About Me

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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean of Sheffield, then Durham.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.

Sunday, 28 June 2020

A Last Post

Today, but for the virus I should have been in London preaching at Hampstead Parish Church where I was a boy chorister. It was there in the early 1960s that the journey of faith began for me, at least in a conscious way. I owe that church more than I can say.

It would have been a special occasion for me personally. Having turned 70 this year, I’d resolved to retire properly by finally stepping aside from public ministry. The Vicar had very kindly invited me to preach for the last time in the place where I first felt the stirrings of faith. It would have been, almost to the day, the forty-fifth anniversary of my ordination. So I’d intended to speak, on what would normally have been an ordination day in the church, about vocation to ministry and how the local church, knowingly or unknowingly, can foster it.

If ever there was a case of l’homme propose, Dieu dispose, the pandemic has provided it a hundredfold for all of us. ‘How do you make God laugh? Tell him of your future plans!’ I won’t get to preach that sermon now. And this blog is not it. You can’t substitute a written text or even a live-streamed online event for the real thing when it belongs to such a specific place and time.

I’d thought about asking if we could defer the event. But the symbolism of turning seventy this year felt too significant. So I reckon I’ve now preached my final sermon without realising it. That was the last time I stepped foot inside a church, just before lockdown in March. It was to mark the launch of the pilgrim Way of St Hild at the mighty church dedicated to her on the Headland at Hartlepool. With hindsight, given that the North East has played such a central part in my life, it seems appropriate that this last homily should have celebrated the region’s Christian legacy. Hild was one of the greatest and most inspiring of all the northern saints of the seventh and eighth centuries. As I said at the end of my sermon, she ‘speaks to us across the centuries of all that represents the best and noblest in human character, giftedness and service. She is a woman … to emulate as we ask ourselves what it might mean to serve God and our neighbour in whatever capacity he calls us to at just such a time as this’. What more is there to say about our Christian vocation as men and women of God?

I wrote about finally laying aside public ministry in a blog last summer. I want to reiterate that it is not a case of giving up something because it has become a burden. Still less, despite our differences, have I fallen out with the Church of England which has nurtured and, yes, cared for me all these years. I love what Anglican Christianity stands for at its wise, humane, charitable and generous best. I am profoundly grateful to have been a priest during these four and half decades. The people among whom I have lived and prayed and served, the places I’ve experienced as holy and life-giving have left indelible memories. They have been central to my formation as a priest, a Christian and a human being. They have become a part of me.

As I tried to explain in the blog, far from leaving my life’s work behind, I want to take the fruits of it into my seventies. I want to try to reflect on what it’s all meant, to go on learning while I can. So I see it not as a negative ‘giving up’ of public roles but as a positive decision to live differently in what I imagine will be my last decade of active life (if I’m spared that long). It’s as much a vocational matter as being ordained was in the first place. I’ve tried to discern it with integrity. It feels time to live as a lay person in the church again, or if you prefer (thanks to a former colleague for helping me to see it this way), to become a more contemplative priest in my last years, rather than an active one.

And because the public platform is no longer a place where I believe I should be, I’ve decided to give up blogging as well. I love writing just as I’ve loved preaching. But there comes a time when we need to recognise that later life brings with it the call to reassess the worlds we inhabit, what we do and why we do it. We each have to do this in our own way. For me at least, this entails a necessary contraction of horizons. It feels like an ‘unmaking’ which is uncomfortable at times, perhaps because it is new and unfamiliar: I always knew retirement would be significant but turning seventy has shown me that it really is one of life’s biggest rites of passage. So I need to discover how this ‘unmaking’ can also be a ‘remaking’. It’s not a case of ‘not-working’ (God forbid!) but doing ‘work’ of a different kind. This includes the openings retired people have, as physical and mental health allow, to volunteer, involve ourselves in our local communities, develop new interests, learn new skills. I want to grasp more of these opportunities.

But in retirement I’m especially thinking of the ‘heart-work’ that begins when we realise that the most basic question we can ever ask ourselves is, what does life expect of us? Or if you like, what does God ask of us? What is the work of God in the world and what is my part in it? How do I go on responding to God and to life before I die, become the best self I am capable of being? It’s a question that, like the Hound of Heaven, pursues us down the years, though we don’t always face it in our busy working lives. Retirement gives us the time and opportunity.

