The Land the Sunset Washes

It was a very warm mid-afternoon. Cycling had ended for the day, and our tent was pitched. I was 18 years old, sitting with my back to a tree by a babbling brook somewhere in Belgium and reading The Portrait of a Lady. A book that opens with an idyllic description of afternoon tea in a beautiful Thames-side garden during ‘the perfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon’. The kind of writing that lends space and warmth to the image it creates, a picture conjured when the full heat of day was ebbing: an hour which ‘expressed that sense of leisure still to come’. While it is an image steeped in privilege, the leisure and heat of a perfect summer’s day is something many of us have been fortunate to experience at one time or another.

There is an unpredictability about the climate in England that lends a sense of unexpected gift to weather events. Whether it is the warmth and stillness of a summer’s day, or snow falling at a time we are able to enjoy it, nothing in the climate can be taken for granted. A year may pass with hardly any glorious summer days – and winter can fizzle its way through drizzle and damp without the spectacle of a world transformed in a sheet of white. Perhaps we talk about the weather so much because we lack the certainties taken for granted in other countries. Yet even there, climate change means diminished confidence in weather patterns familiar for generations.

Summer in the northern hemisphere can be a time when many people are away and the pace of life seems to slow, just a touch. For classical music lovers The Proms season begins and, to quote Sir David Attenborough in this year’s BBC trailer, ‘a kind of light comes into the diary’. Watching Ralph Fiennes’ stunning performance of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets at York Theatre Royal last week, I was reminded of the reference to ‘summer, the unimaginable Zero summer’. Perhaps this is the kind of perfect day that lives in our memory and is also expressed as a future hope. The pause at the close of an August day, when nature is full and still, and when the warmth feels comfortable and enduring. In a culture when we are so often invested in the last thing, or planning the next thing, a rare moment when we attend to what is at hand.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

The final lines of Adlestrop by Edward Thomas

It is this kind of moment, set against the horror of WW1, that made Adlestrop so popular. The poem by Edward Thomas captures the heat-filled moment of a train pausing at a rural station. Long before the rise of mindfulness, this unexpected stop allows the poet to drink in the reality of the moment – from meadowsweet to birdsong. Its uneventfulness somehow achieves a transcendence, even as the moment slips away and the train resumes its journey. It was a picture of peace published just weeks after Thomas lost his life in the war, and it became a touchstone for people longing for the ordinary beauty and peace his words evoked.

In a more recent poem Sean O’Brien reflects on another train journey, this time lost in marking adjudication as the engine draws the carriages through an England of past and present. A daydream lacuna of stillness when work is set aside and the landscape passes like a film.

“This green reserve where no one comes or goes and all

Are necessary as the weather, and where no one seeks

Coherence greater than this afternoon suggests, and where

To all intents and purposes the living and the dead may pass

Their time beneath a sun in cloudy splendour.”

Sean O’Brien , The Lost of England, from The Beautiful Librarians 2015 Picador Poetry
View from Route 66 of the National Cycle Network near Dunnington

As we attempt to recover from the worst effects of the pandemic we need these moments of pause and reflection more than ever. They cannot always be planned, but when they occur we should sink into their stillness. Moments of tranquil and transcendent beauty, when the burdens of past and future are lifted and we are simply required to ‘be’. Entering into such stillness is not a luxury but a vital ingredient of being human. A fleeting pause which, if well observed, becomes food for our journey.

For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.

TS Eliot, The Dry Salvages, The Four Quartets

Freedom for Whom?

Landmark days are often false dawns. Think of George Bush standing on the USS Abraham Lincoln under a sign announcing ‘Mission Accomplished’. The irresistible political pull leading a politician to make this kind of announcement is the knowledge that it’s what most people want to hear. Even as George Bush spoke, plenty of commentators baulked at the implication of the banner’s message. It is increasingly likely that ‘Freedom Day’ in England will be yet another fictional waymarker, an illusion of normality which will run up against the reality of a strained health service and exponentially rising infection.

Promised, delayed and now hedged about with caution, the date when all legal restrictions in England are lifted comes at a moment when the virus seems to be everywhere. Data, modelling and research are telling us that a swift abandoning of restrictions will fuel a fire-storm of transmission leading to rising deaths and more people experiencing long-COVID. The Government expects the success of the vaccination campaign to blunt the cases, deaths and debilitation, but they will still come. It appears that we have decided to accept the cost of 200 daily COVID deaths in order to open the economy and allow life to return to normal. In all likelihood these will be deaths amongst the unvaccinated; people from minority-ethnic communities; the poor and those with underlying health conditions.

