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.
20 March 2021
“Go therefore, and make disciples…”
What is a church of ‘missionary disciples’?
The question is being asked by churches at every level. The General Synod of the Church of England, the Diocese of York, and the parish of Beverley Minster have all been giving thought to their future vision. One of the concepts which keeps cropping up in all of these discussions is that of a church of ‘missionary disciples’. It is a strategic priority for the national church, while the diocese is committed to ‘growing churches of missionary disciples’. In our own discussions locally, it is also a key phrase we are using.
A disciple is, literally, one who learns by following. The idea of discipleship is implicit in many of Jesus commands, from the summons to “Follow me” to the challenge, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”. The first disciples were those who spent all their time with Jesus, following him around to see how he lived, what he taught, and how he put it into practice.
The closest modern equivalent might be that of an apprentice, someone called to learn on the job by observing and imitating a more experienced master. The first disciples were much more than apprentices, because their learning involved the whole of their lives and not just a nine to five job.
Becoming a disciple implies more than simply embracing Christian belief, attending worship, and joining in with whatever church activities take our fancy; it suggests committed, life-long learning, not in an intellectual sense but in learning to model our lives on Jesus.
CS Lewis summed it up in this way: “Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.” If that sounds impossibly idealistic, another way of putting it is to think of how we would answer the question: “What would I do if I had Jesus’ heart in me?” Another writer has suggested that “Discipleship is the process of becoming who Jesus would be if he were me.”
A church of such disciples is missionary when it gives equal weight not only to Jesus’ invitation to “Come unto me, all you who are weary and heavy laden”, but also to his command to “Go and proclaim the kingdom of God”. It reflects the New Testament language of Christ’s followers being ambassadors who are sent out to show God’s love for the world – and indeed, to make other disciples.
Seeking to grow as a church of missionary disciples is ambitious, as it implies a continuing journey of deepening faith and growing commitment which will challenge the complacency to which all of us are prone. Yet many are already on this journey and will welcome a more explicit encouragement to follow Jesus wholeheartedly.
Such a journey has the power to make the church more distinctive, by deepening our love for God and neighbour. A church of missionary disciples will make the church and the gospel more credible, by demonstrating that individual lives can be genuinely transformed, and that the church can be a powerful force for good in the wider community.
The process of agreeing a fresh vision is at an early stage, but there will be opportunities for all of us to take part in it. My prayer is we shall be inspired as we ask how we grow as disciples, personally and as a church community, and that a new vision will help us to discover fresh energy and excitement in serving God together.
13 March 2021
First, the good news.
The Friends of Beverley Minster and the Beverley Minster Old Fund have together agreed to underwrite the cost of Phase II of re-leading the nave roof of Beverley Minster, meaning that by early November we can expect the largest area of the Minster’s roof to have been repaired and made good for at least another century or so.
This will allow contractors to work seamlessly along the nave roof from east to west following the completion of Phase I later this month, thereby saving costs of around £118,000. It also means that at least some disruption can be avoided because of the reduced activity in the Minster during the pandemic.
It is a great achievement to secure this funding when the timing of Phase I was unexpected, following the creation of the government’s Capital Works Covid Recovery Fund with strict deadlines for applications at the end of 2020. Congratulations are due to Tim Carlisle and the team at Two Churches One Town who coordinated all of this. The stonework of the nave of at St Mary’s is also being repaired as part of the wider project.
Fundraising will continue for Phase II as both the Friends and Old Fund have other pressures on their resources.
All of this follows the successful completion of the work on the Lesser South Transept roof as part of the ‘Sanctuary Project’, and those who follow the Old Fund’s Facebook page will have seen in Steve Rial’s photographs the quality of work undertaken there.
Sadder news is that there are some changes afoot amongst the Minster staff. At the end of February we bade farewell to Eleanor Robinson, who for the last couple of years has been the Lead Virger. Eleanor is expecting a baby very shortly and we wish her well with the new arrival and all the changes that will bring, as well as extending our thanks for her faithful ministry during her time leading the virgers’ department. Libby Naylor is stepping up as the new Head Virger, with Paul Newman continuing as Assistant, but on a half time basis.
We shall also be saying goodbye shortly to Ali Bodley, who since last May has been part-time Learning and Engagement Officer as part of the Sanctuary Project. Although there is still funding for another year of this post to run, Ali feels it is time to focus more on the development of heritage and community projects. The pandemic has made her role particularly challenging, and we are grateful to Ali for all she has done to support Stewards and Welcomers, and in masterminding the yarn bombing and Advent Calendar displays outside the Minster.
At the end of last year we said good bye to Chris Bull, Parish Secretary for over 20 years. Now we are also saying goodbye to Chris’ husband, John, who for the last couple of years has been giving his professional services as an accountant voluntarily, keeping the books and managing our day-to-day finances with the Treasurer, Steve George. We are indebted to John for his quiet, reliable professionalism, and we wish both Chris and him every blessing as they prepare to move to Scotland.
Many readers may already be aware of such comings and goings via social media; on Facebook you can find accounts in the name of “Beverley Minster” (the official Minster account where services are livestreamed), “Beverley Minster and Daughter Churches”, which is where news within the Minster community is shared, and “Beverley Minsteroldfund”, which provides regular updates in the maintenance of the building. Additionally, there are accounts for “Beverley Minster Old Fund Surveyor”, “Time Out (Beverley Minster)”, and “Minster Choirs” (shared with other Minster choirs in the region). There is also the Beverley Minster Instagram account!
During the pandemic these less formal means of communication have become even more important alongside the existing media, so that we can keep in touch with events great and small as they occur. Why not sign up for one today?
20 February 2021
Why bother with Lent?
Observing Lent these days seems terribly old-fashioned. Talking about discipline, self-denial, and prioritising prayer neither gets the pulse quickening nor brings people flocking; and as for fasting, well… we’ve already done ‘dry January’, so why do it again?
So it might be worth reminding ourselves what Lent is really all about.
In the Gospels, Jesus spends 40 days after his baptism fasting in the wilderness and being tested by Satan in preparation for his public ministry.
In the early Church, the 40 day period before Easter (not counting Sundays) developed as a time of preparation for candidates for baptism. The season later was marked by an emphasis on penitence: almsgiving, fasting, abstinence from festivities and devoting more time to prayer helped to foster a deeper faith and a greater self-discipline.
After 1700 years of Christendom, the observance of Lent has contributed to an image of Christianity as formal, joyless and judgmental, an image effectively parodied by Joanne Harris in her novel “Chocolat’, about a free-spirited woman who subverts Lent in a very traditional and strait-laced French village by opening a chocolate shop.
But at its heart, Lent is about change. When Jesus fasted in the wilderness he was managing a huge transition in his life, from local carpenter to public figure. Baptismal candidates in the early Church were preparing to nail their colours to the mast publicly in a way that would change their lives forever. In both examples, change came through seeking to respond more deeply to God. It was vocational in nature.
So it is for us. Lenten disciplines do not arise from the belief that self-denial is inherently good for us. They are meant to help us to change; to grow as human beings; to become more whole as we discover more about who we really are; to find a deeper integrity and focus. Jesus was not tempted to do things self-evidently wrong (why shouldn’t he make bread when he was hungry?). They were tests of his integrity: ‘If you are the Son of God…’ . How does the Son of God exercise power? What kind of a Son of God is he?
The reason Lent can help us to grow is because the disciplines of prayer and self-denial can help us to listen. Prayer is less about asking for things, and more about listening to our feelings, to our experiences, to Scripture, and discerning the tug of God in the midst of life. The other Lenten disciplines are about filtering out the competing voices and distractions which stop us from listening properly. That is the relevance of the wilderness in the Bible stories; empty spaces filled with silence where distracting, superficial voices fade away.
In our day many are simply scared of silence and bored by our own company. We devise artful ways to distract, entertain and occupy one another so that we never have to listen properly to what is going on. In the Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis characterised hell as being full of noise, to distract and separate its occupants from any sense of reality.
It is no accident that Lent falls when the seasons are changing. Winter gives way to Spring. The bare earth sends out new shoots. New life is in the air, not least as we hope to begin living again after lockdown. It’s a time of change. Not overnight, but gradually, day by day. It’s as if the earth is establishing a discipline of making new life, and practising a habit of growth. May we reflect the Lenten discipline of the natural world, seeking change that is evident not just on the outside, but in the new life within.
6 February 2021
Threats, Opportunities and Prayer
Most readers of this Blog will no doubt be used to praying for Beverley Minster and its associated churches. This is an especially good moment for us to be encouraged in that calling, as this is a time of both threats and opportunities.
The threats will come as no surprise. I have written before about the financial challenges the Minster faces, and after nearly a year of restrictions on our normal activity these are not getting any easier. In the last financial year our liquid reserves were reduced by around £150,000 to make up for lost income. Clearly, we cannot live off reserves at that rate indefinitely.
In an effort to reduce expenditure, two staff posts have been made redundant – in the office and in the virgers’ department – and we are having to consider very carefully whether we can continue to put resources into our music and youth work at the current levels.
Additionally, a small group is reviewing all our premises to see whether they could be used differently to generate more income. If it makes practical sense, this could lead to rooms and/or buildings being rented out long term for commercial use.
We are going to emerge from the pandemic as a smaller organisation with a reduced capacity. For example, managing with only one and a half virger posts will mean greater dependency on volunteers and shorter opening times. The Minster community won’t be able to rely on staff to carry out routine tasks as we have in the past. We shall have to find new ways of doing things.
It is a cliché that threats can also be opportunities, and thankfully our current situation is also full of opportunity.
As we hope that vaccines will allow us to resume a freer way of life, churches across the country are thinking about the shape of their future mission and ministry. The General Synod of the Church of England is working on a strategic vision for the 2020s which advocates a church which is centred on and shaped by Jesus Christ. The likely strategic priorities are threefold: becoming a church of missionary disciples, encouraging a wider range of expressions of church life, and becoming younger and more diverse so that we look more like the communities around us.
The Diocese of York is beginning a similar process, reflecting similar concerns. It is perhaps no accident that Archbishop Stephen is leading this at both national and diocesan levels.
Here in Beverley we are also embarking on a process of refreshing our strategic vision so that as we emerge from the pandemic we can go forward with a clearer sense of how God would use his church for the benefit of the wider world.
Over the last months there have been several new initiatives. These include the digital congregations joining worship online, including a recent all-age congregation on Sunday afternoons; the new contacts made with folk in the wider community through the Advent Calendar project and yarn bombing; strengthened relationships with local primary schools through the provision of online weekly collective worship; relationships built with mums and new born babies, for whom we have run several support groups during lockdown; discussions about how we might address homelessness; preparations for recruiting new volunteers when lockdown ends, and so on.
A new strategy should help us to see such activities as a starting point for mission rather than an end point. How are they helping individuals to ‘become more centred on and shaped by Jesus Christ’? How are we using scarce resources to enable that journey of personal and communal transformation? What do we really want from our ministry team, including music? Over the coming months we shall be encouraging folk to discuss these and other questions.
This is where prayer is important. In the end, the vision of what the Minster and its daughter churches are here for is a vocational matter. What kind of community is God calling us to be? And what do we need to do in order to make the vision a reality? So please pray for the churches at this time. There are some big practical challenges to deal with; but there are also some very exciting opportunities, if we can discern how the Lord is calling us to follow him, in this place, and at this particular time.
What’s the Story?
“All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.” So wrote the Danish novelist Isak Dinesen, reflecting the belief that stories provide much more than entertainment. Human beings are story-telling animals; whenever someone asks ‘How was your day?’, we recount a narrative, editing and shaping what has happened in order to relate the events of the day in ways that are interesting, entertaining and engaging.
This power can be literally life-saving. During Stalin’s purges in Russia, millions of people were sent to work in Siberian labour camps where many died from hunger, overwork, bitter cold or the brutal punishments. But in one camp there was a dormitory where a much higher proportion of inmates survived because they listened every night to an old woman telling fairy tales. Each prisoner gave up a precious portion of his or her daily bread ration to help feed the woman so she could save her strength for the nightly storytelling sessions. And the stories kept hope alive and strengthened the prisoners’ will to survive.
It is no accident that the Christian gospel – indeed, the Bible as a whole – takes the form of a story, a tale about God and how he has redeemed the world which he made and loves, a tale we are invited to enter and discover our own role.
One of the most powerful ways of telling stories in our culture is through the medium of film. One film critic speaks of film as ‘a two-hour metaphor that says: Life is like this.’ We can agree or disagree with the film’s point of view, but reflecting upon its insights, inadequacies and challenges will help us to grow in understanding and applying our own faith.
Sometimes our faith can be deepened and enriched when we discover that its themes are reflected in secular culture. Sometimes the insights of those outside the churches can shed fresh light on the Scriptures. Sometimes we are challenged to see ourselves as others see us.
This Lent at Beverley Minster there will be opportunities to discuss five films exploring the possibility of finding forgiveness and peace. They are not religious films as such and there is nothing explicitly Christian about them. In some ways they may reflect hostility to Christian belief. But they are all asking what it means to live well, and how peace may be found. This makes them worthy conversation partners as we ask the same questions and try to relate them to the promise of the gospel.
Under the heading, ‘Finding Peace at the Movies’, we shall discuss A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (PG), Gran Torino (15), Groundhog Day (PG), Calvary (15) and Babette’s Feast (U). Each session will assume the film has already been watched (we shall provide DVDs for folk to borrow) and will explore our emotional response, the questions and themes each film raises, resonances with Scripture and Christian tradition, and the interplay between the film and our faith. The series will begin on Tuesday 23rd February at 7.30pm on Zoom and run for five weeks, so get watching!
Over the last year I suspect many of us will have spent more time watching our television screens. ‘Finding Peace at the Movies’ this Lent will be a way of putting some of that experience to good use, and it will also be an opportunity to invite others outside the usual congregation to take part and to engage with us in a creative and, I hope, stimulating way.
New Year in Exile
The Feast of the Epiphany on 6 January always brings to my mind TS Eliot’s great poem, “The Journey of the Magi”, where one of the Wise Men recalls their visit to the Christ child many years before. It ends by considering how the journey changed them:
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Although the Magi have come home, there is a sense in which they have entered a spiritual exile; encountering Christ they feel somehow displaced in their old lives; the axis has shifted, and the old pleasures and priorities no longer satisfy.
Entering a New Year and immediately being plunged into a new lockdown, the metaphor of exile seems particularly well suited to us at the start of 2021. Cut off from church, from work and from one another, it is easy to feel that we are trapped in an unnatural place, far from where we want to be.
Whilst this is uncomfortable and disorientating, it may open our eyes to the deeper sense of spiritual exile that is part of our human condition, pandemic or no pandemic. The sense that we belong somewhere else, that our true destiny lies somewhere out of reach, and that we are never truly free, is part of who we are.
GK Chesterton spoke of it as a sense of homesickness for our real native land: ‘We have come to the wrong star…That is what makes life at once so splendid and so strange. The true happiness is that we don’t fit. We come from somewhere else.’
CS Lewis also spoke of longing for a far-off country, a longing which we attach to beauty or music or a feeling of nostalgia, but which those things cannot satisfy, for they are only ‘the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.’
This feeling of exile can be explained as the soul’s longing for God, and as a refusal to be satisfied by anything less.
The only problem with the metaphor of exile is if it lets us suppose home is something we have known before. Returning exiles usually discover that home is not how they remembered it. The Magi realise that they are ‘no longer at ease here’. The original exiles in the Bible returned to Jerusalem from captivity in Babylon and found it in ruins. If heaven is the end of our earthly exile, we can confidently assume it will not be like anything we have yet known.
And when the pandemic exile ends, we shall not find the church as it was. The virus has accelerated problems the Church was already facing, nationally and locally. The cost of mission and ministry in the past cannot be sustained. There is a crucifixion which the Church must undergo before there can be a resurrection. And as the Gospels tell us, the resurrection body of Christ was often at first unrecognisable. This reality is uncomfortable, but must be faced.
Through all of this, God is faithful, and his purpose for each one of us is good. The wise man in the poem can truthfully say ‘I should be glad of another death’, because he has met one whom he senses is greater than death. So let us welcome whatever lies ahead not with fear, and a desperate clinging to the past, but with a joyful faith in the one who offers a new dispensation: ‘For all that is past, Thanks. For all that is to come, Yes!’
O come, O come, Emmanuel
There is always a tension between the hope that is part of the Advent and Christmas message, and the present reality most of us experience.
