Vicar’s blog

WELCOME

 

The Minster has been a holy place for 1300 years. It inspires awe and wonder in everyone who approaches the magnificent twin towers of the west front; even more when they enter inside.

It is a place rich in history and with a lively story to tell.

It is more than a heritage site; today’s community continues the tradition of the first monks: of prayer and welcome, mission and service, love and care for all.

Jonathan

18.6.22

Who are you?

The story used to be told of Ronald Reagan (and it must be apocryphal because I’ve also heard it told of Mrs Thatcher and Tony Blair!) of how as President of the United States he was once being shown around a care home specialising in the care of those suffering from dementia. In an unscheduled moment one of the residents managed to slip past the security people and wandered up to the President. Seeing the woman’s confusion, he gently asked, ‘Do you know who I am?’, and got the unexpected reply, “No, but if you ask the nurse over there I’m sure she can tell you’.

Whenever I meet a new acquaintance and am asked, ‘Who are you?’, I never find it an easy question to answer, because there are so many possible responses. I can give my name; or say that I’m the Vicar of Beverley Minster and Routh; or say that I’m the husband of Sue or the father of my children; that I’m a resident of Beverley,  a dog owner, a school governor, a graduate of a certain university, a UK citizen, or that I’m a white, straight, middle aged man with too little hair on top and too many inches around the middle – and so on.

The context shapes my reply; if stopped for speeding I might be selective about the details I choose to give; if introduced to Kate Winslett a different set of credentials might be offered again.

The point is that identity is complicated. We all have multiple levels of identity which normally sit together quite comfortably; there is no tension between identifying with Beverley, Yorkshire, England, the UK and Europe all at once, rather like those schoolchildren who write their name in an exercise book followed by their address spiralling out into ‘The World, Planet Earth, the Solar System, Space, the Universe’.

The ability to juggle multiple identities is normal and healthy – we all do it, all the time. What is less healthy is when our identities start to fragment; when the different layers no longer feel compatible; when we think of ourselves as having only one identity, or use that identity to exclude others; when we find ourselves defining who we are in opposition to others, or what may be even worse, imposing an identity on others to differentiate them from us.

It is a curious feature of the modern world that one of the ways in which people try to cope with its increasing complexity is by trying to reduce it to a series of black and white opposites. If social media are anything to go by, Johnny Depp and Amber Heard can be classed only as saint/witch or wife beater/innocent victim. Even though there is plenty of public evidence that this story is about two badly damaged people hurting each other, in the public mind they have become cardboard cut-out ciphers representing good or bad, evil or innocent. Our ability to hold two thoughts in mind at once seems to have been lost, let alone hold an opinion with any degree of nuance.

We see this replicated in one issue after another; Leaver and Remainer can see no redeeming features in one another; across the sea, Democrat and Republican now seem unable to recognise the other as genuinely American; Ukrainian refugees must be welcomed because we fear Russia, but Afghan or Syrian refugees should be treated with suspicion because we fear Islam.

Fear leads us to define ourselves over and against the ‘other’. This tends to happen when we are unsure of our own multi-layered identities. Lack of confidence in our sense of who we are makes us more strident in asserting who we are not. The result is fragmentation, in our own souls and in society at large.

In the Gospel reading for Trinity 1, Jesus asks a man with a serious mental illness (described as a ‘demoniac’) ‘Who are you?’, and gets the reply, ‘I am Legion’. The name speaks of the dissolution of a coherent personality into a chaotic crowd of voices, causing self-harm and fear of one another. The name of course also speaks of enemy occupation, as the Roman legions occupied Judea. This was an identity imposed by others.

As we pray for our disordered world, and for its many expressions of possession by ‘Legion’, perhaps we can be mindful of our responsibility to allow others to have a rich and multi-layered identity, not a superficial mask imposed on them by our own fear. We look to the unconditional love of Christ to set us free from fear of the ‘other’, put us in our right mind, and to set us at peace with the many different sides of our identity. For as St John says, ‘Perfect love casts out fear’.

Jonathan Baker

3.6.22

Lifting our Spirits

The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations are, not surprisingly, overshadowing the other great Festival which is happening this weekend, namely Pentecost. This is the celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit, coming upon the apostles to empower them to continue Christ’s work. It used to be such an important Festival that it was made a public holiday – although not many people enjoying the May Bank Holiday nowadays make the connection.

The Holy Spirit in the Bible is described with a bewildering array of metaphors. Sometimes they are dramatic: at Pentecost the Spirit comes with ‘a sound like a mighty rushing wind’; in appearance he is like ‘tongues of fire’ upon the recipient (apparently this is the image evoked by a Bishop’s mitre!).

But sometimes the images are gentle: at Jesus’ baptism the Spirit comes like a dove; he is described as the Comforter, the Counsellor, the Advocate, and as the Breath of Jesus. He is like a spring of water, bubbling up from within. He is the Spirit of adoption who makes believers children of God. He is the Spirit of wisdom present at the creation of the world. The Spirit equips the people of God with gifts to build each other up, and the fruits of the Spirit include peace, kindness, forgiveness, and above all, love.

Clearly, the Holy Spirit does not want to be too tightly defined!

But then the word ‘spirit’ used in non-religious ways is also hard to pin down. Journalists love to talk about the ‘triumph of the human spirit’ when reporting stories of extraordinary endurance. Cultural historians talk about the ‘spirit of the age’ when reflecting on the characteristics of a period. We admire the spirit of the Ukrainians defending their country. Someone unconventional might be described as a ‘free spirit’. Charles Lindbergh flew an airplane called ‘The Spirit of St Louis’. And of course, there are those other distilled spirits which come in bottles…

Perhaps what all these usages have in common is the sense of spirit as a life-giving power, an intangible essence, an energy which may make itself felt through its effect on other things rather than through its visible presence, like the effect of wind upon the leaves of a tree.

This suggests to me that although the concept of ‘spirit’ and ‘spiritual’ may be hard to define, it is nevertheless very important; and because we cannot observe or measure it, we probably don’t pay enough attention to it.

I wonder how we might describe the ‘spirit of Britain’ at the moment? What are the currents and influences shaping how we feel about ourselves and the world? My perception is that the Jubilee is providing much needed relief from the gloom of these times, with the rising cost of living, the shattering of the European peace by the invasion of Ukraine, the increasingly urgent scientific warnings about climate change, the unknown effects of Brexit, the background of the pandemic, and so on. Old certainties have been rejected and we find ourselves unable to predict what kind of a world we shall be living in. I cannot remember ever having lived at a time of such uncertainty.

At such moments it may be especially important to reflect upon the things of the spirit; not only so that we can better understand the great changes going on in the world, but so that we might be clearer about the things that sustain and energise us.

Pentecost celebrates the gift of the Spirit of Jesus; the making present of the self-giving love of Jesus so that human lives are transformed. It’s an energy based on grace and unconditional gift; it’s expressed in terms of forgiveness and mercy; and it invites us to offer ourselves in faithfulness and love. The best answer to the uncertainties brought about by the spirit of our age might perhaps be to harness ourselves to the more reliable uncertainties of the Holy Spirit.

Jonathan Baker

21.5.22

Jubilee or not Jubilee, that is the Question.

The shops are now full of bunting and red-white-and-blue merchandise, the street party organising committees are arranging last minute meetings, and the Minster has its own programme of events to celebrate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, culminating in a Civic Service with the Lord Lieutenant, High Sheriff and Chair of the East Riding Council on Sunday 5th at 5.30pm. Yet the question remains: why is it a Jubilee and not an Anniversary?

Like much else in our culture, the terminology is religious, whilst the meaning has been forgotten. The practice of jubilee is described in the Old Testament (Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15) when every 49 years land was to be returned to its original owners who may have lost it through economic hardship. Debts were released, and land given in security for loans was returned. The 50th year was the year of Jubilee, and was signalled by the blowing of ram’s horn trumpets. The word ‘Jubilee’ derives from the Hebrew word for ram.

This is a radical vision, in which the usual economic order was disrupted in favour of a theological vision. The Hebrew understanding of land was that it was God’s gift to his people after rescuing them from slavery in Egypt, and it was apportioned out to the different clans as a tangible sign of God’s blessing. Land ownership was more important theologically than it was financially; therefore the link between the land and the family should not be broken, even if a family fell into hardship and needed to mortgage or even sell off its inheritance. The term ‘Promised Land’ reminded everyone that their land was a physical sign of God’s desire to bless them in the future and give them freedom.

This link between Jubilee, God’s generosity, prosperity and freedom has been completely lost. The most recent attempt to renew the concept came in the run up to the millennium, when the Jubilee 2000 Debt Campaign strove with some success to have the worst international debts carried by developing countries written off. But usually when we use the word Jubilee now, all we mean is that there is some special anniversary to celebrate. There is no longer any sense that something transformative is going on, or that the world’s normal priorities are being overturned.

This isn’t meant to disparage the Queen’s Jubilee. 70 years of sustained public service is an extraordinary achievement, and one we should rightly be celebrating.

But we are inhabiting a culture of debt as never before; a spiralling national debt, boosted by the costs of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine; inflation higher than anyone under 50 can remember; rapidly rising living costs pushing many people’s budgets into deficit; and young graduates starting their working lives with an average £45,000 student debt. If ever there was a time to recover the relevance of jubilee in its original sense, it is now.

The Israelite Jubilee asserted that economics should not have the last word. It spoke of the reality of grace, of second chances and new beginnings. It spoke of the obligation placed on those who benefitted from the hardships of others to show generosity. It spoke of being set free from the past. In short, it demonstrated that showing mercy and forgiveness are more important than standing on our rights or our sense of entitlement. It’s a bold vision, but one which should stir the imagination and the soul whenever we speak of having a jubilee. So however you mark it, have a wonderful Jubilee celebration!

Jonathan Baker

7.5.22

Superhero or Saint?

It seems we can’t get enough of Superheroes. Summer blockbuster movies featuring Thor and Captain Marvel will shortly be upon us – once again – and over the last couple of years we’ve had various new combinations of Batman, Superman, Spiderman, Catwoman, Wonder Woman, and Guardians of the Galaxy, to name just a few. We just love stories about saviour figures, rescuing the world from evil geniuses or imminent destruction, or both. All those overheated superpowers make for a spectacular CGI-fest, and a lot of furniture gets broken in the process. Because that’s what happens in the age old struggle between good and evil, right? In the end it’s just a contest to see who is strongest. Or is it?

7th May is the Feast Day of our very own saint, St John of Beverley. According to his near-contemporary, Bede, John was a Bishop of Hexham and then York, a scholar, pastor and a holy man renowned for the depth of his faith and the sanctity of his life, who exercised a remarkable ministry of healing. Bede emphasises John’s Christ-like qualities, and holds him up as an inspirational example.

You might think that the saints are Christianity’s version of superheroes; men and women set apart by their supernatural power to work miracles in their fight against the powers of darkness.

