Seasons for Everything

It always felt like the first intimation that summer had ended. When I was a vicar in north London in the early ’90s, the opening week of September brought an invitation to speak to the local Cub Scouts. After the holidays and warmer days of August this annual meeting marked the start of all those activities that punctuate the remaining months of the year. There might be warm days, or even brief heatwaves, but they always felt borrowed out of season. The trajectory of shortening days continued notwithstanding the gift of unexpected heat.

York has been exceptionally busy this month. It has been impossible to get a table for dinner at a reasonable hour even when you try to book the day before. The streets hum with the chatter of tourists discovering (or rediscovering) the charm of England’s northern capital. When the sun is out the river side pubs and open spaces fill with drinkers and sunbathers alike.

This weekend York has hosted a balloon fiesta and crowds have filled The Knavesmire. People have come from far and wide to visit the fair or hear the acts performing on the open air stage. On the whole this looks and feels like a return to 2019 normality, with little mask wearing or social distancing. The joy of these once familiar freedoms at an outdoor event no doubt adds to the delight of those attending. Yet it is hard to feel entirely at ease when so many concerns circle the globe. From the disastrous exit from Afghanistan to a UK COVID rate 26 times higher than a year ago. The problems we face show little sign of diminishing, even though vaccination has thankfully transformed the severity of the risk associated with the pandemic.

We need ordinary pleasures. During the past 18 months many of us have rediscovered a connection with nature, from walks to wild swimming. In places this has created its own pressures on the environment and local facilities, but there are plenty of less crowded locations of outstanding natural beauty. As I know from working with older people, the vivid differences we see in each of the four seasons can be both orientating and affirming. To look at a tree tells us where we are in the year. The deep greens of August promise the glorious transformation to browns, yellows and golds still to come.

The interplay of human activity and the seasons is captured brilliantly by Ali Smith in her quartet series. Here the personal, the political and the natural are meshed together in a vivid reflection of how the seasons shape our thoughts and interactions. I can’t imagine living where both daylight and weather alter very little across the year, but perhaps smaller changes simply become more significant. During a year I spend in South America that certainly seemed to be the case.

“The days are unexpectedly mild. It doesn’t feel that far from summer, not really, if it weren’t for the underbite of the day, the lacy creep of the dark and the damp at its edges, the plants calm in the folding themselves away, the beads of the condensation on the webstrings hung between things.” 

Smith, A. (2016). Autumn (Vol. 1). Penguin UK.

The Church’s year is clearly marked by a Christianity that developed chiefly in the northern hemisphere. As the months march on to the year’s end, gathering darkness is met by the gift of light. The imagery and significance of saints’ days, fasts and feasts parallels the natural world and walks hand-in-hand with the changing seasons. It feels that liturgy and the seasons are welded together.

I have no doubt that age and experience influence the ways in which we respond to the stations of the sun (to quote the title of Ronald Hutton’s book). While some may feel melancholy at the approach of autumn, the Cubs of Barnet were full of enthusiasm and energy as they gathered together after the summer holidays. For them, the season of ghost stories and fireworks ensures that darkness is not without excitement; and explosions of light are brilliant only because they are set against the backdrop of night.

Chronic Emergency

Halfway down the Shambles in York is a shop that closed just before Christmas 2019. Perhaps a victim of an increasingly difficult retail environment, Zatchels ceased trading before the pandemic. However, COVID-19 is almost certainly the reason that this shop has remained sealed and unchanged since its demise. Closing when it did, the window brings a hint of Narnia with its winter decorations and a Christmas that never came. Complete with snowflakes and tinsel it has seen out two summers. In a street which millions normally visit every year the longevity of this winter scene is a small sign of the crisis through which we are living.

The most helpful thing I watched before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic was Chernobyl. The Netflix mini-series is pitch-perfect in its portrayal of an unfolding crisis. Events progress from initial denial, to hastily constructed counter-measures and finally to a realistic assessment and response to the catastrophe. Tragically, like the nuclear accident, it is certain that the consequences of COVID-19 will be with us for years to come. Looking back I’m sure there are many lessons that will be learned and a host of things that would have been done differently with hindsight. In the case of Chernobyl, collateral health consequences and psychological harm were (and are) a significant legacy of the original event – and arguably more damaging than the effects of radiation itself. There has even been the suggestion that relocating residents away from the disaster area to cities such as Kiev caused more deaths and ill health due to pollution compared with the probable outcomes had residents remained in place. It may well transpire that elements of our COVID response likewise caused unintended consequences that outweigh the initial dangers.

There is a human fascination with the consequences of an overwhelming event. Perhaps Pompeii and surrounding cities may be one of the oldest examples of this tendency. These are times of accelerated human analysis and response, when unprecedented actions are taken. It is claimed that the eruption of Vesuvius led to the first attempt at the mass evacuation of a civilian population by a military force for the purpose of rescue from natural disaster. Critical moments can generate unusual thinking and actions, leading in turn to developments which might otherwise have taken decades. I’ve no doubt that the strides made in creating vaccines in 2020 will have speeded up the capacity to design effective pharmaceuticals in the future.