Before the final restrictions are lifted, crowded streets in York’s Medieval centre

There must be people in other parts of the world (and the UK) looking on in disbelief. Much of the argument seems to run economy/wellbeing against restrictions/safety. Yet if the cost of delayed freedom is high so too will be the long term price of COVID organ damage; psychological harm; and the risk of rapid transmission producing new variants against which vaccines are less effective. I appreciate that the UK Government, like all governments, is making hard choices on limited data. However, ‘learning to live with COVID’ could mean accepting some permanent changes in society rather than simply giving up on attempts to contain levels of transmission and the associated risks. It appears that our accommodation with COVID will suit the hale and hearty, while shifting the emotional, physical and psychological cost to those individuals and communities already disadvantaged in our society.

“as we are aware, the impact of these government policies will disproportionately affect already disadvantaged groups. Michael Marmot’s recent report shows us that the fall in life expectancy due to covid has been much greater in some regions, leading to even greater health inequalities. The social determinants of health inequalities have become wider during the pandemic, and any further mass infections and lockdown will simply make matters worse”.

“Freedom Day” is on the horizon, and brings with it the risk of mass covid-19 infection, 16 July 2021 BMJ Opinion by J S Bamrah, Chairman, BAPIO and Kailash Chand, former deputy chair, BMA

At the start of the Government’s roadmap to unlocking our arrival at a day without restrictions seemed reasonable. Yet on this narrow path of balanced risks we are straying ever closer to a reckless blow-out with consequences which, if the NHS is overwhelmed in summer, will cause major damage in delayed treatment for non-COVID patients (not to mention staff burnout). It is a missed opportunity that the interruption of routine living has not led to a deeper reflection on what a new normal might look like. There is every indication that many individuals have done that reflection, opting for altered lifestyles and early retirement (where possible), but the idea that we might live differently has bypassed political analysis. Even the modest change to greater working from home has been met with political statements about the need to return to the office.

We cannot live in lockdown indefinitely and few are suggesting that we should. However, with rocketing infection rates the wisdom of removing all legal restrictions in England feel like an irresponsible act. Having observed behaviours in a city during the last few months, let alone watched the antics of crowds at Euro 2020, the idea that most people will choose to observe the use of face covering etc., is ludicrous. An age-divide may well emerge in the way precautions are taken, which is ironic given the fact that younger populations have a lower level of vaccination. What was a disease of the elderly may end up taking a toll on the lives of countless younger people, whether in preventable loss of life or an enduring legacy of damaged organs and tissues.

More than anything else COVID-19 has posed a fundamental question about how we live. How the freedoms some of us assumed and took for granted enabled the rapid spread of a new disease around the world. As people took their holidays, or jetted across the globe for meetings and conferences, the virus went with them. While the lockdowns curtailed some of the human impact on the environment, with fewer journeys, this hasn’t stopped the effects that have burned the west of the USA and Canada, or led to the devastating deluge in Germany. On two life-defining issues, unqualified access to a seemingly infinite range of choices is likely to lead to calamity.

To reach the point of ‘freedom’ it feels like we have othered the virus. With the sustained campaign of vaccination the illness now belongs to those who have failed to understand its importance and declined the jab. Today it is a disease for the poor around the world, the people with no access to immunity or healthcare. At worst it is a minor inconvenience for the wealthy and well-resourced. Something to deny us our well deserved holiday abroad. Maybe all this will be true – but this is a disease about which we know very little. Long-COVID is only just being investigated and understood. No one knows what variant will emerge triumphant from the unimpeded production of virus copies being knocked out every day in the UK. Hundreds of thousands of transmissions every week. The angst being felt by the growing number of people ‘pinged’ by the COVID app should not be seen as a needless disruption to life. The Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson got it right yesterday. As a motley group of silhouetted figures dance down a hill towards a town the caption reads: ‘Never send to know for whom the app pings”. As the Health Secretary and PM discovered today (eventually), it pings for thee.

A Narrowing Path

In April I achieved a level of optimism about the pandemic which was entirely new. The success of the vaccine programme in the UK, combined with the lockdown, was delivering results that exceeded expectations. Numbers of cases and deaths weren’t just declining, they were tumbling. The BBC’s map of COVID infections was changing from the deep colours of danger to the lighter greens of relative safety. Everything looked set for joyful reunions on May 17, as indoor visits and restaurant dinning become possible. This optimism began to level off as reports of a new and more transmissible strain of the virus began to circulate.