But looking at it like that probably isn’t helpful. In one of the more obscure later medieval legends we get a less flattering picture of John. In this alternative story, John was a hermit who was tricked by the devil into choosing between 3 sins – drunkenness, unchastity, or murder. Thinking that it was the least serious of the three, John chose drunkenness; but then in his stupor he raped and murdered his sister. Such behaviour is not usually the focus of the hagiographies celebrating the lives of the saints! When he sobered up, according to the legend, John repented of what he had done and went on pilgrimage to Rome as a penance, and after many adventures he found forgiveness. In this version of John’s story there isn’t such a focus on miraculous superpowers.

The legend is farfetched. But it does make one important point. The Christian saint is not a superhero, endowed with special powers to lead a perfect life. He or she instead shows an all too human ability to mess things up. Ironically this is more clear in the saints of the New Testament than it is in later accounts of some of the medieval saints, where there is a clearer agenda to tidy up a saint’s life.

Secular Superheroes bear a heavy responsibility to make sure the story turns out right. The stakes are always incredibly high. If they get it wrong or don’t measure up, the whole universe may be lost. I always think their work must be terribly stressful, because they can’t afford to fail. There is no room for mistakes. With all that pressure, it must cost a fortune removing the sweat stains from their costumes.

Saints, on the other hand, draw their strength from failure. They know they are flakey. What makes them special is that their weakness leaves room for God’s strength. When a saint goes to pieces it just reveals the forgiveness and new possibilities which are the gift of God. As Leonard Cohen put it, ‘There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in’.

By all accounts John of Beverley was uncomfortable with his reputation for holiness – perhaps because he realised that he wasn’t the real hero. In every saint’s story the real hero is God; and part of the reason why Christians remember the saints is because through their brokenness they point to the grace of God.

At the annual pilgrimage to St John’s traditional birthplace at Harpham on Thursday 5th, we were reminded that John was a hermit before he was a Bishop, and that he continued to make regular retreats to pray and seek God’s presence during his public ministry. That is a sign of the saint’s consciousness of his weakness; his saintliness depended upon having the humility to ask for God’s help and having the discipline to seek it constantly.

Remembering the saints can remind us that our humanity does not lie in trying to be perfect. We don’t have to envy the Superheroes their superpowers. It’s when we are most honest about our shortcomings and weaknesses that we may be most open to God.

We shall be celebrating the legacy of St John of Beverley again on Sunday 8th, when the Mayor of Beverley will join us for the annual Festival Service at 5.30pm. Do join us if you can.

Jonathan Baker

23.4.22

Living the Resurrection

A popular sport for backbench MPs in search of a soundbite is to accuse Bishops of meddling in politics. Bishops are a soft target because when they intervene it is usually to offer a critique of some aspect of Government policy from a moral perspective, without offering any practical political alternative. This is perfectly proper; it isn’t the role of a Bishop to put policies forward, but to point out when a policy may be unethical. And they do it consistently, whichever Party is in power.

Archbishop Justin Welby has become the latest church leader to find himself in the crosshairs of a Tory MP, this time our very own MP for Beverley and Holderness, Graham Stuart.

The Archbishop in his Easter sermon said that “there are… serious ethical questions about sending asylum seekers overseas (to Rwanda). The details are for politics and politicians. The principle must stand the judgement of God and it cannot.” He went on to give theological reasons for saying this, based on the resurrection: God has reversed the world’s priorities, putting life before death, and the poor and weak before the strong and powerful. What is more, our moral responsibility as a nation for refugees cannot be subcontracted to another country.

Graham Stuart this week in the Daily Express accused the Archbishop of going “with both feet into politics. And as benefits someone who is good at theology but not very good at politics, I think he got it wrong. He was out of touch with the British people.”

Much of what our MP is reported as having said shows either that he had not read the Archbishop’s sermon, or that he chose to misrepresent it. More seriously, it reveals the assumption that theology has nothing serious to say in public life.

It would be alarming if the Archbishop’s Easter sermon had tried only to reflect the views of ‘the British people’, since the message of the resurrection does not derive its authority from a popular vote, but from the power of God. Politicians of course must take account of what the electorate will tolerate. But they must listen also to the voices of faith leaders and others who are speaking from a different perspective, so that political decisions can be based not just on what is popular but what is right.

Politicians should encourage us all to ask about the ethical basis of their policies. And it should never be acceptable for an ethical viewpoint to be dismissed because it does not automatically score well in the opinion polls. What this exchange showed was that some of our politicians are ill-equipped to speak the language of ethics and morality, and do not appear to understand that ethical concerns need to be addressed in ethical terms, and not lazily dismissed on the assumption that nobody needs to listen to an Archbishop.

Church leaders (and indeed preachers) feel entitled sometimes to comment on the social and political issues of the day because of the resurrection of Jesus. If Jesus’ body was raised on the third day, it shows that God has not abandoned the physical world, but remains faithful to it. Any division between body and soul, heaven and earth, secular and religious is therefore false and should be resisted. If Jesus is Lord, he is Lord of everything. This is why the first Christians were persecuted: by claiming that Jesus was Lord, they were implying that the Emperor wasn’t. The resurrection also validates Jesus’ teaching, which he summarised by linking the love of God with the love of neighbour. This immediately has political implications, because the love of neighbour raises issues of justice, equality, and the use of resources.

Perhaps the hostility voiced by some MPs whenever Church leaders speak out reflects the unconscious awareness that there is an integrity which is not derived from the Whips’ office, and there is a loyalty deeper than that owed to the electorate.

Our politicians need our prayers, even though this might be seen as the ultimate form of ‘meddling in politics’! Theirs is not an easy task, and confidence in the integrity of those in public life is at an all time low. The need is not so much for Archbishops to be as good at politics as they are at theology; rather, what we desperately need are politicians who are clearer about the ethical wellsprings of their politics: for as the prophet Micah said, “what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?”

Jonathan Baker

9.4.22

Disciples, not Dilettantes

At the last of the Lent discussions, we reflected on the film, ‘Of Gods and Men’, and found it to be a powerful preparation for Holy Week.

It is based on the true story of the French Carthusian monastery at Tibherine in Algeria in the mid-1990s at a time of rising Islamic extremism. The film follows the small community of monks in its pattern of prayer, study, and practical labour, including providing medical services to the local Muslim villagers.

In the background, there is an increasing number of terrorist attacks in the country, especially on foreigners. In the film, the monks are faced with a profound choice: do we stay, or should we go?

All of them are scared. Despite the fear, some feel that their calling is to stay in Tibherine. Others feel that it would be wrong to court martyrdom, and that they should seek safety by returning to their Order in France where they can continue their good work. “I became a monk to live, not in order to die”, says one of them.

Because their views are divided, the prior of the community refuses to press for a decision. As the months go by, we see each of the monks struggling with their doubts. When one of the monks asks, “Dying here, now – does it serve any purpose?”, the prior replies, “Remember, you have already given your life. You gave it by following Christ. When you decided to leave everything: your life, your family, your country.”

Eventually the monks reach a place of unanimity and decide to stay, and in a moving late scene share a last supper together. But they have overcome their fear. As one says, “I’m not afraid of death. I’m a free man.” A consequence of that freedom is that they come to see the image of God in everyone, Christian and Muslim, atheist and jihadist. Fear no longer grips them.

The film is a profound meditation on the nature of Christian discipleship, and the related question of how our vocation is to be discerned. How do you know the will of God? What does life in Christ look like?

What struck me was how, in this film which dealt with that most churchy of institutions, a monastery, there was no interest in the Church as such. The human community was taken as given, even when they squabbled. Instead, the focus was on trying to understand what it means to say Yes to God.

The story of the monks showed us men who had discovered real freedom; and their freedom came from their willingness to lay down their lives – not before the jihadists, but before Christ. Having surrendered everything, they had nothing to lose, and were available to one another, to the villagers they served, and to God. In so doing, their humanity became more evident; and despite their eventual inevitable deaths, there was a sense of hope.

It’s a deeply challenging story to meditate on in Holy Week, and one which most of us should find disturbing; not because it invites us to any literal martyrdom, but because it exposes how shallow our discipleship is, most of the time.

In the waters of Baptism, we say that we are dying to sin and rising to new life with Christ. In Holy Communion, we say that we receive the broken body and poured out blood of Christ so that “we may offer you our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice”.

Watching this film made me realise how easy it is to play at being a Christian without being very serious. Church can so easily become a kind of religious club, a place of comfort rather than a community of transformation. Responding to God is quite different from responding to the Church; the way of discipleship is quite different from church attendance; and the new life of Easter can only be approached through the surrender of Good Friday, the taking up of our own cross, the denial of self, and the faithful following of Christ.

This Holy Week, may you discover not so much the consolation of familiar Easter traditions as the freedom of new life. And may you be encouraged in your own walk with the One who in Gethsemane chose to stay rather than leave us, and who still abides with us, despite everything.

Jonathan Baker

26.3.22

Happy Mothering Sunday?

Mothering Sunday is a very confusing Festival with an unclear history and meaning. Like Harvest, it isn’t really part of the Church’s liturgical year, but seems to have more of a folk origin.

Some people think it refers to the practice of visiting the Cathedral or mother church of a region once a year. If that is correct, the tradition seems to have died out completely and has left no evidence. Others think it reflects the tradition of children in domestic service (especially daughters) being allowed time off to visit their mothers once year. In which case it is strange that the Church has become the guardian of this custom. A minority link it to the Epistle reading in the Book of Common Prayer from the Letter to the Galatians, which contrasts the earthly Jerusalem with the heavenly Jerusalem, ‘which is the mother of us all’.

Whatever the origin, Mothering Sunday turned into a celebration of all aspects of motherhood, probably following the creation in the United States of the quite different Mothers’ Day in the early 20th century.

Mothering Sunday today is full of pitfalls. Although we all have mothers, not everyone has had good experiences of their mother. And although our congregations include many mothers, they also include women for whom motherhood is a sensitive subject; some may have been unable to have children, others may have lost children, whilst yet others may have children whose lives cause them pain. While the perception of Mothering Sunday is that it must be an upbeat celebration, the reality is that many people dread it. I once had a childless colleague who always took the Fourth Sunday in Lent as holiday so that he and his wife didn’t have to face the superficial jollity of Mothering Sunday.

In the Bible, the pre-eminent mother is of course Mary, the mother of Jesus. After much heated wrangling, the early Church eventually agreed that it was acceptable to call Mary, ‘Theotokos’, or ‘God-bearer’. She is no less than the mother of God. It is strange that Mothering Sunday doesn’t make more of this, and maybe reveals that it has more of a folk than a Christian origin.

Today’s mixed mode families sit uncomfortably with traditional notions of the nuclear family. What we often miss is that the New Testament also shows discomfort. Jesus several times has hard things to say about his own family: “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asks in Mark 3: 34. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother”. I sometimes wonder what Mary made of such teaching.