As well as the usual gloom of afternoons descending into darkness by 3.00pm, we’re experiencing another wet winter with few frosts as a result of climate change. We feel starved of human contact as a result of the pandemic. Trump is out, but his legacy of division, paranoia and truth-denying lives on. Brexit is being revealed as the act of self-harm it always threatened to be, with no-one claiming success in the trade negotiations with the EU. As for Christmas, our celebrations in church and at home will be muted at best. It’s all a bit depressing, and for many, 2020 has held personal disappointments and tragedies, with livelihoods lost, families separated and illness hard to shake off, or worse.
In such circumstances it is easy for the Christmas message of comfort and joy to sound empty. What difference does this message make when the world seems so hopeless, in so many ways? It will take more than a bit of tinsel and a few carols to renew our sense of God’s presence. Sometimes, even for those with a strong faith, the gap between promise and reality can feel great.
Yet it was to face such realities that Christ came. The Creator of the universe becomes vulnerable to hunger and disease. The Eternal One enters our mortality and submits to death. The King of kings makes his entrance in a stable.
The Christmas event was never about glossing over reality, however much our Christmas celebrations may have become sentimentalised. The truth in Christmas is not to marginalise present difficulties and struggles in favour of some imagined future, not to displace the pain and disappointments of earth in favour of a promised heaven.
Instead, the birth of Christ is about heaven becoming present in the middle of ordinary lives. Eternity is glimpsed in a child’s cry. The Word made flesh gives a shape and a meaning to our everyday sense that there is always something more, that the things we can see and touch veil deeper realities, and that hardship itself can become a gateway to deeper understanding and compassion. The Son of God becomes the son of Mary so that we can see in one another something of the family likeness of God. On this insight, all true humanism eventually depends.
The hope enshrined in Christmas is not wishful thinking. It is based on the God who, like Magnus Magnusson in the old days of Mastermind, says: ‘I’ve started so I’ll finish’. The sending of Christ into the world shows the faithfulness of the Creator God towards his creation. The resurrection of Jesus reveals the Creator God’s faithfulness in the face of death. The hope of Advent and Christmas today is that the same God is still faithful to his world and has not abandoned it. His character has not changed. What he has begun he will surely finish.
In the words of the poet, Malcolm Guite:
O heart of heaven beating in the earth,
O tiny hope within our hopelessness,
Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,
To touch a dying world with new-made hands
And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.
May you focus on the heart of Christmas this year. As you look into the manger may you find yourself gazing into the face of heaven. And may your hope be renewed and strengthened as we go into 2021.
Living without Planning
I’m working my way through ‘The Mirror and the Light’, the third in Hilary Mantel’s monumental trilogy about Thomas Cromwell (640 pages in, with a third still to go; what can your editor have been thinking, Hilary?). The weight ensures I am body building as I hold the book up, but despite that it’s very readable.
So far the story depicts Cromwell at the height of his ascendancy; the second man in the kingdom following the death of Anne Boleyn, acquiring vast wealth from plundered monasteries and the King’s favour, and deftly promoting the cause of reform whilst sidestepping old enemies and unforeseen crises.
At the same time there is a gathering sense of danger. Cromwell’s position is utterly dependent upon the King, who can be murderously unpredictable. For all his prestige, the Lord Privy Seal can only ride the waves of King Henry’s moods, and he is beginning to sense that eventually his luck will run out. He cannot plan for that eventuality as he belongs completely to his master.
Cromwell’s response is to focus on the present moment. He does what he can for as long as he can, knowing that others may have to finish the work he is beginning. For readers who have an inkling of how the story of Thomas Cromwell ends, this seems wise…
The reason I mention this is because while I do not fear for my head in the face of an unpredictable boss, I do recognise the difficulty Cromwell has in taking anything for granted.
As if life was not difficult enough, Covid-19 has made it worse through sheer unpredictability. These days it is hard to plan for anything. Our Christmas Tree Festival was off, then on, then finally off again only a few weeks ago. Wedding couples who assumed last Spring that by postponing their big day for 12 months all would be well, are now wondering whether they will have to postpone again. Plans for Christmas services have been fluid to the point of evaporation as we try to guess which out of three or four different levels of restrictions will be relevant.
Such uncertainty takes its toll on people. Even those who thrive on change can get weary or despondent when all our plans are constantly thrown into the air.
The answer may be to concentrate on the present moment, and leave the rest to God. It is humbling to discover that we cannot take the future for granted when we rely so much upon accurate prediction. But this can also give us a chance to live more deeply in the now, and stop wishing away today in our drive to shape tomorrow.
It is ironic to be writing this as we enter Advent, the season in the Church’s year which encourages us to look forward. But properly understood, the Advent hope is not so much about waiting for tomorrow as about opening ourselves to God’s eternity now; think of it as looking upwards rather than forwards.
In this morning’s psalm, 145, verse 2 says: ’Every day will I bless you, and praise your name for ever and ever’. It suggests the activity of worship today anchors me to an eternal future. Eternity comes into shape as I invest myself in today, not the other way around.
It’s a hard lesson, having our plans upset so that we can recover a sense of eternity. But perhaps this time could be for you an unlikely gift, so that your Advent is filled with anticipation and longing for the Lord – even if your Christmas plans do have to be left unmade.
Starter for Ten?
One of the unexpected fruits of the lockdown earlier this year was the boom in the online quiz, when families and friends on Zoom discovered that it can be helpful if there is some way of structuring the interaction – such as a quiz.
I was reminded of this yesterday as my children exchanged texts trying to organise another family quiz night. After the usual round of bad jokes (‘I need to get something in exchange for this – a kind of quiz pro quo’, and ‘if we can organise this we’ll be quiz in’ through to ‘I’ve had enough of this, so let’s call it quiz’), we’re now looking forward to another evening of sharing pointless and trivial facts.
It seems curious how this can be so popular. The answers to quiz questions are rarely useful, and may be boring; and the whole format risks unleashing the worst memories of school classroom tests, with that rising sense of panic as you realise that not only do you not know the answer, you don’t even understand the question.
On the other hand, a well-constructed quiz can be full of surprise, unexpected interest, and laughter, prompted not least by the imaginative or desperate answers provided by other contestants. My favourite question in the quiz game ‘Trivial Pursuit’ was ‘On what day of the week did King Henry VIII die?’, a question so arcane and pointless that even David Starkey might have to look it up, and yet dressed up so as to suggest that if you were only moderately well-informed you really ought to know the answer (Friday).
Perhaps part of the appeal of a quiz is that unlike the rest of life, it offers simple answers to simple questions. Amidst all the uncertainty about pandemics, global warming and presidential elections, there is something comforting about a question with a clear right/wrong answer. In a quiz there is no need for nuance or qualification, no need to hedge around with ‘maybe this, maybe that’. Except that sometimes the answers can be contested. Even the day when Henry VIII died can be argued, depending on which calendar you are referring to (Friday according to the old Julian calendar in use at the time, but Tuesday if you are using the modern Gregorian calendar). Nothing is as simple as it seems, even in a quiz.
When I was a student there was for a while a craze for doing impressions of Dr Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy from Star Trek. In response to the most mundane question, you would whip off your glasses (if you wore them), gaze earnestly into the eyes of your interlocutor, and say ‘Jim, we just don’t know’.
As the dust slowly settles after the US Presidential election, and as Cummings & Co clear their desks from Downing Street, maybe we are starting to see a recognition that the world’s problems aren’t like a quiz; they can’t be solved with slogans, tweets and binary right/wrong, us/them answers. The various fundamentalisms and ideologies (which include the expectation that science can solve every problem) all trade in false certainties, and eventually we tire of them, recognising that they do not tell the whole truth about the world, even as we still long for someone to give us the answer.
Perhaps ‘Bones’ McCoy is a hero for 2020; a brilliant doctor who does not have all the answers, but who keeps going nonetheless, guided by loyalty to his Captain and fellow crew members as they face the Unknown. As we go on through another lockdown towards a Christmas unlike any other, it’s good to be reminded that what matters is not getting it right, but knowing who to trust; not finding the solution, but being able to travel hopefully; and not despairing at the failures of ourselves or others, but receiving the resources of grace that transform the questions into gifts we can live with.
Getting rid of religion
I once found myself in a debate on local radio with a member of the Humanist Society, who was arguing that public money should not be used to support church projects (such as church schools) because ‘religion’ was a purely private affair which should be kept out of the life of the wider community.
The discussion betrayed an alarming assumption: that religion is some private and personal activity which has nothing to do with the wider world, much like stamp collecting or trainspotting. My discussion partner thought that, like many private hobbies or interests, faith was simply of no relevance to those who are not ‘religious’.
When I pointed out that Jesus summed up the religion of his day as ‘love God and love your neighbour’, and that it was impossible to love one’s neighbour without venturing into the realm of the social and political, my discussion partner was bemused; in his own mind he had banished religion into such a dark and remote corner that it had never occurred to him that the practise of faith might have implications for public action – or that a Christianity without a social dimension would be a poor maimed version of itself.
This misunderstanding has become common. Those who promote a ‘secular’ society see no place for ‘religion’, because they have defined ‘religion’ to their own satisfaction as something divisive, dogmatic and intolerant, which cannot have any part to play in bringing people together. If it must be tolerated, it should only be practised behind closed doors.
The website of the Humanist Society says that humanists ‘make sense of the world through logic, reason and evidence, and always seek to treat people around them with warmth, understanding and respect’. The problem with that sentence is that the values of the second part do not flow automatically from the rigorous methodology of the first part. On the contrary, warmth, understanding and respect sound very much like the sort of thing that might be promoted by any religion.
The reality is that human nature does not come in two varieties, religious and non-religious, one of them bigoted and controlling, the other rational and tolerant. Instead we are all of us trying to work out the same agenda of ‘making sense of the world’. Unifying values such as ‘warmth, understanding and respect’ owe less to ‘logic, reason and evidence’ as such, and rather more to attitudes of openness, compassion and trust which are promoted and sustained by faith – without faith traditions claiming any exclusive ownership.
When people are wary of ‘promoting religion’, I sometimes wonder what they think religion is. It makes as much sense to me as being wary of friendship, on the grounds that friendship might also be a cover for imposing my will on other people. The idea that faith in the God of love could provide a rational basis for promoting warmth, understanding and respect somehow seems to have been lost. Maybe Christians need to become more confident in making the connection – not so much between God and religion – as between God and ordinary human wellbeing. That surely is the whole point of the gospel.
Why do we need priests?
The question is not prompted by any sudden loss of vocation or failure of nerve on the part of your Vicar but by the ordination to the priesthood of our curate, Tim Kelly.
In the Church of England there are three varieties, or orders, of ordained ministry. Deacons have a ministry focussed on practical service. Tim was ordained to the diaconate last year and has offered very practical service in his willingness to use his old skills in IT to enable us to provide online worship during the lockdown and the ongoing livestreaming of services. In fact, he has compared such work to the diaconal activity of stacking chairs!
Bishops on the other hand have a ministry of oversight; taking responsibility for the care of Christ’s Church, standing in the line of the apostles themselves. But if deacons serve and bishops exercise oversight, what do priests do?
Tim’s ordination to the priesthood is a good moment for all of us to reflect upon this. What might the essential ministry of a priest be?
An unreflecting response might be that priests are there to take the services, chair the meetings, visit the sick and make sure that everything goes smoothly. The more a church looks like an organisation, the easier it is to see the priest as a manager, responsible for sorting every problem from raising money for the roof to choosing the colour of the noticeboards. Alternatively, the more the church looks like a community, the more the priest may be seen as a community builder, befriending everyone, organising gatherings and events, blessing every activity with his or her presence.
Such responses risk making a priest everything and nothing; everyone has their own view of what a priest should be, and may feel disappointed or let down if the priest seems to be about something else instead. A builder I was talking to recently was very taken when he learned I had been on retreat. It sounded like a cushy number to him, and the idea that a priest might be someone who prioritises prayer was clearly novel!
It is true that the calling to be a priest is very wide. The ordination service says that they are ‘called to be servants and shepherds among the people to whom they are sent’, which suggests that there are diaconal and episcopal elements to being a priest, overlapping with the other two orders of ministry.
But the ordinal goes on to say that priests are to be ‘messengers, sentinels and stewards of the Lord’, which in practice means they have a particular focus on the ministry of Word and Sacrament, teaching the scriptures and presiding over worship. These twin ministries keep the eyes of the church focussed on Jesus and his Kingdom. They remind people of God’s promises and purposes. They relate present realities to future hope, and hold out a vision of a world transformed. They tell the tale of what God has done in Christ to make this more than a pious wish.
There is a pastoral dimension to priestly ministry; but the pastoral care offered by a priest is more than showing kindly concern; it will involve acknowledging the presence of God in the situation, highlighting the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation, and offering prayer.
Priests are called to stand between earth and heaven, where God meets the world. As such, they try to bear witness to the ministry of Jesus himself. They also reflect back to the church the calling of all baptised people, to be a royal priesthood, and to represent God in the world.
So as we pray for Tim and encourage him in his priestly ministry, we might also think about our own calling to be priests; not ordained as such, but by virtue of our baptism part of the priesthood of all believers, bringing the world before God in our prayers, and representing God to the world by caring for the world and responding with compassion to its needs. Living out our priestly calling, we may find it takes us out of the church and into a deeper humanity.
A Place of Our Own?
‘An Englishman’s house is his castle’, or so the saying goes. Home is where we pull up the drawbridge and banish the pressures and turmoil of the world. Home is where we can order our own little slice of the universe. Home is where we can enjoy the fruits of our labours, where in the words of the prophets, ‘they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees’. It is a biblical image adapted by a thousand estate agents.
Whilst there is certainly truth in this picture of home – our own vision of Beverley Minster as a sanctuary, a place of refuge and healing, is full of these resonances of home – it also has a shadow side, especially if pushed too hard.
Castle walls do not just keep out the weather. They are designed to keep out other people, who are a threat. Castles generally stand at the centre of an estate and project the authority of the lord over his land and people. This kind of home is marked by fences and boundaries and signs marked ‘Trespassers will be prosecuted’. It is a concept neither friendly nor hospitable. Some people think of our country as a kind of gated community from which the rest of the world’s problems can be held at arm’s length.
I have seen a couple of films recently which explore different understandings of home. The first of these, called ‘Leave No Trace’, is about an American war veteran with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and his teenage daughter. Although he is responsible for his daughter and loves her, he cannot engage with settled society. The pair camp out in the woods, and when the police move them on and social services try to help, the father simply cannot cope even though his daughter longs for the stability of community and relationships. Everyone in the film means well; there are no villains, no violence or drama; but there seems to be no room for someone who chooses to live on the move.
The second film, called ‘The Shoplifters’, comes from Japan. It features a makeshift family living in a slum who take in an unhappy small girl who is neglected by her parents. The family are grifters whose income is almost entirely illegal; and it emerges that most of them are not in fact related, and the hovel they live in is only temporarily available. Nevertheless, bound together by poverty and mutual dependence, they form a genuine family temporarily gathered in a genuine home; a home and a family which turn out to be all too fragile.
These movies raise the disquieting question of what societies do with people who do not have a conventional home. All too often they end up marginalised, rejected and in danger of being criminalised simply because they do not fit.
The Bible takes private property seriously; for example, there are laws in the Old Testament against moving a neighbour’s boundary stone. But the ownership of property is never an absolute right. The land is a gift from God, a tangible reminder of how he broke the chains of slavery and gave the Israelites a land of their own. But when that quality of giftedness was forgotten, their right to the land fell into doubt.
Jesus was always redefining the things people thought were important, including home. The redefining always involved breaking down boundaries, enlarging the previous understanding and including different people. The tribe is not the same as family, although it points towards it. Home is not the same as property, although a house might help provide an inkling of true home. In reality we are still on pilgrimage, still on the move, still seeking our destination. And we still need the humility of knowing we have not yet arrived.
Assessing the Risks?
If we thought before the pandemic that our lives were in danger of being taken over by the increasingly restrictive concerns of ‘Health and Safety’, we are now left in no doubt at all. With social distancing and face masks, risk assessments and the ‘Rule of Six’, we have become cautious to the point of paralysis. The Minster and Associated Churches seem to be so hemmed in with restrictions that we are effectively on life support: alive, but only just, and with an unclear prognosis.
Of course, managing risk has always been important. It is the basis for the entire insurance industry. I once had a colleague who was required by our insurers to produce a risk assessment for a Cathedral, and who was unsure where to start. Anxious to help, I suggested that the greatest risk was that there might turn out after all to be no God, in which case the whole enterprise was redundant. Apparently, this was one risk we were unable to insure against.
