to a place or moment of spiritual significance. Either way, it is a service with sufficient self-confidence to allow seekers, enquirers and tourists to attend. Being at Evensong is an immersive experience combining the deep roots of Judeo-Christian worship with an English language forged in the heat of exceptional times, as the great vowel shift left an enduring mark on our liturgy.

When Lord Rees won the Templeton Prize there was some debate as to why an agnostic astrophysicist had been awarded £1 million by a religious foundation. Described as a churchgoer who doesn’t believe in God, Rees responded that his visits to Evensong in his college chapel were simply ‘the customs of my tribe’. This disarming answer puts a spoke in the wheels of both ardent atheists as well as religious purists. I would like to think that, for Rees, the difficulties of knowing which lie at the heart of faith are a refreshing exposure of uncertainties, which abound in science but are far less often announced in public . His comments certainly hint at this:

“Doing science made me realise that even the simplest things are hard to understand and that makes me suspicious of people who believe they’ve got anything more than an incomplete and metaphorical understanding of any deep aspect of reality,”

Lord Rees, quoted in The Guardian 6 April 2011

It would be wrong if what I have reflected on to this point was not questioned. Is Evensong elitist? The music is often of the highest quality and there are no doubt people who look at the menu of settings and anthems before deciding to set out for a service. The power of the liturgy relies to some extent on the evocative silences and echoes between the notes and words. An occasional intrusion of noise may sometimes add to the service, but not always. Not everyone can be silent and still for an hour. While freedom from vocal participation can be liberating, for others it is frustrating and disempowering. Sometimes Evensong sermons are inclusive and engaged with a God alive in the world, but they can also be inward looking and riddled with churchy language and ideas. The question of culture in worship is something Giles Fraser has addressed, and it continues to be a live debate for the Church. Fraser reflects on his time attending Evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral:

The silence would stop me and calm me down. The prayers and readings would slowly format my thoughts. But it was the music that stole for me a glimpse of heaven. And it was often unspeakably beautiful.

Giles Fraser, Unherd – blog following the announcement of Sheffield Cathedral’s choir being disbanded

Evensong is a rich and important part of worship. Knowing what is being offered and where to find it is much easier now there is a dedicated website. The internet’s offering of liturgy, including Evensong, has become much more extensive during the pandemic – there is a wealth of material to discover. Radio 3’s weekly broadcast is now in its 95th year. I have no doubt it will make the centenary, and endure long, long into the future. It is a jewell in the crown of English worship and will continue to be a vital part of a living spirituality. Not for everyone – but for an eclectic mix of doubtful seekers and faithful pilgrims. When so much continues to change, Evensong has lightened the darkness for people across the centuries: a precious moment of reflection, praise and peace.