The Age of Anxiety

The Age of Anxiety is the title of WH Auden’s final long poem. Born in York in 1907, Auden published the work in 1947 and won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry the following year. Its theme is human isolation, a condition indicated to be more frequent with the loss of traditions, and established forms of religious belief. Seventy-five years after its publication the presence of anxiety, isolation and purposelessness shows little sign of diminishing. Despite the rapid advances of technology and scientific understanding during the last eight decades, we appear to have arrived at a point of heightened anxiety. Within three years we have encountered unprecedented isolation due to a once-in-a-century pandemic; endured weather conditions never known before (e.g. over 40°C in the UK); and, with war in Europe, now have a global energy crisis that shows no immediate sign of abating. If there were need to add to this dismal catalogue, in the UK a new government has added to our woes with an economic policy favouring the wealthy.

Like the breakers of a storm, the past 30 months has seen a rapid succession of events largely outside the experience of most people in the West. Anxiety has undoubtedly increased during this time, with serious and debilitating consequences. Following a research report, linking anxiety-induced dreams in middle age to the eventual development of dementia, it would appear that we even have reason to be anxious about our anxiety.

Intriguingly, some researchers have identified ‘awe’ as one antidote to anxiety. While academics have divided awe into ways that are either positive or negative, it is likely that even some of the negative implications (feeling ‘smaller’) might not be detrimental to overall wellbeing. Sometimes that experience of proportionality is only a corrective to an over-estimate of our place in the universe. As we are reminded in the Book of Job: “my days are a breath”. Seeing our significance more accurately might lessen a deceptive sense that the world around us relies on us. In that correction we may feel our anxiety diminish, although – understandably – for others this truth may feel very threatening.

“Awe seems to be a complex emotion or emotional construct characterized by a mix of positive (contentment, happiness), and negative affective components (fear and a sense of being smaller, humbler or insignificant).”

Arcangeli, M., Sperduti, M., Jacquot, A., Piolino, P., & Dokic, J. (2020). Awe and the experience of the sublime: A complex relationship. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 1340.

From a religious perspective awe is tied to a sense of transcendence: ‘Ultimately wonder and awe are significant aspects of the religious experience‘. This is both something about a sense of perspective linked to a divine being, as well as finding in that perspective a sense of purpose. Time and again studies have found this sense of purpose plays a major part in our wellbeing and contentment. Religions usually promote a sense of purpose across the life-cycle, and continue to anticipate purpose even in advanced age (Simion/Anna). While many activities linked with personal worth and value may disappear with age (such as employment) even in the advanced years of retirement prayer and worship often remain active elements of life. For people living with dementia, especially if they have a deep background in religious belonging and participation, familiar patterns in the year (e.g. Easter/Christmas) as well as songs, liturgy and texts, locate someone in a broad narrative of transcendence.

Holding the narrative and space for religious awe has long been a role for the Church. Yet awe is not a word used often in discussions about contemporary developments in worship. This misses a primary purpose of the Church’s life in a local community. There are occasions, including State occasions in the UK, when the Church holds a particular kind of space for people in relation to a much larger story.

A church is a sacred space carved out of nature to represent the indwelling of grace and to impart an orientation. They are pointers to transcendence. When we enter a church, we cross a threshold pointing to a communion table of shared goods… Within this comprehensive orientation there are nodes or lodes of experience that open up the space of transcendence: the sense of unworthiness and rebuke in the presence of the holy, the trustful assurance of acceptance requiring nothing beyond openness to the pure gift of grace, the awareness of a calling to spiritual and moral order and a potential for transfiguration..

Martin, D. (2021). Pointing to Transcendence: Reflections from an Anglican Context. NTT Journal for Theology and the Study of Religion, 75(3/4), 310-336.

In his poem Auden suggests that human beings prefer to hang on to their fears, rather than risk change and risk: ‘We would rather be ruined than changed’. The experience of ‘awe’ is perhaps one of the few things that might encourage us to abandon our illusions and contemplate a greater reality. To realise that often our anxiety is generated by these self-same illusions, and are in reality shadows we need not flee. It has been the case that not only cathedrals, but even remote and seemingly insignificant churches, hold such a space – whether for RS Thomas in Aberdaron, or TS Eliot in Little Gidding. It is unclear in today’s church where the emphasis on transcendence now lies, or how people will be able to encounter ‘the bright field’, whose treasure transforms our living.