And surely that is as it should be. Preachers love to proclaim that ‘Faith is a four-lettered word, spelt R-I-S-K’. Those all-embracing commands of Jesus such as ‘I am sending you out like lambs in the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals’, and ‘Do not worry about your life, what you will eat’, and ‘Sell your possessions, and give alms’, do not sound like strategies for minimising risk.
The seventeenth-century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal famously argued that faith was a kind of wager, a gamble full of risk. It is risky because we cannot be certain whether there is a God or not; and in choosing to follow Christ, our lives must be surrendered and are no longer our own. Yet paradoxically, to wager on the way of faith is a safer bet than the opposite. If we follow Christ and it turns out we are mistaken, then our lives have at least been of some benefit to others if we have tried to love our neighbour. But if we bet on there being no God, and are mistaken, we have missed the entire purpose of our existence.
So what risks can we take in a time of coronavirus? As Pascal suggested, there is something bold and reckless in surrendering one’s will and following Christ. That is a risk we can take at any time, and it may even feel less risky when the world seems out of control and is suffering a level of disruption and uncertainty beyond anything most of us have ever experienced.
Taking such a risk may paradoxically require us to live more cautiously for a time; not because we must fearfully minimise the risks to our own safety, but because a joyful wager on the goodness of God requires us to put others first, and do all we can to protect one another.
Many of us in the churches have had to become closely acquainted with the language of risk assessments, and rightly so. Perhaps as an antidote we could think about conducting our own faith assessment; and whilst following the rules designed to limit the risk of infection to others, consider what we can do to stimulate the bold, creative, uncertain and yet life-giving faith associated with those who bet everything on the God of the resurrection.
The financial good news for Beverley Minster is that income from the regular planned giving of the congregation has held up pretty well since the Minster closed back in March. In fact it has slightly increased, owing no doubt to the Generous Giving campaign which was run with the Minster congregation through February, just before the lockdown. This is something to celebrate and give thanks for!
The bad news is that every other source of income simply stopped dead. Donations from visitors, sales in the shop, wedding fees, rental income from the Parish Hall, hire fees for events in the Minster, all of it dried up overnight. Some of these income streams will revive as the Minster reopens to the public, but it is likely that it will take years for them to get back to pre-lockdown levels.
Equally bad news is that the government’s Employee Retention Scheme is being wound down and will stop completely in October. This means that the significant support the Minster has received to cover salaries while staff are on furlough will also dry up. As a result, the gap between income and expenditure will widen in the months ahead, and we shall have to dip into reserves to a much greater degree than had been planned. And reserves can only be spent once.
And just to discourage us further, we have just heard that our bid to the Covid-19 Emergency Response Fund has been unsuccessful. This is a Government scheme to assist organisations in the heritage sector to cover the extra expense of adapting to life during a pandemic, and we have been disappointed.
All of this makes it clear that the Minster will be facing some difficult decisions before long if we cannot increase our income.
The Generous Giving campaign earlier this year was aimed at the congregation and engaged about 200 people. However, this e-letter goes to over 1,000 supporters and well-wishers, including a much wider range of people beyond the core worshipping community. Many may never have been approached to consider offering regular financial support.
I am therefore addressing readers of this e-letter who are not already part of the Parish Giving Scheme to invite you to consider whether you could support the Minster with a regular gift. Details of the Scheme and how to join it are on the website:
In offering such support, you will be helping the Minster to continue and develop its ancient ministry as a place of sanctuary, offering welcome and hope to the whole community, and to visitors from all over the world. Our website gives an idea of the wide range of activities, events and ministries we normally offer, and which we are working hard to resume and develop.
Thank you for your interest in the life of the Minster; please help us to ensure that this magnificent building does not become an empty shell, but continues to be home to a thriving community at the heart of this town and county.
Charity begins with Home
What would you do without a home?
Having a roof over our heads provides not only shelter and comfort, but stability and a sense of belonging. Without a home it is very difficult to sustain any kind of meaningful relationship, let alone get a job. Having a home is a precondition for leading any kind of purposeful life.
Since January I have been regularly visited by a man who has no home. He lives on the streets, carrying a burden of vulnerability and brokenness which is hard to imagine. He has been beaten up on occasion by local youths, for no reason other than that he is defenceless. He sometimes exhibits challenging behaviour, born of long experience of abuse and indifference. Sometimes he self-harms and in fits of temper destroys his few precious possessions. His life is chaotic and full of anger and suspicion, so that keeping appointments and recognising when people in authority may be trying to help is too much for him. Talking with him most days has made me aware of how difficult it is to help people who have no home.
Seven years ago I was visited by a young man called Ed Walker who had recently returned from the Darfur refugee camps working for the TEAR Fund aid agency. After arriving back in the UK his encounters with a series of homeless people gave him a vision for providing homes for the homeless. Ed recognised that many Christians possessed surplus wealth – second homes and savings which are often underused. He also recognised that what was needed to help homeless people rebuild their lives was a home – meaning not just a roof and a bed but a network of supportive relationships.
This vision led Ed to set up a charity, Hope Into Action, and invest his own savings in buying a house where the first tenants were two ex-offenders. The business model ensures that investors get an income, and tenants get a home at a realistic rent and with a support network provided by the local church. The churches provide practical support, mentoring and friendship. Ed’s great insight was that churches are well placed to provide both the houses and the friendship, and he wanted the support of my church, which in due course we were able to give. Ed also recognised that both tenants and churches need professional advice and support, and Hope Into Action provides this.
In seven years Hope Into Action has grown from one home to 77, partnering with 67 churches all over England, providing hope and a new beginning for hundreds of tenants. The charity has won awards from The Guardian, the Centre for Social Justice, and the NHS because of its effectiveness, not least in reducing rates of re-offending amongst those formerly in prison. The story is told in Ed’s new book, ‘A House Built on Love’, which I can heartily recommend as a story of what ordinary Christians can achieve.
As we at Beverley Minster reflect on what it means to offer sanctuary in our own day, it strikes me that there is an overlap between the meaning of sanctuary and the meaning of home. Both are places of safety and acceptance. Both are places of stability and love. Beverley Minster and Hope Into Action are both in the business of building sanctuary. But Hope Into Action does not yet have a presence in Hull or East Yorkshire. And the homeless man on my doorstep is a tangible reminder that the issue of homelessness is real and not far away.
It may be that the time is right for the Minster to consider partnering with Hope Into Action in order to expand our commitment to offering sanctuary. I invite you to pray about this, and to get in touch with me if you would like to be involved; perhaps as a befriender or as part of a support group, perhaps as an investor, or as a trustee. At this stage I’m simply taking soundings without commitment.
Jesus himself was born in a borrowed stable, fled as a refugee, had nowhere to lay his head, and was buried in a borrowed tomb. He identifies with those in need today, saying ‘whatever you did for one of the least of these… you did it for me’. We, the church, have combined loaves and fishes enough to make a real difference to those in need of a home. We also claim to have glimpsed the love of God. Imagine what God might do if we trusted him with even a fraction of the resources in our hands.
The Frith Column
In the Flesh
After months of seeing people only on the other side of a Zoom screen, and of hearing people only at the end of a telephone, there was something literally ‘wholesome’ about being able to be with a congregation in the flesh last Thursday. When the Minster held its first act of corporate worship since the middle of March, it felt wonderfully restorative simply being together again in the same space.
Many commentators have suggested that recent months have given us a glimpse of the future. There will be more working from home, fewer face-to-face relationships, and business and administrative meetings will be held online. Living with a pandemic, virtual space seems safer than the physical kind. There is increasing dependence on social media to enable social relations, with a growing gap between the online ‘image’ people present and the reality behind it.
At the heart of the Christian gospel is the belief in the Incarnation. The Son of God became the Son of Man so that the children of men and women might become the children of God. Consequently, heaven and earth belong together, and the spiritual and the physical should never be separated. For Christians, the increasing separation of the world into its ‘virtual’ and ‘real’ dimensions should make us pause.
Belief in the incarnation has implications. First, ‘it is not good for man to be alone’. Even for the most thoroughbred introvert, being in solitary confinement for four months is not healthy. This has been particularly true for those without internet access, but it is true for all of us. The rising incidence of mental illness follows when we are too much shut up inside our own heads. Technology cannot be a complete substitute for presence – ask the new grandparents in the congregation, able to see but not hold their new grandchildren! Relationships without touch and smell, without shared meals and shared space, are incomplete and lacking.
The second implication of the incarnation is that our bodies matter. Ever since Plato, western culture has tended to elevate spirit above matter, ideas above actions, eternal and universal truth above historically embedded tradition. Increased dependence on digital and virtual reality reinforces the idea that the body is inferior and disposable. But the gospel insists that our bodies matter just as much as our inner lives of reason and soul.
The third implication of the incarnation is that ‘place’ matters. Because we are embodied, our lives are limited by time and space. Whilst virtual reality creates the illusion of being able to be present everywhere, it is only an illusion. Our experiences always have a physical context. Church buildings are special, because they are places associated with certain kinds of experience, just as for many people hospitals have associations of a very different kind.
I draw two conclusions from this. On the one hand, the church is perhaps going to feel even more out of step with everyone else than it was already. Insisting that physically meeting together is essential for our humanity, let alone our worship, may seem increasingly eccentric in a virtual world. On the other hand, this insistence may become increasingly attractive as people realise that physical presence and surroundings can only be downgraded so far, and as they come to long for the integrity of face-to-face communities embodied in their own particular places.
During these last months we have benefitted from online technology, and we shall want to make more of this. But as we rediscover the missing dimension of meeting together in person, we shall be valuing all the more the advice of the Letter to the Hebrews: “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another”.
‘O go your way into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise’ (Psalm 100). This week the doors of our churches at last swing open for us to worship together again. St Leonard’s is first this Sunday, followed by the Minster with services on 16th and 19th, then St Peter’s on 21st, and St Paul’s on 2nd August. Details of the times can be found here and on social media.
In scripture the language of doors opening to allow access to God provides a rich seam of gospel imagery. The psalmist pleads, ‘open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord’. Jesus is the ‘key of David’ who sets before us ‘an open door which no one is able to shut’. Peter is entrusted with the keys of the kingdom and the authority to pronounce forgiveness. Jesus himself says ‘I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved’.
When church doors are shut, the wrong message is being sent out. We need open doors to speak not only of God’s welcome, but also of thresholds and transitions, of entering alternative space, of encountering a different presence, of coming home.
On the other hand, the reopening of a closed door can also suggest something less attractive. What are we looking for on the other side of the door? When Jesus stands before the tomb of Lazarus and says ‘Take away the stone’, everyone is horrified. This is one door which needs to stay firmly shut. You can’t live in the past. It’s a mistake to try and put the clock back. As Martha warns, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days’. Jesus at first seems to be in denial, wanting time to stand still. But it turns out that the reason he wishes to take away the stone is not so that he can enter the tomb, but so that Lazarus can come out.
That is an image worth pondering as we re-enter our churches. Are we motivated by a desire to get back to how we were? To re-establish what feels safe and familiar? To seek a refuge from a changing world and the passing of time? Is Beverley Minster the entrance to a very grand and historic tomb, (it was built as a shrine, after all) or is it a doorway leading to renewed life and a fresh vision?
Some doors are shut to keep God out; and so the Lord comes, gently seeking admittance: ‘Behold! I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and sup, and you with me’. Ultimately, an open door speaks of new possibilities and new worlds, as St John the Divine found in his vision: ‘Behold, a door was opened in heaven’.
Some of the Biblical images of open doors speak of a movement outwards into the world. Ezekiel’s vision of the Temple has rivers flowing out from its four gates to bring life to the world around. The gates of Peter’s prison miraculously open so that he can go out and spread the gospel. The stone sealing Jesus’ own tomb is rolled away so that the grip of death can be broken.
The open doors of our churches invite us not to go back, nor even to enter a building; and certainly not to imagine our journey has ended. They invite us to cross a threshold into a deeper presence, a deeper mystery, and a deeper dedication. These are good things to have opened; but let us not make too casual or thoughtless an entrance.
Moods change, like the seasons. And they change not just for individuals but for whole communities and societies.
A couple of months ago the mood seemed to be generally one of solidarity with one another; we clapped for the NHS every Thursday night, we welcomed opportunities to connect with our neighbours, we offered to shop for elderly neighbours, and when we thanked the Amazon delivery man we really meant it. Clergy were amazed at the numbers watching online services and there were many signs that in the midst of isolation people were no longer taking each other for granted.
Now that the lockdown is easing and we are emerging, blinking, back into the daylight, the mood feels different. Living under prolonged restrictions, missing our freedoms, working hard to ‘stay strong’ and ‘keep safe’, now that we can get out a bit more there seems to be a reaction. Solidarity and mutual encouragement have given way to an unfocussed sense of grumpiness. Everyone feels a bit scratchy.
There have been numerous instances in the news of crowds ignoring social distancing rules and turning nasty when dispersed by police, whether on beaches, parks or at parties. There has been anger that church buildings and other places of worship have been closed at a time of great spiritual need. There has been frustration as some sectors of society have opened up more quickly than others.
Talking to individuals, many are just feeling out of sorts. We’ve had enough, we’ve made sacrifices to get through the crisis, but although there is now some relaxation it is clear that life isn’t going to return to how it was any time soon. We are faced with a prolonged period in limbo, neither free nor locked down. And we are not coping well.
Thank God then for those who remain positive in these conditions. People who are strong enough to look for the best in others, who can give one another the benefit of the doubt, who radiate thankfulness, and who show kindness under pressure. Churches are supposed to be communities keen to cultivate such graces, and who give one another practice in exercising them.
We need to draw inspiration from such ‘saints’ at times like this. One of them was Evelyn Wise, a long-standing member of the Minster congregation who sadly died last week after a short spell in hospital. Evelyn embodied that generous graciousness we all covet as followers of Christ. Without ever drawing attention to herself, she was quite simply a quiet force for good, although she would never have recognised such a description.
The loss of Evelyn prompts us all to take stock and ask ourselves what influence we are having on others, whether we are building up or tearing down, whether we are absorbing the frustrations we are all having to carry or passing them on with interest. Our troubles are unlikely to end quickly, so we may need help in rising above them. Prayer is often most effective when we are praying for grace; and the grace of kindness will serve us well in the mood of these days.
Feeling our Way
It is clear we are now in a new phase of living with Covid-19.
Over several months in lockdown life became relatively settled, the message to stay at home was clear, and the weeks became so similar that they merged into each other. We all evolved ways of coping with the situation, and then did our best to get used to it.
But we now find ourselves in a different season of the emergency, with the landscape shifting rapidly and with our recently settled patterns of life being broken up once again. As businesses and shops reopen, schools try to take in more students and the hospitality and leisure industries are encouraged to emerge from hibernation, a rapid series of Government announcements needs to be interpreted and fresh actions implemented.
Most organisations are finding it difficult to interpret and respond to one unexpected announcement from No.10 before it is overtaken by the next. This isn’t meant to sound critical; it goes with living in a situation which is constantly changing; but it does mean that for the churches it is very hard for people to know quite what is happening at the local level.
As I write, the latest announcement is that churches and places of worship can reopen for congregational worship from 4th July. But it isn’t yet clear what conditions will apply. There are likely to be limits on the numbers allowed to attend at any one time; on the length of services (there is always a silver lining); on singing; we are awaiting guidance from the national church and diocese concerning risk assessments, cleaning, staffing levels, what to say to those in vulnerable groups and so on. Spare a prayer for the Bishops trying to come up with a single set of guidelines for worship that can apply equally to buildings ranging from Beverley Minster to St Leonard’s, Molescroft!
Whatever the nature of the rules we eventually receive, managing them will be a headache. How do we enforce a cap on numbers wishing to attend a service? How do we ensure social distancing is maintained in our buildings? How do we administer Holy Communion without touching anything? Should we maintain an online worshipping presence alongside a return to our buildings? And how quickly can any of this be implemented?
The Standing Committee of the PCC will be meeting this week to grapple with these and similar questions. At this stage a major concern is sustainability; we don’t currently know how many services would have to be run to accommodate everyone who might want to come; neither do we know how many people (including volunteers) may not yet feel safe enough to attend church or to pick up former roles.
It is likely that through the summer we shall opt for a minimal provision which doesn’t overcommit us, and which can easily be adjusted in the light of further changing circumstances. Please don’t be disappointed if your favourite service doesn’t re-appear immediately, or in the form that you expected; we are having to feel our way through very unfamiliar territory.