The primrose path that seemed tantalisingly close has been replaced by the prospect of a more fraught road ahead. This is a narrow path with steep falls in either side. There is the real risk that tomorrow’s easing of restrictions will accelerate the transmission of the new strain. Given the huge response to vaccination in the UK this may appear to be excessively pessimistic. However, we are now experienced in COVID-19 and know that wherever there is an opportunity this virus thrives. Even with the shield of immunity for many, the pandemic will find the cracks in our defences. The people who haven’t been vaccinated; the people for whom the vaccine will not work as it should; the people whose health means that even mild symptoms push them into crisis. A much more transmissible version of the virus will find these people and fill the beds of the NHS.

Photo by George Morina on Pexels.com

What’s even more remarkable about the 1918 flu, say infectious disease experts, is that it never really went away. After infecting an estimated 500 million people worldwide in 1918 and 1919 (a third of the global population), the H1N1 strain that caused the Spanish flu receded into the background and stuck around as the regular seasonal flu.


The History Channel

This is quite depressing. As millions of people across the world continue to be infected, the changes that take place in the virus through transmission will intensify. When it came to the flu pandemic following the First World War the reduction of infection took place in a world where travel was enjoyed by the few, and a lot of journeys happened very slowly. Will COVID-19 recede so quickly in a world where normality in the West means an immense amount of rapid international travel? In the first lockdown in the UK it is calculated that there was a ‘74% reduction in the average daily number of contacts’. Normalised Western interactions in the 21st century are the perfect conduit for a disease that can be asymptomatic and spreads with remarkable ease among human beings. The role of ski resorts in gathering, infecting and dispersing people around the world is a microcosm of the global village.

Eleven months into the pandemic, we know that ski resorts played a significant role in seeding the pandemic across Europe 


World Health Organisation, Regional Office for Europe 16 December 2020

Both with the UK Government’s initiative to incentivise visits to restaurants, and the prospect of eased restrictions for Christmas, well-intended stimulus to human interaction fuelled transmission. The disheartening experience is that, as easing of measures approaches, time and again we have found the way ahead vanish in mists of uncertainty. The key difference this time is the high rate of vaccination – a factor which may turn the tide of any new surge. The simple fact is that we don’t know. However, we do know enough about the consequences of making a mistake in the freedoms we allow to incline us towards caution. It’s not what anyone wants to hear, but the reality of risk for the NHS, for care home residents, and for vulnerable individuals and communities cannot be discounted.

The government initiative (‘Eat Out to Help Out”), which cost around £500 million, caused a significant rise in new infections in August and early September accelerating the pandemic into its current second wave.


The University of Warwick
Photo by Helena Lopes on Pexels.com

While it is unclear what will unfold this week (and it may take two weeks to emerge) there is every sense that the path ahead is narrowing. Too many times we have failed to give the risks associated with the virus the respect they deserve. Of course we need to resume near-normal living as soon as possible. We know that there are many twists and turns in the pandemic, and harmful consequences can arise where least expected. Nevertheless, some risks are clear and should be avoided as far as possible, especially when so much is unknown.

As we chart the way ahead there must be a balance between the devil-may-care attitude of abandoned caution, and the doom-mongers who can only see risk on the horizon. A hundred years after the last pandemic, when that virus is still with us, we need to learn to live with the reality of COVID-19. As the first pandemic to occur in an age of rapid and plentiful transportation, the solutions we find to live with the virus will need to be new and innovative. Otherwise this won’t be a blip at the start of the 2020s – but the beginning of a decade of damaging restrictions.

The Religious Stuff

A year ago I was leading a retreat in Yorkshire. Always challenging but rewarding, it was an opportunity to address Christian ministry in a changing world. At that point few of us knew quite how changing. The attendance of one person was doubtful because he had just returned from the Far East and needed the outcome of a coronavirus test. It arrived in time; it was clear; and he attended. The innocence of a crowded room, all unmasked, with many people over 70, seems like another world. We sang hymns heartily and shared the peace. Some small measures were beginning to appear, such as the bottle of hand gel amongst the silver and wine, but otherwise things felt fairly normal.

I wrote last week about the changing place of the Christian faith in the UK over the past six decades. It was a Lenten theme, focusing on the BBC plays making up Jesus of Nazareth, shown on the Sundays leading up to Easter Day in 1956. A world where such a production was a landmark event drawing high level viewing figures. A story already known to most people was given flesh and blood, costume and context. It had a powerful impact. Yet the decades which followed have seen the continued ebbing of the ‘sea of faith’. In Arnold’s poem containing this famous phrase, it is perhaps the language and rituals of faith which have been most marked in their regression. The recognisable outer shape of faith which touched and connected so many aspects of Britain’s common life. The moments in particular when, as Larkin wrote, human compulsions are ‘robed as destinies’.