Happily, the New Testament also offers us a way forward. Instead of emphasising the importance of blood relationship in families, it offers the model of adoption. We are children of God not by blood or the will of the flesh, but by adoption. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry “Abba, Father’ (Romans 8: 14-17).

Of course, Mothering Sunday is the right moment to give heartfelt thanks for all that our mothers have given us. I’m very much hoping to be able to celebrate my own mother’s 100th birthday coming up in April. But Mothering Sunday also holds out the opportunity to celebrate all that we receive as adoptive brothers and sisters in the family of God; to note that we are part of a family transcending blood and tribe and nation; and to give thanks for the fellowship, encouragement, prayer and support that we can give and receive within the church family. This is determined not by gender or inherited relationship, but by grace.

As a small sign of that grace, the children distribute flowers on Mothering Sunday not just to their own mothers, nor just to the women in the congregation; but to everyone, for we all have a part to play in building one another up in the faith and love of the God whom Jesus invited us to call Father.

May this Mothering Sunday, whatever your gender or experience of parenthood, be for you an opportunity to give thanks for all those who have helped you on the road to growth and wholeness in Christ.

Jonathan Baker

12 March 2022

Deja-vu?

Have you ever noticed how often major world events are described as ‘unprecedented’?

The attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001 was unprecedented. So was the financial crash in 2008. So was Brexit. The climate emergency is described as unprecedented, and the Covid-19 pandemic. Now there is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Each time an event is described as unprecedented it conveys the sense that here is something outside our experience, something which has caught us unprepared and for which we have no map.

In fact, most of these events are not quite as unprecedented as at first we feel. There have been terrorist attacks, financial crises and pandemics before, but maybe not in our direct experience. Even climate change is nothing new; the limestone from which Beverley Minster is made was formed millions of years ago out of the accumulated remains of sea creatures from a tropical ocean. What is new is that this is the first time the climate has changed because of human activity.

And we ought to be used to the idea of Russia behaving aggressively towards its neighbours. In 2014 Russia annexed the Crimea. In 2008 it invaded Georgia, 1979 Afghanistan, 1968 Czechoslovakia, 1956 Hungary, 1953 East Germany, 1940 the Baltic States, 1939 Finland and Poland… and so on. There is a depressing sense that this is what Russia does.

I don’t believe that history repeats itself, or that life goes round in circles. But perhaps it does go round in spirals, either up or down. The events confronting each generation may not be the same, but often there will be parallels to be seen in the past.

My sense is that the invasion of Ukraine has shaken us badly not only because it seems so unjustified, but because we have taken peace for granted. The countless little wars going on in faraway places over the last 70 years somehow didn’t seem to register here in Britain. In the same way the pandemic shook us because we took our health for granted. Infectious, life-threatening disease was something developing countries had to worry about, not us with our antibiotics and vaccines.

It is deeply unsettling to be confronted with evidence that the world may not be quite as safe and predictable as we had thought. It is sobering to be reminded that for the more ruthless rulers, war can appear to be more advantageous than peace. As Von Clausewitz observed, ‘war is the continuation of politics by other means’, a doctrine which somehow serves to make war seem not only acceptable, but commonplace.

Finding ourselves in a world where terrible events turn out to have all too frequent precedents, we may want to pay closer attention to what is genuinely unprecedented. In a few weeks’ time we shall celebrate Easter, with its unprecedented claim that the boundary of death has been breached, that a dimension beyond earthly history has been opened up, and that the true meaning of events can be seen only from an eternal perspective which sees each person and each action as uniquely important and worthy of heavenly compassion and mercy.

As we face the uncertainty and unfamiliarity of these times, we shall have the opportunity to find courage and hope in contemplating the uniqueness of the Easter message, with its insistence that all is not what it seems; that the victims may yet be vindicated, that the oppressed may yet be set free, that kindness is stronger than cruelty, that mercy can change both past and future, and that death itself is an imposter.

Jonathan Baker

26 February 2022

The Cost of Calling out the Bullies

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a deeply disturbing reminder that in many parts of the world, people still believe that what really counts is the hard power of violence. Questions of right and wrong, of peace and freedom, and of human suffering, count for little when a leader believes that they have enough tanks to impose their will. As a previous Russian leader, Joseph Stalin, once contemptuously remarked, “How many divisions has the Pope?”

In the face of such shameless gangster behaviour, it can be hard to know what to do. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York in their recent Pastoral Letter have condemned the invasion as “an act of evil”, which is strong language, but what are we supposed to do?  One of the great moral dilemmas thrown up by war is how one can combat evil without merely reflecting it. Can there be a response to violence which does not repeat it and amplify it, and in the process taint the victim with the same evil he or she is trying to overpower?

As Christians the first response is of course prayer, and our Archbishops have invited us to set aside Sunday 27th February and Ash Wednesday (2nd March) as days of prayer for Ukraine and its people. In doing so we shall be showing solidarity with people all over the world, not least in Russia and Ukraine itself.

There is an irony that President Putin’s desire to absorb Ukraine into a new Russian empire is partly fuelled by the fact that Kiev in Ukraine is the spiritual home of the Russian Orthodox Church. It is the city where St Vladimir first converted to Christianity in the late 10th century and introduced the rites and doctrines of Orthodoxy from Byzantium. Culturally and spiritually, it is to Kiev that many Russian Christians look as the cradle of their faith. It is therefore a focus for peace and unity even amid the current conflict.

We can also offer support to those organisations trying to help Ukrainian refugees. UNICEF, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the British Red Cross, the International Rescue Committee and United Help Ukraine are all mobilising to help the millions of people who will be displaced by the conflict. We can contribute ourselves and encourage our government to offer support.

What is also clear from our own understanding of the gospel we profess is that evil cannot be confronted without cost. Much has been said about the likely ineffectiveness of the sanctions being imposed on Russia, and the reasons are clear; we are squeamish about taking steps that will hurt us as well as the Russian economy.

We must accept that we cannot condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine with conviction while still expecting to benefit from Russian money, goods and services. It is no good our leaders telling the world that this invasion is “horrific and barbaric” when according to the Electoral Commission in the last three years the Conservative Party has accepted around 2 million pounds in donations from Russian oligarchs and businesses closely connected to Vladimir Putin. Such links need to be cut, and swiftly. Perhaps we can urge our elected representatives to press for this.

If we feel strongly about the unprovoked invasion of a free democratic state of 44 million people, our own integrity demands that we distance ourselves from those we condemn, even if that is costly. This may hit us in our own pockets and involve us in sharing, to some very mild degree, in the disruption currently being suffered by the people of Ukraine. Unfortunately, confronting evil is never easy. If we are not to respond to the crisis without hypocrisy, we must be ready to make the modest sacrifices that signal effectively to President Putin and others that bullies do not control the playground unchallenged.

Jonathan Baker

12 February 2022

The Natural Theology of the Whodunnit.

The last few days I have been confined to the Vicarage with Covid (thanking the Lord for vaccines – a feverish cold isn’t fun, but so much better than the alternative), and I have found myself picking up a trashy whodunnit. It whiled away the hours when I couldn’t sleep, but despite being a story with local connections it isn’t one I’m going to recommend. So often I find detective fiction just slightly disappointing in its plotting. You get to the big reveal at the end and then find there is nearly always something that doesn’t quite add up. That’s supposed to be the killer’s motive? Really?

That doesn’t stop me coming back for more. And I’m not alone. Whodunnits are an immensely popular genre, not just as downmarket pulp but as works of literature in their own right (in the 19th century Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens were of course early contributors). And Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown, Hercule Poirot & co have all transferred very successfully to the screen, as well as countless others created specially for TV and film.

I find myself wondering whether part of the appeal of a good whodunnit is that it feeds a number of human instincts about the world we live in. For example, we believe that at some level there is a meaningful order to the world. Crime fiction assumes that there is a natural order which has been seriously disrupted by the crime. The task of the detective is to bring the perpetrator to justice and restore order. Put like that it sounds very simplistic and we know that everyday life isn’t like that. Yet deep down we long for it to be so. We are finely attuned to sense injustice – especially when we experience unfairness ourselves – and we expect that somehow it should be put right.

There is a thirst here for judgement. For wrongs to be righted. Whodunnits aren’t prepared to wait for the Final Judgement in the hereafter. They offer it here, in this world, bringing things hidden out into the light. If there is no God, then the only judgement possible is in this world. So in this sense detective fiction provides a secular response to a spiritual need.

The best detectives solve the case through the power of reason. Sherlock Holmes was the arch-rationalist, making at times far-fetched deductions from a few scratches on a walking stick or the traces left by a certain kind of cigar ash. Modern detectives all too often rely on a gut feeling, a hunch which short circuits the tedious hard work of proper procedure. Sometimes there is a tension between the two styles. Inspector Morse was always getting misled by his hunches, which sometimes led him horribly astray, before his more reliable powers of reason got him back on track. Such stories assume that the world we live in will yield its secrets to reason. All is not meaningless chaos, because the universe ultimately reflects some kind of order.

This is probably the reason why some whodunnits don’t quite work. Sometimes the evidence isn’t quite strong enough, the characterisation doesn’t seem convincing, or the weaknesses in the plot are covered by too great a reliance on coincidence or the detective’s intuition. These all seem to break the rule that we are operating in a rational world where such devices feel like cheating.

Against the purity of the detective’s powers of reason are often set his or her human weaknesses. Many fictional detectives struggle with their own inner demons, find it hard to maintain close relationships, and wonder whether there is any point to seeking the truth in the face of apparently meaningless violence.

Other detectives can only come at their work from a place of personal stability. Father Brown, Brother Cadfael and Rev Sidney Chambers in Grantchester all solve murder and mayhem from a standpoint of quiet faith and supportive community. Donna Leon’s Inspector Brunetti is fortified against the corruption of the Venetian justice system by his beautiful wife’s delicious lunches. In each case there is a sense that getting to the truth has implications for the detective’s humanity. Now isn’t that the case for all of us?

Back by popular demand, this Lent we shall be running several discussions based on five different films. The final line up isn’t yet settled, but one of the films will be a whodunnit: Knives Out, starring Daniel Craig, clearly enjoying himself far too much. It’s a delightful homage to the traditional country house murder mystery, with a plot that works, a crackling screenplay and wonderful characterisations. It also contains plenty of material for reflection on the nature of families, good and evil, hypocrisy and, yes, judgement.

The discussions will run for five Wednesdays from 9 March at 19.30 on Zoom. Further details will appear on social media and the Minster website.

Jonathan Baker

30 January 2022

What is truth?

Candlemass on 2 February marks the end of the Epiphany season, celebrating the revealing of God’s glory through Jesus Christ. Epiphany words include ‘glory’, ‘revelation’, and ‘light’, words which suggest our knowledge of the truth is being expanded with the coming of Christ.

Christians have always believed that truth is important, and that the search for God is a search for truth. Yet truth today is under attack as never before.

