A Fleeting Shadow

It is an incidental fact of the modern world that most of us are captured, unwittingly, in other people’s photos. Whereas once upon a time we might have dodged around the line-of-fire between camera and subject, there are now so many pictures being taken that it is almost impossible not to intrude. Outside York Minster cameras and phones are in all directions, with an almost continuous stream of snaps being taken from dawn until well after dusk. I’ve long given up trying to walk around.

No doubt my nonchalance about the risk of ruining an image is partly the result of technological progress. In my youth a photograph was a precious thing, involving physical film and a long delay between a click and seeing the image itself. If the camera was set incorrectly a whole reel of film could be lost, but you wouldn’t know until after all the photos had been taken and the cost of developing had been paid. As with all technology, there is a rearguard action against this progress and a growing interest in using film cameras, which market analysts expect to continue. Nevertheless, when I walk into someone’s line of sight today I know that more often than not the image can be deleted in a second, at no cost, and further attempts to capture the desired picture are almost unlimited.

In her new novel, The Hero of This Book, the novelist Elizabeth McCracken writes entertainingly about this shift in behaviour reflecting the altered state of the technology used in photography. At one point we find McCracken’s protagonist walking across the Millennium Bridge by Tate Modern:

I slowed but I didn’t stop. I strode out. “Well, that’s ruined it,” I heard a woman mutter as I passed. She was examining the screen of her camera – an actual camera, not a phone; she took herself seriously – and she wanted me to feel bad. The wind was pulling apart her ponytail in a quarrelsome way. I didn’t feel bad; I felt marvellous. For years I’d been polite around tourists taking pictures. I’d yielded, believing as many people did then, and some still do, that this was a moral law.

Elizabeth McCracken, The Hero of This Book, Jonathan Cape, London 2023 p. 38

Across the world millions of us will be captured on the edges and backgrounds of strangers’ photographs. In the Cloud there will probably be millions more – photos that will never see the light of day; be added to an album; or turned into images for cushions, mugs and mouse-mats. It is a theme picked up by the former doctor and hit TV script-writer Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty). In a semi-autobiographical novel that preceded his fame, Mercurio wrote about his time as a junior doctor in an NHS hospital. At one point he reflects on the fact that at the end of a patient’s life it is usually those closest to them who are present. However, there are also figures around the patient who have only appeared for the first time in the patient’s life at this critical moment: the clinical staff. As with many of the most significant moments in our lives, the images of this experience will be etched into memories for years to come. However, in those mental images – with key family members static by the bedside – the staff are little more than a blur:

Though I’m beside her I’m not part of the moment or part of another life ending for no reason I can comprehend. I’m a passer-by captured in a photograph who’s an out-of-focus streak of lines flashing through the frame and then gone. I’m a cold scalpel-sharp instrument slicing through scenes in other people’s lives and not ever being slowed.

Jed Mercurio, Bodies, Vintage Press, 2003, p. 134

I am less gloomy than Mercurio about the import and significance of the professionals’ fleeting presence. At our best we help foreground the key family members and the person whose life is ebbing away. By doing our work with suitable skill, attention and compassion we leave family members, not with the images of the clinical staff, but with an imprint of their loving concern and professional care. Many times I have heard people mention the commitment and dignity provided by professional staff when speaking about a critical moment in their life. The memory of faces may blur, but the impact of humanity and empathy remains. This isn’t only in the weeks and months following a loss, it can endure for a lifetime. What at the time may feel like a fleeting shadow, an intrusion into the frame of our family and friends, may leave a legacy of enduring goodness.


Former generations excelled at avoiding waste. My grandparents, having lived through two Word Wars, knew how to make sure that seemingly useless packaging, or clothes that were coming to end of their life, found a fresh purpose. Growing up in the 1960s and 70s this seemed to me to be a needless attachment to things best thrown away. I appreciate now that if more of us had living with their attitude to possessions the world now might be a better (and cooler) place. The disposable society is minting new mountains of refuse every day. By and large, we have not lived carefully with the planet or appreciated the consequences of a cultural attitude of ‘buy-and-bin’.