I have often felt that there is a valuable study to be made into the vanishing presence of civil religion. By this I mean those times when the church presides, often fleetingly, over collective moments. We still have these on the national stage, such as Royal weddings and funerals. However, at a much more modest level there has been a long history of momentary religious observance. Until at least the year 2000 the chaplain at a fairly ordinary West Yorkshire General Hospital would say grace before the canteen sittings for the staff Christmas dinner. In the Leeds Teaching Hospitals a Christmas Day consultants’ carol service continued until about 2008. Doctors gathered with their families on the morning of the 25th of December for a tradition which went back to the days when they would have then gone to the wards to carve the turkey. Like many other such moments, it has gone.

The Chapel, Leeds General Infirmary

It seems very unlikely that these days will return, even if we thought that was a good idea. The Church appears to teeter on the edge of moments in our personal and collective lives. An increasing number of funerals are presided over by civil celebrants and little is of automatic right for the clergy of the Established Church. Today humility is not only a desirable spiritual quality; time and again the Church has been shown to have much to be humble about.

Hopefully, as we emerge from lockdown and the restrictions made necessary by COVID-19, there will be fresh opportunities to serve and witness. As people move to a place where the pandemic is neither approaching nor raging, there will be time to take stock. When COVID-19 is firmly in the rearview mirror I have no doubt that there will be deep moments of reflection, even distress, as we comprehend what has happened. We have been shaken, and the ground may never quite feel the same again. The aftermath of the virus will be with us for years in many spheres of life.

One of the continuing strengths of the Church of England is the extraordinary stock of spiritual places in its care. As things begin to open up again, what an amazing opportunity to make these places open and available. To allow all and sundry to use these largely ancient places as somewhere to be; to reflect; to ponder. With creative purpose there can be opportunities to remember who or what has been lost in people’s lives. Knitted hearts to hang on tree branches; thoughts and prayers to write; and the simplicity of silence. The stillness of ‘a serious house on serious earth’ – a place Larkin felt would always be needed when we experience that surprising hunger to know a wisdom at peace with our mortality.

The Church, Little Gidding

The title for this Blog came from a recent conversation with a chaplain who was extolling the chance to be involved in things that were not simply ‘the religious stuff’. One of the challenges for the church is that religion has come to be seen very narrowly. This is a sad development with which we should not collude. In reality religion is all those things that bind us together within a sense of being loved, guided and created. I’m quite sure that some of the most truly religious things ever done have not needed the labels of religious language. In an age when it has become ever harder to speak without misunderstanding, or being reinterpreted, perhaps our open and patient presence is, and should, be enough. On a Sunday when we remember Jesus clearing the Temple, I can do little better than conclude with the passionate words TS Eliot put into the mouth of Thomas à Becket:

Unbar the doors! throw open the doors!

I will not have the house of prayer, the church of Christ,

The sanctuary, turned into a fortress…

The church shall be open, even to our enemies.

Support or Illumination?

Numbers have never really been my thing. However, a few years ago I knew I needed to learn more. Having joined an NHS research ethics committee, I wanted to understand more about health statistics. Fortunately I had the opportunity to complete a postgraduate course in health research – which included a module on statistics. Despite my misgivings about data this turned out to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the course, shedding light on the use and abuse of figures to further an argument.

“Most people use statistics as a drunk … uses lamp-posts for support rather than illumination”

Attributes to Andre Lang

Now, in the light of the pandemic, the world is trading statistics like never before. Government scientists present graphs and tables each week, sometimes daily, to explain the R number (transmissibility); exponential growth; and much, much, more. Even where it might seem that there should be greatest clarity, for example the number of people who have died, there are typically three figures offered. The nuances of criteria and methods reveal just how much the nature of the question influences the form of the answer.

Dorothy Bishop’s bishopblog is one of many sites on the internet that have interrogated the presentation of data and called for greater clarity. Using the example of the difference between relative risk and absolute risk the case is made for the importance of accuracy when communicating data to the public. What might seem to be a huge increase in risk (e.g. 30%) may make limited difference in actual cases depending on the total numbers involved.

“we might hope that, in a pandemic, where public understanding of risk is so crucial, particular care would be taken to be realistic without being alarmist”.

Dorothy Bishop, bishopblog, accessed on 27 January 2021

When I was a curate on placement in a rural church near Lancaster I took part in a service in which the Bishop confirmed 25% of the population of the parish. This meant about 15 people, and it was a fairly rare event for the bishop to come to confirm – so several years’ worth of candidates were gathered up together. It seems astounding that in England in the 1990s a quarter of a parish’s entire population was making a declaration of faith all at once – context is everything.

There appear to be more opportunities for people unaccustomed to interpreting statistical data to find accessible information. Radio 4’s More or Less is a good example of how academic expertise can engage with the questions people are keen to interrogate. In response to the emergence of ‘alternative facts’ there has also been growth in the independent reality checking for which there is an increasing demand. Nowhere could this be more important than in the need for accurate information about the vaccines being offered to combat COVID-19.

