Survival is Insufficient
I have just finished reading a novel by Emily St John Mandel called ‘Station Eleven’.
Its premise is that 99% of humanity has been wiped out by a fatal strain of ‘flu. All the technology upon which the modern world relied has been lost: no electricity, computers or internet, no phones, cars or jets. Survivors form primitive communities surrounded by the ruins of former civilisation.
Some try to find meaning in what has happened by forming cults, shaped by the conviction that the pandemic was some form of judgment.
Into this predictably post-apocalyptic landscape is introduced ‘The Travelling Symphony’, a band of actors and musicians who travel from community to community to perform Bach, Beethoven and Shakespeare. Their motto, taken from a long lost episode of Star Trek, is ‘Survival is Insufficient’, and speaks of a deeper need for beauty and meaning in the midst of collapse.
As the storylines of various characters interweave, there is surprising reflection on what has been lost and what has been gained. While life is physically harder, more fragile, and filled with a sense of bereavement and lament for all that has gone, there is also an awareness of grace, of the beauty of the world and the preciousness of simple things which a more complicated world took for granted.
An unexpected theme is that of vocation. Several characters’ stories span the period both before and after the ‘flu epidemic, and in each case the ending of civilisation has clarified their sense of who they are and what they are called to be. One character had spent his life before the collapse drifting between a series of unsatisfactory jobs before starting to train as a paramedic. After the collapse he finds satisfaction in offering the nearest thing to a medical practice in the region. A former corporate lawyer realises that in his professional life he has been a kind of ‘high-functioning sleepwalker’, and to his surprise discovers that the collapse of civilisation restores to him a freedom to be himself once more. When one of the actors in the Travelling Symphony is invited to opt for a safer and steadier form of life she replies, ‘Sure, but in what other life would I get to perform Shakespeare?’.
For Christians the discernment of vocation has always been a major theme; not just for clergy and ‘professional’ church workers, but for all the baptised. What does it mean for me to live out my life under God? How can I become the person I was made to be? What does the good life look like? It isn’t easy to focus on such questions in a world so full of competing choices, demands and distractions.
As we welcome Tim Kelly at the start of his ordained ministry, we might ponder why someone should give up a successful secular career to become a Curate. Past experience is never wasted, but learning to discern our calling can take us in utterly unexpected directions.
‘Station Eleven’ provides a good summer reading starting point for thinking about our own vocation. We may not need an apocalypse to discern what really matters in our lives, but I wonder what would remain of us if the trappings of so-called civilisation were stripped away?
The Peace of Wild Things
Writing this on a half term short break in a deeply rural Oxfordshire hideaway, I am looking out over meadows where we can see pink footed geese, red kites and herons. The area seems rich in wildlife despite being within sight of the M40. No accident perhaps that we are staying on an estate where there is a pro-active approach to conservation management.
The curative power of the countryside is well known. Taking the time simply to notice the infinite shades of green, to listen to birdsong, and to sit in the sun, is enough to make us feel more whole, more human, more earthed, and to appreciate the sheer giftedness of life.
Taking the ‘natural’ world for granted, we also abuse it. Seeing the quantity of litter casually dropped in streets and on roadsides makes me wonder whether anyone is listening to the increasingly desperate urgings of environmental scientists that the earth is fragile and cannot cope with our habits of consumption.
For Christians, the very notion of an eternal Creator implies that his creation is, by contrast, finite, limited and exhaustible. Some fundamentalists take this to mean that the environment is unimportant, since we are destined for heaven anyway. But a more biblical doctrine of creation shows that human beings exist only in the context of the rest of God’s world, and that we are accountable for our use of it. We are tenants in the world, not landlords enjoying absolute rights over creation. As the Psalm puts it: ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.’ Finding a more balanced and humble relationship with the rest of creation is part of the journey of redemption.
At Beverley Minster we have recently begun conducting an environmental survey as a first step in reflecting as a community about how faithfulness to God involves faithfulness to his world. We shall be seeking to appreciate the glory of God in creation, and encouraging one another to become more mindful of what has been entrusted to us.
For me, this poem by Wendell Berry expresses how our sense of wellbeing must involve our relationship with the natural world. In secular language, it prompts me to value the non-human creation as a sacrament of grace: in Calvin’s phrase, the world is ‘the theatre of God’s glory’, even when God is not explicitly named.
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives might be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
St John of Beverley: Hero or Villain?
May is the month of St John of Beverley. The annual pilgrimage to Harpham where St John was born takes place on the 9th, and the Civic Service in his honour is on the 12th.
Before coming to Beverley I had hardly heard of its local saint (hereafter ‘St JoB’). But before the Reformation he was clearly a big name on the pilgrimage circuit, up there with Cuthbert of Durham and Thomas Becket of Canterbury; which is, of course, why Beverley Minster is such a huge building.