As the Israelites in the Old Testament returned from Exile in Babylon, their religion changed. The disruption they had experienced forced them to reflect, and to adapt. New insights were shared, different practices were embraced, worship was renewed. Our mini-exile hasn’t disrupted our faith to the same extent, but it may still have opened us up to God in ways we should perhaps give time to consider before racing too quickly to put things back the way they were.
The mystery of human nature continues to puzzle us.
We have seen much evidence during the lockdown of human kindness: over 750,000 people volunteering to help the NHS; uncomplaining service offered by medical staff, carers and other key workers; countless acts of neighbourliness as ordinary people have been doing shopping and running errands for those in self-isolation; millions of people staying at home, suffering economic hardship and personal inconvenience in order to keep one another safe.
But the recent mass protests triggered by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis have brought to the surface the ugly spectre of racism, not only in the US but also in the UK. Many well-meaning white people are beginning to realise that we are part of a society – and Church – which is experienced by people of colour as deeply unequal. Despite decades of campaigning and legislating for equality, the problem is much more intractable than we had wanted to believe. The #MeToo campaign has also highlighted how equality between the sexes is in some ways no closer now than it was 30 years ago.
So which narrative is the true one?
Are human beings essentially co-operative, kind and good, so that exhibitions of cruelty and prejudice are merely the result of poor upbringing and learned behaviour?
Or are we hard-wired to take advantage of one another, so that if you dig deep enough into the psyche you will find a core of greed and selfishness, reducing acts of altruism to techniques we have evolved to ensure the survival of the species?
Biologists might argue that whether we are essentially good or bad is a false question. We have the capacity to be both, because our instincts for co-operation and empathy on the one hand, and for selfishness and tribalism on the other, are simply different sides of the same evolutionary coin. They have evolved as useful tools for different contexts.
This isn’t very helpful if you are the victim of racism or sexism, providing as it does no basis for transcending our uglier instincts. Theologians take a more subtle line. We have been made by God to reflect his image, they say, and there can be no nobler calling. God himself has dignified our humanity by becoming one of us. On this basis any kind of discrimination or injustice can be challenged, whoever the victim is.
Yet this isn’t the whole story. Like a vandalised portrait, the image of God in humanity has been corrupted and defaced by sin, and this goes very deep. It means relationships are easily fractured, we experience alienation within our own selves, and even good intentions can have counter-productive outcomes. The desire to do the right thing and the inability to do it runs through our core.
What is needed is not an affirmation that human nature is either good or bad, but that it stands in need of redemption. God’s creation is good, but is trapped by death and the fear of death, from which it needs to be set free.
The importance of redemption can save us from a binary ‘either/or’ view of our humanity. We don’t have to turn a blind eye to the evils and injustices of the world to maintain that people are basically good. And we don’t have to despair that anything can ever change for the better, or dismiss anyone as not worth taking seriously. We can treat one another with dignity whilst also challenging one another to live out our calling to reflect the image of a just and loving God.
Maybe that’s who we are: good, but fallen; helpless captives looking for redemption.
Heaven in Ordinary
This Sunday is Trinity Sunday, marking the Church’s entry into the lengthy and prosaically-named season of ‘Ordinary Time’, taking us up to Advent at the end of November.
This year the beginning of Ordinary Time (or for devotees of the Book of Common Prayer, the twenty-three ‘Sundays after Trinity’), seems more ominous than usual.
Ever since the lockdown began, the Church’s Year has helped to convey a sense of time moving on. Lent was followed by Holy Week and Easter, which was followed in due course by Ascension Day, Pentecost and now Trinity. It gave us a feeling of purpose, of getting somewhere, even when there was nowhere to get to.
But the regulated cycle of Festivals following Jesus’ earthly ministry has now ended. The idea is that for the next six months the Church has to improvise, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, following Christ without relying overmuch on the structure provided by the Gospels.
This is all very well in normal circumstances, but under lockdown it feels as though we might miss having those liturgical milestones marking the passage of time. The sense of being held in limbo is heightened.
The film ‘Groundhog Day’ is essential lockdown viewing which might help us here. Its hero is a weatherman who by some unexplained meteorological quirk finds himself condemned to live the same 24 hour day over and over again in an unfamiliar town. No one else shares this sense of being trapped in an endless loop. He alone is faced with an eternity of living out the same repeated day in which he cannot even commit suicide without waking up again the next day to the same song on the radio.
The film makes the strong point that an endless present looks much the same as eternity. The hero has to work out not only how to occupy himself, but how to live with himself. He begins by living hedonistically, realising that whatever he does will have no consequences the following day. Then he faces despair at the meaninglessness of it all. Finally he works out that he can be more at ease in his own skin if he pays attention to the needs of others. And this of course provides the key to him finally being released from his timebound prison. He has finally learned how to live in the present moment, not selfishly, but by cultivating love.
The application of this isn’t straightforward when we can’t freely go out and mix with other people. But the principle is the same. We come alive when we escape from our sense of time. That happens when we ‘lose ourselves’ in something or somebody else. It might be working in the garden, writing an email, shopping for a neighbour, listening to a spouse or paying attention to a stirring in our own hearts.
All of this takes us into the territory of prayer, which in the end is about paying attention to realities outside our own ego. It is the self that restlessly needs to measure the passage of time and get on to the next thing. So routines, seasons and festivals in the Church’s Year aren’t intended to make time go more quickly. Rather, they provide a structure to help us practise living more fully in the present. With that in mind, maybe ‘Ordinary Time’ is when we are invited to live more deeply, moment by moment, without the frustration of waiting always for the next thing.
When will the Sleeping Beauty Awake?
It feels like the mood is changing. After weeks of being told to stay at home and not go out except for absolute essentials (the definition of which, we have recently learned, was apparently more flexible than most of us had understood), the message is now slightly more relaxed. Social distancing is still important, but leaving home is no longer restricted in the same way. Schools will shortly be open to more than just the children of key workers. A wider range of shops will be opening. A bit like the Sleeping Beauty, the world is beginning to wake up after a long slumber.
But it isn’t all going to happen at once. Emerging from the lockdown is going to be difficult to manage at every level, from the government having to set rules that take account of everyone, down to each individual having to asses the level of risk we are willing to accept.
Beverley Minster and the Associated Churches will also have to negotiate this. It is clear that life is not suddenly going to return to the way it was, and some of the impact of Covid-19 on the churches will be long term.
The government is suggesting that church buildings might re-open in July. But this won’t at first include normal Sunday services. When in due course congregations are allowed to gather, it is likely that there will be a limit on numbers and that those over 70 will not be permitted to attend; that seating will have to be spaced out; that it will not be possible to administer Communion by hand; there won’t be any service sheets or books; there won’t be any singing, and there won’t be any choir.
These are decisions that will be steered by the wider Church and government guidelines, and I can’t predict exactly what will be permitted and when. The important thing to recognise at this stage is that when the doors do eventually reopen, business will not immediately be back to normal. It will feel very strange, possibly more strange than the alternative online worship has felt.
Other decisions will be made locally but will still be difficult, such as when to bring staff back off furlough. The furlough scheme has been a huge help to the Minster in reducing our costs at a time when most sources of income have dried up. But because of the likely phased nature of the re-opening, the various income streams will not immediately recover after staff have returned. This means that the worst financial pain may be yet to come.
One of the paradoxes of the lockdown has been the discovery that for all its limitations, becoming a virtual church has nevertheless strengthened aspects of our community life. Seeing one another in our homes, seeing names attached to faces on Zoom, and hearing directly from one another about our experiences of the lockdown has been more enriching than we might have expected. People have been looking out for each other, kindness has been abundant, and there has been an evident spiritual hunger.
So as we approach the next phase of recovery, I strongly believe that although the challenges continue to be unfamiliar, and no one has gone this way before, we shall in the most important respects have grown stronger; and it will be with a renewed sense of God’s faithfulness that we work out how to re-occupy our previous patterns of mission and ministry.
Associate Vicar Wendy is holding the virtual pen for Jonathan as he takes a well deserved week away from the computer screen
Youth and Beauty vs. Age and Experience
The alarming prospect of large numbers of sick people overwhelming the limited availability of hospital beds and ventilators has thankfully not been realised. But it has given an urgent edge to an old ethical debate: if you cannot save everyone, should you give priority to the young?
The question asks us to consider how we measure the value of a life. Is it in terms of quantity, so that the more years of life we can save, the better? Should it be in terms of achievement, so that the greater the contribution to society in terms of taxes paid, or service given, the greater the reward deserved? Is experience more valuable than potential, or vice versa? Does the value of a life depend on the individual’s subjective enjoyment of life, or on the objective impact of an individual’s life on society and the planet (for example considering that a young person’s life will have a bigger environmental impact than an older person, or that each of us has potential to do evil as well as good)?
Difficult though it might be to assess any of the above views, none of them in this context seems obviously sinister. But what if we started to suggest that some lives are worth more than others because of the colour of a person’s skin, or their gender or sexuality? In this context, making a value judgment based on age simply looks like discrimination based on prejudice.
There is also a suspicion that those who put forward arguments about the relative value of older and younger people may not really mean it. Many of those who argue that it is more important to save younger rather than older lives wouldn’t apply that argument to unborn children, whose potential is arguably the greatest of all. People looking for clear rules will find it hard to be consistent.
One of the principles that made early Christianity so radical was its insistence on the equal value of all people. If all are made in the image of God, then everyone is of infinite worth. If the Son of God can be revealed in the tortured body of a crucified criminal, then judgments based on social acceptability dissolve. Jesus welcomed women and collaborators, Pharisees and Roman centurions, fishermen and children, prostitutes and foreigners. St Paul insisted that all are one ín Christ so that ‘there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female’. Such an ideal was completely novel in the ancient world.
That same principle of equality undergirds the NHS, which strives to offer everyone the same service regardless of wealth, ability or age. So how do we decide who gets the resources when there are not enough to go round? Certainly not by trying to discriminate on grounds of value. Perhaps the well-established principles of triage can help us, where patients are prioritised according to likelihood of survival rather than according to any innate value. In practice that might mean that younger rather than older people tend to be helped; but the decision would not be based on valuing youth above years as such.
Even for those of us who are not medics, asking these questions may reveal some of our unconscious assumptions. We might be surprised at where these assumptions lead us, if we discover that we believe some in our communities matter more than others.
Building on a sure foundation?
Since the lockdown began, our Archbishops have been clear that our church buildings should be completely closed, and not entered even for private prayer by the clergy.
Last Thursday – on the Feast of St John of Beverley, as it happens – Archbishop Sentamu announced a slight relaxation of this restriction, now allowing a sole ‘appointed person’ to enter a church building on a regular basis for the purpose of saying daily prayers or livestreaming worship. However, the buildings remain closed for all other purposes.
Many of us, and not just regular worshippers, have been saddened by the shut doors of our churches. However, it has been good to discover how many have accessed the various forms of online worship and opportunities for ‘meeting’ together during the lockdown.
This invites reflection on the relationship between the church as building and the church as people. It may be a truism that the ‘church is the people, not the building’, but we don’t often get asked to put that theory to the test. And when the building is as dominant as Beverley Minster, it can be hard to imagine what the church without the building would be like.
In the Old Testament the Jerusalem Temple was the magnificent architectural focal point of the nation; not just worship, but politics, commerce and culture were all centred on the Temple. When it was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587BC, and again by the Romans in 70AD, the consequences in both cases were a major rethink of how God should be worshipped. There was a shift away from priests and Temple sacrifice to the rabbis and the text of the Torah.
In the New Testament Jesus reinforces this trend, but takes it in an unexpected direction. John’s Gospel reports Jesus as saying “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up”, with the comment “he was speaking of the Temple of his body”. In claiming that God is the Creator of the entire cosmos, and that the gospel is for all people, not just one race, Christianity regards the whole world equally as a place of worship. Since the risen Jesus is the new Temple, the gospel prioritises people over buildings.
Yet Christianity is also an incarnational religion, meaning that the physical and spiritual dimensions of life cannot be separated. There will always be a physical context for worship, however heavenly minded that activity might be, and the surroundings will always influence the quality of worship. Beverley Minster is a great setting for worshipping God in all his transcendent majesty, because it is big and beautiful. St Leonard’s, Molescroft or St Paul’s, Tickton are better settings for bringing out the fellowship of the worshipping community, because they are smaller and more intimate spaces, and in every sense warmer!
Part of the significance of church buildings more generally is that they are places where memories build up of significant moments in life and of past encounters with God. This can heighten our expectations of meeting God again, and can make us more open and sensitive to the possibility of such encounters in the future.
In the setting of online worship, one result can be the hallowing of our homes, making us aware that our own living room can be holy ground, and that Christ reaches out to us where we are.
What will always make church buildings special is that they are big enough for congregations to gather, which is of course exactly what online meetings can never quite replicate. There has been much talk of how the lockdown will change the church; but I don`t think we shall be walking away from our buildings any time soon.
As the coronavirus has insistently reminded us, the inability to breathe spells death. One of the chilling things about this disease is the way it develops from familiar symptoms of flu to attack the lungs; and of course our lungs are where we take in the oxygen from the air outside our bodies and exchange it for carbon dioxide. Paradoxically it is in the heart of our bodies that the most important interface with the outside world is found. Without that exchange, we die.
With that in mind, it is striking how many key passages in the Bible are about breathing. In the beginning, according to the book Genesis, when God formed the first human being from the dust of the ground, he ‘breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being’. It is God`s breath that makes the difference between a lump of clay and a living being. This is still a great mystery because air is so ephemeral; you can’t see it or hold on to it, and in one sense it is nothing at all; and yet it holds the secret of life.
The prophet Ezekiel had a vision of his nation as a pile of dry bones filling a valley; it was a picture of his people in exile in a foreign land, when Israel seemed to have died. But in the vision the bones were animated by the wind, summoned by the prophet’s word to become breath, and were raised to new life and a new beginning.
On the first Easter Day, the risen Christ appears to his disciples behind locked doors – what a contemporary resonance that has! – where they are anxious and fearful for the future. There he breathes upon them, sharing his resurrection life so that they can continue his work in the power of the Holy Spirit – or Holy Breath.
Throughout the Bible, breath brings life, and has its source in God. In all these passages there is a sense that breath and death are very closely juxtaposed. Wherever there is a shortage of breath, there is raw material for God to grant life.
As Jesus breathes upon his disciples in the upper room he says to them, ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you…if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ Those who were given the breath of Jesus in the upper room were transformed from half-alive, confused and fearful creatures to become life-breathers, showing mercy and hope in their dealings with others and proclaiming God’s kingdom of justice and freedom to all.
This is where prayer begins; stilling ourselves as we slowly breathe out our false consciousness and fantasies, and breathe in the presence and promise of the Lord. This is the calling of the Church, to breathe in and out the Spirit of Jesus the crucified and risen Lord.
May our current situation of suffocated living and social breathlessness open us all to allow the Spirit to breathe in us, that we may be stirred to life and action, blown by the wind of God wherever he wills.
Writing in the Dust
Occasionally there are moments when the world holds its breath, hoping that we might be on the verge of something genuinely new.
One such moment was in 2001, when for a few months after the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York, we waited to see how the United States would respond. Would it decide to fight fire with fire and bring more bloodshed to the Middle East? Or would it offer a more creative and positive response?
Another such moment was after the financial crash of 2008. When ordinary people learned how the banks had brought the global economy to its knees, there was a strong feeling that there had to be a way of running financial institutions for the benefit of more than just their directors and shareholders. When governments pumped billions of pounds into those failing institutions at the drop of a hat, it lent hope to the idea that money might be found to address other, equally disruptive problems facing our world.
Both of those opportunities were missed. The eventual response to the destruction of the twin towers was to launch a war in Afghanistan and invade Iraq, which led predictably to the spread of Al Qaeda, ISIS and other terror networks. The government bailout in 2008 allowed banks to resume business as usual. Although there was some new regulation, the bonuses quickly returned and there was no change to the perception that banking was a business solely concerned with generating wealth for bankers.
In our current situation, questions are again being asked whether after the pandemic the world will ever be the same. Suddenly our priorities seem to be different, and more humane. Every Thursday night we are now applauding NHS and care home staff when for years our society has been unwilling to pay for them properly. This new enthusiasm is for workers who are often the same immigrants we have been resenting and seeking to exclude from our shores. Strange!