I think there are three parts to this ‘heart work’. First, being more present to the here and now: family, friendships, the pleasures of nature and art, the cycles of times and seasons, the goodness of ordinary things. This feels like an important aspect of ageing: you never know when you might be experiencing something for the last time. Secondly, welcoming the perspectives we gain later in life when when we can look back and recognise patterns and connections that have run through our personal histories. ‘Life must be lived forwards but understood backwards’ said Kierkegaard in words I’ve come to treasure. And thirdly, becoming more attentive to ambiguity, darkness and suffering whether I find them in the pain of the world or closer at hand in other people or in myself. Growing old has to mean embracing both the shadow and the light.

And above all, it means nurturing a sense of gratitude, loving life, and loving the God who is the source of all life and love, from whom we came and to whom we all return.

So this is my last post, my final blog. To those who’ve been kind enough to tell me they’ve enjoyed listening in on my woolgathering, I’m grateful. Where I’ve misjudged or offended, I apologise. These (nearly) ten years of blogging have been a good adventure, and I’ve been stimulated by and learned from your comments, criticisms and challenges. Thank you for being such good company.

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PS: I’ll leave this website up for now, along with the others here and here, where you can find my sermons and addresses, and the blogs I wrote when I was in Durham. But I shall close the comments in due course.

Sunday, 17 May 2020

God, the Virus and ‘Tragic Optimism’

Where is God in all this? That's the question I've tried to wrestle with since  the Coronavirus became a fact of all our lives.  For vast numbers of people in this country and across the world these are terrible times. Where is God in the suffering and dying, the loss and the loneliness, the hopelessness and despair that so many are experiencing in this pandemic? When the world finally emerges from this ordeal, what kind of story will faith tell about it? What difference will it make to the way we believe?

I opened up some of these questions in an earlier blog, Chaos, the Virus and God. I was looking for a metaphor that would help make sense of the threat and disorder that the Coronavirus has posed for the world. I came up with the idea of flood, a pervasive image in the Hebrew scriptures of the primordial fear of being overwhelmed by chaotic forces beyond human control.

All four of the elements believed by the ancients to constitute the physical universe - earth, air, fire and water - are necessary to sustain life. Yet when they break out of their bounds they wreak havoc. I want to write about one famous example in history when all four were let loose at the same time. Because this particular event happened not in some remote country on the other side of the world but to a proud and prosperous European city, it had a dramatic effect on the way people thought about natural disaster. I'm referring to the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755.

It struck at around 09.40 on the morning of All Saints' Day, Saturday 1 November. It was remembered as a calm clear autumn day. On a major festival in this devoutly catholic city, churches were thronged with worshippers, processions and carnival-goers squeezed along the narrow streets. The earthquake probably measured about 8.5-9.0 on the Magnitude Scale, catastrophic by any standards. Its epicentre lay about 120 miles offshore in the Atlantic. Within minutes damage to the city was extensive. This was followed by a fire storm that engulfed the centre, fuelled by thousands of church candles lit for the feast and a fierce wind generated by the flames.

Then came the most destructive event of all, three tsunamis that rushed in from the ocean and up the Tagus estuary causing devastation on a huge scale. No-one knows how many were killed in this disaster. Modern estimates reckon around 25000 in Lisbon, maybe 10000 more in the surrounding areas of Portugal, Spain and North Africa. The Lisbon figure would amount to around ten percent of the city's entire population. Death on this cataclysmic scale had not been known in living memory though the Great Plague that had ravaged London in 1665 had killed even more. But it was not only the magnitude but also the character of this calamity that would never be forgotten: how earth, air, fire and water had come together in a deadly embrace to the destruction of so much human life. And that it had happened in the heart of civilised Europe.

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What did it mean? - this was the question that preoccupied philosophers and preachers for years afterwards. The overwhelming conclusion among religious people, both Catholic and Protestant, was that the city had been punished for its sinfulness. John Wesley wrote a tract Serious Thoughts Occasioned by the Late Earthquake at Lisbon in which he refuted 'natural causes', described nature as 'God's method of acting in the world' and warned that if the message of Lisbon was not heeded, God might deflect Halley's Comet, due in 1758, so that it would hit the earth and 'burn it to a coal'.