St JoB’s story also nicely illustrates a very modern problem about the relationship between religion and violence. ‘Wars are all caused by religion’, cry some people. And the story of St JoB shows why you might think that.
In the original account of St JoB’s life told by The Venerable Bede in the early 8th century, John is a humble man of prayer with a remarkable ministry to those who are sick or disabled.
But two centuries and many pilgrims later, he was credited by King Athelstan with enabling a great English victory over the Picts. From then on, English kings made sure that they never went to war without the Standard of St JoB leading their armies. When Henry V won the battle of Agincourt on the Feast of St JoB, he attributed it to the saint’s intercession and made a pilgrimage to Beverley in acknowledgement.
So the peace-loving holy man became the go-to saint for wars of national aggrandisement, and for a while St JoB rivalled St George as England’s patron saint.
Does this mean that St JoB caused wars? Of course not. He was co-opted by monarchs eager to claim God’s support in their conflicts, in a way that rendered John’s original character and ministry unrecognisable.
And that is what always happens. Leaders of partisan causes seek validation from religion. They can then claim not only to have God on their side, but that their opponents are blasphemously fighting God himself.
We in the West are squeamish nowadays about fighting in the name of God. So wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya have been fought in the name of ‘freedom’. Does that mean freedom causes violence? Of course not. But it’s a noble-sounding rallying cry for those with other agendas.
Blaming violence on ‘religion’ is like blaming it on ‘politics’. Of course, religion is often involved. The question is whether it is authentic, healthy religion or corrupted and used as a tribal label. Blaming conflict on undifferentiated ‘religion’ is simply lazy.
For many Jews and Muslims, Christianity is associated with pogroms and crusades, and the cross speaks of violence and terror. But does any of that come from Jesus himself, who renounced coercive power and gave himself up on a cross?
Each of us has a responsibility to examine the relationship between our core beliefs and our actions. Often they won’t match up, and that is part of the tragedy of the human condition. But when our actions fall short of our faith, that isn’t necessarily God’s fault.
‘They are us’
After the dreadful terrorist attack on the mosque in Christchurch NZ on March 15, the Prime Minister of New Zealand received much praise from around the world for her statesmanlike reaction.
Not only did Jacinda Ardern identify strongly with the victims, visiting the mosque, providing financial support for the families affected, and quickly branding this a terrorist attack rather than the work of an isolated extremist, but she also worked hard to discourage different groups from blaming each other. Instead of highlighting differences and distinguishing ‘them’ from ‘us’, she has stressed the unity of New Zealand’s diverse society and her slogan ‘They are us’ has been taken up widely.
In a world where politicians are tempted to appeal to the worst elements in human nature, this is refreshingly different. Tightening up on immigration, talking as though we are threatened by the rest of the world and building walls along borders is an easy way to prop up political support. But it does so by heightening fear, increasing division and blaming victims for the violence visited upon them. It was against such a background of fear and division that fascist groups came to power in Europe in the 1920s and 30s.
According to the Bible, the first responsibility of kings is not the defence of the realm; it is to deliver justice, especially to the poor and most vulnerable, including foreigners. This is a primary vision which modern leaders have almost entirely forgotten; but God surely hasn’t.
The Christian gospel is all about reconciliation and restoring wholeness in the world. Jesus summarised it as loving God with all your heart and loving your neighbour as yourself. And since we ourselves are freely forgiven by God, we have no business rubbishing others, especially when they are suffering or are a minority.
This means that any political argument which seems to promote an attitude of ‘us and them’, or which seeks to prefer one group at the expense of another, or that narrows its appeal to one class, colour, nation or race without valuing other inhabitants of this small planet, is questionable from a Christian point of view.
Holy Week and Easter remind us that reconciliation and mercy are God’s top priority even though they are cross-shaped and do not come cheaply. But on the third day Jesus was raised from the dead, not for a few, but for all the world. If we want to live in the light of that amazing good news, our vision should be no less. God is for us so that ‘they’ too can be ‘us’.
I recently became aware of a new phrase in our language: the ‘attention economy’.
It stems from the fact that many of us are now struggling with information overload, and are processing such a constant stream of messages, news and data in a variety of media that we have forgotten how to pay real attention.
The metaphor of ‘surfing the web’ has never been more appropriate, suggesting as it does a continually shifting but utterly superficial engagement. We skim read to fillet an email or article for the information we need. We get restless having to listen to someone else’s inconsequential stories because they don’t appear to serve any useful purpose.
Against this background our attention has become a sought-after resource for which other people and organisations compete. The revenue of many commercial websites and social media like Facebook depends upon holding our attention and enticing us to spend more time on their pages. We are the prey of another new word in the lexicon: clickbait. Our attention has become quantified and costed out, merely a means to an economic end.