When Jesus was asked to judge a woman who had been caught committing adultery, he challenged anyone who was without sin to cast the first stone. While the crowd thought about that, Jesus stooped and doodled in the dust at his feet. He created space for people to consider whether there might be a different way forward.
The lockdown is providing us with a breathing space when we can consider whether we might have got the world all wrong; whether there might after all be more to life than busyness and work, and that we might not live by bread alone; and whether those who are normally last might after all turn out to be first in the different reality we are now experiencing.
Sometimes in a crisis it is possible to glimpse the kingdom of God. That vision of a society discovering different and neglected values, of a world turned upside down in a way that is attractive and not frightening, should inspire us to seek lasting changes when the lockdown ends, and to ask afresh what it means to live well. But it is possible that the most scary thing about the world after the pandemic is that everything will go back to just the way it was.
The spiritual impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is a matter for debate. When the lockdown is eased, will church members have lost the habit of coming to church, or will they be missing corporate worship and eager to start meeting again?
At the same time, with churches reporting large numbers of ‘views’ of the various acts of worship which have been livestreamed or posted online, are we seeing a spiritual resurgence? Or is this just collateral data from casual internet surfers?
We have seen this trend on the Beverley Minster website and Facebook pages, with many more people apparently looking at our online offerings than would ever be seen in church. Even allowing for those who click on for only a few seconds, the numbers are surprising.
Another curious fact to emerge is that Google searches for ‘prayer’ have apparently mushroomed in recent weeks, and according to one survey, have doubled with every additional 80,000 cases of the virus.
What do we make of this? Perhaps it does indicate a greater spiritual openness; one of the effects of the pandemic has been to expose the fragility of our normal way of life and to remind us that Western society is hugely dependent upon technology to keep at bay the Four Horsemen of famine, disease, war and death. If technology fails, what else do you put your trust in?
On the other hand, when people Google ‘prayer’, what is it they are really looking for? Those who think of prayer as an alternative form of technology, a way of staying in control when there are no vaccines, are destined to be disappointed. Any expectation that God will solve our problems if only we pray will prove to be a flimsy basis for church growth.
For me this is a reminder that people need help not just in finding spiritual answers, but in framing the questions in the first place.
One definition of prayer suggests that ‘To pray is to descend with mind into the heart and there to stand, in silence and stillness, before the face of the Lord, ever present, all-seeing, within you’. That suggests developing our ability to be still, finding patience to look at ourselves without being bored or repelled, and courage to allow the Other to know us, warts and all. These are not qualities that come easily in a society where we avoid paying attention to ourselves and to one another by normalising frantic busyness and superficial distractions.
In this Easter season we are invited to encounter the risen Lord. But that also requires us to confront our own selves. Facing the pain within, allowing ourselves to be held, like Peter, in Christ’s gaze of forgiving love, leads us towards a deeper integrity and self-acceptance. It also strengthens us to become more open and available to respond to the pain of others.
Giving more time to practice this would indeed be a lasting and valuable spiritual legacy from the Covid-19 lockdown. Not only might we become more at ease with ourselves, but our worship would become more attractive, because filled with the presence of Christ, and our churches would be strengthened for their service of the wider community for decades to come. But that would all depend on how we use the extra time given to some of us now.
Some of the most tense moments in life are the moments of waiting; after the polls have closed, but before the winning candidate is announced; after all the evidence has been heard, but before the jury has returned its verdict; after the biopsy has been taken, but before the date fixed to hear the result.
Such times are marked by the combination of helplessness on the one hand and significance on the other. Whatever is going to happen next, matters, and everything will change, nothing will be the same. At the same time, we cannot influence the outcome one way or the other. Action is replaced by passive attention; our fate no longer lies in our hands; judgement happens somewhere else. Determination, energy and initiative will achieve nothing. All we can do is wait, hope, and trust.
Holy Saturday is the moment in the Christian Year which celebrates the virtue of waiting. After the trauma of Jesus’ death on the cross on Good Friday, there is a sense that not only the disciples, but all creation is exhausted. There is no longer any attempt to influence the outcome. God may be dead. Jesus’ promises may be empty. The Gospel and the Kingdom of God may be illusions. But on Holy Saturday we cling, helplessly as if to floating wreckage, to what we have glimpsed of the good, the merciful, the holy. Even if there is no God, we still value these things as precious and meaningful.
The waiting serves a purpose. During this time, the disciples take in the fact that Jesus is dead. The reality sinks in. There can be no possibility that this is all some dreadful mistake. During this time, the disciples discover how the future is out of their control. Expectations and hopes are radically undermined. Whatever illusions they had about Jesus’ mission and their own part in it must now be set aside. And during this time, the disciples have to be patient, perhaps for the first time. No longer planning and pushing, they must be silent and impotent, facing their own unimportance and irrelevance, waiting to see what will happen next.
Holy Saturday is an apt point of contact between the Easter story and our present situation. Under lockdown, behind our doors, we are waiting, fearful of the virus, anxious for the NHS, concerned for our livelihoods and the economy, and with future plans for work, families, and holidays all on hold. We feel powerless to do anything except follow the government instruction to stay indoors, and to wait.
When the lockdown began I felt at first some relief; putting a line through all those meetings in my diary seemed like a gift. Perhaps I might use the time to catch up with myself? But it turns out the waiting isn’t relaxing at all. It’s full of that tension between present powerlessness and future uncertainty. The time goes so quickly but seemingly to such little effect. It’s a wilderness space, a kind of chaos we live with but cannot alter. It’s a prolonged Holy Saturday, an emptiness within which we wait, learning to be patient, trusting that God may yet fashion an act of creation, an Easter morning, a new heaven and a new earth.
The Frith Column
Probably for the first time in their history, the buildings of Beverley Minster and St Leonard’s, St Paul’s, St Peter’s and All Saints have been separated from the people who worship in them. This has given us a collective `out of the body experience`, in which we have discovered that our identity as a worshipping people isn’t the same as the building we use for that purpose. Nevertheless, the setting does shape the way we worship, and without the setting we are used to, new dimensions of worship have been revealed.
Naturally we are very much missing the grandeur of the Minster, the music that goes with it, and the feeling of being part of a congregation; but for myself, I have been appreciating a greater sense of intimacy that is made possible by the online services. There is something fresh about the informality of a front room or a study, the nearness of a minister’s face and voice, the sense that the liturgy doesn’t have to be `performed` in order to come across well but is more like a shared conversation.
I’ve also been struck by the way episodes in Scripture resonate with our situation. Abraham leaves his father’s house and his former gods in search of the Promised Land, building provisional altars to the Lord along the way. Moses on the run encounters God in a burning bush. The Israelites camping in the wilderness long to go back to the stability of life in Egypt, but receive the revelation of the Law at Mount Sinai instead.
Most obviously, during their captivity in Babylon, the Jewish people are not only separated from their Temple in Jerusalem, but see it utterly destroyed; as Jeremiah laments, “The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate, her priests groan.”
God’s people, it seems, are repeatedly being displaced from their regular places of worship, and having their religion disrupted. They are a pilgrim people, never allowed to become too settled or complacent. Again and again their faith is thrown back upon God himself, subverting anything they may be tempted to put in his place.
Perhaps the closest parallel of all comes in the New Testament. Several of St Paul’s most profound letters, proclaiming the Christian gospel to the non-Jewish world, were written whilst he was under house arrest and unable to worship with other Christians. Confined to his quarters, unable to mix with his associates, his vision nevertheless extended to the ends of the earth, and has been inspiring the Church ever since.
As we enter Holy Week, following our Lord’s journey from popular acclamation on Palm Sunday to lonely death on the cross, perhaps our vision of God’s grace can be renewed and enlarged because of this temporary exile from our earthly sanctuary, so that, to paraphrase St Paul, ‘we who are far off may be brought near by the blood of Christ’. So may your exile this week be a gateway to the new life of Easter.
Now that we have been told that the Minster is to remain closed to everyone, including the clergy, it is clear that there will be no more fireside chat-style reflections from the Frith Stool. So instead we are putting out a weekly e-letter, and the Vicar’s Blog becomes the Frith Column, infiltrating your reading matter just when you thought it was safe to turn on the computer.
Many of us are now having to stay inside. It is, to put it mildly, a major inconvenience. For some it will be accompanied by worries about infection and even survival. For others there will be worries about jobs and livelihoods. For yet others the anxiety will be about childcare, visiting elderly relatives, or getting in food and essential supplies.
I suspect that for most of us there will also be an underlying fear of boredom. What do you do with yourself if you have more time on your hands, but you can’t go out? There is a threatening sense of horizons narrowing down, of life closing in, of everything becoming small and mean.
But having to live life within a narrow compass doesn’t have to be experienced as something completely negative. It may also be a chance to go deeper.
William Wordsworth wrote a poem making exactly this point:
Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, unto which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.
It’s a poem defending the strict form of the sonnet (14 lines of 10 syllables each and a strict rhyme scheme). He compares the confinement of the poet using such a form to other limited vocations, such as that of a nun, hermit, student and weaver, or even a bee remaining in the bell of a flower. The point is that a limited freedom doesn’t have to be a prison. Constriction, like birth, may open out into a world beyond the walls, and a reality more satisfying than the one we can see. The discipline of confinement may even be a relief from excess of freedom, too much choice, ‘the weight of too much liberty’.
The examples given by Wordsworth have all embraced their limits freely, unlike us. Nevertheless, we can choose to respond to the current requirement to stay inside not as a frustration but as an opportunity, if we will. An opportunity to go deeper. To look afresh at our routines. To experience respite from busyness. To find pleasure in small things. To rediscover unused creative gifts. And maybe even to seek a fresh discipline of prayer.
The Minster community is having to think anew about how we do prayer and worship; not gathered together physically, but online and in spirit, and it’s been encouraging to see how many have taken part in our Facebook midday prayers, online Sunday Eucharist, and daily reflections on the website.
If you are looking for ways to re-shape your day whilst having to remain inside, then do look at some of the resources both on the Minster and on the Church of England websites. A new discipline of prayer may help us not to chafe against the loss of our freedom, but to make better use of the freedom remaining to us. May you discover new wells of creativity and compassion as you adjust to this time of changing priorities.
The Beat of a Different TomTom
In many ways I fit the stereotype of the out of touch, technophobe Anglican Vicar. One sure sign of this is my dislike of satnav. Chiefly this is because I resist being patronised by machines. Fridges and seatbelts that beep at me, computer screens that flash up ‘Hello Jonathan’ when I switch them on, and speaking maps pretending to sound like Kate Winslet are all guaranteed to have me demonstrating just how far from sainthood I still am.
The arrival of Siri and now Alexa take it a step further; without asking, these devices presume to anticipate our every whim. Not always accurately – the other day I was talking to Wendy about a pastoral situation and her phone suddenly took it upon itself to call the person we had mentioned because it had overheard the name. The next time you get an unexpected call from the Associate Vicar, listen carefully – you may be able to hear the clergy gossiping about you.
Such technology panders to the unhealthy postmodern illusion that I am somehow at the centre of my own universe. Satnav further suggest that I am quite literally at the centre. No longer do we navigate with a map, which requires us to locate ourselves in relation to a wider reality beyond ourselves. Instead, satnav puts us at the centre, showing us our road, ignoring the turnings to right or left, erasing the landscape through which we are passing. With satnav the wider world disappears; reality is reduced to me and my journey, or at least the next few hundred metres of it.
We have reversed Galileo’s famous discovery that the Earth is not the centre of the universe. According to satnav not just the Earth but I myself am the centre of all that exists. No doubt satnav has its uses, in a strange town or looking for a house number in the dark. But it can’t be healthy for us always to be steered effortlessly to our destination without thought, choice or responsibility. What kind of metaphor for the journey of life is that?
Scientists, poets and philosophers know that reality yields its secrets reluctantly, and that those who seek truth must be patient and humble in their explorations. Satnav wouldn’t have allowed Robert Frost to take the road less travelled.
Lent is a season to switch off the metaphorical satnav, to break out of our individual bubble, and acknowledge that God does not smooth the way ahead with a clear screen and a reassuring voice. Rather, Lent takes us into a landscape where ours is not the only point of view; a journey where we are not chauffeured by technology but accompanied by a Guide, who has gone this way before us. This Guide invites our trust, equips us with the compass of Word and Sacraments, and calls us to make room for others following the same route.
Our journey towards Easter resurrection will not be easy, for it will take us through Good Friday first, and will challenge our self-sufficiency. But a good use of Lent will ensure that we are not tempted to imagine there can be any other way.
A Bird’s Eye View
I cannot pretend that the Annual Parochial Church Meeting generates a thrill of excitement for most people. Nevertheless, it does give us an opportunity to look back over the year and get an overview of what has been going on, and also to look ahead. And although the APCM won’t be upon us until April, I find myself writing my Vicar’s Report now, and I’m encouraged by much of what I see.
In September we heard that our bid to the National Lottery Heritage Fund had been successful, not only releasing money for much-needed conservation work on the Lesser South Transept Roof but also setting us off on a journey to recruit more volunteers and provide better training and support, a journey that will move forward with the appointment (currently being undertaken) of a part time Learning and Engagement Officer. The ‘Two Churches One Town’ Development Campaign also moved forward with the constitution of a charitably incorporated company so that the Minster and St Mary’s can pursue joint fundraising. So far three significant gifts totalling £80,000 have been received by 2COT in the last few months.
Next year we shall be celebrating the 1300th anniversary of the death of St John of Beverley, and ideas for that are starting to be shared. One of the ways the PCC is considering marking 2021 is through a number of projects to improve the Minster, such as new toilets, upgraded lighting, and a reordering of the furnishings at the head of the nave.
We have welcomed Tim Kelly and his family following Tim’s ordination last summer and we are benefitting from his ministry already with the setting up of ‘The Gathering’ for teenagers every other Sunday, and ‘Oasis’ every Wednesday, which is just beginning to reach out to more youngsters from the Grammar School. Last Spring we re-launched our Sunday groups for children and young people with more leaders and helpers, and as a result we are starting to see a few more families on Sunday mornings.
With the Ministry Team up to full strength for the first time in years we have been able to strengthen links with our three Church Schools, each of which now has one of us going in regularly to take Collective Worship. Preliminary training has been done for ‘Open the Book’ with the intention that a team of lay people will soon be going into the schools to tell Bible stories. The Foundation Governors at Minster Primary have been working with the Head Teacher to prepare for the school’s next SIAMS Inspection, which concerns its identity as a Church School.
In line with the ‘Renewal and Reform’ programme of the national Church, we have been emphasising the importance of discipleship. This lay behind the re-vamping of the House Group network, with several new groups being established. This ministry has also been deepened with the fortnightly ‘Minster Central’ meeting, a resource not only for the groups for but all of us to reflect together on what it means to follow Christ. We have also reflected upon becoming more welcoming, with the result that coffee is now served in the nave after the 10.30 service rather than the transept. It’s a modest move, but makes it easier to invite visitors to stay, and we have adjusted to the change very smoothly.
We’ve also created more opportunity for prayer with the new monthly Taizé Service and termly Quiet Mornings based in the Hall. Despite losing several long-standing choir members last summer, recruitment has been buoyant, and the choir is bigger than ever.
Prompted by the NLHF project we have also established a link with the ‘Open Doors’ refugee centre in Hull and support them in a variety of ways. A small group has recently been convened to consider our ministry to those suffering from dementia, and we hope to be able to take some simple ideas forward.
Looking ahead, we shall shortly be taking part in the Northern Bishops’ Mission to York Diocese, with a team from the diocese of Newcastle visiting Beverley from 12 – 15 March. A programme of events is still being worked up but it promises to be a busy few days! In February there will be an invitation to reflect on God’s generosity and our response to it through a series of sermons and study materials.
In the midst of all of this we continue to reflect upon the nature of the Minster’s mission in the 21st century. In a society that is at best indifferent and at worst hostile to Christian faith, this isn’t easy, but we are confident that the gospel continues to speak to the deepest needs of the human heart, and that all of our activities can point to this.
The unusual length of this blog reflects the range of new activity undertaken over the last year. I haven’t mentioned the continuing work that goes on from year to year, nor the faithful witness of the Associated Churches where resources for new initiatives are less abundant. But the excuse of the APCM is too good to miss; and I hope that you are as encouraged as I am by all the evidence of the Holy Spirit doing a new thing amongst us.
Red Letter Days for the Colour Blind
Much as I enjoy birthdays, Christmas and anniversaries, it has always struck me as slightly odd that we should regard certain days as special simply because the date comes around annually. I suppose that with most of these events there is some kind of connection with history, a founding event which we are remembering. But our celebration of the New Year springs from nothing more substantial than turning a page on the calendar.