The Blank Page

I like stationary. There are so many wonderful notebooks and watermarked sheets to choose from when the internet allows you to browse the global marketplace. I recall a few years ago standing in a street in Positano gazing at the hand-bound books of marbled paper in a shop window. Paper has been made along the Amalfi coast since Medieval times. I resisted the temptation to purchase (just) but am not so disciplined on other occasions. A new notebook offers so many possibilities, perhaps too many. The act of writing instantly and progressively reduces the options for what the book will be telling, and regret can come quickly.

“She drinks pints of coffee and writes little observations and ideas for stories with her best fountain pen on the linen-white pages of expensive notebooks. Sometimes, when it’s going badly, she wonders if what she believes to be a love of the written word is really just a fetish for stationery.”

Nicholls, D. (2011). One day. Hachette UK.

If the material to write on fails to distract, there is always the means of writing to consider. I must be towards the end of the era when undergraduate work was all hand-written – which could be a challenge. Fast-speaking lecturers, without the offer of typed notes, tested many students’ ability to record the key points. However, the ceremony of writing, especially with a fountain pen, continues to appeal. I can empathise with the irritation of King Charles when pens fail to ink, or leak their cargo when least expected. (I was allowed to return to the church where I blotted the Service Register). Despite these perils I share the delight Seamus Heaney finds in the feel and flow of a quality pen.

The nib uncapped,
Treating it to its first deep snorkel
In a newly opened ink-bottle,

Guttery, snottery,
Letting it rest then at an angle
To ingest

Seamus Heaney, The Conway Stewart, in Human Chain, Faber and Faber Limited, 2010

Other disincentives to write include the sheer volume of texts now written, and the outstanding quality of some contemporary writing. I was deeply sorry to learn in recent days of the death of Hilary Mantel. The skill Mantel manages to effect in her Cromwell trilogy is astonishing. All the more so because even 500 years later, writing about this period of English history remains fraught with ‘positions’ and continuing political implications. It is a credit to her craft that people from so many different religious backgrounds and cultures read and applaud these novels. Perhaps this is because the humanity of her characters, and Cromwell in particular, shine through so convincingly. Seldom have I been so moved by reading anything, as I was by the conclusion of The Mirror & the Light when Cromwell is taken to his execution.

“His foot is now on the step of the scaffold. His mind is quiet but the body has its own business, and that business includes trembling. His head turns again. He is not looking for pardon. He knows the king is busy getting married. All he is looking for is the source of the noise, to quell it, because he wants to die listening to his own heart, till verse and prayer fade and heart says hush”.

Mantel, H. (2020). The Mirror & the Light: A Novel (Vol. 3). Henry Holt and Company. Chicago

The splendid Slightly Foxed Ltd published its limited edition of Hilary Mantel’s memoir, Giving up the Ghost (2003), in 2017. The book is a moving narrative and addresses some of Mantel’s motivation to write.

I feel that each morning it is necessary to write myself into being – even if the writing is aimless doodling that no one will ever read, or the diary that no one can see til I’m dead. When you have committed enough words to paper you feel you have a spine stiff enough to stand up in the wind. But when you stop writing you find that’s all you are, a spine, a row of rattling vertebrae, dried out like an old quill pen.

Hilary Mantel, Giving up the Ghost, 2017 Slightly Foxed Ltd p. 207

Perhaps writers all need this sense of compulsion in order to succeed in seeing their story to the end. Goodness knows how many incomplete books exist, or how many finished works languish in a drawer, rejected for publication at every turn. BBC Radio 4’s comedy-drama Ed Reardon’s Week is a modern and amusing take on a long history of frustrated authors. In the nineteenth century a central character in Middlemarch, the middle-aged cleric-scholar Edward Casaubon dies with his opus magnum incomplete: The Key to All Mythologies. Ambitious in scope and sprawling in nature, George Eliot exposes the opposite problem to the anxiety of the blank page: too many details, too many notes and references, an endless number of pages and an unending topic to study.