The American philosopher and psychologist William James said that what we attend to is reality – that is, the things we attend to are the things that become most real to us. If we cannot attend properly to anything, then we are literally driven to distraction and emptied of all substance.
In similar vein, the French philosopher-theologian Simone Weil said that ‘the authentic and pure values – truth, beauty and goodness … are the result of … a certain application of the full attention to the object’. We pay attention to someone we love just for the joy of being in their company. We pay attention to the blossom in the garden or the bird on the feeder because ordinary things have a beauty that somehow nourishes the soul without serving any immediate purpose. We pay attention to a great work of art or music not because of its financial value but because it hints at a glory both universal and yet just out of reach.
Weil went on to say that paying attention is ‘the gateway to eternity’, and that prayer is attention in its purest form.
As we approach Lent perhaps this is a good moment to stop and ask ourselves whether we can escape the attention economy. May you find the will to resist trivial distractions, to fast from the flow of information, and to give up attending only to the things you can use. May you practice again the art of paying attention to something or someone without any agenda save that of appreciating their uniqueness, that as we draw closer to Easter you may discern the glory of resurrection inherent and yet hidden in the midst of all things. May you – may we all – grow in the grace of prayer as we give our whole attention to what is most real.
Keeping Alive the Rumour of Angels
During February we are re-launching regular children’s groups on Sunday mornings at Beverley Minster. Whilst provision for children during the 10.30am service has never quite disappeared, we have for a little while lacked the ability to run weekly age-differentiated groups with a sufficiently big team of volunteer leaders.
So it is exciting to be able to report that there will be three groups running on three Sundays out of four (ie not when there is an All Age service on the first Sunday of the month); one group for pre-schoolers, one for Primary School age children, and one for 11+.
The importance of this provision is hard to overstate. Without children’s groups which are properly resourced and confidently promoted, we see few children in church (choristers of course being an honourable exception). Without children in church, we are unlikely to see their parents. Without the parents of school-age children, we become a congregation made up largely of retired people. There’s nothing at all wrong with age and experience, but we’re not reflecting the world around us.
Archbishop William Temple famously said that the Church is only ever one generation away from extinction, and in our day the truth of that is becoming visible. Perhaps more important than worrying about the future of the Church is the challenge of passing on the good news of Jesus Christ to the next generation and keeping alive the ‘rumour of angels’.
In an increasingly complex and muddled world, where do people find shape and meaning for their lives? Probably not in the competing fashions and group think of social media. For too long we have left children to ‘make up their own minds when they are old enough’ as if working out how to live well is easy and obvious. We don’t apply that approach to any other aspect of growing up.
The challenge of forming Christian character has always been real, because it is neither quick nor easy. But if God’s love is the deepest reality of life, then learning to live in the light of that reality cannot begin too soon; and neither will we ever be too old to discover fresh depths of divine grace.
Outlook for 2019
Actually, I don’t mind January. It’s a relief to emerge from December into a landscape which isn’t dominated by Christmas but is still appreciably the middle of winter. There’s a sparseness to January which offers space to take stock, and in practice it’s often less cluttered than other months. Being at the beginning of the calendar year also invites us to look ahead, to plan (in our household we’ve already had the conversation about where to go on summer holiday – Pembrokeshire, in case you’re interested), and to think about what the future might hold.
It has been said that prophesy is a risky business, especially prophesying the future, but for what it’s worth here are my finger-in-the-wind, peer-at-the-seaweed, and hand-over-the-hostages-to-fortune predictions for 2019:
- In programmes run in the parish there will be an emphasis on living as Christians in the world, not just in the Church. It’s not always easy to relate our faith to the issues facing us during the week, so we’ll look for ways to encourage each other in doing this.
- The clergy team will be joined by Tim Kelly as Curate in July.
- Money will be a continuing pressure, with action needing to be taken to reduce the annual deficit, and with fundraising for the ‘Two Churches One Town’ project getting under way in earnest. We can expect to see a stewardship campaign at some point and applications to trusts to do work on the roof.
- Plans are afoot in the Minster to re-order the altar and choir stalls at the front of the nave. We hope to make the furnishings less cramped so that worship will have a better focus and benefit from more flexible space.
- The number of families worshipping at the Minster should gently increase, given the extra ministry resources and the excellent groundwork already done by our Youth and Children’s Minister.
- Outreach should develop, especially among people in their 20s-40s, although it may take a while to identify what needs we should try to address.
- Much excellent work that is already going on will continue, not least among the Associated Churches. There will be surprises and unexpected opportunities to respond to.
- Brexit will continue to be a mess, but whatever the outcome the future will be redeemable under God. It’s important we remember this in the midst of so much frustration and polarisation!