It seems to me that one of the problems faced by the desire for both clarity and accuracy is that the truth isn’t always simple. What is the difference between something being ‘safe’ and ‘completely safe’? When vaccines have been developed so quickly there are understandable questions about both immediate side-effects and longer-term consequences. Even a very good sample of people used in the testing phase of the vaccine development cannot be representative of every human characteristic. The question for me is not about the absolute safety of vaccines to be used on billions of people, but about their likely safety and the common good.

Born in a vicarage in the mid-1700s, Edward Jenner is usually seen as the founding figure in the development of modern immunology. At a young age he was given the maxim of William Harvey: “Don’t think; try”. We must be thoughtful, enquiring and considered in our choices – but there comes a time to act. It may be possible to wait for the complete clarity we desire, all the data weighed and balanced, but sometimes we need to make a judgement-call before we know as much as we would like. If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it is that if you wait until something is blindingly obvious you have left it too late. There is a stage in every pandemic when the damage being done is stealthy and silent – yet the foundations of tragedy are being laid comprehensively and irretrievably.

Perhaps one of the legacies of COVID-19 will be to create better systems of public education about risk and probability. Not that any of us will know everything, but – importantly – that each of us might be better able to ask the right questions. Numbers cannot tell us how to live. They provide illumination enabling us to see more clearly the context in which our choices are made. Used well, they support the priorities we have chosen based on our values and moral commitments.

Lonely Sits the City

The Book of Lamentations can hardly be described as a fun read. The concept of lament may seem old and irrelevant – a crying over spilled milk, rather than the ‘can do’ attitude needed to manage a crisis. Yet scholars have argued that this caricature misunderstands Lamentations. Rather than a self-absorbed despondency it is a book that reflects an accurate perception of tragedy. It names experience and seeks to convey the visceral reality of exceptional trauma in all its horror.

My eyes are spent with weeping; my stomach churns;

Book of Lamentations, 2: 11

Several writers have explored the meaning of Lamentations and its relevance for other situations of overwhelming loss. Certainly the writer of the book is engaged with an experience of catastrophic destruction, where a community has been ripped apart. It is common in many such experiences to search for meaning and interpretation, as well as to apportion blame. Garber has written about the relationship of this kind of literature with reference to trauma studies. He quotes O’Connor’s understanding of this type of text as an ‘ancient poetry of “truth telling”‘.

For vast as the sea is your ruin; who can heal you?

Book of Lamentations, 2: 13

There will be many who will not link this kind of traumatic lament with the experiences of COVID-19. While much has changed there remains a level of functioning in Western societies which suggests huge stress rather than catastrophic collapse. Nevertheless the level of human loss, especially considering the many mitigations which have been put in place, is remarkable. In some families and sections of society the cost of COVID has been dear, with deaths, severe illness, reduced income, disruption to social structures and lost education. To name these experiences accurately will give rise to lament.

“there may yet be hope” Book of Lamentations 3:29

Lamentation has a number of consequences. It begins to articulate experience, putting words and sound to voice the inner turmoil when the immediate crisis is passing. In the Book of Lamentations it wrestles with both God’s presence in disaster, and simultaneous silence in the face of the people’s prayers, pleading and petitions. It may have the effect of affirming a sense of community and shared experience that lays the foundations for recovery. At the time of lament this may not be apparent but it may be a consequence of putting words to a crisis which might otherwise disband the survivors of a common trauma.

Lamentation is a form of stringent speaking. It sees through the gloss, the veneer of interpretation, and names the truth of desperate times. It is not a counsel for despair but a cri de coeur for accuracy and understanding. In this there is a prophetic edge. It challenges the superficial discussion of events that shatter communities and wreck the lives of individuals. The loss of life and suffering with over 2 million worldwide COVID-19 deaths, is surely worthy of lament.

“We’re grieving the world we have lost: normal life, our routines, seeing our friends, going to work. Everything has changed. And change is actually grief – grief is a change we don’t want”.

David Kessler quoted in an interview with Joanna Moorhead, The Observer 17 January 2021

David Kessler, who has spent his career in palliative care, describes us as a ‘grief-adverse society’. The consequence of this is the failure to recognise and experience post-traumatic growth. Only by exploring the parameters of loss can we begin to see any meaning which may emerge from tragedy. As many of us have known through the pastoral support of the bereaved, as well as in our own experience, it is unhelpful to speak of hope in the midst of crisis. Yet even unspoken, hope is often present, and although straggling and diminished it has a remarkable capacity to grow.