Perhaps by keeping New Year as a special time we are reminding ourselves that all days are potentially special.
The writer GK Chesterton once wrote an essay with the wonderful title ‘The Ethics of Elfland’ in which he argued this point; that the reason fairy tales contain magic mirrors and gingerbread houses is so that we can look upon everyday mirrors and real houses and see an extra dream-like quality in them. The stories render everyday objects extraordinary so that we can go back out into the world with eyes ready to see the magic in the everyday.
So by taking a dull winter’s day and declaring it, almost arbitrarily, to be a special moment, we are opening up the possibility that every day is worthy of celebration; if this day can be a cause of feasting and merrymaking, why not that day as well?
By so doing we are investing the present with the eternal. As we celebrate an anniversary, we are recalling the past, losing ourselves in the present moment, and hoping to hold on to it for ever. This is the thinking behind the Bible’s teaching about the Sabbath. The seventh day is the day of rest, celebration and worship, where time stands still (as it always does when we are really enjoying ourselves) and where eternity breaks into the present in our worship and in our play. The Sabbath makes us focus on one day of the week as a way of sanctifying the other six.
The New Year celebration may be a secular festival but it works in the same way. By making one day significant as a moment to reflect on the past and look ahead to the future, we remind ourselves that all days are meeting points between what has happened and what is to come. The Jesuits encouraged the use every evening of a prayer exercise called the Examen, so that people could reflect on the past day and to look ahead to the next, while commending both to God. New Year is an opportunity to do something similar, but perhaps more communally.
The purpose is always to live more fully in the present, free from the bruising inflicted by the past and the anxiety stirred up by the future. Being open in the present to the God of eternity is a very good way of approaching this, and can help us in observing Jesus’ command not to worry about tomorrow: the secret lies in trying to live as citizens of heaven in the here and now. Material here for a New Year’s Resolution, perhaps?
Happy New Year!
Arguing the Toss
The film producer David Putnam once said ‘I expect to be judged. I almost welcome it.’ He was speaking about his films needing the judgment of critics and audiences so that he could know whether they were any good or not. But it’s an attitude that now seems strangely dated.
Fewer people today are willing to accept the judgment of others. It would never have occurred to me as a student to challenge my exam results if they were disappointing. Now it is routine for grades to be questioned. At an oversubscribed school where I was once a Governor, parents sometimes employed barristers to appeal against a decision of the admissions panel. Even food critics now worry about being sued if they post a negative review of a restaurant. The result tends to be that assertive, pushy people get what they want.
Research in America shows that the bigger the sporting star, the more likely they are to challenge the decisions of umpires and referees, and to do so aggressively and publicly. These then become the role models followed by young people.
Even judges find their judgments questioned. In America, the issue of whether or not Donald Trump should be held to account through the process of impeachment seems to depend not on his guilt or innocence, but on which party has a majority in Congress and the Senate. When our own Supreme Court judged the Prime Minister to have exceeded his powers in proroguing Parliament back in September, half the press simply dismissed the judges as biased.
It seems the idea of right and wrong, of an objective standard of justice, of the honesty of any neutral person required to arbitrate disputes as best they can, is in practice now rejected by many people. Referees are only fair if they rule in favour of my team.
The consequences of this are truly frightening. If we no longer trust our teachers, umpires, police and judges to be as fair as they can, we are left with no means of resolving disputes other than by displays of naked power. Whoever shouts loudest, browbeats the linesman most, pays for the best lawyers or has the most voters will be the one who can ignore the rules. Truly, might will be revealed as right.
The four Sundays before Christmas are known to Christians as Advent, which is the season of waiting for the coming of Christ as Judge. It is a time of hopeful longing, because we know the world needs a fair judge. Not someone who will simply agree with us, or turn a blind eye, but who will do right. Deep down we know perfectly well when something is unfair, even when we demand the dice be loaded in our favour. Only divine justice can reconcile that double standard, of delivering perfect justice with mercy.
At Christmas we celebrate the coming of one who confronts us with a new standard of justice; not to make us feel guilty, but to fill us with compassion and mercy. May we fall in love with fairness once again this Christmas, and be moved to show it to one another.
Re-membering each other
There is a scene in Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ where Ulysses, travelling home incognito after the Trojan War, hears a blind bard sing about the deeds of the Greek heroes during the siege of Troy. Never having heard his own exploits narrated before, Ulysses begins to weep. Only when he hears his experiences turned into story – literally, his-story – does Ulysses become aware of his own significance. His identity is revealed to him through the words and narrative provided by someone else.
Perhaps this is what we are trying to do every November when we remember those who have died in time of war. We wish to endow the victims of war with significance, and affirm that their lives mattered; and so we make them part of a narrative of duty and noble sacrifice, of the love of country and of freedom, in order to insist that they did not die in vain.
But there is an argument that the narrative of noble self-sacrifice was bestowed upon those who died in war by a nation guiltily aware of what it had demanded of its young men and needing to justify itself. Indeed, sometimes the objects of such myth-making refuse to recognise themselves in it: Wilfred Owen and other poets of the First World War resisted the idea that it was a beautiful thing to die for one’s country. Far from setting us free from the past, the narrative which seeks to glorify those who die in war risks locking a nation into an endless cycle of repetition.
Every Remembrance Sunday we walk a line between honouring those who have lost their lives whilst questioning the reasons why they were required to do so. Christians understand the desire to remember in order to bestow significance. We are those who are invited by Christ to share bread and wine and to ‘Do this in remembrance of me’. We remember Jesus’ death because it makes possible a humanity freed from the fear of death. At every Eucharist we are being told a story about God’s love for the world revealed in Jesus; and in remembering his story, we are invited to make it our own. A new identity is offered to us, so that we may recognise ourselves for the first time as the beloved children of God. It is also an identity we are called upon to share: literally to re-member others as beloved children of God by treating them as if it is so.
This November, perhaps we might remember not only those who died in the service of their country, but also reflect upon the stories we tell about them and about others. If we can bestow honour and significance upon the dead, how much more might we be able to do the same for the living? What negative identities are we unwittingly bestowing upon individuals or groups that stereotype and pigeonhole people, or trap them in the past, when we could be setting them free with a tale of sins forgiven, death defeated and hope restored, in which they can recognise themselves? The stories we tell about one another can bestow life or spell death. Remembering is when we tell a story about the past. But remembering can become re-membering when we tell the story of the past so as to make possible a different future.
It is excellent news that the National Lottery Heritage Fund has awarded Beverley Minster £440,000 towards our £775,000 ‘Sanctuary Project’. This project will replace the lead on the leaking roof of the lesser South Transept. Match funding is being provided by the Beverley Minster Old Fund and the Friends of Beverley Minster.
The Sanctuary Project represents the first phase of a much bigger programme of repairs to the whole of the Minster roof being undertaken as part of ‘Two Churches One Town’, our partnership with St Mary’s church and ERYC to raise £16 million for essential fabric repairs to both churches over a period of years. St Mary’s also received a similar sized grant from NLHF earlier this year.
The reason our bid is called the ‘Sanctuary Project’ is because the project is intended to draw in new visitors, especially from so-called ‘hard to reach’ groups, such as people on benefits, members of minority groups, and even lottery players themselves. We are therefore planning a range of activities and an interpretation scheme about the Minster’s historic and current role as a place of sanctuary in order to satisfy this requirement.
There is something quite bracing about being interrogated by a secular organisation as to how we intend to broaden our appeal to folk who might not otherwise choose to visit the Minster. Hospitality, mission and outreach to the wider world are supposed to be in our DNA, so it has been healthy to discover how in reality this demand takes us onto unfamiliar ground.
At the same time, it has been frustrating to encounter afresh the assumption of a secular organisation that our Christian priorities are somehow at odds with secular values. This is a myth stirringly challenged in a book I have just begun reading called ‘Dominion’ by Tom Holland, which argues that Christianity so revolutionised the values of the western world that they are no longer recognised as distinctively Christian at all.
Our western ideas of human rights and the value of the individual, of equality between men and women, of the possibility of progress, and the idea that the weak and the poor are just as valuable as the strong and the wealthy, come not primarily from the thinkers of the 18th century Enlightenment, but from the Bible’s teaching that we are all made in the image of God and that Christ died for all. Over 2,000 years these ideas have won such acceptance in the West that we now assume them to be universal, when history shows they were at first revolutionary, and in many cultures remain so.
The Sanctuary Project will see us embarking on exciting partnerships with a range of people and organisations, both sacred and secular. As we explore the meaning of sanctuary we shall discover many differences; but where there is common ground, it is likely to be based implicitly on St Paul’s insight that ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, but all are one in Christ Jesus’.
Why go Green?
Since David Attenborough started to wave a red flag about the environmental threat posed by waste plastic, the occupants of Minster Vicarage have been attempting to reduce our reliance on single use plastic.
We’ve been buying our fruit and veg from the market rather than the supermarket, cutting down on crisps (the packets are always plastic), and using alternatives to cling film. Even so the washing up bowl is full of quantities of plastic wrapping awaiting cleaning before being stuffed into a plastic bottle to make an eco-brick. It’s been quite an eye opener to discover just how much plastic we throw away every day, and it’s challenged us to think about our way of life.
At one level this is an entirely rational, self-interested response to a crisis which threatens us all.
At a deeper level, environmental concern is a matter of Christian discipleship, faith and obedience, which is why elsewhere in the September issue of the Minster e-letter there is a questionnaire about becoming a greener church.
A Christian view of the world begins with an understanding of God as loving Creator. ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it’ sings the psalmist. We shouldn’t be living in the world as landlords, as if we can do whatever we like with it. We are more like tenants, who are required to hand the property back at the end of our tenancy in good order, or like trustees, who have to think about more than one generation of beneficiaries. The non-human creation is not a disposable backdrop to the story of Jesus, let alone your story or mine. It has its own integrity and value as God’s handiwork.
When we celebrate the gospel of the Son of God becoming one with us, it shows that God takes our human bodies seriously, and by implication the physical world. The resurrection of Jesus’ body is full of promise for all of creation, not just the human part of it.
So it is right that Christians should be concerned about climate change and the environmental crisis because we are Christians, and not because it happens to fit with a particular political agenda. The promise of salvation is for all creation and not just humanity; and faithfulness to God entails taking responsibility for God’s world.
None of which makes it any easier trying to live with less plastic, fewer flights, and reducing our consumption. But changing our lifestyle as a community will certainly be easier than attempting it as individuals; and after all, conversion of life is meant to be our speciality.
‘One volunteer is worth ten pressed men’?
There is something inspiring about those who volunteer.
In a world where everything tends to have its price, where there is no such thing as a free lunch, where people are often treated as commodities and relationships reduced to transactions, there is something subversively counter-cultural about those who give their time, energy, commitment and passion for nothing, or at least for no financial reward.
That’s why I find those who volunteer at Beverley Minster inspiring. In giving themselves to the Minster in the way that so many do, they reflect something of the generosity of God and the character of Jesus himself, who is the ultimate volunteer, offering himself not because he had to but because he chose to.
There are around 200 volunteers at the Minster, serving in many different capacities. The welcomers, guides, bellringers, choir, shop helpers, children’s groups, sidespeople, counters, office helpers, gardeners, PCC members, Wardens, cooks, coffee servers and caterers – the list goes on. Not all are members of the congregation, but all share a passion for the Minster, and without them the place would be an empty shell.
Supporting such diverse teams is a challenge, but the PCC is increasingly aware of the need to offer more in terms of training and management. This is partly because of the need to comply with the requirements of insurers, H&S, and especially Safeguarding rules; partly because members of the general public who visit the Minster have increasing expectations of professional standards of customer service; and partly to improve the experience of volunteering so that volunteers can grow in confidence and skills, and feel that their contribution is making a real difference.
We don’t have the capacity to improve every aspect of volunteering at once, but through the autumn we shall be beginning a journey, focussing initially on new volunteers but eventually embracing all the existing teams, in which roles and resources will be clarified, training and management put in place, and new people encouraged to get involved.
Deep down, volunteering is an expression of vocation, and is a part of who we are. It speaks of the self-giving grace of God, and is a tangible sign of the good news of Jesus. Let’s celebrate our volunteers and all that they do, and look forward to fostering an even deeper sense of pride in serving the church and wider community.
Survival is Insufficient
I have just finished reading a novel by Emily St John Mandel called ‘Station Eleven’.
Its premise is that 99% of humanity has been wiped out by a fatal strain of ‘flu. All the technology upon which the modern world relied has been lost: no electricity, computers or internet, no phones, cars or jets. Survivors form primitive communities surrounded by the ruins of former civilisation.
Some try to find meaning in what has happened by forming cults, shaped by the conviction that the pandemic was some form of judgment.
Into this predictably post-apocalyptic landscape is introduced ‘The Travelling Symphony’, a band of actors and musicians who travel from community to community to perform Bach, Beethoven and Shakespeare. Their motto, taken from a long lost episode of Star Trek, is ‘Survival is Insufficient’, and speaks of a deeper need for beauty and meaning in the midst of collapse.
As the storylines of various characters interweave, there is surprising reflection on what has been lost and what has been gained. While life is physically harder, more fragile, and filled with a sense of bereavement and lament for all that has gone, there is also an awareness of grace, of the beauty of the world and the preciousness of simple things which a more complicated world took for granted.
An unexpected theme is that of vocation. Several characters’ stories span the period both before and after the ‘flu epidemic, and in each case the ending of civilisation has clarified their sense of who they are and what they are called to be. One character had spent his life before the collapse drifting between a series of unsatisfactory jobs before starting to train as a paramedic. After the collapse he finds satisfaction in offering the nearest thing to a medical practice in the region. A former corporate lawyer realises that in his professional life he has been a kind of ‘high-functioning sleepwalker’, and to his surprise discovers that the collapse of civilisation restores to him a freedom to be himself once more. When one of the actors in the Travelling Symphony is invited to opt for a safer and steadier form of life she replies, ‘Sure, but in what other life would I get to perform Shakespeare?’.
For Christians the discernment of vocation has always been a major theme; not just for clergy and ‘professional’ church workers, but for all the baptised. What does it mean for me to live out my life under God? How can I become the person I was made to be? What does the good life look like? It isn’t easy to focus on such questions in a world so full of competing choices, demands and distractions.
As we welcome Tim Kelly at the start of his ordained ministry, we might ponder why someone should give up a successful secular career to become a Curate. Past experience is never wasted, but learning to discern our calling can take us in utterly unexpected directions.
‘Station Eleven’ provides a good summer reading starting point for thinking about our own vocation. We may not need an apocalypse to discern what really matters in our lives, but I wonder what would remain of us if the trappings of so-called civilisation were stripped away?
The Peace of Wild Things
Writing this on a half term short break in a deeply rural Oxfordshire hideaway, I am looking out over meadows where we can see pink footed geese, red kites and herons. The area seems rich in wildlife despite being within sight of the M40. No accident perhaps that we are staying on an estate where there is a pro-active approach to conservation management.
The curative power of the countryside is well known. Taking the time simply to notice the infinite shades of green, to listen to birdsong, and to sit in the sun, is enough to make us feel more whole, more human, more earthed, and to appreciate the sheer giftedness of life.
Taking the ‘natural’ world for granted, we also abuse it. Seeing the quantity of litter casually dropped in streets and on roadsides makes me wonder whether anyone is listening to the increasingly desperate urgings of environmental scientists that the earth is fragile and cannot cope with our habits of consumption.
For Christians, the very notion of an eternal Creator implies that his creation is, by contrast, finite, limited and exhaustible. Some fundamentalists take this to mean that the environment is unimportant, since we are destined for heaven anyway. But a more biblical doctrine of creation shows that human beings exist only in the context of the rest of God’s world, and that we are accountable for our use of it. We are tenants in the world, not landlords enjoying absolute rights over creation. As the Psalm puts it: ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.’ Finding a more balanced and humble relationship with the rest of creation is part of the journey of redemption.
At Beverley Minster we have recently begun conducting an environmental survey as a first step in reflecting as a community about how faithfulness to God involves faithfulness to his world. We shall be seeking to appreciate the glory of God in creation, and encouraging one another to become more mindful of what has been entrusted to us.
For me, this poem by Wendell Berry expresses how our sense of wellbeing must involve our relationship with the natural world. In secular language, it prompts me to value the non-human creation as a sacrament of grace: in Calvin’s phrase, the world is ‘the theatre of God’s glory’, even when God is not explicitly named.