These aren’t resolutions – I haven’t the will power to keep resolutions – but are offered more as projections from paths we are already on. Pundits can enjoy seeing how wide of the mark I am at the beginning of 2020. In the meantime, I offer you these matters for your prayers, together with my best wishes for a happy and peaceful New Year.
Waiting on tiptoe…
In a classic episode of the children’s programme ‘Sesame Street’, the actor Tom Hiddleston can be seen teaching the Cookie Monster all about ‘delayed gratification’: the Monster has to learn to wait for his cookie, and waiting doesn’t come naturally. The joy of the encounter is that the Cookie Monster is a simple creature driven by his single-minded appetite for cookies; expecting him to cope with delayed gratification is delightfully absurd.
But the joke is on us. One of the features of our age is our inability to wait for anything. Everything has to be instant, from coffee to credit. Speed of delivery determines the success or failure of online businesses. In supermarkets you can get strawberries all the year round – why wait for June?
When a season is linked to a specific date, like Christmas, the pressure is on to get there as quickly as possible. So in most towns, the decorations go up in October. But once we get to Boxing Day, the interest has moved on. Last year I tried to buy a German stollen cake (very Christmassy) from a well-known supermarket on 27th December – which after all was only the Third of the Twelve Days of Christmas – and discovered that all the Christmas goods had been replaced by Valentine’s Day displays, along with a few Easter-themed hot cross buns.
I wonder whether this reveals something spiritual. When God disappears from the calendar, human beings take God’s place. We attempt to shake off our time-bound existence and live in an eternal present. Time collapses into eternity, and we try to make everything happen at once. We live in a ‘24/7’ society that never rests. Our shopping habits have dissolved the Seasons. Waiting is something only primitive, pre-modern peoples do.
Unfortunately, we don’t (yet) inhabit eternity. So, like Bruce in the film Bruce Almighty, we find it stressful trying to run the universe all at once. That’s why new technology never saves us time but always makes us busier. Robots won’t replace us all; they’ll just encourage more of us to try to fit more in to our limited time.
At Christmas, Jesus entered human history. The Son of God became one of us, leaving eternity to inhabit seconds, minutes, hours and years. Mary had to wait nine months for his birth. The world had waited since the beginning of time.
Although it didn’t come easily, the Cookie Monster learned how to delay his gratification. When the cookie was finally given it tasted even better than before.
As we enter Advent we enter the season of waiting. May it be for you a precious time of looking forward, patient expectancy, and slow preparation. Because it isn’t just Christmas for which we are waiting; it’s for heaven to come down to earth, for eternity to break into time, and for our own birth as children of God.
A Time to Remember, a Time to Hope
Auschwitz is a strange place to visit. I went there in January of last year as part of a pilgrimage led by Archbishop Justin. Part of me didn’t want to be there, and I was grateful be part of a group with a serious purpose, to reflect on the nature of evil and suffering; going as an individual tourist would have felt somehow ghoulish and voyeuristic. This is not a normal visitor attraction.
What struck me looking around was the emphasis on remembering, underlined by our Polish guide as well as by the literature and interpretation material. ‘Remember this…’, he kept saying. ‘It is very important to remember that…’. There is a fear at Auschwitz that people might forget what happened there, because there is no longer a community to keep alive any personal memory of most of the victims.
The result is an urgency in the call to remember that can feel like a desire to keep the wound open. When the barbed wire fences rust they are replaced with new wire. When weeds grow over the ruins of the gas chambers they are cleared away. Auschwitz is a place where the earth cannot be allowed to heal. Left to itself, the main death camp would rot into the ground within a few decades; but that will never happen.
November is our own season of remembrance, with a growing number of people attending remembrance services and ceremonies. The urge to remember is fuelled here by the desire to affirm the value of those who died, whether in two World Wars or in more recent conflicts. They were loved, and so they still matter, and their sacrifice is still valued by the society of which they were part.
This year is slightly different because, being the 100th anniversary of the ending of the First World War, there is a note of celebration. The First World War was horrific, so all the more reason to give thanks for its ending.
The churches have their own season of remembrance in November, in the Feasts of All Saints and All Souls. These festivals are when we remember the ultimate triumph of those who suffered but still trusted in Christ, and who now enjoy the peace of heaven. The remembrance of loss is re-framed and redeemed by the context of an ultimate victory over death.
The Christian hope can therefore make our remembering part of a process of healing, if past loss can be integrated into our future hope for the renewal of heaven and earth.
Auschwitz remains problematic. It’s not an easy place to speak too quickly of redemption. But even there, the commitment to preserving the memory of what happened is a sign of hope, though it may be a memory resistant to healing. Yet hope is what ultimately comes out of all our remembering. May this season of remembrance be for you a time of looking back in order to look forward with hope.