For many people, established scientific findings are now regarded as at best a matter of opinion and at worst as a conspiracy to control ordinary people and deprive them of their liberty. Anti-vaccination activists, climate change deniers and Republicans who think their man was defrauded of the last US Presidential election all now enjoy mainstream credibility, even though their views are based on as much factual evidence as those of the Flat Earth Society.

We seem to be losing our ability to distinguish fact from fiction. Truth has become a matter of who shouts loudest, or at least who has the most followers on Twitter. Democracies where the electorate is unable to sift the difference between truth and fantasy are at risk, and are vulnerable to new forms of autocracy and tyranny.

Against this background the Culture Secretary’s decision to cut the funding of the BBC by £285 million over 5 years looks like a direct attack on public information. At no other time in our history have we been more in need of an independent, publicly accountable source of news, free from the echo chambers of social media, the vested interests of billionaire media tycoons and the self-serving mendacities of those in power. Oddly enough the strongest accusations of bias at the BBC always come from those who have most to gain from the removal of an independent source of news. It’s not a view shared by Ofcom, the independent regulator.

There has been a carelessness about the truth for many years now. For decades the philosophical movement known as Post-modernism has questioned the legitimacy of any kind of absolute truth. There are no meta-narratives, the academics tell us, only little truths, your truth and my truth. It’s all just a matter of opinion. So our current disillusionment with the possibility of truth has a philosophical foundation. But people who turn their backs on truth become a people walking in darkness, imprisoned in their own subjective bubbles.

It is of course true that none of us has access to the whole truth. We see it in part, and our claims to know the truth must be held modestly, recognising that what we see is incomplete and reflects our own particular standpoint. Yet we cannot afford to surrender our belief in the possibility of truth or our support for those who seek it.

Is it an accident that the abandonment of truth has coincided with the abandonment of belief in God? Science is only possible in a world which we assume is undergirded by order and pattern, that it yields its secrets to reason and has some degree of predictability. Science assumes there are absolute truths to be discovered, and the Judaeo-Christian view of reality provided a guarantee of that, because the universe is the creation of a rational God. If there is no God, ideas of truth slip their moorings and suddenly all is random chaos. Perhaps that is what we are seeing?

Pontius Pilate once put truth on trial. “What is truth?”, he asked of the one who said “I am the truth”. Not receiving any answer, the outcome was a crucifixion of the truth. Christians are those who feel themselves to have been grasped by a truth bigger than we are. We, perhaps more than anyone, have an interest in speaking up for truth. As we turn our faces now towards Holy Week and Easter, we do so with a conviction that truth matters because it brings light into our lives. The light still shines in the midst of all the darkness, and thankfully the darkness has not overcome it.

Jonathan Baker

15 January 2022

On Sunday 16th Bishop Alison White will be joining us at 6.30pm to confirm 5 of our young people. This will be the last time Bishop Alison pays an official visit to Beverley Minster before her retirement in February, so as well as the Confirmation it will be an opportunity to say farewell, to thank her for her care and support for the Minster over the last 7 years, and to wish her well in the next season of her ministry.

The ministry of a Bishop isn’t always obvious to members of parish churches. The Bishop can seem a remote figure, only appearing at Confirmation services or when a new Vicar is licensed. Episcopal ministry is literally one of ‘oversight’ (which is what the Greek word episcope means). So, the Bishop has oversight of the Church in a region, not directing the day-to-day mission and ministry of each congregation but guiding the Church of England family as a whole.

Being an episcopal rather than a congregational church means that the congregation is not the sole focus of church life and is not independent of the wider Church. Your Vicar is accountable not just to Churchwardens or the PCC but to the wider institution, which is very helpful on those occasions when things go wrong within a church and intervention from outside is needed. We are part of a bigger family, of which the Bishop is the visible face.

Many of the New Testament letters end with the apostolic writer passing on greetings from churches in one place to another. This is an aspect of the apostolic ministry which our Bishops still represent today, helping to stitch together the different parts of the Body of Christ. When the diocese or national Church has discerned particular needs or opportunities it can be helpful for the local congregation to know that it is part of a wider movement and mission, and to tap into resources more widely available.

This is why one of the biggest items of expenditure in our annual budget is what is called the ‘freewill offer’ to the diocese. It is our contribution towards the cost of ministry in the diocese of York, and it pays not only the cost of our own clergy but assists the ministry of the diocese as a whole. Critics sometimes caricature this as an expensive and faceless bureaucracy ‘up at York’; in fact, the diocesan administration operates out of an office not much bigger than our own Parish Centre. It enables clergy to be recruited, trained, paid and housed not just in relatively affluent areas like Beverley but in inner city Hull and Teeside, and in the small rural communities of the East Riding as well, where costs cannot be met locally.

The Diocese supports the work of our Church Schools (three in this parish alone), provides advice, expertise and a planning-permission process when repairs or changes are sought for the large number of listed church buildings; it sustains the growing machinery of Safeguarding procedures, provides HR and other legal advice, and a wide range of training opportunities not only for those in licensed ministries but for anyone wishing to explore their faith in greater depth than the local clergy can easily offer. There is training and support for Church Wardens and Treasurers, for Sunday School leaders and those trying to use social media, for those looking for a spiritual director and those wanting to help their church be ‘greener’. The diocese doesn’t run or pay for York Minster, which is self-governing and self-supporting.

The Bishops of the Diocese (three Suffragan, or assistant, Bishops under the leadership of the Archbishop) preside over this organisation, although the Bishops themselves are paid for by the National Church Institutions (ie the Church Commissioners) and are not a burden on the diocese or parishes. They support the parish clergy, make appointments to parishes, direct the mission of the diocese, and represent the church in public life, often using their position to bring others together.

Bishop Alison has been a highly supportive presence as Bishop of Hull, and we shall miss her encouragement and advocacy. As we pray for the youngsters being confirmed this weekend, so we also pray for Alison and give thanks for her ministry among us. We wish her and her husband, Bishop Frank, every blessing as they leave Hullen House to begin their retirement in Northumberland.

Jonathan Baker

1 January 2022

Inspiring acts

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who died over Christmas, was the kind of man about whom stories were told. I love the story told about him during the dark days of apartheid in South Africa when the diminutive Tutu came face to face with a big white man on the sidewalk where there wasn’t room to pass. “I don’t give way to gorillas” sneered the white man. “Ah yes”, replied Tutu, skipping into the gutter and offering a deep mock-bow. “But I do.” In one stroke he combined humour, humility, and a sharp challenge to injustice: all of them qualities which marked his ministry throughout his life.

His insistence on the equality of all God’s children is profoundly relevant far beyond the struggle in South Africa: “We are made for goodness. We are made for love. We are made for friendliness. We are made for togetherness. We are made for all of the beautiful things that you and I know. We are made to tell the world that there are no outsiders. All are welcome: black, white, red, yellow, rich, poor, educated, not educated, male, female, gay, straight, all, all, all. We all belong to this family, this human family, God’s family.”

It is a theology influenced by a very African understanding of personhood, known as ubuntu: “A person is a person through other persons. None of us comes into the world fully formed. We would not know how to think, or walk, or speak, or behave as human beings unless we learned it from other human beings. We need other human beings in order to be human. I am because other people are.”

It sounds very like Jesus’ summary of the Law: “Love God and love your neighbour as yourself”. We cannot love God without loving our neighbour. There is no shortcut to God which sidelines the neighbour, and no experience of God which allows us any sense of superiority or judgement over our neighbour. It is within my power to cause my neighbour either to fall or to be saved – and within his or hers to save or condemn me.

It says something about our impoverished spirituality that this insight into the nature of the gospel should strike us as radical or at all controversial. When we say that God is Love, or that we are made in the image of the God who is Trinity, we are surely saying that we cannot be saved apart from our neighbour. The gospel prioritises relationships and community, which is why the key words are all relational terms: love, forgiveness, reconciliation, covenant, trust, faithfulness.

As we stand at the start of a new year, that is a question which I ask of myself: do my actions and attitudes towards other people help them draw closer to God’s kingdom or do they push them further away? It’s not a question I find comfortable, but it’s important if I am to consider the state of my own salvation.

Desmond Tutu told a story about meeting a very different white man. As a boy, walking with his mother through the black township of Sophiatown where they lived, they met a priest, Father Trevor Huddleston, who greeted Mrs Tutu by raising his hat. At such a time, in such a place, it was almost unheard of for a white man to offer a black woman such a public sign of respect. It made a deep impression on young Desmond, who later spoke of the incident as inspiring his own journey towards ordination. Such a small act, made instinctively. Yet it inspired someone who became a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. So who knows what might come of the smallest acts of love you or I offer in 2022?

Jonathan Baker

December 11

Lead kindly light

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”. So says St John at the beginning of his Gospel, echoing the words of Genesis: “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness”.

Light is of course a symbol common to several major religions.  Jews celebrate Hanukka, the Festival of Lights, in late November or early December, to commemorate the rededication of the Temple after its desecration by a Greek emperor. Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and some Buddhists mark Diwali in late autumn, a Festival of Light symbolising the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance; Zoroastrians celebrate Yalda at the winter solstice, commemorating the triumph of the sun god Mithra.

Light is powerful as a symbol partly because it doesn’t need to be connected to a particular story. As the opposite of darkness, it is built into the very nature of things as day opposes night, providing human beings with the means to see. It can be readily spiritualised as the concept of enlightenment or truth.

As I write this the rain is falling heavily in the darkness outside and we have already had two named winter storms, Arwen and Barra; the days are getting shorter and light seems in short supply. It is no surprise that Christians celebrate Jesus as the light of the world at Christmas, given the time of year and our understanding that he is the one who reveals the truth in a world darkened by ignorance of God.

At Christmas, Jesus the light of the world is linked to human history. At a particular moment in time, in a particular place, the light came amongst us. But, as John goes on to point out, ‘people loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil’. Where in most religions there is a binary light/dark, good/evil opposition in which people identify with the forces of light, in Christianity we have the paradox of finding ourselves on the wrong side of the divide, preferring the darkness, wanting to keep God at arm’s length, asserting our independence. That’s why we need a saviour, because we are blind and cannot see clearly what we are here for or how to order our allegiances.

So Jesus is born in the dark, in the night time, deep in the gloom of the stable. The great people of the day, the Emperor Augustus, the Governor Quirinius, King Herod, are unaware of who he is; they are blind to the light. Those who respond to light are those on the margins; the shepherds, out in the fields, invisible to the rich and powerful, yet bathed in the glory of the angels; and the wise men, foreigners far from home, following the light of the star taking them to a new king and a kind of home.

This Christmas there is a lot of darkness around. The darkness of a mutating virus. The darkness of loneliness and isolation for many. The darkness of division and polarising culture wars. The darkness of a society growing indifferent to truth: unconcerned about the truthfulness of our public figures and sceptical about the truths of reason and science, where the only truth that matters is what is true for me.