On reflection, maybe it’s time to fire up the search engine once again and ponder the merits of paper weight, ‘tooth’, and stitched binding

The Hollow Crown

Part of what was so moving about Thursday’s events, was the experience common to so many families of sudden and unexpected news; the dash to a bedside; the realisation that life is ending. As a hospital chaplain I witnessed on many occasions the anxiety of families as to whether everyone would get there in time, the inevitable sorrow once the moment of death arrived, and the imperceptible shift in relationships that death precipitates. In many instances a death can be the end of an era. The moment when some familiar conversations about long-deceased relatives and neighbours are no longer possible.

The BBC series, The Hollow Crown, began in 2012 and featured several of Shakespeare’s history plays. It was a tour de force of casting and direction and will no doubt remain an important part of the BBC’s archive. One of the sublimely acted moments featured Simon Russell-Beale as the comic character, Falstaff. Sitting by a fireside at night, Falstaff reminisces with Shallow and Silence about the days of their youth. It is at once a sad and honest recognition of our mortality, and the days that pass so quickly.

Certain, ’tis certain; very sure, very sure: death,
as the Psalmist saith, is certain to all; all shall die.

King Henry IV, part II, Act 3, Scene 2, William Shakespeare 1660

In the conversation about their past, the protagonists avoid detail. Although the play is set in another era, looking back over the 55 years from the date of its performance, audiences would recognise how dangerous it was to discuss history. The beliefs, convictions and actions of one period could bring plaudits at the time but a decade later put someone in peril of trial and execution. It was much safer to say simply: ‘Ha, cousin Silence, that thou hadst seen that that this knight and I have seen!’

We do not now live in a country that presents this kind of risk. There may be a social expectation about public conduct and comments during the period of official mourning for the Queen, but there are no punitive sanctions. We can speak about the past, and voice convictions that may be at odds with the prevailing mood. This is not a freedom enjoyed everywhere and, travelling in Cuba some years ago, I was aware of how cautious local people could be in speaking about their society and its history.

The title for the BBC series is taken from Richard III and concerns the mortality of kings: ‘within the hollow crown That rounds the mortal temples of a king Keeps Death his court’. Despite all the layers of privilege and deference, sovereigns are mortal and death can come quickly. The empty crown is the enduring motif of royalty, with its void filled instantly, silently and seamlessly, the moment its last occupant dies. In the past this could be contested and fought over, whereas now the British monarchy’s succession is no longer disputed. After a reign of astonishing longevity, while its trappings and function may change, the likely succession of sovereigns appears guaranteed deep into the 22nd century.

While in no sense a presence in people’s immediate relationships, the departure of the Queen will be felt by many as the loss of a vital connection with the past. Her experience of WWII, and Prime Ministers from Churchill to Truss, highlight a consistency spanning generations. On the news of her death my thoughts went to my mother and grandmother, both keen supporters of the Queen. As an early and life-long member of the Mothers’ Union, my grandmother was an active participant in an organisation for which the Queen was Patron up until the moment of her death.

The poet John Donne was 31 years old when Elizabeth I died in 1603. His subsequent rise to become Dean of St Paul’s relied on Royal patronage, and was accompanied by the composition of some of the finest Metaphysical poetry in the English Language. Donne was very concerned with death, and one of his most memorable texts adopts the idea of literature to explore his theme.

When someone dies: “one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that library where every book shall lie open to one another”.

John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions; Meditation XVII.

Understandably, the Queen’s life contained a series of volumes – possibly its own library – of public interactions and comments. Not to mention the private moments, the scattered leaves, that are also part of our story. She is now being translated into posterity and, spiritually, to a better place. To give Shakespeare the final word, even a long and notable Royal reign is fleeting in the sweep of human history. Our time on stage comes to an end and, when the ‘insubstantial pageant has faded’, no grandeur alters the truth we all hold in common: that ‘our little life is rounded with a sleep’.