Living in York I am reminded of the care and thought that has gone into repurposing things that have come to the end of one life, and begin another. Whether the eroded masons’ work, now removed from the Minster, that forms a border in the garden, or the spectacular pinnace – replaced in the last decade – which sits in the grounds of the Deanery. (It is pictured at the top of this blog, lit with tea lights). In some ways this recycling can be functional, in others a curiosity, like the stonework brought down to ground level from well over 100 feet.

Eroded masonry from York Minster is often used in nearby gardens to form borders.

Last week a news report feature one of the UK’s largest centres for ‘upcycling’. Here, items that would normally have gone into landfill are careful brought back to life and refreshed so that they can continue to be used. In some cases items find a new purpose – perhaps in a garden or elsewhere around the home. Seeing the large warehouse full of items awaiting attention was a salutary reminder of how much we dispose of without a second thought as to value, purpose or potential.

“Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable – which, I haste to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live.”

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

Physical ruins are a visible reminder of the fragments of re-purposed ideas; conventions; and language, which are part of our current reality. Like the rubble of Roman occupation on which York Minster is built, we know that the civilisation of two thousand years ago is visible in our road system and forms of political administration. Very little is without precedent and each generation makes use of the past in its own way. Perhaps we are rather better at recycling (or up-cycling) ideas than physical items. Certainly politics seems to offer little more than various re-castings of former ideologies. The process to find a new leader for the Conservative Party – and Prime Minister – has candidates raiding the perceived ‘glory days’ of Thatcherism to curry favour with a nostalgic party membership.

Christianity is a material religion. The incarnation fuses matter and spirit, flesh and breath. God is not separate from this reality and, when discarded and destroyed, Jesus is encountered in resurrection as a physical being. As the central event of the Christian faith, this divine refusal to abide in death suggests that even our most disastrous experiences can never be wholly written-off. Like Lazarus in his tomb, we may find ourselves unexpectedly dragged back into life. Whether it be the prodigal son; a disgraced woman cast before Jesus; or the sick separated from society, God appears to be unusually concerned with what we rubbish. As the UK heads towards what the NHS Confederation this week characterised as the risk of a ‘humanitarian crisis’ it is the responsibility of the Church to speak and act to ensure that we are not complicit in forgetting people below the political horizon. Healing and restoration abound in the presence of Jesus and the Church cannot be itself without fulfilling the same mission.

“Bricolage involves skill in sewing, mending, refashioning, and building, but it also involves perception of possibilities and imagination; one must wonder what things might become once they can no longer be what they were…”

Lang Hearlson, C. (2021). Theological imagination in a throwaway society: Contending with waste. Theology Today, 78(2), 158-169. Chicago

Summer Daze

It is unsurprising that I have seen few swifts in the centre of York. One evening there were some high up above the Minster’s central tower – and now and then I spot a solitary bird above the garden. The preference of these birds is the open spaces of Yorkshire, rather than the urban quarters. Cycling back from Beningbrough recently we traveled beside open fields near Overton, a very small village mentioned in the Domesday Book. As I looked up to my right I suddenly noticed a sky full of activity – a large number of swifts darting and diving above the land.

They are remarkable birds to watch. High up, flitting among the clouds, swifts dart, spin and slice their path through dense summer air. They are in the element where they spend a remarkable amount of their lives. It is now well established that swifts can remain airborne for months at a time; eating, sleeping and finding moisture on the wing. Given this propensity for flight they aren’t the easiest birds to observe, often circling high up on a summer’s day. Their visits to the UK from Africa usually last about 4 months.