You have to wonder how even good theologians could read events with such naivete. You would think they had never read the Book of Job which comprehensively dismissed the idea that suffering reflected a cosmos ordered according to the laws of reward and punishment. What was needed was what the theology of the time could not supply, a new way of thinking, a seismic shift (as it were) away from the discredited paradigms of retributive justice and direct divine intervention to understanding how even violent natural phenomena simply followed the physical principles intrinsic to the way the universe works.

The key thinker in the aftermath of the disaster was Voltaire. He had imbibed the doctrine of the German philosopher Leibniz that ours was the best of all possible worlds. But his sunny (because highly privileged) outlook on life was turned upside down by the Lisbon Earthquake. In his comic novel Candide published four years later in 1759, he has two men, the ever optimistic Pangloss and his pupil Candide undertake a grand tour to see the world. They arrive at Lisbon just as the earthquake hits. They live through its mayhem only to fall prey to the Inquisition: as if natural disaster had not done enough, they were now to be subjected to extreme human cruelty. The bloodied, terrified Candide turns to his tutor and asks plaintively, ‘if this is the best of all possible worlds, what must the others be like?’

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The death toll due to the Coronavirus in this country is comparable to the Lisbon Earthquake. It is a catastrophe of the first magnitude, but unlike 1755, this one affects the entire world. This makes it unique among natural disasters in our lifetimes. It would be strange if we did not ask what significance lies in what is happening to the human race. In an article in The Guardian American responses to the virus are examined, and the majority are found to be looking for meanings of some kind, whether or not they are derived from organised religion or particular traditions of faith.

The quest for meaning in the cosmos seems so elusive because it appears to function according to principles that are indifferent to human beings. Our experience at times of trouble is not that the cosmos is necessarily hostile, simply that it doesn't care. That's the conclusion drawn by the world-weary author of Ecclesiastes where what goes round comes round, nothing is permanent, all is ‘vanity’, as light and insubstantial as air. As the wisdom writings of the Hebrew Bible show, faith has to find a way of negotiating the capriciousness of things, living with risk, accident and disaster, turning to the best ends we can whatever happens to us whether it is good or bad. Far from Alexander Pope’s notorious ‘whatever is, is right’, it's more a case of ‘whatever is, just is’.

In such a universe, could it still be ‘Love that moves the sun and the other stars’, as Dante puts it in the last line of the Divine Comedy? One response of contemporary faith is to reflect on the convergence of mind and matter, exploring whether consciousness of the divine could be the goal of the cosmos as it moves towards realising what the Jesuit palaeontologist-theologian Teilhard de Chardin called its Omega Point. Process theology asks whether evolutionary theory, relativity, quantum physics and the cyborg expansion of the human psyche could all be relevant here.

This would still be a universe where things still go wrong, disasters happen and life is damaged. But faith is able to affirm that in an ultimate sense, 'all shall be well' by envisaging how pain, suffering and death are woven into this cosmic ‘process’ that is always moving towards finality. This kind of faith wants to explore how God is present, not above or outside the cosmos but within it, embedded even in its changes and chances. And this ‘withinness’ is mirrored by a personal spirituality that emphasises the journey inwards, towards the centre that we symbolise as the human heart where, as the mystics of all religious traditions teach, God is found. It would mean that the Creator was humble enough to be immersed in the fabric of the cosmos, in the natural processes of the created order and in our own human life and relationships. That would be true kenosis, self-emptying, the ultimate act of love. Just as the Incarnation was. (Or do I mean is?)

Whatever we believe, it seems to me that faith in these times has to be more tentative than before, humbler in the face of a universe we know to be more profoundly mysterious than our forebears of the eighteenth century could have guessed. In particular, contemporary faith must show the utmost sensitivity to pain. With our awareness of suffering, whether due to natural events or human agency, the existence of a deity who is both benign yet ‘in control’ is more and more difficult to articulate convincingly. To many people who are sympathetic to religious faith, traditional statements of theism seem not so much impossible as incredible. They want to know what kind of power we are claiming for God when we address him as the ‘Almighty’, what we mean when we speak about ‘God’s will’ while human hearts break under the burden of pain and sorrow. Theodicy is the study of these questions. We cannot help but ask them, if not during a crisis, then later on. But however we respond, it must surely be provisionally. If we follow the Book of Job, we’re bound to conclude that in the end, the problem of suffering is unanswerable. Meanwhile we have to go on living, and very possibly suffering, and if we can, like Job, trusting and praising God.