Yet the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. At Christmas we find ourselves drawn to the light, only to turn and look at a world bathed in that light so that we see it as if for the first time. May that light shine on you this Christmas, scattering your own darkness, and helping you to see with fresh eyes. As the priest-poet Malcolm Guite puts it:

I see your world in light that shines behind me,
Lit by a sun whose rays I cannot see,
The smallest gleam of light still seems to find me,
Or find the child who’s hiding deep inside me.
I see your light reflected in the water,
Or kindled suddenly in someone’s eyes,
It shimmers through translucent leaves in summer,
Or spills from silver veins in leaden skies,
It gathers in the candles at our vespers,
It concentrates in tiny drops of dew,
At times it sings for joy, at times it whispers,
But all the time it calls me back to you.
I follow you upstream through this dark night
My saviour, source, and spring, my life and light.

Happy Christmas!

Jonathan Baker

Patterns of Worship

A couple of Blogs ago I mentioned the plans arising from the vision strategy for a new weekly informal service. In that Blog I explained some of the reasons why we need to set up such a service; and as preparations have moved on it is time to say a little more.

The days are long gone when a church could expect to grow merely by adding another style of service to its programme. Nevertheless, it is still true that churches wanting to encourage people to begin a journey of faith find this harder to do if none of their services has an informal or contemporary feel to it. New Christians (especially those under 40) are often unfamiliar with traditional forms of Anglican worship. More than that, they are culturally unused to having a largely passive role in the proceedings, and are more likely to engage with worship if it has an element of interaction, and addresses the issues people bring with them into church.

We are therefore moving ahead with plans to begin a new congregation in mid-January. The launch date is 9thJanuary at 9.15am, and with great imagination the service will be called the “9.15”. The intention is that it will last for under an hour; that it will be led by a team including lay people but overseen by Wendy Wale; that it will include interactive and visual elements; and that the music will consist chiefly of modern worship songs led by just two or three musicians. There will be a meeting in the Minster this Wednesday (1st December) at 7.30pm for anyone interested in finding out more, praying for the new service, and worshipping together.

It is important to clarify that the new service won’t be an ‘all-age’ service as such. The focus is not on children, but on adults looking for a more informal style of worship. However, children will be welcome and there will be provision for them in the service.

The timing of the new service is the result of much discussion, not least because it will affect the existing 10.30 service. From 9th January this will start at 11am, leaving half an hour between services for both congregations to have coffee together. Whilst we need to diversify the ways in which we offer worship, it is equally important that we retain a sense of being one church. The two congregations will therefore come together for major festivals every couple of months or so.

The start time of 9.15 will also allow the 8am and 9.15 congregations to join together for breakfast if at some point we are able to restart ‘Breakfast @ God’s’ after the 8 O’ clock Holy Communion.

The 11am congregation will celebrate Holy Communion every week, led by the choir. It will have basically the same ‘feel’ as the existing 10.30 service but with a slightly more streamlined liturgy to allow the Gloria to be sung by the choir to different settings. There will continue to be groups for children during the ‘ministry of the word’ part of the service.

A set of changes such as this will inevitably not suit everyone and will take a while to get used to. The PCC will therefore make sure to review the new arrangements after 6 months and try to take account of the feedback offered in the meantime.

In preparing for these changes and in reflecting upon them we need to bear in mind the context of a congregation which for years has been getting smaller and older; and a vision strategy which is committed to doing something about that so that we can become more balanced in age range and diversity, as well as grow numerically.

Please pray for these changes as we prepare for them, that they may be one of the ways by which new people come to faith and all of us may grow as disciples of Christ.

Jonathan Baker

November 13

Faith in Creation

For the last fortnight the eyes of the world have been on Glasgow and the COP26 Climate Summit, and as I write the negotiations are running into overtime. But apart from the obvious practical and humanitarian reasons for caring about climate change, what do the churches have to say about the issue?

In Christian theology, caring for the created world is basic. It’s what the story of Adam in the Garden of Eden is first of all about: God made the world (which in consequence has value and is not disposable), and then made Adam (the Hebrew word for ‘Man’) to tend the garden and make it fruitful. Men and women are part of God’s good creation and have been entrusted with managing it well. Our status is that of tenants rather than landlords; we enjoy occupancy of the earth, but we do not possess it absolutely. We are accountable for maintaining it through our ‘leasehold’ so that the lease can be renewed for future generations.

The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden speaks of how the relationship between humanity and the non-human world is disrupted when our relationship with God is disrupted. We no longer find it easy to live in harmony either with God or with plants, animals and soil, but have to assert our dominance. This shows itself in destructive patterns of exploitation and consumption of resources which are not renewable.

Some Christians have argued that when Christ returns in glory the world will come to an end, believers will be called away to heaven, and so there is no point seeking to preserve the world! However, the dominant view in the New Testament is that Jesus’ resurrection is the first evidence of God’s intention to renew all of his creation. One of the chief qualities of God is his faithfulness, even in the face of death. He does not give up on his people despite them turning away from him; he does not give up on Jesus, even on the cross; and he does not give up on the world he has made, but will renew it. Heaven is always imagined in very this-worldly terms. The Church is meant to be a sign of this hope.

When our relationship with the natural environment goes wrong, so does our relationship with other people. Those who suffer most from climate change are those who are poorest. People who live on marginal land, on coastal areas, on low-lying islands will have to leave their homes and go elsewhere. Politicians struggling to cope with immigration will find the task much harder in the face of growing mass migration caused by climate change.

So the issue of climate change is closely bound up with issues of justice and humanity. The Christian gospel which proclaims good news to the poor, and that the last will be first and the humble will be exalted, urges us to address the plight of those who are struggling to survive because of rising global temperatures caused mainly by wealthier industrialised nations.

The practical actions required are of course subject to much debate, and the challenge for nations to act collectively is hard, not least because we are not used to having to collaborate on such a scale. Nevertheless, this is an issue where Christians should not be passive observers standing on the side lines. Our calling to follow Christ is a calling to care for God’s good creation and one another. Responsible action to limit climate change is therefore a matter of faith quite as much as politics, and will continue to be part of our discipleship long after the end of COP26.

Jonathan Baker

October 30

Jack in the Box God

‘The Church of England as presently constituted, no earthly power can save.’  So prophesied Thomas Arnold nearly 200 years ago, and yet we Anglicans still seem to be trundling along. Like Mark Twain complaining that the report of his death was an exaggeration, some commentators have been a little too keen to predict the imminent demise of the C of E.

Sometimes I come across a similar view locally. There are pessimists who wonder aloud whether the Minster will still be in business as a place of worship in a few years’ time, and others who doubt whether the new Vision Strategy will have the desired effect of bringing about new growth. It can be easy to feel that the odds are stacked against us; the secular climate is too hostile, the faithful few are getting fewer and older, there just isn’t enough energy.

Perhaps I should be more concerned, but in a way, I find such talk invigorating. Christianity has its origin in failure and near extinction. Our central act of worship is when we gather to remember the Last Supper. We come together as a community to recall the moment when the Jesus community disintegrated. He was arrested, his disciples scattered, and they never seemed likely to meet around him again. Yet the loss of community became the foundation stone for the resurrection community, and we re-enact that disintegration and renewal at every celebration of Holy Communion.

In the same way the Gospels were written during the period in the later first century AD when the eyewitnesses of Jesus and his resurrection were dying out. The loss of that first generation of disciples caused a crisis of faith; they had believed that Jesus would return at any moment, but he didn’t. How could the Church continue without the direct personal testimony of those who had known Jesus in the flesh? The result of that crisis was the writing down of the testimony in the form of the Gospels. The written Word of God now bears witness to the presence of the risen Lord across the planet. The Lord came, not in glory, but in new gospel words. What seemed to be an extinction turned out to be only a fresh incarnation.

In both of these examples, faith grew and intimacy with the Lord deepened as disciples lost their confidence about what lay ahead. But they were given both his body and his word, and the church grew.

So the sense of an ending should never become grounds for despair. Following Jesus has always been a lost cause. It is the triumphalist expressions of faith (dare I say it, such as the building of churches like Beverley Minster) which are the aberration. Our faith is born out of experiences of disappointment and failure. Lost causes are our speciality. They are what we do. They rejuvenate us.

So there is no need for fatalism, with either the national or local church. It must be so frustrating to be the devil. Each time it looks as though he has succeeded in pushing Jesus back into the box, he keeps springing out again. Our present challenges may be real enough – let’s not underestimate them – but at their worst they can only be seed beds of resurrection and renewal.

Jonathan Baker

October 16

What Next?

Following the launch of the Minster’s new Vision Strategy at the beginning of the month there has been encouraging interest and a number of offers from folk wishing to be involved. And there have naturally been quite a few questions.

More than one person has said words to the effect of ‘This sounds great, but what is actually going to happen?’ Another strand of comment has been along the lines of ‘This looks very ambitious. Do we really have the capacity to deliver it?’

The Steering Group (which reports directly to the PCC) is aware that the big picture ideas now need to translate into action. Let me summarise what is likely to happen.

We cannot pretend that all 14 Workstreams outlined in the Vision Strategy will get under way at once. This is a programme for the next 3 – 5 years or longer. But a couple of the Workstreams have already begun. The Workstream on Prayer has seen an Action Plan put together and meetings involving more than two dozen people willing to be part of a new Prayer Team. This team has reintroduced midday prayers in the Minster and developed it by offering a limited chaplaincy to visitors at the same time. Discussions are going on about the best way to offer prayer ministry and one-to-one listening for individuals in the Minster. The appearance of several new chairs by the Sanctuary Exhibition is part of this initiative and will be followed by some panels designating a prayer area.

Prayer is a core activity for any Christian community and so it is right that this should be at the forefront of our vision. We can expect to see more teaching about prayer, more encouragement to pray, and more opportunities to pray together.

A second Workstream under way is concerned with broadening the forms of worship so that they better reflect today’s diverse culture. Wendy Wale is putting together a team which is aiming to launch a new weekly service on Sunday mornings as soon as is practicable in the New Year. This will not replace but will run in addition to the current 10.30 service. The style of worship is intended to be more informal (but not casual), contemporary and interactive, a little like the Sunday at Seven services we used to hold before the pandemic.

The reason for such a service is because the current programme of worship is clearly not holding and sustaining new people – with the honourable exception of those who are given a specialist role in the choir. Traditional Anglican worship tends to come in a non-negotiable package: ‘This is what we do; take it or leave it’. Folk who are not schooled in such worship often find they cannot engage with it immediately, and so they do not stick with us. The thinking behind the more contemporary styles of worship is that they need to be more experiential and provide more opportunities for people to connect faith with everyday life. The learning from many other churches is that such worship needs to be offered on a weekly basis and at prime time, not monthly or tucked away at the end of the day.

These Workstreams are already under way. Several others will be prioritised. One is the Workstream focussed on the provision of pastoral support. Successive lockdowns have highlighted the patchy nature of our pastoral care system, with some folk feeling forgotten. The time feels right to think afresh about the nature and extent of pastoral care at the Minster and how we provide it. Several experienced people are keen to be involved in this area and it should be possible to put a new team together without too much delay.