The poet Edward Thomas is not alone in responding to a mood that midsummer can stir in the hearts of many who rest and watch in a landscape steeped in life and heat. In Haymaking the poet is observing the countryside just before dawn, with the pre-mechanised task of harvesting about to begin. Birds in nearby thickets are already singing:

While over them shrill shrieked in his fierce glee
The swift with wings and tail as sharp and narrow
As if the bow had flown off with the arrow.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/53746/haymaking Edward Thomas, Haymaking

The scimitar curve of the swift is perhaps its chief identifier, and the bird’s call is captured beautifully in Thomas’ ‘fierce glee’. An arrow’s flight is a good simile for the speed of the creature, and the idea of the bow going with the arrow captures the taut shape of the swift’s wings.

A swift I photographed last week against light cloud at Lanercost Priory, Cumbria

When you can see a swift at close quarters they become more noticeably different from other birds with which they are often associated, such as swallows. Swifts have a body shape that seems almost prehistoric – which reflects their early divergence from many other species. As Katherine Rundell put it in an excellent 2019 article in the London Review of Books, their antiquity means that they were on ‘nodding acquaintance with the Tyrannosaurus’. In this piece Rundell notes that swifts were one of the inspirations behind the legendary ‘martlet’, which never landed and was believed to have no feet.

In heraldry, the swift is one of the inspirations for the imaginary martlet, a stylised bird without feet. Unable to land, the martlet is a symbol of restlessness and pursuit: of the constant search for knowledge and adventure and learning.

Consider the Swift, by Katherine Rundell LRB Vol. 41 No. 16 · 15 August 2019

The North Yorkshire wildlife artist Jonathan Pomroy (@JonathanMPomroy) is a keen observer of swifts, and in the recent heatwave he noted the way these, and other birds, achieve some extra release of warmth: they dangle their feet in flight. Jonathan’s watercolours capture the detail, beauty and speed of the birds, which is certainly a challenge when the air is so hot that watercolours don’t perform as they should.

Our brief summer visitors were placed on the ‘Red List’ at the end of 2021, following a decline of more than 50% in the last 25 years. There are many reasons for this, with one major factor being the rising number of building conversions. Swifts are creatures of habit and return to the same site to nest. Renovation work might close gaps and holes that are essential for their survival. If the nesting place has disappeared it makes it less likely that a pair will breed. Many agencies are advocating the use of swift nest boxes and encouraging people to consider the consequences of building works. It would be a devastating loss if these summer visitors vanished from a landscape which they fill each year with life, beauty and dazzling displays of aerial brilliance.

Feature photo by: https://www.istockphoto.com/portfolio/avs_lt?mediatype=photography

Decennium Horribilis

The Queen famously reflected that 1992 had been, for her, an annus horribilis. At the moment if feels like the 2020s might come to be known as the decade of horror. Even as we wobble (possibly), out of a devastating pandemic, the world’s worst nightmares of climate change are becoming a reality. In the coming days the UK will experience temperatures never before known. For several days, the sun will extend its scorching heat all the way from the cool cloisters of Oxford colleges to York Minster; from the industrial north, to the vast storage heater that is our capital city. In all their antiquity, buildings will be placed in the stress of temperatures for which they were not built, and from which they may not survive unscathed.

A word that became over-used in the pandemic was ‘unprecedented’. Yet here we are again, facing a very different health emergency. As is so often the case, Shakespeare expresses this experience with economy when he puts the following text in the mouth of Claudio:

“When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions”

Hamlet, Act IV, Scene V

Michael Rosen, writing in yesterday’s edition of The Guardian, hits the nail on the head when he reflects from personal experience that we have not even begun to digest the catalogue of pains which have touched us all: “we are chewing over several levels of trauma at the same time: personal, social, national and possibly global”. I suspect that for many of us these traumas have been shelved, as much as they can be. The rapid succession of crises means that even as one drops from the headlines, a fresh assault has already muscled into prime position. It was all COVID; then a connected string of economic shocks, labour shortages and inflation; a war in Europe and displaced people to support; spiralling energy bills; and now a sustained period of temperatures we normally associate with Andalucía. I’ve probably missed some, and there are certainly other emerging concerns snapping at our heels.