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What I learn from the Lisbon Earthquake is that at a time of catastrophe the last thing we should do is find refuge in explanations that sound easy or obvious. If they don’t do justice to the complexity of the real world, they are certain to be wrong. The short-lived comforts of Panglossian optimism will always be unmasked in the end. To try to reassure a terminally ill patient or someone who has just been bereaved or lost home and livelihood by saying ‘don’t worry: it will be all right in the end’ can be an act of real cruelty, not least because it sounds like a denial of what they are experiencing at the time. Indeed, explanations of any kind aren’t likely to be what’s needed in a time of crisis.

After their ordeals in eighteenth century Lisbon, Pangloss and Candide survive. Voltaire’s novel takes its leave of them placidly tilling the soil. Pangloss is still exhorting Candide to look on the bright side. To which Candide replies enigmatically, ‘’Tis well said...but we must cultivate our own gardens’. That is not perhaps very different from the outlook of another work published in the same year, Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas. It too asks what we can do in the face of human suffering. Johnson concludes that we must each labour for our own happiness ‘by promoting within his own circle, however narrow, the happiness of others’. Which is to follow the Golden Rule, care about the welfare of others and love our neighbour as ourselves.

This needn’t mean that ‘optimism’ should be written off. But it does need nuancing carefully. Following his desperate experiences in the Nazi death camps, Victor Frankl coined the phrase tragic optimism. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, he turns the fundamental human question round from ‘What do I expect of life’ to ‘What does life expect of me?’ ‘Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.’ To be able to say ‘yes’ to life in spite of tragedy is to make the best of every situation, to live purposefully even at times of pain, despair and death. Optimism means believing that the best will happen. And so it will, not in the inevitable course of external events, but in the best selves those very events help us to become.

We have all seen countless examples of tragic optimism in this crisis. We find it wherever there is kenosis, self-emptying love happening in practice. In the courage and devotion of men and women in frontline caring roles in our hospitals, residential homes, surgeries and schools. In the dogged perseverance of those engaged in biomedical research that may one day transform our management of viral disease. In the work of ordinary people who, as it says in Ecclesiasticus, 'maintain the fabric of the world' by enabling society to go on functioning. And in the myriad little acts of kindness that are happening all around us as friends and neighbours recognise need and try to meet it. The virus has brought untold suffering to so many, but it has also released untold goodness and love that bring help, lift spirits and lighten heavy hearts. There is something miraculous in that, and very comforting.

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There is something deeply Christ-like in this washing of one another’s feet as we might see these beautiful acts of service. For self-emptying, kenosis, is precisely what takes place in the upper room on Maundy Thursday, and in the cross of Jesus on Good Friday. In the darkness of Golgotha, he opens his arms wide to embrace the human race, not in a coercive act of naked power but in the crucified power of love to give itself without limit, persuade, accept, entice, draw us to itself. It’s what makes love what it is, offers us the lens by which to read the world, convinces us that even the smallest act of service done in the name of love confers meaning and has the potential to transform our vision of life.

Which makes me think Candide was right. To cultivate our own gardens in the face of catastrophe is not an act of selfishness or shoulder-shrugging indifference. It is to defy death and say yes to life, yes to hope and yes to the future. This is tragic optimism at work. Frankl tells of someone in the Warsaw Ghetto who had placed a pot of brilliant red geraniums on their window sill above the street. What could be more eloquent than a blaze of colour in a dark and desperate place? Maybe painted rainbows and candles lit in our front room windows can do something similar in our time and raise the hopes of those who pass by.

Monday, 4 May 2020

Clergy and Locked Churches: the Bells Not Tolled

When I was a parish priest, my curate and I would meet twice each day to say morning and evening prayer in the church. We would toll the service bell first and wait a minute or two in case anyone joined us. Two or three usually did in the evenings. In the mornings we’d be on our own.

Overlooking the churchyard was a residential home for elderly people. A number of them had rooms that looked out on the medieval church in its beautiful setting. One day, I had to be away. It was my colleague’s rest day. So the church remained locked and the bell silent. Next morning as I walked into town I bumped into a couple of women who lived in the home. I hadn’t met them before. They stopped me, looking solicitous.