I hope that there will be a willingness for society to lament. To trace the sharp edges of grief and in doing so, encounter unexpected gifts. Gifts that will arrive in their own time. I have already seen, as people write and paint and create in response to their suffering, the kind of lament that may yet lead to new meaning. The risk is that we will try to rush past this crisis and its consequences and silence the voices of those who recall us to the suffering that has been all too real. Hopefully, wisdom will remind us that a future of greater promise, fairness and compassion, cannot be built successfully on a buried past.

I pray that we shall both lament and learn.

Acquired Invisibility

Many people know what it is to be ignored. It can stem from a range of attitudes about value and significance; learned behaviours or explicit choices. In the days when a bar could be crowded some people would find instant service, skipping ahead of others who had waited with patience. Not everyone is seen.

At some point this is an experience which we may all undergo as ageing changes our appearance, health and vigour. In Bleak House Krook quotes the despair of Tom Jarndyce that lengthy court proceedings are akin to being ‘drowned by drips’. Not all change is sudden, rapid and overwhelming. Usually our circumstances alter by small degrees, until we realise a bigger change has happened almost without our knowing. For the most part ageing follows this pattern until an event or illness makes us aware of both time and mortality.

A recent issue of the TLS featured a poem which captured the disparities of age and experience with insight and skill. Jamie McKendrick imagines meeting his younger self in a bar. Contrasting the two states of being – youth and maturity – McKendrick concludes with this assessment of his younger self:

All the fool seemed utterly sure of

was never in his life would he be me.

McKendrick, J. He Be Me The Times literary Supplement, 6 November 2020

Assumptions are dangerous things, especially when it comes to decision making in a pandemic. Care homes might often be regarded with benign indifference. Liminal places that sit at the edge of society’s thinking; policy-making; priorities. If ageing lends people invisibility then care homes find themselves similarly flickering in and out of the public imagination. For many years either a green or white Government paper has been promised. Yet, despite moments of recognised need, it seems that social care can recede into the background of political life with remarkable speed.

Matt Hancock at a UK Government Daily Briefing, 15 May 2020

The degree to which the importance and operation of care homes can be sidelined was nowhere clearer than in the BBC documentary Lockdown 1.0 – Following the Science. During the programme the interviewer asks one of the key pandemic modellers why the scientists thought care homes were shielded. It is a question that clearly causes Dr Ian Hall some difficulty and his reply is couched among pauses; a slightly anxious look away from the camera; and, finally, commendable honesty:

“… We were.. erm, erm … That’s a good question… We never checked…”

Dr Ian Hall, speaking during the BBC documentary Following the Science at 54 minutes

It appears that a number of casual assumptions were made about the circumstances and daily reality of how care homes work. It is hard to see that any critical enquiry was made, or any steps taken, to contact the wealth of people who would have been able to spell out the risks within a few moments.The fact is that the detailed operation of care homes was all but invisible to the scientists and politicians making decisions about the impact of COVID-19.

As with so many of the assumptions and behaviours that mean people are left in the shadows, this is not necessarily deliberate. The slow drip of ageist attitudes eventually sinks places of care for older people under a swell of political indifference. We either assume that we shall avoid these places ourselves, or fear that one day we’ll need them – and consequently prefer to shun them from our thoughts. Given the age of most senior scientists and politicians it is hard to imagine that many of them don’t have relatives in places of care. How could they have personal contact with care homes and yet remain so oblivious to the ways in which they work?

Perhaps the key post-pandemic task will be to shed the cloak of invisibility which appears to have covered care during advancing years. To lift the sector out of its obscurity and have a frank conversation about the provisions we would want to see as we age. This will be hard, as our desire to look away from this reality runs deep. Nevertheless, as the full picture of events within places of care emerges – probably during a public inquiry – there may be a moment to achieve a lasting change in our attitude to ageing.

Peace in Mind

Although I’ve only lived in York for a year I’m already familiar with the flooding. Twice during that time the Ouse has risen, filled the riverside paths, and lapped at the walls of nearby homes. For long in the tooth Yorkies, this is an all too frequent experience. It may not happen on the day heavy rains fall, but as the waters landing further north gather and merge, a coming flood is certain.

On land adjoining the Ouse there is capacity to absorb this inundation. Paths, parks, and grassed meadows become temporary lakes. On the whole the roads remain open, bridges are passable and people can circumvent the inconvenience. However, in exceptional years the rise in the river’s level exceeds the available capacity. Slowly but surely water seeps into the foundations of buildings and even palaces aren’t immune. It’s only when the waters abate that the true cost, damage and distress can be assessed.