Coastal resorts will offer some cool respite from the high temperatures, for those able to travel

For the privileged and well resourced these challenges are inconvenient, rather than definitive. Isolation for the well-heeled may not have been welcome, but it came with interior space; expansive gardens; and possibly gyms or swimming pools. Excessive heat might be worrying, but it will be tolerated in large rooms, behind thick walls and with high ceilings. Perhaps, even, with air conditioning. For the poor in our society it will be a different story. Small spaces, tower blocks, no private garden, an infrastructure of roads and pavements that will absorb the heat throughout the day and emit it during the night. In the 1980s I was staying in Argentina during a spring heatwave with temperatures in excess of 40°. I was in student accommodation, sharing a small room, close to the centre of Córdoba. During a sleepless night I reached out to touch the wall and found it still warm, stalling the drop in temperature for which we were all waiting. People survive in these temperatures, but they do not thrive.

There have been few decades in human history that have all been sweetness and light. In terms of the title of this blog, it is also worth considering the question: ‘horrible for whom?’ Just like the Queen, our perception of events can be very parochial. It may concern our home and our family, but touch little on a broader political context. Once out of the long Edwardian summer, European history of the 20th century is a sorry story of futile destruction; a second war that followed disastrous economic turmoil; the physical division of Europe and the threat of nuclear destruction. However, both with the pandemic and the UK weather forecast, there are measurable impacts which can only be described as ‘unprecedented’. This is not simply an endless human story of generational angst. These experience are either entirely novel or the fresh occurrence of a crisis last experienced a century ago.

As Rosen observes, talk of memorial events to recognise the 200,000 COVID deaths in the UK appears to have been kicked into the long grass. Our attention has moved on (but, perhaps, not our feelings or our analysis of events). I certainly meet many people who think of COVID as last-year’s news. As we move beyond the first quarter of this decade the signs are not good that peace and prosperity will be more prevalent by the end of 2029 than they were in 2020. The carousel of crises shows little sign of stopping and its pace certainly feels much faster. My hope and prayer is that we shall – eventually – begin to reflect on the cost of our inequalities and the toxic world they are creating. More importantly, that reflection and prayer leads to action and a stronger sense of how we, as a global community, act to ensure that the sorry story of the last couple of years does not become our permanent reality.

Holy God,
earth and air and water are your creation, and every living thing belongs to you: have mercy on us
as climate change confronts us.
Give us the will and the courage
to simplify the way we live,
to reduce the energy we use,
to share the resources you provide, and to bear the cost of change.
Forgive our past mistakes and send us your Spirit,
with wisdom in present controversies
and vision for the future to which you call us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

© The Anglican Church of Australia

The Smallest Twine

At the central crisis in Much Ado About Nothing, Hero is not only jilted at the altar but disgraced by means of deception. While the Friar advises a counter-deception, to right the wrong, Hero’s father is bewildered. When advised to accept the Friar’s plan, he responds: ‘Being that I flow in grief,
The smallest twine may lead me’.

Clergy and pastors are often with people at a time of bewilderment. We meet people who are in the midst of grief, or turning to a minister as a source of trusted advice. Of course this is not only a situation faced by clergy. However, for some people the legacy of respect for clergy, perhaps instilled in childhood, may assume that any advice is divinely guided and lacks any other kind of motivation. Sadly, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Manipulation by appeal to divine authority is nothing new. In the York Mystery play of The Flood, Noah struggles to persuade Mrs Noah to get onboard. Finally he tells her: ‘It was God’s will without a doubt’. Understandably, Mrs Noah is unimpressed with this approach:

What, thinks thou that will let thee quit?
Nay, by my troth, thou gets a clout.