‘Are you all right, Vicar?’ they inquired. ‘We were worried about you.’
‘I’m fine, thank you. But why do you ask?’
‘Oh, it’s just that you weren’t at your prayers yesterday. We always notice you walking across to church from the vicarage and listen out for the bell. We thought there must be something wrong when we didn’t see you.’

It was nearly forty years ago, but I’ve never forgotten that encounter. I was a young incumbent and had a lot to learn. Without realising it, in five minutes those good women taught me one of the most important lessons of my life. It was that when you are a priest of the Church of England, you are there for the whole parish, not simply your congregants. You are a public representative of God, the Christian faith and the national church. And when you go into church to say your prayers, you take the parish with you in mind and heart as you lay before the Almighty the life of the community you live in and serve in God’s name. You may be alone in the building. But you’re always engaging in an act of public prayer. Because you do this on behalf of the parish, it’s an act of common prayer. And you are noticed!

This witness is part of what we’ve learned to call public faith. It’s built into the Church of England’s understanding of itself as a national church whose parish system ensures that there is ‘a Christian presence in every community’ with a duty of care to all who live there whatever their faith affiliation. The incumbent belongs to the visible sacral, social and legal symbol-system that connects the church building and the geographical parish to the persona of the ‘parson’. And this is what gives the witness of priest-in-church-and-parish its public character in worship, pastoral care and outreach.


Which brings me to the lockdown of our churches during the Coronavirus emergency. I haven’t blogged about this before because I did not want to make the life of our bishops and clergy more difficult than it already is at this demanding time. I realise it’s contentious, and ill-tempered spats on social media don’t help. But reading Bishop Peter Selby’s article ‘Is Anglicanism Going Private?’ in this week’s Tablet (£) has reinforced my original belief that the decision to prohibit (or strongly dissuade - which is it?) the parish clergy from going into their locked churches to say their prayers is fundamentally misguided. I’m sorry to say that I think it risks compromising the Church’s public witness during this crisis.

For this reason I have signed a letter in today’s Times (£ - but go to the end of this blog). It suggests that this policy ‘is a failure of the Church’s responsibility to the nation, stifling our prophetic witness and defence of the poor’. As we know, the clergy are regarded by the Government as ‘key workers’ who are explicitly permitted to enter their buildings during the course of their duties. So there is no question of challenging the law. Our concerns are more theological and pastoral. As Bishop Selby says, ‘our churches are not just optional when useful and available but are signs of hope and healing for our communities and our nation’ (my italics). Our letter speaks about church buildings ‘whose architecture, symbolism and history represents the consecration of our public life’. So we are urging the bishops at their gathering this week to change their current policy, and ask that ‘the processes and thinking which led to these decisions’ should be openly debated through the Church’s synodical structures.

Let me make four points about this. The first is that I do not doubt that the bishops acted for the best of reasons. They are concerned about public safety like everyone else. They want clergy to demonstrate responsibility in complying with the lockdown regulations and to show solidarity with the public. They are right to insist that priests should not be thought of as taking advantage of their position in ways not open (literally) to lay people.

Secondly, nothing in our letter or this blog is meant to disparage the wonderful work being done by parish clergy across the land during this crisis. I want to pay tribute to my own parish priest here. Whether it’s the streaming of services, producing resources for prayer and reflection, maintaining pastoral contact with parishioners or catalysing and contributing to local voluntary efforts in support of the vulnerable and needy, the imagination and inventiveness of our clergy has been hugely impressive. They deserve our warmest thanks.

Thirdly, there is no quarrel with the decision to suspend services of worship and close church buildings even for personal prayer. This is a clear matter of public safety, and is consistent with how all public gathering spaces have been regulated in this crisis. I did not support the plea made during Holy Week to open up our church buildings for members of the public to engage in private devotion on Easter Day. The risks would have been too high.

The final clarification is that for me, the emphasis is less on streaming acts of worship from church buildings as opposed to vicarage kitchens or dining rooms, than the more basic question of what our church buildings are for. I have to say that in this respect I think the Catholic Church’s decision to maintain the daily offering of mass in local churches, streamed or not, is exemplary. It’s true that we refer to streaming in the letter. But it’s the principle of clergy praying in their churches that has prompted it and is uppermost in my mind in writing this blog.