‘Sanctuary’ is one of those words in the English language which began in the Church but which has now escaped and is at loose in the world. ‘Sanctuary’ was once a very religious word, meaning a holy place. Within a parish church, the sanctuary is the area around the altar, since the time of Archbishop Laud usually defined by a sanctuary rail to protect the altar from irreverent behaviour and, specifically, to keep out dogs (Jonah and Maisie take note).
But a ‘sanctuary’ nowadays need not be religious. We have donkey sanctuaries and seal sanctuaries for creatures which need looking after. Cities of sanctuary make a point of welcoming refugees and asylum seekers. People might talk about their home or a favourite holiday spot as a sanctuary from the rough and tumble of the world. A sanctuary is now any place where someone can feel safe.
Beverley had a role in the evolution of the first meaning of sanctuary to the second. From the time of King Athelstan in the 10th century onwards, Beverley was a place where fugitives could claim sanctuary, meaning they could find refuge from the rough and ready justice of the day. The idea was that churches could be safe spaces because bloodshed was incompatible with a place of worship. Beverley was special because its right of sanctuary didn’t just provide a brief respite from the lynch mob before a fugitive was sent into permanent exile; it included the right to stay in the town forever within the limits of the sanctuary stones, three of which survive on the outskirts of town. Similar arrangements existed in the great Liberties of Durham and Ripon, but Beverley was the most famous.
This concept of sanctuary seems to me to be a rich one for us today. Not only does the term have a strong association with the history of the town and Minster; it also arises from the Christian gospel that God’s justice takes the form of mercy; and it hints that the church might still have a role today in building communities where vulnerable people feel safe and can find refuge.
We shall be exploring this in several ways over coming months. First, we are running a course on 6th and 27th October (9.30 – 12.30) called ‘Everybody Welcome’, designed to help everyone who is part of the Minster community to think about how easily visitors and newcomers of all kinds find their way in to the life of this community and whether we can make the experience better. I encourage all of us to take part in this so that it might be as effective as possible.
Second, a new series of the monthly ‘Sunday at Seven’ informal services under the heading ‘Finding Sanctuary’ will address three different aspects of the theme: ‘No More Tit for Tat’ (September 30th), ‘Experiencing the Holy’ (October 28th) and ‘Place of Refuge, Place of Safety’ (November 25th).
Finally, the theme of Sanctuary lies at the heart of the Minster’s bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund for funding for initial repairs to the roof. Before the second round application is made we must work out what story we want to tell about the nature of sanctuary at Beverley Minster, past and present. An online survey and consultation will help to provide the basis for this.
Beverley’s ancient right of sanctuary offers a rich source of inspiration for the work and witness of the Minster today. It has power to speak to our imagination and may help to renew our vision as we work in these days at becoming more a place of refuge and healing for all.
Every Kind of Ministry
As I write in the last week of August, Rev. Wendy Wale and her husband Tom are moving in to the Associate Vicar’s house in Newton Drive. Wendy’s Licensing will take place on 20th September, and I can’t quite believe that I am going to have a full time colleague to help deliver that fearsome Sunday service rota!
However, I have to keep reminding myself that Wendy is not just going to be another pair of hands. In the past the Associate Vicar was a kind of senior Curate, normally a fixed term appointment for someone offering all round parish work. But the new post has a different rationale.
The diocese has agreed to restore the Associate Vicar post not just because ‘the Vicar needs help’ but because it will fit a wider diocesan strategy, of ‘reaching those we currently don’t’. The diocese of York has recently passed the first round of a two-phase bid to the Church Commissioners for strategic funding to support a dozen or so new posts specialising in ministry to people in their 20s – 40s. To demonstrate that this strategy is serious, the diocese had to show that it was already investing in such work. We therefore have an agreement with the diocese that our new Associate Vicar post will focus part-time on general parish work and part-time specifically on work with 20s – 40s, and Wendy has been appointed on that basis.
There has of course always been considerable overlap between some aspects of parish work and ministry to people in their 20s – 40s: weddings, baptisms, Mums and Tots work and so on. But Wendy will also have responsibility for looking at new ways of ministering to what is now recognised as a ‘hard to reach’ age group.
Wendy isn’t going to rejuvenate the church by herself; but if we don’t impose unhelpful expectations, she will help us to grow into the church of the future. This is an exciting time as ministry resources grow to match the opportunities, and these include lay ministries. By happy coincidence, on Sunday 30th September we are holding a ‘Volunteer Fair’ to highlight some of the many ways each of us can help to serve the life of the church in this parish, and not just those under 50. So as we welcome Wendy and look forward to her ministry here, I hope that this may prompt each of us to reflect upon our own ministry and how it can develop in this season of new beginnings.