Shock and Fear

In the suburbs of London it was odd to read a report where the cost of civic responsibility was described as the price of avoiding revolution. The article was in a local Barnet newspaper in 1910, and the revolt referred to which it referred was the French Revolution of 1789. The reference shows the very long shadow cast by that event across European popular thought. The comment arose in a discussion about the cost of poor relief in the borough. Business and property owners were moaning about the expense of looking after the poor, and it took a female member of the group to remind them that ‘charity’ was the price they paid to retain a system from which they benefitted considerably. Today, with the rapid rise of the ‘Enough is Enough’ campaign – uniting all kinds of people under the banner of unacceptable price increases – it appears that the prospect of popular agitation will force the hand of the next Prime Minister. However, rather than alter the operation of an economic system that favours the wealthy, just enough money will be dispersed to appease the masses. It remains to be seen whether we can continue as we are when an ever greater number of people fall into, or hover just above, poverty.

With what seems like a void at the heart of Government, there has been plenty of space for experts to voice their concerns about this unfolding energy crisis. Martin Lewis was clearly very angry when he spoke on Radio 4 on Friday. With appealing directness he defended ‘catastrophising’ for the very simple reason that, in the absence of Government aid, the energy price rise is a catastrophe. As someone who normally advises the less well-off about ideas to manage their funds more effectively, he had reached the point where he had nothing left to give. With a reputation built on creative solutions, the prospect of a financial dead-end for countless people had pushed Lewis to the edge.

It seems unlikely that the incoming Government will be able to replace the entire cost of rising energy prices across the economy. The suggestion so far is that low and middle income household will be supported – but it’s unclear what aid there will be for industry. This matters because without support industries will have little option other than to pass on price rises to consumers. It follows that inflation will remain high and, with below-inflation pay rises, people will be poorer. For this reason, even if there are funds to offset energy price rises, everyday life will in any event become more costly. People will have less cash, and even if gas and electricity bills remained the same, households would have to achieve savings in order to make ends meet. Heating or eating will remain a pressing question, because it is unlikely that government action will wholly mitigate the price rises that will touch every part of our economic system. The cost would be astronomical.

Macron said France and the French felt they were living through a series of crises, “each worse than the last”.

Quoted in The Guardian, 24 August 2022

Last week President Macron (according to Truss, a former ally of the UK), gave a very sombre speech. While criticised in some quarters for appearing to ignore those already suffering in France, Macron heralded the ‘end of abundance’. For the middle classes upwards this is perhaps an accurate description of recent decades and a warning that these days are over. To be fair to Macron, he described recent years as those which ‘could have seemed an era of abundance’. Perhaps, as we progress through the 2020s, there will be a growing appreciation that any sense of abundance belongs to an ever-shrinking group of people.

I have written previously that, by many measures, we are living in unprecedented times. The rise of food banks will now be augmented by the opening of ‘heat banks’. Public places where people can leave cold homes and gain some warmth and company. Quite what it will be like for people unable to leave their homes, or too far from heat banks, is yet to be seen. There are a host of medical conditions that will be aggravated by the cold, and in some cases it will lead to deterioration requiring hospital care. Once again we will have exceptional winter pressures in the NHS, whether or not COVID re-emerges as a significant issue.

One of the most worrying elements of the current crisis is the way it is impacting on households where two people are in work. When once this would have achieved enough income without support, people are facing in-work poverty. Even hospitals are contemplating hosting food banks to support their staff. A major achievement of the welfare state is that it moved support away from charity and promoted it as the organised actions of a just society. People didn’t need to feel ashamed or grateful. It was what ‘society’ meant, and offering support as a basic requirement was what people should expect. When Liz Truss, who is very likely to be our next Prime Minister, spoke about not wanting to give people ‘handouts’ it flies in the face of the post-war conception of society (but is very Thatcherite). A society which perpetuates a system excluding more and more people from a basic quality of life cannot go on indefinitely. I’m not advocating revolution – but it is something that becomes ever more likely as more and more people reach the point where ‘enough is enough’.