Narrow-gauge railway line that once connected a wharf on the Ouse with the nearby barracks, for the purpose of munitions transport

The majority of people can absorb unexpected pressures, and have the capacity to stretch their resilience. Whether it is difficult relationships, an unexpected bill or uncertainty at work, we can withstand a rainy day. In human terms, we may well find that 2020 is a year of inundation – a constant precipitation of difficult news, personal or family illness, and a precarious economy: and that isn’t even the half of it. As with the Ouse, the full force of this deluge may not arrive until the skies clear.

A long time ago I trained to be a Samaritan. It led to many nights on call, available to listen to anyone, and there were some drop-in meetings in person. I’ll never forget one of those shifts. A man came in and, after introductions, we both fell silent. I can’t remember if I asked him if there was anything he wanted to talk about, but the silence became extensive. We simply sat together. At some point he asked how I was – and I then asked how he was, and he left. I’ve no idea what it meant to him, but there was something both profound and moving about that time spent together without words.

Mental health illnesses are seldom suffered alone. Families are affected by the consequences of altered personality, depression or unmanageable anxiety. As I know from family experience as a child, the pressures and expectations of Christmas can be a flash point for mental illness and its impact. It’s hard to imagine what that will be like this year.

We cannot begin to calculate what the consequences of the pandemic will mean for people’s mental health. In many respects the UK was not in great shape before the virus. This will not have been made better. While the focus last week might have been crossing the 50,000 death tally, we mustn’t forget how many people have been seriously ill, frightened and struggling. There is an extensive literature on the psychological legacy of being in intensive care.

This increase in population mental distress was not simply a continuation of previous upward trends

Pierce, M., Hope, H., Ford, T., Hatch, S., Hotopf, M., John, A., … & Abel, K. M. (2020). Mental health before and during the COVID-19 pandemic: a longitudinal probability sample survey of the UK population. The Lancet Psychiatry, 7(10), 883-892.

I imagine that some of the negative impacts of COVID-19 for mental wellbeing won’t emerge until things begin to normalise. At this point, for many people, it isn’t ‘safe to be unsafe’. There are leaders in many fields of work who have been trying to hold everything together through a crisis. As and when that critical period is over, we’ll need to make sure that these leaders can recover from the demands of their role carefully, safely and peacefully. If we can achieve that then they will be better placed to support their teams – the people who will turn to them in a crisis.

Afternoon walk after the waters have receded

It is unlikely that there will be enough training therapists, clergy and counsellors to cope with the demands that emerge. Alongside those who have been ill there will be people experiencing complex bereavement. People whose life-chances for employment have changed for the worse. All of this is within a broader context in which hugs have been missed; holidays cancelled; team sports curtailed; and church services stopped. It is impossible at this point to calculate the cumulative toll of these difficulties.

This can all feel very daunting, even as the direct affects of the pandemic continue to be present in our communities. In the weeks approaching Christmas it’s probably not surprising that many of the adverts focus on ‘kindness’. The marketing agencies have done their homework – they know the sort of message people want to hear.

We all need kindness. We also need people able to stand inside the story of our suffering. The phrase I remember from my Samaritan training was to ‘steer into distress’ – not run for cover when the conversation becomes too intense. Compassionate listening by those willing to hear and accompany our recounting of the flood will be vital. People able to support a conversation about what the deluge took; what it changed; and what it has left behind. Only as we do that work with a skilled listener – when the time is right – can we begin to rebuild our spiritual home.

Empty Plinths and Silent Saints

Exposure to different cultures often stimulates insight. Familiarity can create a lack of observation and reflection. Many years ago, visiting the Cathedrale de St-Pierre in Geneva, I was struck by the empty side chapels and alterations to the sanctuary. Familiar with cathedrals in England and elsewhere, the presence of both similarity and difference was disconcerting. Seldom have I seen a new theology so reshape and inhabit a physical space.

What I saw in Geneva may, however, be an experience shared by visitors to the Anglican cathedrals of England. The empty plinths on the outside of church buildings reflect a change driven by the shifting sands of theological conviction. For many the vacant niches may hardly raise an eyebrow, whereas for others they token a loss which continues to be felt.

Saints who survived the Reformation reshuffle; St Peter, York Minster

The Church of England took a pragmatic approach to religious change. The wholesale removal of statues in many European churches was not repeated in England. Just as liturgy made a selective combination of words from different sources, architecture reflected a middle way. Some saints remained – as St Peter today towers over the many unoccupied niches of York Minster. While these changes to church buildings may feel ancient history, in 2020 the issue of who we place on pedestals has never been more discussed or contested. The privileging of the powerful, even when wealth was built on the atrocities of slavery, led to the forced removal of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol.