It comes down to this. I believe that even during this emergency, parish priests should do all in their power to keep their churches in use, even when the doors are locked. I mean that clergy should continue to ‘inhabit’ them by maintaining the sacred activity for which they were built, which is the offering of prayer. Whether it’s the eucharist, the daily office or simple acts of reflection through scripture and silence, it’s keeping the soul of the building alive that matters. To walk away from our church buildings, even temporarily, is in Peter Selby’s words a worrying sign that we may have reached ‘a decisive point in the retreat of the Church of England from the public sphere to the private realm’.

Our churches are the most visible tool of mission that we have. At times of threat, people instinctively turn towards them for solace and strength. They are places to lay burdens of worry, sorrow and despair, calm the spirit and find peace and hope. It’s a cruel feature of this emergency that this cannot take place in any corporate way. But it can still happen by engaging the imagination and the spirit. The church building is always there: inspiring, steady, reliable, a potent symbol of God’s presence among us, and of a community of faith and care for whom it is the primary focus of life together. But its witness needs a human presence if it’s to be effective. It needs the heartbeat of its rhythm of prayer to help sustain its community in hope. Like the high priests of old who bore the people on their hearts as they went alone into the holy place, the incumbent praying in church on behalf of his or her people is a beautiful and eloquent symbol of something deep within the human psyche.


Representative priesthood, public witness and the symbolic function of sacred space are rich ideas but they are not unduly mysterious. The spiritual potential in knowing that the priest is at prayer in church shouldn’t be underestimated. Far from the incumbent invoking the privilege of holy orders in order to do something disallowed to lay people, the representative character of prayer turns it into a profound act of service to the parish.

‘Those who live around’, the meaning of the word paroikia, may or may not be aware that their priest is doing this for them, and in an important sense, with them. But whether they are aware or not isn’t the point. What matters is that the incumbent sees himself or herself, not as a private individual but as a representative person who goes into church to serve. Liturgy is literally an act of service. And whatever expression it takes, formal, informal, traditional, contemporary, virtual or face to face, in the sacred space or outside it, all Church of England worship ultimately derives its validity from the church building and the geographical parish, the twin visible foci of the incumbent’s ministry as Anglicanism understands it.

Which is why the bishops’ decision is not so much distressing as baffling. It’s a lazy binary to perpetuate the cliché about how ‘the church isn’t buildings but people’. The truth is that it’s both. Ask parishioners! Sacred buildings work so well as numinous symbols because they gather up and bring into transcendent perspective the whole life of human communities whose tragedies and triumphs, fears and longings, hopes and aspirations are embodied and cherished within them. Holistic mission always means grasping the ‘both-ands’ of the material and spiritual dimensions of an incarnational way of ministering. To lock our church doors against the very people set aside to represent this servant ministry and put it into practical effect makes no sense.

How institutions behave in crises is always a big test not only of their resilience but their virtue. History will judge whether the reputation of the Church of England has suffered as a result of its response to this emergency. Its verdict may not be kind if Peter Selby is right that we are sliding ever further in the direction of a privatised, congregation-centered existence. As our letter says, we must look again at the assumptions behind this policy. And as a matter of good theology and practice, we must allow our priests inside our churches and let their prayers breathe the prayer of the living Spirit back into our beloved holy places once again.

Here is the full text of the letter (with the full - and growing - list of signatories).

Saturday, 2 May 2020

What We Can Do For The Dead

‘One has lost so many friends, and that one feels, of course. But the deaths of tens of thousands happening every day is the most insignificant of sensations.... One death means more than a thousand. When men are dying like flies, that is what they are dying like.’

This is Marcel Proust in Alan Bennett’s play A Private Function. He is speaking about war. But he could have been speaking about a pandemic. How right he is. We can scarcely get our minds round the scale of the mortality due to Covid19. Twenty thousand and more in our own country, hundreds of thousands worldwide. We could not have imagined six months ago how suddenly catastrophe can come upon us.

We try to make sense of the numbers through the arithmetic of morbidity - the statistics, the charts, the graphs. We study the probabilities, the trends, make comparisons with other countries, calibrate our exposure to risk. It’s clarifying and necessary. But what cold data can never do is convey any sense of the human tragedy that is happening around us. It’s crude to say that the amassing of metrics treats the dead as if they had died like flies. (It’s not even true, given the respectful way the figures have mostly been presented at the Government’s daily media briefings.) But on our bad days, the global calculus of death can feel like that, unremittingly desperate.