Expectations of wedding photographs change. It used to be that the only photographs requested during the marriage service were of the bride on the way into church at the beginning, and the couple processing out at the end. Most photos were taken outside the church or at the reception. Nowadays photos are taken of the entire service from beginning to end, and often filmed as well.
The run-through before the wedding therefore normally includes a delicate verbal ballet between Vicar and Wedding Photographer to establish how this is to be done without the ceremony being upstaged by tripods, scurrying photographers and clicking shutters. In vain do I point out that all the photographers at Harry and Meghan’s wedding somehow managed to remain invisible.
The urge to take photographs of important moments in our lives is strong. Having pictures of a special occasion helps us to keep the memory fresh, or even to re-live it. Big occasions can be stressful, and it’s attractive to think that we can enjoy them later when we have time and are feeling more relaxed.
There is a paradox here that after months of patient waiting, the day itself disappears under a sense that it can’t really be enjoyed until afterwards. Perhaps this reveals a lack of confidence in our ability to live in the present moment. We find it easier to record the occasion for later rather than to live it here and now.
The Bible says that ‘God has set eternity in our hearts, yet we cannot fathom what he has done’. In other words, we have been made to enjoy eternity, and so we struggle to work out how to live within the limits of space and time. We imagine that quality time is always either in the past or in the future, when the door opening on to eternity is always now.
Christ promises freedom both from the chains of the past and the anxieties of the future so that we can experience eternity in the present moment. Weddings and special occasions are particularly good opportunities to practise this. So this August, may you grow in your appreciation of the present moment. And I shall try to remember my own advice as I look forward to taking lots of holiday photos.
Mine eyes have seen the gloryhole…
I remember my first proper visit to Beverley Minster last Summer. Entering the nave, I was blown away by the glories of this great pilgrimage church full of light. But when I ventured into the Quire, I couldn’t understand why the whole area suddenly felt spiritually lifeless and unused, like an old museum. It came as quite a surprise to discover later that the Quire is in fact used daily for prayer and worship. On reflection I realised that the reason it had such a derelict air was because of all the red ropes fencing off the stalls. They proclaim very loudly ‘Keep Off. Do Not Use. Heritage Only.’ – and effectively undermined the purpose of the Quire as a living place of prayer!
The last couple of Parochial Church Council (PCC) meetings have included time to wander around the Minster and consider how sympathetic the furnishings are to the building itself and its original purpose.
The Minster is deliberately generous, in scale, beauty, and costliness. It was built that way to help pilgrims to feel more open, less crowded, more in touch with Beauty, more filled with awe. In other words, the building was intended to offer people a glimpse of heaven on earth. It still does that, much more so than other big buildings like, say, Tesco.
But Nature abhors a vacuum; and one of the problems with a big building is that empty spaces attract objects with no permanent home, such as donation boxes or tables for refreshments. It requires real discipline to manage the use of functional objects in a manner sympathetic to the building itself.
If a Transept floor is empty, the eye is drawn upwards to the windows and vaulting, and the experience is spiritual. If on the other hand the space is occupied by two ugly and ill-matching tables next to a dustbin, the eye inevitably focusses on those instead, and stays all too earthbound. The message of the building is undermined by its contents.
The PCC walkabout opened our eyes to some of the tensions between practical use and original purpose. It also whetted some appetites for a gentle process of de-cluttering! It’s good to think about the environment of worship; our buildings say something about the God we adore, and in the process also shape our sense of ourselves.
Two things struck me about the recent Referendum in Ireland about the repeal of the Constitutional Amendment prohibiting abortion.
One was the passionate, polarised, nature of the debate. The two sides seemed united only in their mutual incomprehension, each unable to see any merit in the other’s view.
The other thing to strike me was how it was simply assumed by UK commentators that the Pro-Choice position was the right one. Opposition to abortion is now seen as a throwback to medieval patriarchy, endorsed only by a Roman Catholic Church intent on opposing personal freedom.
Both aspects trouble me. On the one side is an argument presented as an absolute rule protecting the sanctity of life. The problem is that the rule is carved in granite so immovable as to sound life-denying. By insisting that the right of the unborn child to life overrides every other consideration (by enshrining it in a Constitution, for example), Pro-Lifers can appear judgmental and unsympathetic to the very real suffering faced by women who discover they are unhappily pregnant.
On the other side the ‘My Body, My Choice’ line risks reducing a matter of life and death to mere personal choice. There is no recognition that this might be an issue for a community or society; no awareness that it always takes two to make a child, no concession to the sheer giftedness of life, whether wanted or not. It is simply assumed that we are no more than atomised individuals, each of us salvaging what meaning we can from life. In a way it demonstrates the triumph of consumer capitalism, in which freedom of individual choice is the supreme Good. The flip side is that when things go wrong, the individual faces the music alone. If that’s how it really is, it’s not surprising that abortion usually seems to be the lesser of two evils.