Pompeii – the focus for the launch of a military attempt to evacuate citizens out of the path of disaster

There is little disagreement that a world-changing event such as the pandemic moves through phases. For some time now colleagues in the NHS have characterised this as a ‘chronic emergency’. The immediate response has been made, and now we are living with a high level of daily cases and a steady population of patients in hospitals. The crisis hasn’t ended but we know far more about what we are dealing with and have both vaccines and new forms of authorised treatments. Yet there is little indication that COVID is going away. Despite the high level of vaccination in the UK population we have not entirely halted serious illness, deaths and disruptions to daily life.

The concept of chronic emergency may help explain the high rate of job vacancies in the UK. One report notes that 22% of workers over-50 are planning to bring forward their retirement plans. The unending crisis caused by COVID is sustaining pressures within organisations such as the NHS. Just how long this can continue without staffing issues becoming critical is uncertain. As we drift into the final days of August, with daily cases approaching 40,000, the prospect of schools re-opening; university students re-connecting; and an inevitable turn in the weather, must raise concerns that there is yet another mountain to climb. Just how many summits must be reached before the chronic emergency degrades to a manageable pressure is unknown. Even this uncertainty is a stress on staff who see and experience the impact of the pandemic, not as a set of figures, but as lives ended or changed forever.

“our previously world-beating health service is at risk of moving to the middle of the pack”

Siva Anandaciva, the chief analyst at the King’s Fund, The Guardian, 4 /8/2021

At some point there will be an evaluation of how different response to COVID-19 led to different outcomes. It was sad to see in the most recent evaluation of health systems by the Commonwealth Fund that the NHS has slipped from first to fourth. While this is not entirely attributable to the pandemic there can be no doubt that absorbing the care of thousands of patients with COVID-19 has come at a cost to the NHS. Few other countries have placed so much strain on their health resources during the past two years. If the plan is to ‘learn to live’ with the virus we need to provide the health service with the means to carry out its usual care as well as support people with COVID and its consequences.

In many ways the UK is returning to normality at a pace that will surprise many people. Walking round York and visiting a supermarket, it appears that mask wearing is on the wane. The emergency is slipping from public view and becoming focused in hospitals and GP services. This may be fine for the moderately wealthy, fit and well, but the pressures that continue in health and social care will not remain isolated from wider society. Keeping the standards of the NHS at a high level requires funding that will increase the staffing levels needed to cope with normality plus COVID. That’s no small challenge, but without it the medium and long-term consequences may outweigh the original crisis. We forget the lessons of history at our peril.

Peregrination

It is an eerie and frequent sound heard around the Minster. Peregrines screeching at one-another (or a passing pigeon) from dawn until dusk. Somehow the falcon’s wing shape feels fitting for a Medieval structure, angular and evidently strong, they combine speed with a sharp eye for distant prey. At height various parts of the cathedral’s platforms and towers show evidence of the peregrines’ success as predators. Pigeon carcasses as strewn about with abandon. Hilary Mantel’s depiction of Thomas Cromwell’s life in the company of Henry VIII sees Bring Up the Bodies open with the protagonist using hawks. Imagining Wiltshire in 1535, Mantel reflects on these skilful, amoral and focused carnivores.

“Their lives are simple. When they look down they see nothing but their prey, and the borrowed plumes of the hunters: they see a flittering, flinching universe, a universe filled with their dinner.”

Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies, 2012

There is little doubt that the reader is meant to connect the behaviour of these prized birds with the unflinching determination and modus operandi of Cromwell. Just as the hawk seems patterns hidden from sight at ground level, Cromwell is surveying a landscape inaccessible to all but a few. The breadth of his experience, from the narrow and stench ridden back streets of London, to the privy chamber, enabled him to see the connections of the body politic in a way that facilitated his inexorable rise to power. Mantel’s literary construction of this complex figure in English history is a masterpiece in itself, linking the diverse threads that come to make such a sumptuous story.

“The Peregrine sees and remembers patterns we do not know exist: the neat squares of orchard and woodland, the endless varying quadrilateral shapes of fields.”

J A Baker, The Peregrine

Gaining the kind of strategic overview exemplified by Mantel’s Cromwell requires more than elevation. It is one thing to see, another to interpret correctly and to understand. When we are in the thick of events this becomes very hard, as the jumble of information is likely to bury the facts which history will come to establish as definitive. Holding the puzzle together feels as if we have the pieces of the jigsaw without any picture to help us judge where to place them or connect them.

At times we have to resign ourselves to the fact that some key questions of our time cannot be resolved. The challenge is not how to rush to some precipitate interpretation of limited facts, but how we live well with the knowledge that events refuse to reveal their outcomes. When we lack the razor sharp detail the peregrine can see, we still need to find our way through the tangle of information and decisions that lie before us. It is here that our ethics and convictions provide a steer urging one course of action over another. To trust in the received wisdom of people who have travelled before us in similar territory, finding a way through huge complexities to arrive in a place that offers some greater clarity and a deeper sense of peace. It is not a trust which should be uncritical or lacking enquiry, but must recognise that humanity’s most frequent experience is to live with uncertainties.