Far too slowly we are challenging and changing the stories our forebears set in stone. It is hard to imagine that future decisions about public sculpture will ignore the need to accelerate a wider representation of people in society. Westminster Abbey’s modern martyr statues illustrate the changes that can be made and the impact this has upon the community. With figures such as Manche Masemola and Janani Luwum the Abbey witnesses to a much more inclusive company of saints.

Jean-Christophe BENOIST, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

We are mostly unaware of that “great multitude that no one can count”. However, the Book of Revelations tells us that they come “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages”. These are the saints whose faith and love for God is absent from the pages of history. The people whose unseen care and courage has changed the world without drawing wider attention. They are countless and uncounted – but their unlooked for reward will surely come in the blessing God has promised. Occasionally, with wisdom, the Church recognises one of this great company as an example to inspire – but such examples must speak to the reality that saints come from the whole of humanity.

Perhaps today would be a good day to ask ourselves who we would put on a pedestal? Who has touched and inspired our lives and brought the hope of God’s love to others. The people who have kept company with the persecuted and refused to abandon those in need.

I am sure that many saints pass among us unnoticed. In every age there is injustice to challenge, and in the days of Covid-19 we need as many saints as we can muster. The people who will not allow the poor to be left behind as economic hardship follows hard on the heals of rising infection, illness and death. Those who challenge the casual ageism that bats away the significance of a death with the words ‘they were elderly’; ‘they had an underlying condition’; or ‘they were obese’. It is the distancing-language that separates you from me; us from them.

Maybe we need empty plinths around our cathedrals. Spaces that remind us that most saints pass through this world without comment, and that God calls the people we think are the least likely bearers of faith . On some pedestals there are saints in later life – continuing to live out a love that knows no end.

Love Letters

During a recent research day with chaplains it became clear that alongside a greater use of technology, the pandemic has stimulated letter writing. This may seem to be contrary to much of what we’ve heard about the way ministers have responded to enforced distancing. Many stories have emerged about the use of Zoom and similar technologies. Yet our conversation revealed a small but significant practice of increased letter writing.

I like letters and cards. There is something both personal and enduring about hand-written communication. On our recent holiday I sent cards to two people I trained with – using the more leisured time to select a card and compose my greeting. Receiving letters always reminds me that people spent time thinking about me and thinking about our friendship. Handwriting can’t be cut and pasted.

“Letter writing is the only device combining solitude with good company.”

Lord Byron quoted in Williams, L. (2012). Kind regards: The lost art of letter writing. Michael O’Mara Books.

All this made me wonder about the place of letters in Christianity. The Epistles in the New Testament offer an insight into the theology, experience and mechanics of the early Church. I’m not sure whether Christianity is unique in having letters as sacred scripture, but it certainly seems unusual. Pursuing this thought I came across Antonia Sari’s work on letter writing in the Graeco-Roman world. It appears that the collection and publication of private correspondence doesn’t happen until the first century BC, when the letters of Cicero were made public. This suggests that the practice of publishing personal letters develops only shortly before the emergence of Christianity.

“The same written form that forces the author to more intense reflection also provides the addressee with opportunities for unhurried reading and interpretive rereading”.

Klauck, H. J., & Bailey, D. P. (2006). Ancient letters and the New Testament: A guide to context and exegesis. Baylor University Press.

Unlike electronic communications letters feel like they send something of oneself. They convey a high degree of peronsalisation – which is perhaps why charitable appeal letters often strive to mimic handwriting. We might think of the person composing the letter – knowing their home and their walk to the nearby letterbox. The whole ritual of writing, sealing, addressing and posting emphasises the care and thought committed to the process. For the chaplains on the research day the motivation to do this was also linked to people’s limited resources. Not everyone has e-mail or affordable access to the internet. The cost of letter writing sits with the sender, not the recipient.

At the University of Leeds School of English Alison Searle is leading an AHRC study which includes an examination of the use of letters as a form of pastoral care. Set in an historic context, this research has much to contribute to our present understanding of the way letters help or hinder the expression of care. Unexpectedly for those involved with the project, Covid-19 has created a situation in which support-at-distance has gained renewed relevance.

It is a pity that sending letters has become so expensive. There is a vicious cycle in which the post becomes more costly so fewer people use it – which in turn places pressure on its viability. Perhaps this year, given our unique circumstances, there will be a rise in the number of Christmas cards sent, reversing a longstanding decline. We may need to re-evaluate the trend to substitute the cost of cards with a gift to charity, or the tendency to opt for an e-greeting. Making time to send something of ourselves to the people we care about has a value beyond the influences which have reduced the custom. Perhaps this December, the love and care conveyed by handwritten messages will be rediscovered as one of the most valuable gifts of the festive season.