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

Where wealth accumulates

Wharram Percy is perhaps England’s most celebrated deserted village. What had been a thriving community set in the rolling and rich landscape of the Yorkshire wolds, expired from a range of causes. There is probably no clear identification of a seminal bow, but a host of factors eventually led to the eviction of the last two families, Even if the Black Death had not impacted on the village directly, it led to a host of vacancies in city trades and no doubt acted as a magnet for younger workers who sensed that the tide was turning on rural life. Famously, in The Deserted Village, Oliver Goldsmith depicts a bucolic haven that gradually gives way to the corrosive influence of commerce and the appetite for wealth. Goldsmith’s observations omit the pressures and constraints of rural living, but the gist of the changes he describes have left echoes across England. It is estimated that 3,000 villages became deserted during the Middle Ages.

‘Here as I take my solitary rounds,
Amidst thy tangled walks, and ruined grounds,
And, many a year elapsed, returned to view
Where once the cottage stood, the Hawthorne grew,
Remembrance wakes with all her busy train,
Swells at my breast, and turns the past to pain’.

The Deserted Village, Oliver Goldsmith, 1770

A generation earlier a similar theme was explored by Thomas Gray in his famous Elegy. The subject here is not a deserted village but rather the individuals who lived and died in an English village. Like Goldsmith’s later work, the virtues of a simple life are extolled and contrasted with the vanity and pomp of new wealth. It marks the emergence of a theme which lasted for the following two centuries – and includes the work of the Romantic poets. It was becoming clear that a way of life was ending in England and there were plenty of people who lamented its loss. It must be said that, on the whole, these writers were not the ones living without the convenience of a growing range of emerging technologies or, if they did, it was through choice. Even today, wi-fi access is an issue where rural communities often have to wait long after towns for the delivery of services most people take for granted. This was true for everything from measures to improve public health to electricity and the telephone. On a personal note, it was my parent’s generation which was the last in our family to have a living connection to people still working the land. In the 18th century most urban dwellers would have had links to relatives living and working in a rural context. They would have heard at first hand how life was changing.

Beside other examples of graffiti at the main door at St Mary’s Wharram Percy, a small carved cross

In more recent literature, such as Remains of Elmet by Ted Hughes, the focus is not on deserted towns or distant generations, but on the supplanting of one people by another. Hughes observes changes that saw one set of trades giving ground to new occupations – or no occupation. He writes reflectively on life in the Calder Valley as industries declined and nature reclaimed the land while sealing the scars of human labour. In poems such as Crown Point Pensioners Hughes commemorates the ‘survivors’ who reached advanced age despite the legacy of war and the demise of traditional industries. Published in 1979 the collection of poems could not have been more timely: it was the year when Thatcherism began to eviscerate much of the North with devastating effect. Today, nature has indeed reclaimed many places once reduced to rubble, but the damage wrought by political change in towns and villages has passed down the generations. As Dr Jane Roberts observes in a paper published in 2009, drawing on her experiences as a GP working in Easington, government policies have frequently had the effect of disadvantaging people in communities where structural violence has had the greatest consequence. Narratives of individual improvement only add to the sense of failure for those whose life-opportunities have been dismantled and removed.

‘As long as we fail to acknowledge and confront the realities of patients whose illnesses and distress are often the manifest expression of the structural violence which encapsulates their lives we collude with the system and deny patients their basic human right to health and equal access to healthcare resources’. 

Roberts, J. H. (2009). Structural violence and emotional health: a message from Easington, a former mining community in northern England. Anthropology & Medicine16(1), 37-48.

The last two families in Wharram Percy were evicted sometime around 1500 (to make way for sheep). It is hard to imagine what it must have felt like to abandon the village and make a fresh start elsewhere. There will always be change in the economic and social life of communities, but there is no doubt that some forms of change are better supported than others. When we understand that structural violence is a choice, rather than an inevitability, we create space for society to act in ways that promote a more inclusive social justice. In England, in the 2020s, we may all be forced to learn what the victims of capitalism around the world have known for centuries. Our economic way of life accelerates the acquisition of resources by the rich as it simultaneously increases the relative (and absolute) poverty of the people who generate that wealth. The question as to whether our economic system can continue to widen this gap will become more urgent this winter with steep rises in energy costs. To paraphrase Goldsmith, the deserted villages are a graphic example of the dramatic change ‘Where wealth accumulates’ and people rot.

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. 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:

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

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.