There is an African saying that “It takes a village to raise a child”. Perhaps it also takes a village to bring a child to birth, and the absence of robust community support is what gives abortion its appeal when a pregnancy is unwanted. Churches may be some of the few places left where the worn fabric of community can be renewed, within which the range of life choices can be widened and supported. We are potentially communities of resistance, insisting unfashionably that we are more than a collection of individuals, that the gospel creates genuine bonds of fellowship. But is it a vision we have really grasped? And is it a vision big enough to share?
Can you separate the art from the artist? Following the sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and others, liberal-minded film critics have generally responded with a surprisingly traditional morality. Many commentators have argued that the work of those who have sexually exploited others is tainted. Even though their films may still be great films, we cannot now watch them without being aware of a darker context. The director Ridley Scott recently re-filmed ‘All the Money in the World’ with Christopher Plummer replacing Kevin Spacey after damaging allegations surfaced. No question of separating the art from the artist there – Spacey’s involvement made the whole project toxic.
There has been a shift in thinking around this. Critics used to argue that works of art be judged independently of the artist’s character or intention. They rarely suggested that Caravaggio’s ‘Last Supper’ should be shunned because he was also a murderer, or that Lord Byron’s ‘Don Juan’ should be thrown out of libraries because he had the morals of a tomcat. No doubt it helped that the victims were no longer around to prejudice sales.
But in the Classical and Christian worlds, Beauty, Truth and Goodness were held to be connected. They pointed equally to God, who was the single source of them all. In a connected universe, we cannot truly appreciate beautiful things without taking account of their relationship with what is good and true. But the relationship is not straightforward. Is beauty rendered false or perhaps more true because it arises from the artist’s moral failings?
In the history of the arts we see flawed and damaged human beings frequently applying themselves to redeem ugly experiences in the creation of their art.
In Christian understanding, the cross of Jesus is the place where something bad and ugly becomes supremely good and beautiful in the light of Easter. Sometimes it is necessary to embrace ugliness to make ugly things beautiful. Here too, there is ultimately no question of separating the art from the Artist.
Now you see him, now you don’t
‘He is risen; he is not here’. At the heart of Easter is this terse message given to grieving women at Jesus’ empty tomb. But in the triumphalism of the churches’ Easter celebrations it’s easy to miss the paradox in this apparently simple statement.
He is risen; and in our world full of grief and disappointment it is wonderful news that Jesus’ perfect humanity and God’s perfect faithfulness are together stronger than death. The resurrection invites us all to seek a deeper awareness of divine love in our own lives and in the community around us.
At the same time, he is not here. Although he is risen, Jesus is not necessarily present. You might think that the whole point of the resurrection was to make Jesus present again. But at the heart of the Easter story is an empty tomb and an absence. He is not the possession of the churches, he escapes our grasp and is always one step in front of us, ‘going ahead to Galilee’; he leaves behind him rumours and stories inviting us to follow him back into the world.
So if Jesus isn’t here when we want him to be, what are we to make of the resurrection? The women in the story were told to look at the empty tomb and then to tell the other disciples that Jesus was risen. They had to focus on both the absence and the resurrection of Jesus. As they then moved to obey, the Lord unexpectedly met them. It seems that those wishing to discover the truth of the resurrection for themselves must live as if it is true. Trusting the risen Lord leads to action; and in the active living of the Christian faith Christ often surprises us with his Easter greeting.
May this season be one in which you find new life in your faith, whatever that faith might be, and fresh energy in your living it out.
“What is truth?” As we approach Holy Week, Pontius Pilate’s question to Jesus has never been so relevant – nor so difficult to answer.
A few years ago it seemed that there was a great division in our way of thinking between the world of evidence-based public fact (that is, the world of science and technology) and the world of private values and opinions (inhabited by the arts, humanities and religion). Christian faith found itself marginalised because it fell into the second part of this false division.
The downgrading of any kind of truth claim has now become routine. If we don’t like the science of, for example, climate change, we just deny the evidence. In response to claims that social media were being manipulated to peddle false news stories, Facebook has changed its algorithms to prioritise what friends share with each other over all news stories – effectively treating fake news and the real thing the same, and playing down both. President Trump’s policy towards the media has been to brand all mainstream media (ie those with some professional interest in reporting ‘the truth’) as ‘fake news’ so that people rely increasingly on their social media news feeds, which tell us what we want to hear.
Should truth be expressed if it might cause offence? The ‘No Platforming’ of Germaine Greer and Peter Tatchell from certain universities because of their views on transgender issues has raised eyebrows. The old adage that ‘you can’t argue with what people feel’ describes a reality in which issues can no longer be discussed rationally if they might upset some people. ‘The truth’ is no longer out there, and accessible through rational argument and investigation. There is only my truth and your truth. Which one gets heard is in the end a matter of relative power, of who can shout loudest.