An unimpressed Mrs Noah, played by Helen Wilson, in The Flood, York Mystery Plays 2022

Recognition of distinctive dynamics in pastoral care is an essential step in recognising that the nature and form of abuse may be nuanced. Religions typically mirror forms of kinship, and at its best church can be a family of chosen association – with a strong sense of communal love, support and care. While this is commendable we also need to remember that most abuse takes place in families, and it might be that the prevalence of abuse in church communities reflects similar vulnerabilities of trust, inter-generational contact, authority and power.

I have quoted in a previous blog the caustic observation of the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman:

“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

Certainly this is a powerful summary of the consequences that emerge when pastoral or spiritual power is abused and goes unchecked. Virtue is an excellent facade for many kinds of vice. If a leader claims that what they are doing is directed by God, when an individual has been shaped to believe that God must be obeyed, the opportunities for malfeasance become almost limitless. It is the kind of thing that has persuaded elderly people to leave all their estate to the church (or the vicar); for people to be induced into forming inappropriate relationships; or engineered the acceptance of unreasonable expectations about the use of time.

There is a growing literature about the significance and operation of pastoral abuse. This field is in its early development and there is considerable scope for deepening both the scholarship, and the practical advice that flows from it. For example, in her consideration of abuse through an examination of Ezekiel 34, Amy White notes that ‘self-sacrificial leadership for the sake of the lost was clearly lacking’. However, I have known many self-sacrificial clergy who have been perfectly capable of spiritual manipulation.

The very discomforting question which needs to be addressed in any examination of spiritual abuse is whether God is ever capable of it? In the stories of both The Flood and Job, God is described as causing or permitting apocalyptic suffering. If church leadership is invested in literal understandings of Scripture this question needs to be addressed. Alternatively, if the Bible is understood as a collection of books describing an evolving discernment about the nature of God, then we arrive at a very different place, and one in which pastoral power in the person of Jesus is open to both questioning and accountability: “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Given the weight and significance of religious ideas, the need to handle pastoral relationships with care is essential. Only in recent years, and largely when compelled to do so, have churches acknowledged the need for greater accountability. Ironically, it could be argued that this failure to take prompt action to prevent abuses arises from a limited understanding of sin. While happy to wag the moral finger at various minority groups, many Christians appear to have lacked a willingness to be curious about wrongdoings much closer to home. Although no system is a perfect solution to the misuse of pastoral relationships, a greater expectation and resourcing of professional supervision would go a long way to excavating and naming pastoral risks. This would both help people understand the bewilderment in which they often minister, and recognise the temptation to pull the twine to places where people should not be led.

Thy Neighbour’s Ass

We don’t hear a lot about coveting these days. What was once a sin, a transgression of Commandment number 10, seems to pretty much be the basis for modern economics. No longer a failing or flawed characteristic, wanting what others have is seen as aspirational and positive. In the late-Medieval and Reformation shift of religious ideas, where churches were once kaleidoscopes of Christian iconography, the new thinking put words at the heart of everything. In the now closed and re-purposed church of St. Michael Spurriergate, York, the Commandments occupy a central position behind the altar. The increased placement of inscriptions in churches was both a cause and effect of growing literacy.

“During the later Middle Ages images came to be supplanted by written texts: a format that was destined to outlast images and to dominate the interior landscape of churches after the Reformation”

Orme, N. (2021). Going to Church in Medieval England. Yale University Press p. 113

Coveting is not the same as feeling envy. The latter is regarded as a negative emotion and is one of the deadly sins. The former is a longing to enjoy the same possessions as someone else. However, it is easy to see how the two are closely related: coveting might become envy. The problem with commandments is that they are easy to announce (and to read) and far more difficult to enact. This can result in the stigmatisation of emotional responses that are to a large extent beyond our mental capacity to control. In other words, we long to have lawnmower quite as splendid as the one owned by our neighbour; we know that we should not be feeling this envy; but thought alone cannot dispel the desire.

