Mine eyes have seen the gloryhole…
I remember my first proper visit to Beverley Minster last Summer. Entering the nave, I was blown away by the glories of this great pilgrimage church full of light. But when I ventured into the Quire, I couldn’t understand why the whole area suddenly felt spiritually lifeless and unused, like an old museum. It came as quite a surprise to discover later that the Quire is in fact used daily for prayer and worship. On reflection I realised that the reason it had such a derelict air was because of all the red ropes fencing off the stalls. They proclaim very loudly ‘Keep Off. Do Not Use. Heritage Only.’ – and effectively undermined the purpose of the Quire as a living place of prayer!
The last couple of Parochial Church Council (PCC) meetings have included time to wander around the Minster and consider how sympathetic the furnishings are to the building itself and its original purpose.
The Minster is deliberately generous, in scale, beauty, and costliness. It was built that way to help pilgrims to feel more open, less crowded, more in touch with Beauty, more filled with awe. In other words, the building was intended to offer people a glimpse of heaven on earth. It still does that, much more so than other big buildings like, say, Tesco.
But Nature abhors a vacuum; and one of the problems with a big building is that empty spaces attract objects with no permanent home, such as donation boxes or tables for refreshments. It requires real discipline to manage the use of functional objects in a manner sympathetic to the building itself.
If a Transept floor is empty, the eye is drawn upwards to the windows and vaulting, and the experience is spiritual. If on the other hand the space is occupied by two ugly and ill-matching tables next to a dustbin, the eye inevitably focusses on those instead, and stays all too earthbound. The message of the building is undermined by its contents.
The PCC walkabout opened our eyes to some of the tensions between practical use and original purpose. It also whetted some appetites for a gentle process of de-cluttering! It’s good to think about the environment of worship; our buildings say something about the God we adore, and in the process also shape our sense of ourselves.
Two things struck me about the recent Referendum in Ireland about the repeal of the Constitutional Amendment prohibiting abortion.
One was the passionate, polarised, nature of the debate. The two sides seemed united only in their mutual incomprehension, each unable to see any merit in the other’s view.
The other thing to strike me was how it was simply assumed by UK commentators that the Pro-Choice position was the right one. Opposition to abortion is now seen as a throwback to medieval patriarchy, endorsed only by a Roman Catholic Church intent on opposing personal freedom.
Both aspects trouble me. On the one side is an argument presented as an absolute rule protecting the sanctity of life. The problem is that the rule is carved in granite so immovable as to sound life-denying. By insisting that the right of the unborn child to life overrides every other consideration (by enshrining it in a Constitution, for example), Pro-Lifers can appear judgmental and unsympathetic to the very real suffering faced by women who discover they are unhappily pregnant.
On the other side the ‘My Body, My Choice’ line risks reducing a matter of life and death to mere personal choice. There is no recognition that this might be an issue for a community or society; no awareness that it always takes two to make a child, no concession to the sheer giftedness of life, whether wanted or not. It is simply assumed that we are no more than atomised individuals, each of us salvaging what meaning we can from life. In a way it demonstrates the triumph of consumer capitalism, in which freedom of individual choice is the supreme Good. The flip side is that when things go wrong, the individual faces the music alone. If that’s how it really is, it’s not surprising that abortion usually seems to be the lesser of two evils.
There is an African saying that “It takes a village to raise a child”. Perhaps it also takes a village to bring a child to birth, and the absence of robust community support is what gives abortion its appeal when a pregnancy is unwanted. Churches may be some of the few places left where the worn fabric of community can be renewed, within which the range of life choices can be widened and supported. We are potentially communities of resistance, insisting unfashionably that we are more than a collection of individuals, that the gospel creates genuine bonds of fellowship. But is it a vision we have really grasped? And is it a vision big enough to share?
Can you separate the art from the artist? Following the sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and others, liberal-minded film critics have generally responded with a surprisingly traditional morality. Many commentators have argued that the work of those who have sexually exploited others is tainted. Even though their films may still be great films, we cannot now watch them without being aware of a darker context. The director Ridley Scott recently re-filmed ‘All the Money in the World’ with Christopher Plummer replacing Kevin Spacey after damaging allegations surfaced. No question of separating the art from the artist there – Spacey’s involvement made the whole project toxic.