A specific initiative forming part of a broader Workstream has to do with social events. After the last two years there is a need for opportunities to meet together, build relationships and strengthen our sense of belonging. We shall therefore be looking for volunteers to think about the best way of doing this in ways which are sustainable without making unreasonable demands on individuals.

Another initiative which will prepare the way for other Workstreams has to do with helping everyone in the Minster community to reflect upon our gifts and skills and how we are using them. We already depend upon the generous offering of time and commitment from many volunteers, but there is a need to develop this in terms of Christian discipleship – how God may be calling me to offer my whole self in his service – and not just from the perspective of finding people to do particular tasks.

These are the immediate areas being prioritised. Others may come to the front of the queue if it transpires that more people want to be involved in making other parts of the strategy happen. Much will depend on finding the right people to oversee particular Workstreams and keep them moving, as the leadership of the Workstreams will have to be shared beyond the clergy team if they are to make progress.

If you would like to be involved in one or more of these areas (or any of the other Workstreams in the Vision Strategy) then please do get in touch by emailing vision@beverleyminster.org.uk or speak to one of the clergy. We may not be able to use all the offers at once, but the more people who are engaged with this process then the faster we shall see meaningful change. I shall try to use this Blog to provide a regular overview of what is going on.

Read more about the Vision Strategy here >

Jonathan Baker

October 2

A Vision for Beverley Minster

In the Gospels, Jesus begins his ministry by summoning people to ‘Follow me’. At the end of the Gospels, the summons becomes a sending: ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you’; and, ‘Go and make disciples of all nations’.

This summoning and sending applies not just to individuals but to the whole company of Christ’s people. We have a shared calling as a church, across the globe and in each place. The question is, what does that calling look like in practice? What is it exactly that the church is trying to be and do, especially here at Beverley Minster?

This Sunday (3rd October) we are launching a new vision strategy for Beverley Minster after the 10.30 service. You are more than welcome to join us for this presentation.

As we emerge from all the disruption of the last 18 months we face both challenges and opportunities. The challenges have to do with finance and numbers, both of which have been in decline for a number of years. The opportunities relate to how we ‘proclaim afresh’ the good news of God’s love to the present generation, many of whom have never heard it.

Our headline vision is shared with the Diocese of York and in some ways is unsurprising: The focus is on growing in faith (expressed as ‘Becoming more like Christ’), reaching out with God’s love to those who need to know about it (expressed as ‘Reaching those we currently don’t’), becoming more diverse as a community so that we better reflect the world around us and function better together as the body of Christ (expressed in terms of ‘Growing as a church of missionary disciples’), and finally making sure that we can pay for it and sustain it all (‘Transforming our finances and structures’).

We start with many strengths, in terms of a beautiful and attractive building, a strong choral and worshipping tradition, and a cadre of committed and passionate volunteers who fulfil all kinds of roles that often go unseen and unsung.

However, none of these strengths can be taken for granted and already there are certain formal roles which are proving harder to fill.

This is therefore a good moment to refocus and to clarify what our priorities should be over the coming few years. 14 areas have therefore been identified where fresh thinking and initiative is required if the vision is to become a reality. These range from building partnerships with other organisations for the good of the town to diversifying our pattern of worship to include younger people; from deepening our teaching and practice of prayer to improving structures for pastoral care; from providing more opportunities for exploring faith to improving our communications.

These initiatives are ambitious but necessary if the Minster is to adapt to a post-pandemic world. There will be financial costs involved in some areas (for example maintaining and developing the varieties of ministry, and in updating the infrastructure in the Minster building). A bigger cost for some of us may be in the change of mindset required to make space for people who may not share our preferences or outlook.

A full version of the Vision Strategy and the initiatives arising from it can be found on the Minster website, and I invite you to consider it and pray for it. Its effectiveness will depend largely on our ability to engage new people in driving it forward, and there are certainly some people waiting to be asked. Could you play a part in helping to lead one of the 14 workstreams?

The principle of Christ’s calling and sending assumes that we are willing to lay down our own needs and priorities in the service of a bigger vision. I hope that we can all engage with this vision and help it to bring about meaningful change. As we pray for it, may we find God inspiring us to lift our eyes as we enter this new season in the life of Beverley Minster.

Jonathan Baker

18 September 2021

Applying our Heritage

Last Sunday we welcomed the Mayor of Beverley, Cllr. Linda Johnson, who formally opened the new Sanctuary exhibition in the North Transept in the presence of other guests and members of the Minster congregation.

The Exhibition has been in place since July, but only in recent weeks has all the content been finally put in place. It was therefore a joyful moment for it to be declared officially open!

The First Round bid for the Sanctuary Project had been submitted to the National Heritage Lottery Fund just before I arrived in Beverley at the end of 2017. Nearly four years later there is satisfaction in seeing the story of Sanctuary at Beverley being told in a permanent display, and in seeing the related conservation work on the lesser south transept roof successfully completed earlier this year, despite the challenges presented by the pandemic. Congratulations are owed to the Sanctuary Project Board, chaired by Tim Carlisle, who have brought this about.

If you have not already explored the Exhibition, I encourage you to do so. It tells the story of Sanctuary at Beverley by means of illustrated text panels, digital touchscreens, audio-visual dramatisation and interviews. The stories of some of the sanctuary seekers recorded in the Beverley Sanctuary Book (now in the British Library) are brought to life by historical re-enactors. The physical evidence, in the form of the sanctuary stones around Beverley and the frith stool in the Minster itself, is clearly explained. And connections are made with people in Beverley today who for very different reasons have found themselves having to leave home, because their original home has become too dangerous.

The Exhibition is housed in a tent-like structure evoking the tents provided by UNHCR in refugee camps around the world, and makes a statement about the continuing need of thousands of people in the world today to find a place of safety.

The concept of sanctuary is of course a rich one. It evokes not just medieval fugitives but present day refugees. It speaks of the need we all have sometimes to withdraw from the world and recuperate. It speaks of safety and of hospitality. It also still resonates with its original meaning as a holy place, a place of worship and encounter with God. Sanctuary is something churches can be comfortable talking about, connecting worship with our building and practical ministry.

At Beverley Minster the new vision strategy, shortly to be discussed by the PCC, includes a section outlining our ambition to be a place where the heritage of the building points people to God and the worshipping community. The Sanctuary Exhibition can be seen as an expression of that ambition.

Another strand in the vision strategy concerns the encouragement of prayer, and it has been wonderful to see so many people wanting to be involved in a new prayer team, building on the variety of prayer ministries which existed before the pandemic. The relevance of this to sanctuary is that the offering of public prayer in the Minster every day, followed by chaplaincy ministry to visitors, is one of the ways in which we can make connections between our vision for prayer, for the building, and for the offer of practical support, all of which are brought together in the sanctuary exhibition.

There was a moving review on the Minster’s Trip Advisor page a few weeks ago, posted by a visitor from Hertfordshire: “Absolutely incredible, the Minster is really beautiful, the staff and volunteers are clearly dedicated (and really interesting to chat to) and the exhibition on sanctuary is not one to miss. We were really challenged by our visit to Beverley Minster, and it made us revisit our thoughts about the experience of refugees and asylum seekers today as we went through the exhibition. Definitely a must see!” (Five stars).

That’s what can happen with what I call ‘applied heritage’: it helps us all to think again, and to see the world with fresh eyes.

Jonathan Baker

29 August 2021

September Arrives

With the approach of September, it feels that the time is right to restore some of the missing parts of the parish’s programme of services. After months of maintaining the bare minimum pattern of worship, it is about to get more complicated.

From 5th September we shall be restarting the weekly 8am Book of Common Prayer service in the Quire of the Minster (asking the congregation to continue wearing masks and maintaining social distancing). The Thursday morning 10am service will revert to the pattern of alternating between Book of Common Prayer (starting on 2nd September) and Common Worship (9th September and every other week thereafter). This will also move back into the Quire.

At St Leonard’s Molescroft there will be a weekly service of Common Worship Holy Communion at 9.15 each Sunday except on the second Sunday of the month when there will be an afternoon service of Evening Prayer with hymns at 3pm. On Friday 24th September at 7pm there will additionally be the annual Molescroft Harvest Festival with the Minster Choir.

At St Paul’s Tickton there will be two Anglican-led services a month, with an informal Holy Communion on the second Sunday at 4pm in the Methodist Chapel and a Common Worship Holy Communion on the third Sunday at 10.30am. The other Sundays will be Methodist-led when the staffing situation permits.

St Peter’s Woodmansey will go from one to two services a month, on the second and fourth Sundays at 10,30am, both Common Worship Holy Communion. At Routh the former pattern of twice-monthly services has already been re-established.

There will also be some special one-off occasions this month. I’ve mentioned the Harvest service at Molescroft, but on Sunday 19th September the 10.30am service at the Minster will be an opportunity for us to thank all those volunteers who have worked so hard to keep the Minster open and functioning over the last months. Whist the pandemic is far from over, and we must still keep some precautions in place, this seems like a good moment to acknowledge the sacrificial efforts made by our volunteers to keep abreast of all the changing regulations so that the Minster could be kept open as much as possible.

19th September will also be the Sunday when we restore the opportunity to enjoy coffee after the service again! However, the coffee rota is looking a bit thin so if you could help out now and again Janet Simpson would love to hear from you. Expressions of interest should be made to the Head Virger, Libby Naylor, in the first instance, who will pass them on to Janet.

Also on 19th September, the Music Department will be running a ‘Be a Chorister for a Day’ experience. If you know of any youngsters who enjoy singing and might be encouraged to join the Minster choir, do invite them along so that they can discover what might be involved in this wonderful musical opportunity.

On Sunday 12th September we shall be welcoming a variety of visitors to the Minster. First of all, the veterans from the Prince of Wales’ Own (Yorkshire) Regimental Association will be joining us at 10.30 for Quebec Day and a subsequent short service marking the centenary anniversary of the East Yorkshire Regimental Chapel. Then at midday we shall be welcoming the Mayor and other guests for the formal opening of the new Sanctuary Exhibition in the north Transept. This will be a very special event as we celebrate the completion of the major part of the Sanctuary Project, and a wonderful new asset with which we can tell more of the story of sanctuary in this town and its links with our ministry today. All members of the Minster community will be very welcome to join us for this occasion.

10-12 September is also the weekend of the annual Heritage Open Days when there will be additional tours both of the Minster and of the Secret Garden, along with some conservation workshops showcasing the skills of the Beverley Minster Old Fund craftsmen. See the website for details.

Finally, it may not be too late to remind some readers of the Songs of Praise service at 5.30pm on Sunday 29th August outside the West Front of the Minster. The last time we did this a few weeks ago, we were blessed with a perfect summer evening and a wonderful chance to sing without restriction. So far, the forecast suggests we might expect a warm and dry evening again, so do join us if you can.

The next few weeks look like being very full, and I suspect that many of us will be more than ready for that! I hope that your September feels like a time when you can spread your wings once again.