“Envy is an emotion characterized by intense coveting of what another has (see e.g., Smith & Kim, 2007). Social life presents us with a wealth of opportunities to covet what another person has. Indeed, there is always somebody who is more moral, more intelligent, more attractive, more popular, more prosperous, more skilled, or more successful than we are. There are no boundaries to what we can desire in envy”.

Rodriguez Mosquera, P. M., Parrott, W. G., & Hurtado de Mendoza, A. (2010). “I fear your envy, I rejoice in your coveting: On the ambivalent experience of being envied by others”. Journal of personality and social psychology, 99(5), 842.

One recent response to the topic of envy suggests that psychologists and philosophers can work together to overcome the perception that envy is reprehensible. The authors of the paper conclude that envy is a more neutral concept than commonly believed, and that envy can be ‘functional or dysfunctional’. However, interesting as this approach might be, I would argue that there is a wealth of evidence that in the digital age, where image can be seen to be everything, envy is both more pervasive and more destructive than ever before. In the society which received the Ten Commandments covetousness of a neighbour’s possessions or lifestyle probably meant someone across a fence or down the road. Now anyone can click online and take a virtual tour around the homes of the mega-wealthy; gaze at the bodies of super-models; or find any one of thousands of lifestyles that might be envied. Capitalism is driven by our dissatisfaction and desire for more and for better.

Photo by Lagos Food Bank Initiative on Pexels.com

I think there is a distinction between this envy of what others have, and a desire for the improvement of life-chances for everyone. We might ‘envy’ a country for its health system or treatment of older citizens. This is not about our own possessions but about the wellbeing of the community as a whole. In some quarters the aspirations of Trade Unions for better pay and conditions is attacked with a suggestion that workers are engaging in wealth-envy. The language of class warfare is used to imply that people who have failed to become rich are simply jealous of those sitting in their mansions with millions. This is to misunderstand the anger of those who believe that people in full-time employment using food banks in a wealthy society is both immoral and unacceptable.

All Are Drowned

A literal reading of the story of The Flood would surely see God in the dock for genocide. Apart from one family, life in the world is washed away by a Deity impatient with the sinful state of humanity. According the Genesis 5:7, it is a decision to ‘blot out form the earth the human beings I have created’. In the York Mystery Plays performing this week, it is only Mrs Noah who makes a ‘din’ at this sudden and devastating loss of life:

But Noah, where are now all our kin
And company we knew before?

The resonance of these words to audiences that lived through plague years can only be imagined. People survived and wondered what had become of their neighbours; their extended families; and their friends. All the guilds that performed in the plays would have experiences the painful deaths of colleagues, with the plays being performed after a gap caused by the worst excesses of infection. Perhaps a full cast was harder to find and familiar figures were noticeable by their absence?

Maurice Crichton as Noah in The Flood, York’s Mystery Plays in 2022 (picture in York Press)

Some of the problems of the story are touched on in the narratives of the play. At the end, when the waters subside, an innocent son asks: ‘how shall this life be led Since none are in this world but we?’ Populating a new world from one family raises its own problems and risks. There is humour in the son’s question but also a serious point about the regeneration of humanity. In the streets of York such blunt questions were permitted in a way that was unlikely to be acceptable in the Minster and churches of the city.

In England the Archbishop of York proclaimed that the plague was “surely… caused by the sins of men who, made complacent by their prosperity, forgot the beauty of the most high Giver”.

Beidler, P. G. (1981). Noah and the Old Man in the “Pardoner’s Tale.” The Chaucer Review, 15(3), 250–254. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25093759

Understandably, and perhaps addressing the unspoken questions of an audience wondering about the repetition of such a catastrophe, one son asks whether the empire of the world will now last forever. Noah gives the assurance that there will not be another flood – but that the world ‘shall once be waste with fire, And never worth to world again’. The final cataclysm will be a blazing end to God’s creation. In current circumstances it might indeed feel that this is where we are heading – although the Deity only needs to sit back and watch as we pursue lifestyles that may lead to this ultimate conflagration. As the Mystery Play wagons roll through York this week they will follow a pattern, and repeat the words, used back into the mists of time. In every age they offer food for thought and hopefully, entertainment, which reflects on both our place in the world and the consequences of our actions.