There has been a shift in thinking around this. Critics used to argue that works of art be judged independently of the artist’s character or intention. They rarely suggested that Caravaggio’s ‘Last Supper’ should be shunned because he was also a murderer, or that Lord Byron’s ‘Don Juan’ should be thrown out of libraries because he had the morals of a tomcat. No doubt it helped that the victims were no longer around to prejudice sales.
But in the Classical and Christian worlds, Beauty, Truth and Goodness were held to be connected. They pointed equally to God, who was the single source of them all. In a connected universe, we cannot truly appreciate beautiful things without taking account of their relationship with what is good and true. But the relationship is not straightforward. Is beauty rendered false or perhaps more true because it arises from the artist’s moral failings?
In the history of the arts we see flawed and damaged human beings frequently applying themselves to redeem ugly experiences in the creation of their art.
In Christian understanding, the cross of Jesus is the place where something bad and ugly becomes supremely good and beautiful in the light of Easter. Sometimes it is necessary to embrace ugliness to make ugly things beautiful. Here too, there is ultimately no question of separating the art from the Artist.
Now you see him, now you don’t
‘He is risen; he is not here’. At the heart of Easter is this terse message given to grieving women at Jesus’ empty tomb. But in the triumphalism of the churches’ Easter celebrations it’s easy to miss the paradox in this apparently simple statement.
He is risen; and in our world full of grief and disappointment it is wonderful news that Jesus’ perfect humanity and God’s perfect faithfulness are together stronger than death. The resurrection invites us all to seek a deeper awareness of divine love in our own lives and in the community around us.
At the same time, he is not here. Although he is risen, Jesus is not necessarily present. You might think that the whole point of the resurrection was to make Jesus present again. But at the heart of the Easter story is an empty tomb and an absence. He is not the possession of the churches, he escapes our grasp and is always one step in front of us, ‘going ahead to Galilee’; he leaves behind him rumours and stories inviting us to follow him back into the world.
So if Jesus isn’t here when we want him to be, what are we to make of the resurrection? The women in the story were told to look at the empty tomb and then to tell the other disciples that Jesus was risen. They had to focus on both the absence and the resurrection of Jesus. As they then moved to obey, the Lord unexpectedly met them. It seems that those wishing to discover the truth of the resurrection for themselves must live as if it is true. Trusting the risen Lord leads to action; and in the active living of the Christian faith Christ often surprises us with his Easter greeting.
May this season be one in which you find new life in your faith, whatever that faith might be, and fresh energy in your living it out.
“What is truth?” As we approach Holy Week, Pontius Pilate’s question to Jesus has never been so relevant – nor so difficult to answer.
A few years ago it seemed that there was a great division in our way of thinking between the world of evidence-based public fact (that is, the world of science and technology) and the world of private values and opinions (inhabited by the arts, humanities and religion). Christian faith found itself marginalised because it fell into the second part of this false division.
The downgrading of any kind of truth claim has now become routine. If we don’t like the science of, for example, climate change, we just deny the evidence. In response to claims that social media were being manipulated to peddle false news stories, Facebook has changed its algorithms to prioritise what friends share with each other over all news stories – effectively treating fake news and the real thing the same, and playing down both. President Trump’s policy towards the media has been to brand all mainstream media (ie those with some professional interest in reporting ‘the truth’) as ‘fake news’ so that people rely increasingly on their social media news feeds, which tell us what we want to hear.
Should truth be expressed if it might cause offence? The ‘No Platforming’ of Germaine Greer and Peter Tatchell from certain universities because of their views on transgender issues has raised eyebrows. The old adage that ‘you can’t argue with what people feel’ describes a reality in which issues can no longer be discussed rationally if they might upset some people. ‘The truth’ is no longer out there, and accessible through rational argument and investigation. There is only my truth and your truth. Which one gets heard is in the end a matter of relative power, of who can shout loudest.
So what is truth, and how do we get at it? When Pilate asks the question, he is unaware that the one who claimed to be ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’ was staring him in the face. If this was so, it suggests that truth is something external to ourselves and not purely subjective; but it is also bound up with our personal commitments. Truth invites us to stake our lives on it; we believe in order to understand; it will change us, not least by confronting us with uncomfortable insights about ourselves, and with glorious insights about what we might become. Jesus reveals that in the end, the ultimate truth is love.