Jonathan Baker

24 June 2021

The World Turned Upside Down?

There have been some interesting contrasts in leadership models over the last few weeks.

On the one hand we have had the Health Secretary forced to resign, not because of his adulterous affair, but because it entailed a breach of the social distancing rules he had himself advocated. We have also seen the Home Secretary refuse to criticise those in the crowd who booed England football team members for ‘taking the knee’ before matches, on the basis that this was ‘gesture politics’; only for the gesture to become all too relevant with the outpouring of racial abuse online after the penalty shootout at the European Championship Final. The Prime Minister himself was similarly ambivalent about condemning racism in football before it became too blatant to ignore.

By contrast, Gareth Southgate has won many plaudits for his leadership of the England team. He supported them over the ‘taking the knee’ controversy; he has built a genuinely multi-cultural team which played as a team, and not just a collection of individual talent; he shown loyalty to his players, giving them time to demonstrate their potential; he has been generous to defeated opponents; he has been modest and decent in his public statements; and he took responsibility for England’s eventual defeat, protecting the young players who had been brought on as substitutes just before the penalties were taken and missed.

We’ve also seen similar decency reflected by the team off pitch; Harry Kane and others condemned the racism suffered by their teammates, declaring that any one guilty of racist abuse was not an England supporter. Marcus Rashford and Jordan Henderson have topped the Sunday Times Giving List, made up of those on the Rich List who have given away or raised the most money for charity as a proportion of their wealth. Rashford has of course also been awarded an MBE for his work campaigning for free school meals for children in poverty. They are truly a team of whom we can be proud, who provide role models and leadership for all our young people.

What a curious reversal! Time was when we could confidently look to our footballers for examples of extravagant dodgy behaviour and to the average Cabinet Minister for quiet and steady leadership. Now it seems to be the other way round. Moral vision to work for equality and the eradication of poverty shouldn’t have to be provided by our footballers. Is this a sign of moral and spiritual bankruptcy amongst those in power, or should we take heart that celebrities and sportsmen and women are using their influence so constructively?

The churches used to offer a prophetic voice in such situations, ‘speaking truth to power’ and highlighting the abuses and inequalities of which we should all be ashamed; but the days are gone when anyone paid much attention to the opinions of church leaders. What we can still do is remind one another that the desire for justice and equality are not eccentric minority interests, marginal to the greater project of feathering our own nests, but are watered by deep springs, not the fashion of the moment. The prophet’s declaration ‘Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream’ still has power, and Micah’s searching question: ‘What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?’ I wonder how that ancient challenge might strike the consciences of some of our leaders today?

Jonathan Baker

5 June 2021

We’re here because we’re here – or are we?

I wonder how you would sum up the purpose of Beverley Minster? The trouble with a building like the Minster is that its existence seems too obvious for us to want to think about what it is there for. The world for which it was built has long since passed away, and with it any sense of the builders’ original motives and aims.

And yet the Minster is still home to a worshipping community, bound together by faith in the same God and informed by the same Scriptures, even if many of the religious practices and felt needs have changed. In our day, when many people feel no need of God, a church community is likely to have a clearer sense of coming together for a reason. Nobody now comes to worship merely to avoid feeling left out. Faith has become much more intentional, which is why asking about our purpose is relevant.

This takes us into the territory of mission statements. Churches, like other organisations, increasingly try to sum up their purpose in a mission or vision statement. These can sometimes sound very bland and don’t always tell you what needs to be done in order to make the vision a reality. Nevertheless, it is helpful for every organisation to think about what it is trying to achieve.

At the Minster, as with many other churches, this need has been increased by several trends. One of these has been the trend of numerical decline. For the last decade our congregational numbers have gradually gone down as people have moved away or died and not been replaced. Alongside this, those who remain have got older, and it is noticeable how the age range is now less well balanced than it used to be. One consequence of this is that income has also declined, so we have fewer resources to maintain the same level of activity.

These trends have been highlighted by the pandemic, and made us realise that we need to clarify our sense of what we are trying to do. And so at the beginning of June the PCC looked at a proposed vision strategy aimed at reversing the long term decline.

We reminded ourselves that the church exists to help people become more like Christ, by offering a life changing message of transformation. It exists to reach out to people outside the church, and not merely serve those who already belong. We recognised that as the church aims to do these things, it will become more missionary in nature, focussing its attention outwards and reflecting more the diverse concerns and culture of those it is seeking to serve. And we acknowledged that for this to happen there must be a willingness to reshape our structures and finances so that they support such goals more directly.

Such words are all well and good, but need to be backed by carefully thought out actions if the vision is to be realised. The PCC is therefore looking at a wide-ranging programme of initiatives which could refresh our sense of purpose and help us to grow. Through the summer there will be several opportunities for the Minster community to engage with this vision strategy as we open it out and discuss together what we believe God is calling us to be and do.

The process is risky, because once begun we cannot tell where it will lead or what it may demand of us. Nevertheless, doing nothing is not an option. These are challenging times, but with challenges come opportunities to rediscover the faithfulness of God, and for a church community to be reinvigorated as it finds a fresh sense of direction and purpose.

Jonathan Baker


19 June 2021

Choosing Wisely

At this morning’s baptism preparation session we had several parents looking forward to celebrating their child’s arrival by planning the baptism service.

When asked why they felt baptism was important, several parents said something along the lines of ‘It means that when Charlotte/Kayleigh/Jack gets older they’ll have a choice about whether to be a Christian or not.’ Over the years I have heard countless parents express their approach to baptism in similar terms.

It’s understandable, when the freedom to choose for ourselves has become a defining feature of a democratic society. It is quite right that when children are brought for baptism, it is on the understanding that in due course they will decide for themselves what to believe and practise. This is the point of Confirmation.

What has not attracted so much attention is how we equip ourselves to exercise that freedom. In such a complicated world as ours, I find myself frequently paralysed by the bewildering range of choices I am expected to make, from varieties of cheese to different kinds of pension.

Some of these choices are trivial and everyday; some are important and potentially lifechanging. But when did you last have a conversation with someone about how to make the best choice? What principles do you apply to help you choose wisely? In the absence of other guidance, do we just go for the cheapest? That might explain why so many of our habits of consumption have proved so damaging to the planet.

In the baptism context, choices do not make themselves. If a child is not taught how to read the Scriptures, does not have the practice of prayer commended and explained, and does not have the opportunity to consider how Christian faith might be lived out day by day, the likelihood is that he or she will not see the point of continuing churchgoing into adulthood.

Just as a child who takes the scout promise but never goes to meetings will not appreciate what the scouting movement has to offer, or a child who is given a season ticket for Hull City Tigers but is never shown how to play soccer will never learn to love the game, so an infant who is baptised but not encouraged to learn about Jesus is unlikely to see following Jesus as an attractive option.

The same is true of all of us; unless we are clear that certain values are important and sometimes costly – like telling the truth or showing compassion to strangers – we shall find it hard to exercise our freedom of choice in ways that are Christ-like rather than merely consumer-like. Choosing wisely requires training and practice, and an awareness that good decisions do not just happen.

When bewildered by the complexity of choices facing us, and conscious that we do not have all the information we would like to have first, the only way to steer between arrogance and paralysis is by forming a discipline and habit of choosing according to our values.

It has been said that our choices do not shape the world so much as shape ourselves. So, whenever we worry about protecting our freedom, perhaps we should think just as much about whether we have learned how to exercise it.

Jonathan Baker

29 May 2021

Spiritual but not religious?

An article I read recently told the story of an apparently normal man who in 1966 murdered his wife, mother and 12 other people before being shot dead by police. Afterwards a note was found in which he had written, “I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts, and it requires a tremendous mental effort to concentrate on useful and progressive tasks… after my death I wish that an autopsy would be performed to see if there is any visible physical disorder.” The autopsy duly revealed a large brain tumour which seemed likely to have influenced his behaviour. So, did he freely choose to do evil, or was he the helpless victim of an illness?

Philosophers debate whether human beings have genuine free will, or whether our actions are entirely pre-determined by our genes and circumstances.

So many issues seem to have this binary quality: Should politics promote the good of the individual or the good of society? Is Reality ‘out there’ or ‘in here’? Do I find greatest satisfaction in choosing my own path or in seeking a higher purpose?

This Sunday is Trinity Sunday, when Christians celebrate that God has revealed himself not simply as One, but as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So, is God One or Many? Changing or Unchanging? The Creator of a universe which is free or predetermined?

A fascinating element in modern culture is the phenomenon of ‘Godless religion’. This affirms some of the benefits of religion, such as the sense of feeling connected to a bigger reality, the importance of morality, and the instinct that the most important thing is love, but it rejects belief in God. Religion is perceived as at best sterile and at worst oppressive, its institutions hierarchical and patriarchal. But ‘spirituality’ is still important.

Worship of only One God can lead to conformity and oppression. Seeing divinity in all things can mean the individual loses significance. Do away with God altogether and we may become mere consumers, each of us the centre of our own Universe. But what if God is Trinity?

The Christian faith that God is love means not only that God acts lovingly towards the world, creating it and then entering it to redeem it, but that God is himself a community of persons, bound together in a loving unity which respects the freedom of each. This community spills over into human history, both in the coming of Jesus the Son of God and in the sending of the Holy Spirit, who gives life.

The God who is Trinity, is both Unity and Diversity, transcendent and immanent, near and far away, mysterious and revealed, the unchanging source of change. Whilst this may sound abstract, it is only a shorthand way of talking about how people in the Bible experienced God over the centuries. What in other religions and philosophies sound like either/or choices, in Christianity become both/and possibilities; a Creator who has entered his creation; a Father who sets his children free; a conductor who composes as he goes along, taking account of the improvisations – and mistakes – of his orchestra.

If we are made in the image of the God of love, we shall be both free and constrained, as lovers often know. Our choices will matter, but can be woven into a wider purpose. The past will shape us without imprisoning us. We can look forward hopefully without wishing away the present. We shall play our part in human history, whilst having eternity in our hearts. And we shall want to love and to be loved, to connect with a bigger reality without losing ourselves, and to find stability and home whilst still looking for everything to be made new.

Those who have not encountered this may not appreciate its power. This is no dry doctrine, but a living experience to satisfy heart and mind. So, when you meet someone who wants to be spiritual without being religious, why not ask them whether they have ever considered exploring the Trinity…

Jonathan Baker

15 May 2021

Keep calm and carry on

We find ourselves now in Ascensiontide, the ten-day period between Ascension Day and Pentecost. It is a season with its own particular mood, a complex mood mixing victory with defeat, hope with despair, glory with the mundane. Ascensiontide may resonate with us all.

Theologically, there is a note of victory and triumph. We have celebrated Easter and the good news of the resurrection. Death has been defeated, the taproot of sin has been severed, the future need no longer fill us with dread. The Ascension itself sees Jesus exalted in glory to be seated at the right hand of the Father. His work is done, and everything has been accomplished.