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives might be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
St John of Beverley: Hero or Villain?
May is the month of St John of Beverley. The annual pilgrimage to Harpham where St John was born takes place on the 9th, and the Civic Service in his honour is on the 12th.
Before coming to Beverley I had hardly heard of its local saint (hereafter ‘St JoB’). But before the Reformation he was clearly a big name on the pilgrimage circuit, up there with Cuthbert of Durham and Thomas Becket of Canterbury; which is, of course, why Beverley Minster is such a huge building.
St JoB’s story also nicely illustrates a very modern problem about the relationship between religion and violence. ‘Wars are all caused by religion’, cry some people. And the story of St JoB shows why you might think that.
In the original account of St JoB’s life told by The Venerable Bede in the early 8th century, John is a humble man of prayer with a remarkable ministry to those who are sick or disabled.
But two centuries and many pilgrims later, he was credited by King Athelstan with enabling a great English victory over the Picts. From then on, English kings made sure that they never went to war without the Standard of St JoB leading their armies. When Henry V won the battle of Agincourt on the Feast of St JoB, he attributed it to the saint’s intercession and made a pilgrimage to Beverley in acknowledgement.
So the peace-loving holy man became the go-to saint for wars of national aggrandisement, and for a while St JoB rivalled St George as England’s patron saint.
Does this mean that St JoB caused wars? Of course not. He was co-opted by monarchs eager to claim God’s support in their conflicts, in a way that rendered John’s original character and ministry unrecognisable.
And that is what always happens. Leaders of partisan causes seek validation from religion. They can then claim not only to have God on their side, but that their opponents are blasphemously fighting God himself.
We in the West are squeamish nowadays about fighting in the name of God. So wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya have been fought in the name of ‘freedom’. Does that mean freedom causes violence? Of course not. But it’s a noble-sounding rallying cry for those with other agendas.
Blaming violence on ‘religion’ is like blaming it on ‘politics’. Of course, religion is often involved. The question is whether it is authentic, healthy religion or corrupted and used as a tribal label. Blaming conflict on undifferentiated ‘religion’ is simply lazy.
For many Jews and Muslims, Christianity is associated with pogroms and crusades, and the cross speaks of violence and terror. But does any of that come from Jesus himself, who renounced coercive power and gave himself up on a cross?
Each of us has a responsibility to examine the relationship between our core beliefs and our actions. Often they won’t match up, and that is part of the tragedy of the human condition. But when our actions fall short of our faith, that isn’t necessarily God’s fault.
‘They are us’
After the dreadful terrorist attack on the mosque in Christchurch NZ on March 15, the Prime Minister of New Zealand received much praise from around the world for her statesmanlike reaction.
Not only did Jacinda Ardern identify strongly with the victims, visiting the mosque, providing financial support for the families affected, and quickly branding this a terrorist attack rather than the work of an isolated extremist, but she also worked hard to discourage different groups from blaming each other. Instead of highlighting differences and distinguishing ‘them’ from ‘us’, she has stressed the unity of New Zealand’s diverse society and her slogan ‘They are us’ has been taken up widely.
In a world where politicians are tempted to appeal to the worst elements in human nature, this is refreshingly different. Tightening up on immigration, talking as though we are threatened by the rest of the world and building walls along borders is an easy way to prop up political support. But it does so by heightening fear, increasing division and blaming victims for the violence visited upon them. It was against such a background of fear and division that fascist groups came to power in Europe in the 1920s and 30s.
According to the Bible, the first responsibility of kings is not the defence of the realm; it is to deliver justice, especially to the poor and most vulnerable, including foreigners. This is a primary vision which modern leaders have almost entirely forgotten; but God surely hasn’t.
The Christian gospel is all about reconciliation and restoring wholeness in the world. Jesus summarised it as loving God with all your heart and loving your neighbour as yourself. And since we ourselves are freely forgiven by God, we have no business rubbishing others, especially when they are suffering or are a minority.
This means that any political argument which seems to promote an attitude of ‘us and them’, or which seeks to prefer one group at the expense of another, or that narrows its appeal to one class, colour, nation or race without valuing other inhabitants of this small planet, is questionable from a Christian point of view.
Holy Week and Easter remind us that reconciliation and mercy are God’s top priority even though they are cross-shaped and do not come cheaply. But on the third day Jesus was raised from the dead, not for a few, but for all the world. If we want to live in the light of that amazing good news, our vision should be no less. God is for us so that ‘they’ too can be ‘us’.
I recently became aware of a new phrase in our language: the ‘attention economy’.
It stems from the fact that many of us are now struggling with information overload, and are processing such a constant stream of messages, news and data in a variety of media that we have forgotten how to pay real attention.
The metaphor of ‘surfing the web’ has never been more appropriate, suggesting as it does a continually shifting but utterly superficial engagement. We skim read to fillet an email or article for the information we need. We get restless having to listen to someone else’s inconsequential stories because they don’t appear to serve any useful purpose.
Against this background our attention has become a sought-after resource for which other people and organisations compete. The revenue of many commercial websites and social media like Facebook depends upon holding our attention and enticing us to spend more time on their pages. We are the prey of another new word in the lexicon: clickbait. Our attention has become quantified and costed out, merely a means to an economic end.
The American philosopher and psychologist William James said that what we attend to is reality – that is, the things we attend to are the things that become most real to us. If we cannot attend properly to anything, then we are literally driven to distraction and emptied of all substance.
In similar vein, the French philosopher-theologian Simone Weil said that ‘the authentic and pure values – truth, beauty and goodness … are the result of … a certain application of the full attention to the object’. We pay attention to someone we love just for the joy of being in their company. We pay attention to the blossom in the garden or the bird on the feeder because ordinary things have a beauty that somehow nourishes the soul without serving any immediate purpose. We pay attention to a great work of art or music not because of its financial value but because it hints at a glory both universal and yet just out of reach.
Weil went on to say that paying attention is ‘the gateway to eternity’, and that prayer is attention in its purest form.
As we approach Lent perhaps this is a good moment to stop and ask ourselves whether we can escape the attention economy. May you find the will to resist trivial distractions, to fast from the flow of information, and to give up attending only to the things you can use. May you practice again the art of paying attention to something or someone without any agenda save that of appreciating their uniqueness, that as we draw closer to Easter you may discern the glory of resurrection inherent and yet hidden in the midst of all things. May you – may we all – grow in the grace of prayer as we give our whole attention to what is most real.
Keeping Alive the Rumour of Angels
During February we are re-launching regular children’s groups on Sunday mornings at Beverley Minster. Whilst provision for children during the 10.30am service has never quite disappeared, we have for a little while lacked the ability to run weekly age-differentiated groups with a sufficiently big team of volunteer leaders.
So it is exciting to be able to report that there will be three groups running on three Sundays out of four (ie not when there is an All Age service on the first Sunday of the month); one group for pre-schoolers, one for Primary School age children, and one for 11+.
The importance of this provision is hard to overstate. Without children’s groups which are properly resourced and confidently promoted, we see few children in church (choristers of course being an honourable exception). Without children in church, we are unlikely to see their parents. Without the parents of school-age children, we become a congregation made up largely of retired people. There’s nothing at all wrong with age and experience, but we’re not reflecting the world around us.
Archbishop William Temple famously said that the Church is only ever one generation away from extinction, and in our day the truth of that is becoming visible. Perhaps more important than worrying about the future of the Church is the challenge of passing on the good news of Jesus Christ to the next generation and keeping alive the ‘rumour of angels’.
In an increasingly complex and muddled world, where do people find shape and meaning for their lives? Probably not in the competing fashions and group think of social media. For too long we have left children to ‘make up their own minds when they are old enough’ as if working out how to live well is easy and obvious. We don’t apply that approach to any other aspect of growing up.
The challenge of forming Christian character has always been real, because it is neither quick nor easy. But if God’s love is the deepest reality of life, then learning to live in the light of that reality cannot begin too soon; and neither will we ever be too old to discover fresh depths of divine grace.
Outlook for 2019
Actually, I don’t mind January. It’s a relief to emerge from December into a landscape which isn’t dominated by Christmas but is still appreciably the middle of winter. There’s a sparseness to January which offers space to take stock, and in practice it’s often less cluttered than other months. Being at the beginning of the calendar year also invites us to look ahead, to plan (in our household we’ve already had the conversation about where to go on summer holiday – Pembrokeshire, in case you’re interested), and to think about what the future might hold.
It has been said that prophesy is a risky business, especially prophesying the future, but for what it’s worth here are my finger-in-the-wind, peer-at-the-seaweed, and hand-over-the-hostages-to-fortune predictions for 2019:
- In programmes run in the parish there will be an emphasis on living as Christians in the world, not just in the Church. It’s not always easy to relate our faith to the issues facing us during the week, so we’ll look for ways to encourage each other in doing this.
- The clergy team will be joined by Tim Kelly as Curate in July.
- Money will be a continuing pressure, with action needing to be taken to reduce the annual deficit, and with fundraising for the ‘Two Churches One Town’ project getting under way in earnest. We can expect to see a stewardship campaign at some point and applications to trusts to do work on the roof.
- Plans are afoot in the Minster to re-order the altar and choir stalls at the front of the nave. We hope to make the furnishings less cramped so that worship will have a better focus and benefit from more flexible space.
- The number of families worshipping at the Minster should gently increase, given the extra ministry resources and the excellent groundwork already done by our Youth and Children’s Minister.
- Outreach should develop, especially among people in their 20s-40s, although it may take a while to identify what needs we should try to address.
- Much excellent work that is already going on will continue, not least among the Associated Churches. There will be surprises and unexpected opportunities to respond to.
- Brexit will continue to be a mess, but whatever the outcome the future will be redeemable under God. It’s important we remember this in the midst of so much frustration and polarisation!
These aren’t resolutions – I haven’t the will power to keep resolutions – but are offered more as projections from paths we are already on. Pundits can enjoy seeing how wide of the mark I am at the beginning of 2020. In the meantime, I offer you these matters for your prayers, together with my best wishes for a happy and peaceful New Year.
Waiting on tiptoe…
In a classic episode of the children’s programme ‘Sesame Street’, the actor Tom Hiddleston can be seen teaching the Cookie Monster all about ‘delayed gratification’: the Monster has to learn to wait for his cookie, and waiting doesn’t come naturally. The joy of the encounter is that the Cookie Monster is a simple creature driven by his single-minded appetite for cookies; expecting him to cope with delayed gratification is delightfully absurd.
But the joke is on us. One of the features of our age is our inability to wait for anything. Everything has to be instant, from coffee to credit. Speed of delivery determines the success or failure of online businesses. In supermarkets you can get strawberries all the year round – why wait for June?
When a season is linked to a specific date, like Christmas, the pressure is on to get there as quickly as possible. So in most towns, the decorations go up in October. But once we get to Boxing Day, the interest has moved on. Last year I tried to buy a German stollen cake (very Christmassy) from a well-known supermarket on 27th December – which after all was only the Third of the Twelve Days of Christmas – and discovered that all the Christmas goods had been replaced by Valentine’s Day displays, along with a few Easter-themed hot cross buns.
I wonder whether this reveals something spiritual. When God disappears from the calendar, human beings take God’s place. We attempt to shake off our time-bound existence and live in an eternal present. Time collapses into eternity, and we try to make everything happen at once. We live in a ‘24/7’ society that never rests. Our shopping habits have dissolved the Seasons. Waiting is something only primitive, pre-modern peoples do.
Unfortunately, we don’t (yet) inhabit eternity. So, like Bruce in the film Bruce Almighty, we find it stressful trying to run the universe all at once. That’s why new technology never saves us time but always makes us busier. Robots won’t replace us all; they’ll just encourage more of us to try to fit more in to our limited time.
At Christmas, Jesus entered human history. The Son of God became one of us, leaving eternity to inhabit seconds, minutes, hours and years. Mary had to wait nine months for his birth. The world had waited since the beginning of time.
Although it didn’t come easily, the Cookie Monster learned how to delay his gratification. When the cookie was finally given it tasted even better than before.
As we enter Advent we enter the season of waiting. May it be for you a precious time of looking forward, patient expectancy, and slow preparation. Because it isn’t just Christmas for which we are waiting; it’s for heaven to come down to earth, for eternity to break into time, and for our own birth as children of God.
A Time to Remember, a Time to Hope
Auschwitz is a strange place to visit. I went there in January of last year as part of a pilgrimage led by Archbishop Justin. Part of me didn’t want to be there, and I was grateful be part of a group with a serious purpose, to reflect on the nature of evil and suffering; going as an individual tourist would have felt somehow ghoulish and voyeuristic. This is not a normal visitor attraction.
What struck me looking around was the emphasis on remembering, underlined by our Polish guide as well as by the literature and interpretation material. ‘Remember this…’, he kept saying. ‘It is very important to remember that…’. There is a fear at Auschwitz that people might forget what happened there, because there is no longer a community to keep alive any personal memory of most of the victims.
The result is an urgency in the call to remember that can feel like a desire to keep the wound open. When the barbed wire fences rust they are replaced with new wire. When weeds grow over the ruins of the gas chambers they are cleared away. Auschwitz is a place where the earth cannot be allowed to heal. Left to itself, the main death camp would rot into the ground within a few decades; but that will never happen.
November is our own season of remembrance, with a growing number of people attending remembrance services and ceremonies. The urge to remember is fuelled here by the desire to affirm the value of those who died, whether in two World Wars or in more recent conflicts. They were loved, and so they still matter, and their sacrifice is still valued by the society of which they were part.
This year is slightly different because, being the 100th anniversary of the ending of the First World War, there is a note of celebration. The First World War was horrific, so all the more reason to give thanks for its ending.
The churches have their own season of remembrance in November, in the Feasts of All Saints and All Souls. These festivals are when we remember the ultimate triumph of those who suffered but still trusted in Christ, and who now enjoy the peace of heaven. The remembrance of loss is re-framed and redeemed by the context of an ultimate victory over death.
The Christian hope can therefore make our remembering part of a process of healing, if past loss can be integrated into our future hope for the renewal of heaven and earth.
Auschwitz remains problematic. It’s not an easy place to speak too quickly of redemption. But even there, the commitment to preserving the memory of what happened is a sign of hope, though it may be a memory resistant to healing. Yet hope is what ultimately comes out of all our remembering. May this season of remembrance be for you a time of looking back in order to look forward with hope.
‘Sanctuary’ is one of those words in the English language which began in the Church but which has now escaped and is at loose in the world. ‘Sanctuary’ was once a very religious word, meaning a holy place. Within a parish church, the sanctuary is the area around the altar, since the time of Archbishop Laud usually defined by a sanctuary rail to protect the altar from irreverent behaviour and, specifically, to keep out dogs (Jonah and Maisie take note).
But a ‘sanctuary’ nowadays need not be religious. We have donkey sanctuaries and seal sanctuaries for creatures which need looking after. Cities of sanctuary make a point of welcoming refugees and asylum seekers. People might talk about their home or a favourite holiday spot as a sanctuary from the rough and tumble of the world. A sanctuary is now any place where someone can feel safe.
Beverley had a role in the evolution of the first meaning of sanctuary to the second. From the time of King Athelstan in the 10th century onwards, Beverley was a place where fugitives could claim sanctuary, meaning they could find refuge from the rough and ready justice of the day. The idea was that churches could be safe spaces because bloodshed was incompatible with a place of worship. Beverley was special because its right of sanctuary didn’t just provide a brief respite from the lynch mob before a fugitive was sent into permanent exile; it included the right to stay in the town forever within the limits of the sanctuary stones, three of which survive on the outskirts of town. Similar arrangements existed in the great Liberties of Durham and Ripon, but Beverley was the most famous.
This concept of sanctuary seems to me to be a rich one for us today. Not only does the term have a strong association with the history of the town and Minster; it also arises from the Christian gospel that God’s justice takes the form of mercy; and it hints that the church might still have a role today in building communities where vulnerable people feel safe and can find refuge.
We shall be exploring this in several ways over coming months. First, we are running a course on 6th and 27th October (9.30 – 12.30) called ‘Everybody Welcome’, designed to help everyone who is part of the Minster community to think about how easily visitors and newcomers of all kinds find their way in to the life of this community and whether we can make the experience better. I encourage all of us to take part in this so that it might be as effective as possible.