The name peregrine derives from Latin meaning foreign, also linked to pilgrim – or traveller. TS Eliot’s writes in Little Gidding of the ‘spirit unappeased and peregrine’, caught between two worlds, past and future. We cannot live without a knowledge and interpretation of the past, neither can we live as though the future is already decided. Whether it is COVID or climate, there can be little question that decisions now will have far reaching consequences. Mindful of this the task of the present is to perceive and evaluate reality as clearly as possible. In his seminal work about the peregrine, JA Baker begins with a reflection on the disparity between the clarity and scale of a peregrine’s picture in a book and the fleeting blur of the real thing in flight. The static compared with the ‘passionate mobility of the living bird’. The ornithology book distills many examples of the bird into its archetypal specimen – in the wild each bird has its own character, hunting ground and eyrie. Paying attention to the living detail, rather than allowing the book or abstract data to overlay our perception, is vital if we are to see and understand the experiences through which we are living.

The capacity to retain fresh vision, alert even to the familiar, matters a lot. Classification can be useful, whether of birds or people, but it also holds dangers. Identifying a few characteristics so that we can order our world means that we may miss the exceptional and unexpected. It is one of the most moving themes in the ministry of Jesus that he refuses to see the world in this kind of way. He meets people on their own terms, with their own identity, even when that means they should be sidelined and ignored. A woman at a well; a Roman officer; the leprous and the unclean; people of religious power and the children in the streets. To allow the world to be as it is in that moment, erased neither by history nor personal attributes, is a rare and remarkable achievement. Doing all we can to improve the way we see the world might be one of the most important things we can do with our time: because it has the power to change everything.

“The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there”

J A Baker, The Peregrine

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.

Ashes Under Eboracum

Around the age of seven I went on a trip to Hadrian’s Wall. My parents took us to Housesteads, then on a walk along the wall from Steel Rigg. It is a dramatic and evocative setting, with the wall climbing the contours high up onto the Whin Sill. For whatever reason, it started an interest in Roman Britain that lasted well into my teens. The Lancashire town where I lived had Roman heritage, and a military shield boss found locally is in the British Museum. Encouraging my developing interest, my parents then arranged a tour in York – Roman Eboracum – with a local archeologist.

Living in that same city more than forty years later I’m mindful of the history lying just below the pavement. At least one of the sewers built by the Romans survives in excellent condition under Church Street in York. From Romans, to Saxons and Vikings, this patch of earth has been the centre of influence in the north for thousands of years. The Minster’s foundations stand in the remains of the heart of the Roman fortress – an empire of spiritual life supplanting the temporal forces that once ruled the city.

History has been in the news in the UK following the announcement that two modern universities plan to cut courses. There is concern that only elite centres of study will continue to offer history degrees. In a world where science is offering so much in responding to COVID-19, it isn’t difficult to see why some universities may be reviewing what they offer. Yet how short-sighted. Without doubt both humanities and the arts offer a vital dimension to our understanding and outlook. As I commented many blogs ago, when it came to COVID-19, our best academic modellers lacked the insight or imagination to appreciate how care homes interacted with their local communities. Without the disciplines that explore lived human experiences key dimensions of our understanding are absent. That absence can result in a failure to register vital elements of the reality we are addressing.

A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.


Marcus Garvey

History offers us perspective. As we study the past we encounter people very confident about how much they knew and how human life should be governed. These understandings have changed over time, and an important lesson for today should be the provisional nature of our knowledge. Science operates on the basis that there is more to know and, consequently, that what we take today to be certain may be questionable tomorrow. Many years ago, when running an elective course for medical students, I asked what proportion of all that could be known about medicine they thought was known today. With commendable candour one student pronounced it was ‘diddly-squat’. Our learning increases all the time and, when we look back at the past, we can experience horror at the medical procedures people once endured. Our great-great grandchildren may feel much the same when they look back at our response to the pandemic.

History has the power to teach us humility. It tells us that people made choices which seemed rational and wise at the time, only to realise that seeds of disaster were being sown. Understanding the past is vital if human beings are going to learn, change and live well in the future. Simply doing what we want in one generation fails to recognise that we are part of the future, and our choices have consequences that endure. This is perhaps one of the most important lessons in the response to climate change.

To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.


From A Shropshire Lad 31: On Wenlock Edge the Wood’s in Trouble, by A. E. Housman

Housman’s poem reminds us that for all the power and reach of the Roman Empire, today it is a layer of ash under Wroxeter. The Roman remains of York are impressive and have endured a long time, but the people who built them and ruled here are gone. Much of the understanding about how the world works has changed over those centuries and, while some things may remain, human self-perception moves on. It will continue to evolve and change, hopefully with the aid of the arts and humanities bringing their own unique learning to our understanding. To lose that knowledge is too great a risk when we know how quickly human life can change. Living humbly with the limitations of our knowledge might be the most significant contribution history conveys to help us make wise choices today.