For us there may not be such a decisive sense of triumph, but there is still some mood of victory in the air. An effective vaccine has been found, it is being swiftly delivered, restrictions are gradually being eased, and despite an upswing in the UK of the so-called ‘India variant’ of the virus, it feels as though life is opening up again. The pandemic is of course still raging in many parts of the world, but in our little corner the threat seems to be receding.

On the other hand the ascension of Jesus leaves the disciples bereft. Jesus has gone, the Holy Spirit has not yet been given, and there is a real sense of poignancy. Are we on our own now? What are we supposed to do next? Where is the manual?

The disciples are like students leaving home for the first time, left by themselves in their new hall of residence surrounded by suitcases as the parental car disappears down the road. It is supposed to be an exciting new beginning, but it feels like being abandoned.

Perhaps we have also felt something like that over the last year. We know God is still there, we know that the church is still worshipping online, but it has been months since we last met together, we are fed up with being by ourselves, the vicar hasn’t phoned and it’s a bit like being abandoned.

There is a story that Christopher Columbus sailing across the Atlantic for the first time wrote in his journal day after day the same words: ‘No land in sight. Kept sailing.’ Ascensiontide encourages us to embrace the same kind of stubbornness. In the absence of reassuring landmarks you keep doing what you’ve always done. Say your prayers, read your Bible, reach out where you can to those in need, and prepare for things to change.

When the Spirit came at Pentecost, the disciples were empowered to live in the name of Jesus. They were able to take responsibility for their lives in a new way. They no longer needed Jesus there in person to tell them how to live. They had a sense of him living through them.

A new season in the life of the church is coming. It will be full of challenges, but there will also be freedom and new life, as the pandemic recedes and we discover not everything is the same as it was before. As we wait patiently for that season to begin, we keep sailing, trusting that continents will be there for us to discover.

Jonathan Baker

May 2021

This Friday (7th May) is the 1300th anniversary of the death of St John of Beverley and therefore a kind of birthday for the town of Beverley.

Why? Because the reason Beverley became more than a remote monastery surrounded by woods and marshes was because John’s tomb became a major centre of pilgrimage, around which grew a marketplace, inns and houses. Beverley developed eventually into a port and thriving commercial centre. But it began with the monastery founded by St John, and it grew because of the popularity of his tomb.

Three things were essential for a place to become a destination for pilgrims: there had to be a shrine containing the remains of a holy man or woman, providing a place and a physical focus; there had to be a date, whether of martyrdom, death or re-burial; this provided a connection with the saint’s story, and the historical reality of his or her earthly life; and there had to be an annual commemoration, ensuring that the feast day had a place within the round of worship of the local community, and that people continued to seek the saint’s intercessions with God on their behalf.

It was this last issue that really mattered. A saint was, by definition, someone who had a place in heaven close to God. According to this logic, prayers offered at the shrine of a saint were physically closer to God and therefore more likely to be heard.

If the theology sounds dubious, that may be because many aspects of medieval religion were based not so much on the official teaching of the Church as on popular practice which the authorities then sought to harness. Saints could fall in and out of fashion, or their concerns could change. For example, John of Beverley was originally a simple holy man exercising a gift of healing. But in later centuries he was co-opted by kings, from Athelstan to Henry V, as a national saint who could help English armies to victory on the battlefield.

At the 16th century Reformation this practice was ridiculed as a superstition. Prayer was an expression of faith in a loving God, not as a pre-scientific tool for overcoming everyday problems. Access to God was guaranteed by faith in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ, not by visiting the bones of a saint. The shrines were dismantled, the gold reliquaries were taken by Henry VIII’s Commissioners, and the bones were sent to Thomas Cromwell who ensured that they were burned.

Veneration of saints dropped out of mainstream English religious life, and the saints themselves quietly forgotten; the only saints mentioned in Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer are the apostles mentioned in the Gospels, whose burial places are all unknown (although John the Baptist’s tomb can still be seen in the Umayyad mosque in Damascus). John of Beverley dropped into obscurity, a minor historical figure recorded by Bede.

Beverley Minster is St John’s monument. The size and beauty of the Minster is entirely owing to the prestige of its former occupant. There is a sense in which the Minster is an empty jewel casket; richly adorned but missing the treasure it was designed to contain.

May 7th falls too soon for us to celebrate the anniversary free from Covid 19 restrictions. But we shall get another opportunity on 25th October, which is the anniversary of the translation (or relocation) of John’s relics from his tomb in the nave to a new shrine, probably above the high altar of the Anglo-Saxon church, in 1037.

The cult of St John of Beverley lasted for over 800 years, yet now seems impossibly strange. Even so the Minster stands as testimony to something contemporary. Although religion constantly runs the risk of being distorted to meet all kinds of earthly human needs, the instinct to pray remains constant. It expresses perhaps our human need to know and be known by something bigger than ourselves; it allows us to experience awe and wonder at the miracle of life and the beauty of the universe; and it gives us confidence that we have a meaningful place in an unfolding story.

For these reasons at least we can give thanks for John of Beverley as we remember him on Thursday, and again later this year.

Jonathan Baker


 

17 April 2021

Bygone era or future hope?

Over the past week I have been struck by the way so many commentators have described Prince Philip’s death as the end of an era, one in which his personal qualities of duty, reticence, service and self-sacrifice now seem hopelessly old fashioned.

In one sense that makes perfect sense. To speak of personal virtues at all these days seems out of step, suggesting as they do something timeless and unchanging in a world driven by fashion and sentiment. When we look at the contemporary public figures who are most admired, too many stand out not for their virtue, but their virtue-signalling, not for their speaking up in the cause of truth, but their saying what is expected to avoid being cancelled, and not for the good they get on with, but their gift of self-promotion.

At the same time, I wonder whether we are not in danger of overstating the case. Our land is still full of people who quietly get on with the job, though it be unglamorous and unrewarding. Over the last year we have become aware of how many ‘unsung heroes’ quietly spend their lives serving others, in the NHS, supermarket cash desks, classrooms and care homes, many of them poorly paid and little recognised, but who get on with the job without fuss but with bags of commitment, dedication and, yes, self-sacrifice.

Perhaps one of the reasons why Prince Philip’s death has touched so many is not because it symbolises the passing of an old and now defunct order, but because he represents for so many their own continuing values, which are too rarely celebrated in public. Maybe it is only the words that have changed; duty and sacrifice sound old fashioned, but someone described as being dedicated and reliable, and who puts herself out to help others, sounds not so much out of date as eminently employable.

One of the ways in which we still see such qualities is in the generosity of those who volunteer – most recently those thousands of volunteers managing long lines of people queuing for vaccinations, spending hours in the cold with people they will never see again, maintaining cheerfulness and humanity in the service of others when they could have been at home doing their own thing.

Here at Beverley Minster we are thinking about our own volunteers, not least as we look ahead with quiet confidence to the possibility of reopening to general visiting in May. We shall need new volunteers if we are to open fully, and we have been giving thought as to ways of providing training and support.

As we look forward to the summer and to escaping the confines of the pandemic, there will be more opportunities for volunteering in all sorts of ways: as Welcomers greeting visitors, Guides showing folk round, gardeners keeping the grounds tidy, people with clerical skills helping in the office or on the counting team.

There will be more about this on social media and elsewhere over the coming weeks, so now is the time to be thinking about ways in which you might be able to help, so that we can get the right provision in place before the Covid restrictions ease up. If volunteering at Beverley Minster might be of interest to you, or to someone you know, and if you would like to know more, do get in touch with the Administration Manager, Lauren Simpson, minster@beverleyminster.org.uk

The late Duke of Edinburgh’s unique style was very much of its day and age; but I am quite sure that the virtues he embodied are far from dead, and I remain confident that at Beverley Minster we shall see evidence of them in the selflessness of our volunteers for years to come.

Jonathan Baker


 

4 April 2021

A Gardener with Ambition

In the National Gallery hangs Titian’s great painting of the resurrection, ‘Noli me tangere’. Without the Biblical context, it might at first seem a slightly bizarre scene. Why is this woman kneeling publicly in front of an almost naked man holding a garden hoe? And why is he recoiling from her so awkwardly?

The painting shows a powerful moment of recognition, that moment described in John’s Gospel when Mary Magdalene, having at first mistaken the risen Jesus for the gardener, hears him calling her by name. Responding with love and amazement, she tries to reach out to him. He leans away from her, saying, ‘Do not hold on to me (in Latin, ‘Noli me tangere’), because I have not yet ascended to the Father.’

This Jesus has not come back simply to pick up where the old Jesus left off. Something has changed, signified by Mary’s difficulty at first in recognising him, and then by his refusal to let her claim him as her own. This Jesus has not come to share his new life only with his old disciples and friends in one place at one moment in history. He has come to renew the whole created universe, including time itself.

That is why the hoe is important. Not only does it explain why Mary thought Jesus was the gardener, the one charged with looking after the graveyard; it also evokes Adam, the first human being, placed in the garden of Eden ‘to till it and keep it.’ The hoe reminds us of the human vocation to look after the world entrusted to us, to care for all creation – including one another – and make it fruitful. The risen Jesus is a second Adam, fulfilling the first Adam’s destiny to bring God’s good creation to completion.

As Spring erupts once more around us, this is good news for all gardeners and farmers! In tending the earth you are answering a fundamental human calling, and walking in step with God’s intention that human beings should work with him in improving the world. But the gardening metaphor runs far more widely than our bedding plants and daffodils.

The early 17th century Bishop of Winchester, Lancelot Andrewes, puts it beautifully:

A gardener he is. The first, the fairest garden that ever was, paradise, he was the gardener, for it was of his planning. And ever since it is he as God makes all our gardens green, sends all the herbs and flowers we then gather…Christ rising was indeed a gardener, and that a strange one, who made such an herb grow out of the ground this day as the like was never seen before, a dead body to shoot forth alive out of the grave.

Andrewes goes on to speak of the implications of Christ’s rising for us and all creation:

But I ask, was he so this day alone? No, but this profession of his, this day begun, he will follow to the end. For he it is that by virtue of this morning’s act shall garden our bodies, too, turn all our graves into garden plots; yea, shall one day turn land and sea and all into a great garden, and so husband them as they shall in due time bring forth live bodies, even all our bodies alive again.

He ‘shall garden our bodies, too’. It is not surprising that Mary does not at first recognise Jesus, familiar to her though he had once been. This Jesus is not offering some private religious experience, but nothing less than the transformation of all things, turning ‘land and sea and all into one great garden’.

Perhaps this is why we still find it hard to recognise him. The Easter Jesus is just too big to take in; we cannot take hold of him and co-opt him to our own purposes; we can only wait, with Mary, in the graveyard of this mortal world, listening for him to call our own names. Responding to God’s gift of life all around us, we gladly offer ourselves as his under-gardeners, trusting in life, rejoicing in life, and sharing life to bring out the best in all around us, and so anticipate the fullness of the resurrection life that awaits us.

Jonathan Baker