We travel upon the Ark, in mud and rain,
Our oars promises from God.   
We live—and the rest of Humanity dies.   
We travel upon the waves, fastening
Our lives to the ropes of corpses filling the skies.
But between Heaven and us is an opening,
A porthole for a supplication.

The New Noah, by Adonis, translated by Shawkat M. Toorawa

Will God Get COVID?

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

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

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

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


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

To Break Every Yoke

I have been fortunate in my life to know very little of war. It has been a distant experience, vicariously brought nearer by television, conversations, films and books. Only once have I ever felt the uncertainty and apprehension that comes with sudden military action. This was in Argentina in 1987, while spending a year in the country working with a mission organisation. I was based in Córdoba where, in April of that year, a Major in the army began a mutiny. A few days later this was followed by a military revolt in Buenos Aires in support of the Major’s action. It was Holy Week, and in the student hostel where I was staying in Córdoba a man in plain clothes took up sentry just outside the property. Some of the students asked who he was and phoned the local police station to check his credentials. Back in the UK my family saw film on BBC News of tanks rolling through the streets of the capital.

Thankfully what became known as ‘the Carapintada’ mutiny was short-lived. The elected President regained control and peace was restored across the country. In places unfamiliar with recent armed conflict it seems unimaginable that life can change so quickly. Yet, in Ukraine, we are witnessing the terrible cost of war in Europe in the 21st century. Destruction is so quick and devastating – building and establishing civil society takes much more effort and far more time. Even if there was a permanent caseation of hostilities and withdrawal of Russian troops, it would take years for Ukraine to be restored to what it was just couple of weeks ago. Given that the conflict is unlikely to end soon I wonder whether I will ever see that country return fully to peace, stability and prosperity in my lifetime.

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
 and to break every yoke?

Isaiah 58:6 NRSV

Religions as a whole have a mixed track record when it comes to conflict. Many people don’t describe themselves as ‘religious’ due to the way in which religious groups have behaved when it comes to war. More often than not people in the West see religious differences as part of the problem rather than the solution. Without doubt there is truth in the view that just as religions can be brilliant at binding people together, shaping their identify and offering a sense of purpose, so too that cohesion can come into conflict with other groups holding different convictions. Even now we see two Orthodox churches each supporting leaders who are commanding their nations in a war. There are certainly dissenting voices, but the leadership of the churches appears to be supporting the Governments of both countries.

A student from Ukraine speaking at a demonstration in York UK on Saturday 5 March 2022

Speaking at a rally in York yesterday the Archbishop of the city suggested that we have taken peace in recent years for granted – and that ‘peace is something you have to work at’ (BBC Breakfast at 1:18 minutes). Undoubtedly this is a Western perspective as many part of the world have been mired in conflict in recent decades, but it has not been at our door. The challenge for us is to reflect on the extent to which racism has shaped our responses to various crises, which must prompt soul-searching and a change in our attitudes. There is no question that our response to Ukraine is the least we can do – but in many other conflicts there is almost certainly more that we could have done.

For Christians attempting to observe Lent this year there are plenty of passages in the Bible that tell us God is uninterested in token sacrifices. Isaiah describes God’s fast as an active confrontation with the injustices of the world. When you loose the bonds of injustice and let the oppressed go free not everyone is pleased. Pursuing God’s call for us to confront the evils of our age will bring us into conflict with the people doing the oppressing and keeping people captive. This Lent let us recognise injustice and heed God’s call to confront it so that people are freed from suffering. Let us also ask in our hearts why we do not always feel equally motivated to do this for all peoples around the world. Maybe, this year, Lent will begin to break the yoke of our prejudice and allow us to become the people who let the oppressed go free, irrespective of who they are.