May the rest of this Lent be for you a journey into deeper truth, a truth that will set you free.
2018 is set to be a monster year, with the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s novel ‘Frankenstein’ being celebrated with an avalanche of articles, conferences, films, plays, a ballet and even a themed £2 coin design.
The story of a brilliant scientist and his ambition to create life has never lost popularity, even if some later versions of the story bear little resemblance to the original. Lazy journalists use the Frankenstein label to whip up fear of technology, especially in reports of genetically engineered plants and animals, or of developments in infertility treatments. It is a tale of mythic proportions, inviting endless reflection on how human creativity can go wrong.
Frankenstein’s crime is twofold. First, his desire to create a living being is born of egotism rather than love or any desire for relationship. When he parades his ambition before his fiancée, she says ‘Why not just give me a child?’ But there is no room for anyone else in Frankenstein’s project. It’s all about him. Then, when the monster comes alive, he is rejected by his creator who turns away in horror and drives him away. What makes the monster truly monstrous is the behaviour he learns from his master; fear, hatred, rejection and violence. Initially the creature is innocent, trusting, and desires only to be accepted and to belong.
The novel draws its inspiration from many sources, including Dr Faustus and Paradise Lost. But it is also a kind of inversion of the Genesis account of creation. There, the innocent creature goes wrong because it rejects its Creator. In Frankenstein it is the creator rather than the creature who is the source of alienation and pain. In the Bible, God longs for his creatures to respond to his faithful loving kindness. In Frankenstein, the monster longs for someone, anyone, to show him any kindness at all.
The contrasts between the two stories invite reflection. When we create something new, be it a child, an organisation or a new technology, we cannot shake off responsibility for what we have created. Then again, as fallible creatures ourselves, perhaps what we need most is to know the loving acceptance of a Creator who will not deny us, however unlovely or different we may have become. As the monster cries at the end of Danny Boyle’s 2011 National Theatre production, ‘All I ever wanted was your love!’ So may all our creations this year be fruits of love.
Starting a new job as Vicar of Beverley Minster and Priest in Charge of Routh a fortnight before Christmas seemed like a good idea when I agreed to it six months ago. ‘Everyone else will have done the work’, I thought. ‘All I’ll have to do is turn up and be the front man’. Friends looked at me strangely. Was it scepticism, or just pity, that I saw in their eyes?
Getting a new Labrador puppy five days before Christmas seemed like a good idea when Sue put it to me. ‘We’ll have all the children home for the holidays’ she said, winningly. ‘They’ll be around to help with the housetraining.’ Friends looked at us strangely. Was there not enough chaos in our lives already, what with the new job and the house still full of packing cases?
New home, new town, new job, new pet, New Year. Confronted by all this newness, I wonder how to respond. I can flinch at the challenge of change, of having to build new relationships, develop fresh routines, and find my way round a different one-way system. It’s all so exhausting. Or I can open my eyes in wonder. Look at this! Isn’t it beautiful/incredible/strange? It’s all so exhilarating!
The effect has been exaggerated by seeing things through the eyes of the puppy. For her, every mundane happening is full of excitement. Every person coming through the door has to be greeted like a long lost favourite. Chasing an empty plastic bottle is endlessly entertaining. And a New Year’s Day walk on Hornsea beach was an adventure in the Wide World which was almost too much to take in.
Like the puppy, I’m in danger of sensory overload as I try to take in everything that Beverley Minster and its associated churches have to offer. A symptom of that is my inability to remember people’s names; it’s nothing personal, just a limited capacity for taking in new information. It will be a long time before there is any risk of feeling stale.
At the same time, the marking of the New Year is an opportunity for all of us to face the old longing for a new beginning, for the slate to be wiped clean, for the dials to be reset so that we can start over again. The newness may not last, but we know the opportunity will keep coming round – not just once a year, but whenever we pause to allow the glory of God to break out from the depths of even the most familiar things. As the poet Gerard Manly Hopkins puts it:
“nature is never spent; there lives the dearest freshness deep down things”.
May this New Year be a time of new beginnings for you, and for our churches, as together we seek the God who in Jesus says “Behold! I make all things new.”