Second, a new series of the monthly ‘Sunday at Seven’ informal services under the heading ‘Finding Sanctuary’ will address three different aspects of the theme: ‘No More Tit for Tat’ (September 30th), ‘Experiencing the Holy’ (October 28th) and ‘Place of Refuge, Place of Safety’ (November 25th).
Finally, the theme of Sanctuary lies at the heart of the Minster’s bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund for funding for initial repairs to the roof. Before the second round application is made we must work out what story we want to tell about the nature of sanctuary at Beverley Minster, past and present. An online survey and consultation will help to provide the basis for this.
Beverley’s ancient right of sanctuary offers a rich source of inspiration for the work and witness of the Minster today. It has power to speak to our imagination and may help to renew our vision as we work in these days at becoming more a place of refuge and healing for all.
Every Kind of Ministry
As I write in the last week of August, Rev. Wendy Wale and her husband Tom are moving in to the Associate Vicar’s house in Newton Drive. Wendy’s Licensing will take place on 20th September, and I can’t quite believe that I am going to have a full time colleague to help deliver that fearsome Sunday service rota!
However, I have to keep reminding myself that Wendy is not just going to be another pair of hands. In the past the Associate Vicar was a kind of senior Curate, normally a fixed term appointment for someone offering all round parish work. But the new post has a different rationale.
The diocese has agreed to restore the Associate Vicar post not just because ‘the Vicar needs help’ but because it will fit a wider diocesan strategy, of ‘reaching those we currently don’t’. The diocese of York has recently passed the first round of a two-phase bid to the Church Commissioners for strategic funding to support a dozen or so new posts specialising in ministry to people in their 20s – 40s. To demonstrate that this strategy is serious, the diocese had to show that it was already investing in such work. We therefore have an agreement with the diocese that our new Associate Vicar post will focus part-time on general parish work and part-time specifically on work with 20s – 40s, and Wendy has been appointed on that basis.
There has of course always been considerable overlap between some aspects of parish work and ministry to people in their 20s – 40s: weddings, baptisms, Mums and Tots work and so on. But Wendy will also have responsibility for looking at new ways of ministering to what is now recognised as a ‘hard to reach’ age group.
Wendy isn’t going to rejuvenate the church by herself; but if we don’t impose unhelpful expectations, she will help us to grow into the church of the future. This is an exciting time as ministry resources grow to match the opportunities, and these include lay ministries. By happy coincidence, on Sunday 30th September we are holding a ‘Volunteer Fair’ to highlight some of the many ways each of us can help to serve the life of the church in this parish, and not just those under 50. So as we welcome Wendy and look forward to her ministry here, I hope that this may prompt each of us to reflect upon our own ministry and how it can develop in this season of new beginnings.
Expectations of wedding photographs change. It used to be that the only photographs requested during the marriage service were of the bride on the way into church at the beginning, and the couple processing out at the end. Most photos were taken outside the church or at the reception. Nowadays photos are taken of the entire service from beginning to end, and often filmed as well.
The run-through before the wedding therefore normally includes a delicate verbal ballet between Vicar and Wedding Photographer to establish how this is to be done without the ceremony being upstaged by tripods, scurrying photographers and clicking shutters. In vain do I point out that all the photographers at Harry and Meghan’s wedding somehow managed to remain invisible.
The urge to take photographs of important moments in our lives is strong. Having pictures of a special occasion helps us to keep the memory fresh, or even to re-live it. Big occasions can be stressful, and it’s attractive to think that we can enjoy them later when we have time and are feeling more relaxed.
There is a paradox here that after months of patient waiting, the day itself disappears under a sense that it can’t really be enjoyed until afterwards. Perhaps this reveals a lack of confidence in our ability to live in the present moment. We find it easier to record the occasion for later rather than to live it here and now.
The Bible says that ‘God has set eternity in our hearts, yet we cannot fathom what he has done’. In other words, we have been made to enjoy eternity, and so we struggle to work out how to live within the limits of space and time. We imagine that quality time is always either in the past or in the future, when the door opening on to eternity is always now.
Christ promises freedom both from the chains of the past and the anxieties of the future so that we can experience eternity in the present moment. Weddings and special occasions are particularly good opportunities to practise this. So this August, may you grow in your appreciation of the present moment. And I shall try to remember my own advice as I look forward to taking lots of holiday photos.
Mine eyes have seen the gloryhole…
I remember my first proper visit to Beverley Minster last Summer. Entering the nave, I was blown away by the glories of this great pilgrimage church full of light. But when I ventured into the Quire, I couldn’t understand why the whole area suddenly felt spiritually lifeless and unused, like an old museum. It came as quite a surprise to discover later that the Quire is in fact used daily for prayer and worship. On reflection I realised that the reason it had such a derelict air was because of all the red ropes fencing off the stalls. They proclaim very loudly ‘Keep Off. Do Not Use. Heritage Only.’ – and effectively undermined the purpose of the Quire as a living place of prayer!
The last couple of Parochial Church Council (PCC) meetings have included time to wander around the Minster and consider how sympathetic the furnishings are to the building itself and its original purpose.
The Minster is deliberately generous, in scale, beauty, and costliness. It was built that way to help pilgrims to feel more open, less crowded, more in touch with Beauty, more filled with awe. In other words, the building was intended to offer people a glimpse of heaven on earth. It still does that, much more so than other big buildings like, say, Tesco.
But Nature abhors a vacuum; and one of the problems with a big building is that empty spaces attract objects with no permanent home, such as donation boxes or tables for refreshments. It requires real discipline to manage the use of functional objects in a manner sympathetic to the building itself.
If a Transept floor is empty, the eye is drawn upwards to the windows and vaulting, and the experience is spiritual. If on the other hand the space is occupied by two ugly and ill-matching tables next to a dustbin, the eye inevitably focusses on those instead, and stays all too earthbound. The message of the building is undermined by its contents.
The PCC walkabout opened our eyes to some of the tensions between practical use and original purpose. It also whetted some appetites for a gentle process of de-cluttering! It’s good to think about the environment of worship; our buildings say something about the God we adore, and in the process also shape our sense of ourselves.
Two things struck me about the recent Referendum in Ireland about the repeal of the Constitutional Amendment prohibiting abortion.
One was the passionate, polarised, nature of the debate. The two sides seemed united only in their mutual incomprehension, each unable to see any merit in the other’s view.
The other thing to strike me was how it was simply assumed by UK commentators that the Pro-Choice position was the right one. Opposition to abortion is now seen as a throwback to medieval patriarchy, endorsed only by a Roman Catholic Church intent on opposing personal freedom.
Both aspects trouble me. On the one side is an argument presented as an absolute rule protecting the sanctity of life. The problem is that the rule is carved in granite so immovable as to sound life-denying. By insisting that the right of the unborn child to life overrides every other consideration (by enshrining it in a Constitution, for example), Pro-Lifers can appear judgmental and unsympathetic to the very real suffering faced by women who discover they are unhappily pregnant.
On the other side the ‘My Body, My Choice’ line risks reducing a matter of life and death to mere personal choice. There is no recognition that this might be an issue for a community or society; no awareness that it always takes two to make a child, no concession to the sheer giftedness of life, whether wanted or not. It is simply assumed that we are no more than atomised individuals, each of us salvaging what meaning we can from life. In a way it demonstrates the triumph of consumer capitalism, in which freedom of individual choice is the supreme Good. The flip side is that when things go wrong, the individual faces the music alone. If that’s how it really is, it’s not surprising that abortion usually seems to be the lesser of two evils.
There is an African saying that “It takes a village to raise a child”. Perhaps it also takes a village to bring a child to birth, and the absence of robust community support is what gives abortion its appeal when a pregnancy is unwanted. Churches may be some of the few places left where the worn fabric of community can be renewed, within which the range of life choices can be widened and supported. We are potentially communities of resistance, insisting unfashionably that we are more than a collection of individuals, that the gospel creates genuine bonds of fellowship. But is it a vision we have really grasped? And is it a vision big enough to share?
Can you separate the art from the artist? Following the sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and others, liberal-minded film critics have generally responded with a surprisingly traditional morality. Many commentators have argued that the work of those who have sexually exploited others is tainted. Even though their films may still be great films, we cannot now watch them without being aware of a darker context. The director Ridley Scott recently re-filmed ‘All the Money in the World’ with Christopher Plummer replacing Kevin Spacey after damaging allegations surfaced. No question of separating the art from the artist there – Spacey’s involvement made the whole project toxic.
There has been a shift in thinking around this. Critics used to argue that works of art be judged independently of the artist’s character or intention. They rarely suggested that Caravaggio’s ‘Last Supper’ should be shunned because he was also a murderer, or that Lord Byron’s ‘Don Juan’ should be thrown out of libraries because he had the morals of a tomcat. No doubt it helped that the victims were no longer around to prejudice sales.
But in the Classical and Christian worlds, Beauty, Truth and Goodness were held to be connected. They pointed equally to God, who was the single source of them all. In a connected universe, we cannot truly appreciate beautiful things without taking account of their relationship with what is good and true. But the relationship is not straightforward. Is beauty rendered false or perhaps more true because it arises from the artist’s moral failings?
In the history of the arts we see flawed and damaged human beings frequently applying themselves to redeem ugly experiences in the creation of their art.
In Christian understanding, the cross of Jesus is the place where something bad and ugly becomes supremely good and beautiful in the light of Easter. Sometimes it is necessary to embrace ugliness to make ugly things beautiful. Here too, there is ultimately no question of separating the art from the Artist.
Now you see him, now you don’t
‘He is risen; he is not here’. At the heart of Easter is this terse message given to grieving women at Jesus’ empty tomb. But in the triumphalism of the churches’ Easter celebrations it’s easy to miss the paradox in this apparently simple statement.
He is risen; and in our world full of grief and disappointment it is wonderful news that Jesus’ perfect humanity and God’s perfect faithfulness are together stronger than death. The resurrection invites us all to seek a deeper awareness of divine love in our own lives and in the community around us.
At the same time, he is not here. Although he is risen, Jesus is not necessarily present. You might think that the whole point of the resurrection was to make Jesus present again. But at the heart of the Easter story is an empty tomb and an absence. He is not the possession of the churches, he escapes our grasp and is always one step in front of us, ‘going ahead to Galilee’; he leaves behind him rumours and stories inviting us to follow him back into the world.
So if Jesus isn’t here when we want him to be, what are we to make of the resurrection? The women in the story were told to look at the empty tomb and then to tell the other disciples that Jesus was risen. They had to focus on both the absence and the resurrection of Jesus. As they then moved to obey, the Lord unexpectedly met them. It seems that those wishing to discover the truth of the resurrection for themselves must live as if it is true. Trusting the risen Lord leads to action; and in the active living of the Christian faith Christ often surprises us with his Easter greeting.
May this season be one in which you find new life in your faith, whatever that faith might be, and fresh energy in your living it out.
“What is truth?” As we approach Holy Week, Pontius Pilate’s question to Jesus has never been so relevant – nor so difficult to answer.
A few years ago it seemed that there was a great division in our way of thinking between the world of evidence-based public fact (that is, the world of science and technology) and the world of private values and opinions (inhabited by the arts, humanities and religion). Christian faith found itself marginalised because it fell into the second part of this false division.
The downgrading of any kind of truth claim has now become routine. If we don’t like the science of, for example, climate change, we just deny the evidence. In response to claims that social media were being manipulated to peddle false news stories, Facebook has changed its algorithms to prioritise what friends share with each other over all news stories – effectively treating fake news and the real thing the same, and playing down both. President Trump’s policy towards the media has been to brand all mainstream media (ie those with some professional interest in reporting ‘the truth’) as ‘fake news’ so that people rely increasingly on their social media news feeds, which tell us what we want to hear.
Should truth be expressed if it might cause offence? The ‘No Platforming’ of Germaine Greer and Peter Tatchell from certain universities because of their views on transgender issues has raised eyebrows. The old adage that ‘you can’t argue with what people feel’ describes a reality in which issues can no longer be discussed rationally if they might upset some people. ‘The truth’ is no longer out there, and accessible through rational argument and investigation. There is only my truth and your truth. Which one gets heard is in the end a matter of relative power, of who can shout loudest.
So what is truth, and how do we get at it? When Pilate asks the question, he is unaware that the one who claimed to be ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’ was staring him in the face. If this was so, it suggests that truth is something external to ourselves and not purely subjective; but it is also bound up with our personal commitments. Truth invites us to stake our lives on it; we believe in order to understand; it will change us, not least by confronting us with uncomfortable insights about ourselves, and with glorious insights about what we might become. Jesus reveals that in the end, the ultimate truth is love.
May the rest of this Lent be for you a journey into deeper truth, a truth that will set you free.
2018 is set to be a monster year, with the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s novel ‘Frankenstein’ being celebrated with an avalanche of articles, conferences, films, plays, a ballet and even a themed £2 coin design.
The story of a brilliant scientist and his ambition to create life has never lost popularity, even if some later versions of the story bear little resemblance to the original. Lazy journalists use the Frankenstein label to whip up fear of technology, especially in reports of genetically engineered plants and animals, or of developments in infertility treatments. It is a tale of mythic proportions, inviting endless reflection on how human creativity can go wrong.
Frankenstein’s crime is twofold. First, his desire to create a living being is born of egotism rather than love or any desire for relationship. When he parades his ambition before his fiancée, she says ‘Why not just give me a child?’ But there is no room for anyone else in Frankenstein’s project. It’s all about him. Then, when the monster comes alive, he is rejected by his creator who turns away in horror and drives him away. What makes the monster truly monstrous is the behaviour he learns from his master; fear, hatred, rejection and violence. Initially the creature is innocent, trusting, and desires only to be accepted and to belong.
The novel draws its inspiration from many sources, including Dr Faustus and Paradise Lost. But it is also a kind of inversion of the Genesis account of creation. There, the innocent creature goes wrong because it rejects its Creator. In Frankenstein it is the creator rather than the creature who is the source of alienation and pain. In the Bible, God longs for his creatures to respond to his faithful loving kindness. In Frankenstein, the monster longs for someone, anyone, to show him any kindness at all.
The contrasts between the two stories invite reflection. When we create something new, be it a child, an organisation or a new technology, we cannot shake off responsibility for what we have created. Then again, as fallible creatures ourselves, perhaps what we need most is to know the loving acceptance of a Creator who will not deny us, however unlovely or different we may have become. As the monster cries at the end of Danny Boyle’s 2011 National Theatre production, ‘All I ever wanted was your love!’ So may all our creations this year be fruits of love.
Starting a new job as Vicar of Beverley Minster and Priest in Charge of Routh a fortnight before Christmas seemed like a good idea when I agreed to it six months ago. ‘Everyone else will have done the work’, I thought. ‘All I’ll have to do is turn up and be the front man’. Friends looked at me strangely. Was it scepticism, or just pity, that I saw in their eyes?
Getting a new Labrador puppy five days before Christmas seemed like a good idea when Sue put it to me. ‘We’ll have all the children home for the holidays’ she said, winningly. ‘They’ll be around to help with the housetraining.’ Friends looked at us strangely. Was there not enough chaos in our lives already, what with the new job and the house still full of packing cases?
New home, new town, new job, new pet, New Year. Confronted by all this newness, I wonder how to respond. I can flinch at the challenge of change, of having to build new relationships, develop fresh routines, and find my way round a different one-way system. It’s all so exhausting. Or I can open my eyes in wonder. Look at this! Isn’t it beautiful/incredible/strange? It’s all so exhilarating!
The effect has been exaggerated by seeing things through the eyes of the puppy. For her, every mundane happening is full of excitement. Every person coming through the door has to be greeted like a long lost favourite. Chasing an empty plastic bottle is endlessly entertaining. And a New Year’s Day walk on Hornsea beach was an adventure in the Wide World which was almost too much to take in.
Like the puppy, I’m in danger of sensory overload as I try to take in everything that Beverley Minster and its associated churches have to offer. A symptom of that is my inability to remember people’s names; it’s nothing personal, just a limited capacity for taking in new information. It will be a long time before there is any risk of feeling stale.
At the same time, the marking of the New Year is an opportunity for all of us to face the old longing for a new beginning, for the slate to be wiped clean, for the dials to be reset so that we can start over again. The newness may not last, but we know the opportunity will keep coming round – not just once a year, but whenever we pause to allow the glory of God to break out from the depths of even the most familiar things. As the poet Gerard Manly Hopkins puts it:
“nature is never spent; there lives the dearest freshness deep down things”.
May this New Year be a time of new beginnings for you, and for our churches, as together we seek the God who in Jesus says “Behold! I make all things new.”