Watery Faith

Sermon preached at the Priory Church of the Holy Trinity, Micklegate, York Epiphany 2 2022

Today we continue in the season of Epiphany – weeks when in the darkness of winter we reflect the light of Christ come into our world. I was going to say, ‘reflect on’ – but the truth of Epiphany is not that we simply contemplate the light shining in the world, but that we invite this light into our lives – to bear something of the brightness of Christ in all that we do, day by day, and among those we meet.

It can feel at the moment, as we listen to the news, that there’s an awful lot of darkness compared with what we may feel to be our faint and flickering lights. Perhaps it was always thus – and our calling to hold our light steady is even more important when the shadows lengthen.

One of my most valuable books is a 1939 edition of William Temple’s commentary on the Gospel of John. Written in nearby Bishopthorpe, when he was Archbishop of York, his reflections on the Gospel are the wise words of both a pastor and a theologian. Yes, it comes bearing the marks of a different era, but many of the points Temple makes are pertinent today. Perhaps even more so in our recent experience because it was written in the upheavals of war. 

The turning of water into wine is the first miracle John describes in what we might call the long epiphany of his Gospel. Out of the four evangelists John is the most consciously theological – he conveys to us what the life of Jesus means for all places; for all times; and for all people. It is magisterial in its scope.


Yet given the scale of what John addresses, his account of Jesus is rooted in the real and the everyday. There was a wedding. Across millennia and across cultures, weddings are profound moments of change. Two people become one. Families are bound together – friends rejoice and dance. If you’ve ever seen the Veronese painting ‘The Wedding at Cana’ you can’t miss the sense of overflowing conviviality on his vast canvas. Everyone is talking, laughing and rejoicing – apart from one figure: in serenity, Jesus gazes out at the viewer, a still point amid the commotion. In this picture the figure of worldly splendour is the groom. Decked out in his wedding finery he holds a champagne coupe, staring at it in perplexity as the chief steward tells his tale. ‘How could this have happened?’

John begins this account with the casual comment that it took place ‘on the third day’. Four words that for any Christian signify not the start of Jesus’ ministry, but its joyful conclusion. Another day of reunions and delight: the day of resurrection.

Christ is not a grim task-master in obedience to whom life becomes gloomy. He compared himself to children playing at weddings.

William Temple, ‘Readings in St John’s Gospel’ 1939, Macmillan

This is a miracle that marks the difference between the ways of men and the ways of God. The steward is bewildered. The organisers of this feast have not done what they were supposed to do: give the guests quality wine at the start, and then they won’t notice when you switch to the cheap stuff later. No. What God is doing in Christ isn’t about what we expect – it’s about what we need.

The 17th century Metaphysical poet Robert Crashaw described it with beautifully economy: ‘the modest water saw its God and blushed’.

Offered to God – brought before Jesus – what we may consider the modest water of our lives can be transformed. Perhaps we think the best years are behind us – that the time we have to offer now is weak and watery compared with our past vigour. Tell it to God.

Water become wine.

Faith is all about offering what we have, not what would be ideal. The disciples weren’t the intellectual stars of their generation. They weren’t conspicuously wealthy or influential, they don’t appear to have been known to the religious authorities. Jesus took what was offered and forged the foundations of the church. Time and again people came to him who had little to give, and he took it and blessed it and broke it – and it was transformed.

We may feel like we hold a flickering light of faith – so fragile a gust of wind might extinguish it. This Gospel says ‘don’t worry’. Bring to God what you have. Share what may seem watered down and weak, and Jesus will use whatever we have, and it will be changed. 

In a world where there is so much darkness God asks us to offer what we have. Because, when we place it into the hands of Jesus, who knows what it will become. Two thousand years ago they brought him water at a wedding: today we share wine that becomes the life-blood of our faith – and we go out refreshed, to be God’s light in our world.