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Reflections

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.

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Reflections

Autumn – Another Beauty

Today I had one of those salutary moments, when something simple makes you pause. For the first time in several month, with a slight chill in the early morning air, I put on a winter coat. As I reached into a pocket I pulled out a face mask. In an instant I was reminded just how long the pandemic is enduring and how, half a year later, we are once again looking at a curve that is rising at a vertiginous rate.

Most of the cost of this protracted crisis will not emerge until after a point of solution or stabilisation is reached. We are now living through what a friend describes as a ‘chronic emergency’, which will no doubt have more and less acute phases. A recent two week holiday in the UK had occasional moments when it felt as though I was on furlough from the front-line. Still hearing the reports of struggle and danger but removed from its immediate impact.

Spending time in the depths of rural mid-Wales had much of the benefit of being on retreat. The weather was an unexpected gift of warm days and comfortable nights. Across a landscape of hills, woodland and waterways, the turn of the year was coming into view as foliage showed the first signs of autumn. Sitting by the River Wye just above Rhayader I was reminded of a reflection which took place much further downstream. At Tintern Abbey, more than two hundred years ago, Wordsworth’s contemplation of a bucolic scene led to thoughts about the changes brought to us by the passage of time:

While here I stand, not only with the sense

Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts

That in this moment there is life and food

For future years.

Wordsworth, Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey, 1798
The Wye River above Rhayader

In current circumstances we may all be drawing on ‘life and food’ laid down in past years to help us navigate turbulent waters. A Western tendency for several decades has been to assume a degree of certainty about the future. Only when viewed at a distance can we see how this is an aberration in terms of both human history and the reality of life in other parts of the world. If a pay cheque doesn’t come at the end of the month it is an outrage which leads to prompt correction and a shamefaced apology. Yet in the 1980s, while spending a year in South America, it was an accepted reality that sometimes pay might be delayed for one or more months – especially in the public sector. We need to be circumspect about what we take for granted. Will 2020 be viewed as a scary year that departed momentarily from story of economic growth and prosperity, or will we look back on it as the beginning of the decade of Covid? We don’t know – and we shouldn’t assume.

Emerging autumn colours

In uncertain times we can all benefit from contact with things that convey a sense of continuity. The seasons arrive with reassuring regularity, and each one with its own riches. Autumn has often been a metaphor for later life, and it is a reminder that even change which may not always be welcome comes with its own beauty. We may mourn the loss of summer’s rich canopies and expansive days of warmth, but in the transformation of the season there is a spectacular display of colour. Its fleeting nature, combined with the change in climate, can intensify the pleasure we take in a beauty made all the richer by our knowledge of its brevity.

We enter autumn with questions about the future which are unusual for many of us – but not for all. Living wisely with uncertainty can be a tall order, and finding reserves of reflection matter all the more when our footing feels less sure. Pausing to recognise the beauty of today, or recalling those past moments that have grounded and fed our spirit, will perhaps be more valuable now than we imagine.

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“When thou shalt look us out of pain”

During 20 years of chaplaincy in the NHS I faced all kinds of questions which might be grouped under the simple, short, yet daunting word: ‘why?’

It wasn’t only a question for people who might have seen themselves as religious. When I was present with families in traumatic circumstances there were often non-religious people among them. It seems that there is a basic assumption in life that there should be some reward for virtue, or at least a balance between the rain and sunshine. The suffering of the innocent, especially children, resists any attempt to attach constructive meaning. Occasionally a family member would venture something along the lines of ‘perhaps it’s for the best’, but when this happened it was often met with silence and muted rejection.

Time and again I was aware that in life-changing situations, when words were wholly inadequate to the experience of loss, the role of the chaplain was not orientated towards a solution. There was no good outcome, and in this context spiritual care was far more to do with helping shoulder pain than in any attempt to make things better. In my ethnographic writing about the experience of being a chaplain, offering compassionate presence in small spaces of great suffering, the simple fact of being there, bearing a particular group of associations, appear to be core components of the role.

There was more to this than pastoral empathy, valuable as that can be for people in distress. I was conscious at times that I was bringing the outside in. Even while being a member of staff, the religious identity I carried spoke of the wider community. When meeting a chaplain for the first time perhaps the most frequently asked question is: ‘where is your church?’, or mosque, synagogue or gurdwara. People of faith are linked to places of faith and the connection flows to and fro. In an institutional setting this can mean that the chaplain has a particular role in bearing the symbolism of community; connections to the past and the future; and a broad association with shared beliefs, culture, heritage and identity.

Yet there is a further dimension to this role – that of witness. The longer I worked in institutional settings the more aware I became that seeing what takes place, and holding that in the perspective of prayer and ritual, was part of what was expected. People cared that their experience, perhaps taking place at the dead of night in a large city, was not happening in seclusion. In their presence, words and actions, chaplains are personifying elements of the faith they profess. As I wrestled with this experience – and still wrestle – there is something in it about the God who doesn’t look away. I am not there to promote a God who can be bargained with in order to grant our wishes. The very least I can do is to behold this suffering, to touch and bless a life which is ending, and share the sorrow of the grieving whose lives are changing irrevocably. In the current circumstances of Covid-19 this can be experienced as a deprivation for both those in spiritual need and the chaplain tasked to provide it.

This element of pastoral ministry, the chaplain’s gaze, occurred to me again recently while reading Mark Oakley’s reflections on the poems of George Herbert. In The Glance, Herbert writes of a time when God “shalt look us out of pain”. It seems an odd notion, but I know from experience that looking has its own quality, and that in the silent relationship of beholding, much can be transacted. Following Herbert, this might be seen as a foretaste of a time when clarity of perception between God and humanity will dissolve the hurts and pains we all carry.

Maybe, in the request to witness those moments, and to be present with loved ones as they say farewell, there is a sign that this kind of seeing, and being seen, truly matters. That when we sense God’s presence with us, beholding our pain, there is hope that in the end this suffering will be lifted from us. It doesn’t diminish the experience we are passing through, with all its calamity, but it offers an unspoken hope that suffering is not – and never is – the last thing we see.