So what is truth, and how do we get at it? When Pilate asks the question, he is unaware that the one who claimed to be ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’ was staring him in the face. If this was so, it suggests that truth is something external to ourselves and not purely subjective; but it is also bound up with our personal commitments. Truth invites us to stake our lives on it; we believe in order to understand; it will change us, not least by confronting us with uncomfortable insights about ourselves, and with glorious insights about what we might become. Jesus reveals that in the end, the ultimate truth is love.
May the rest of this Lent be for you a journey into deeper truth, a truth that will set you free.
2018 is set to be a monster year, with the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s novel ‘Frankenstein’ being celebrated with an avalanche of articles, conferences, films, plays, a ballet and even a themed £2 coin design.
The story of a brilliant scientist and his ambition to create life has never lost popularity, even if some later versions of the story bear little resemblance to the original. Lazy journalists use the Frankenstein label to whip up fear of technology, especially in reports of genetically engineered plants and animals, or of developments in infertility treatments. It is a tale of mythic proportions, inviting endless reflection on how human creativity can go wrong.
Frankenstein’s crime is twofold. First, his desire to create a living being is born of egotism rather than love or any desire for relationship. When he parades his ambition before his fiancée, she says ‘Why not just give me a child?’ But there is no room for anyone else in Frankenstein’s project. It’s all about him. Then, when the monster comes alive, he is rejected by his creator who turns away in horror and drives him away. What makes the monster truly monstrous is the behaviour he learns from his master; fear, hatred, rejection and violence. Initially the creature is innocent, trusting, and desires only to be accepted and to belong.
The novel draws its inspiration from many sources, including Dr Faustus and Paradise Lost. But it is also a kind of inversion of the Genesis account of creation. There, the innocent creature goes wrong because it rejects its Creator. In Frankenstein it is the creator rather than the creature who is the source of alienation and pain. In the Bible, God longs for his creatures to respond to his faithful loving kindness. In Frankenstein, the monster longs for someone, anyone, to show him any kindness at all.
The contrasts between the two stories invite reflection. When we create something new, be it a child, an organisation or a new technology, we cannot shake off responsibility for what we have created. Then again, as fallible creatures ourselves, perhaps what we need most is to know the loving acceptance of a Creator who will not deny us, however unlovely or different we may have become. As the monster cries at the end of Danny Boyle’s 2011 National Theatre production, ‘All I ever wanted was your love!’ So may all our creations this year be fruits of love.
Starting a new job as Vicar of Beverley Minster and Priest in Charge of Routh a fortnight before Christmas seemed like a good idea when I agreed to it six months ago. ‘Everyone else will have done the work’, I thought. ‘All I’ll have to do is turn up and be the front man’. Friends looked at me strangely. Was it scepticism, or just pity, that I saw in their eyes?
Getting a new Labrador puppy five days before Christmas seemed like a good idea when Sue put it to me. ‘We’ll have all the children home for the holidays’ she said, winningly. ‘They’ll be around to help with the housetraining.’ Friends looked at us strangely. Was there not enough chaos in our lives already, what with the new job and the house still full of packing cases?
New home, new town, new job, new pet, New Year. Confronted by all this newness, I wonder how to respond. I can flinch at the challenge of change, of having to build new relationships, develop fresh routines, and find my way round a different one-way system. It’s all so exhausting. Or I can open my eyes in wonder. Look at this! Isn’t it beautiful/incredible/strange? It’s all so exhilarating!
The effect has been exaggerated by seeing things through the eyes of the puppy. For her, every mundane happening is full of excitement. Every person coming through the door has to be greeted like a long lost favourite. Chasing an empty plastic bottle is endlessly entertaining. And a New Year’s Day walk on Hornsea beach was an adventure in the Wide World which was almost too much to take in.
Like the puppy, I’m in danger of sensory overload as I try to take in everything that Beverley Minster and its associated churches have to offer. A symptom of that is my inability to remember people’s names; it’s nothing personal, just a limited capacity for taking in new information. It will be a long time before there is any risk of feeling stale.
At the same time, the marking of the New Year is an opportunity for all of us to face the old longing for a new beginning, for the slate to be wiped clean, for the dials to be reset so that we can start over again. The newness may not last, but we know the opportunity will keep coming round – not just once a year, but whenever we pause to allow the glory of God to break out from the depths of even the most familiar things. As the poet Gerard Manly Hopkins puts it:
“nature is never spent; there lives the dearest freshness deep down things”.
May this New Year be a time of new beginnings for you, and for our churches, as together we seek the God who in Jesus says “Behold! I make all things new.”