For more and more of us, the virus is no longer a drama happening ‘out there’, safely beyond our immediate experience. It is now touching us directly. We’re not spectators any longer. Maybe we’ve succumbed to infection, felt its impact for ourselves. We may have become seriously ill, hospitalised, been on a ventilator fighting for life. It may have affected our mental health, perhaps precipitated an episode of depression or suicidal thoughts. Or meant that a cancer test or ‘routine’ operation (which of course no operation ever is entirely) has had to be postponed, and that too will have life-changing effects.

And by the day, many more of us are bereaved. Someone close to us, a family member or friend, has died. Or someone we were less intimate with but still knew - a neighbour or work colleague perhaps. Or someone further removed, a friend of a friend, a distant relative, a friend from the past we have long lost touch with, or someone we’ve got to know on social media. It doesn’t matter how far removed they are. The point is that the person who’s died is not a mere statistic, lost among the nameless myriads who have also died ‘like flies’. This was someone real, a human being with a face, a name and a story. And we had a place somewhere in their concentric circles of belonging. However close to us or distant, they had become part of us and we of them.

‘One death means more than a thousand.’ This seems to me to be a clue to how we could try to respond to death happening before our eyes on such a scale. We need to individualise death, personalise it. We need to focus on the individual human beings behind the daily stats, the men, women and children who like us are not islands but are ‘part of the main’, each of whose deaths, as John Donne famously said, ‘diminishes me’. I’m suggesting that it matters because this is work we need to do for the dead.

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How do we do this? By starting with the people we know, or know of, who have died. My first cousin’s husband. My sister’s schoolfriend’s partner. The local councillor I knew and worked with years ago. The father of a friend on Facebook. The young nurse who was a friend of someone I got talking to in the village. A colleague’s parish priest. I can take the trouble consciously to ‘remember‘ them, name them, weep for them, cherish them in my mind and heart for a little while. Not necessarily just the once on first hearing the news that they had died but maybe from time to time, especially on the day of their funeral if we know when it’s taking place. With only handfuls of mourners allowed at a graveside or crematorium during lockdown, there’s immense strength to be drawn from the knowledge that others too are ‘present’ through an act of mindful embrace.

To me as a person of faith, it’s the most natural thing in the world to pray for the dead. It’s as natural to intercede for the departed in the presence of Light and Love as it is to pray for the living. There’s no great mystery about this as far as I can see. Whatever we believe about an afterlife, our love for people and our duty of care towards them doesn’t suddenly stop when they die. Holding, honouring and cherishing in our hearts those whom we love but no longer see is certainly to keep memory alive. In times like these, nothing could be more important than to know that when we die we are not forgotten, that those who love us will go on loving us to their own lives’ end. It keeps the verbs of loving and caring in the present tense. As for God, it says of Jesus in the gospel that he loves ‘to the end’. It’s all I need to know, because it transcends the boundaries of time and space.

But if it’s true, and experience tells me that it’s likely to be, that ‘one death means more than a thousand’, then we need to recognise this in relation to all Covid19 victims including those we don’t know personally. My daily paper, like most others, has published articles featuring groups of people who have died as a result of the virus. It has highlighted those who served in the NHS. It has honoured people who kept essential services going as frontline workers. It has recognised men, women and children who died in hospitals and, in the past week, in care homes. And so many others. The elderly. The young. The homeless. People of minority ethnicity. The LGBT community. Those from other counties who came to Britain to make a better life for themselves and their families. The all-but-forgotten who died alone in the world and had no one to attend their funerals and grieve for them.

They make painful reading, these potted biographies, the photographs, the heartfelt tributes from family, friends and colleagues, the volume of naked grief that pours off the page. ‘I just can’t get over that I didn’t get to say goodbye or be with her after 52 years of marriage. It’s so cruel’ I read yesterday. This was Tony from Birmingham, speaking about his beloved wife Suzanne. ‘She was wonderful.’ I stopped to take in that one word, such a simple yet eloquent tribute to a love that had grown over a lifetime. ‘She did everything’ he said, explaining how she was active in the community and had chaired the local Flower Club. I tried to imagine her life and his together, the beauty and yes, the wonder that an intimate relationship can flourish across half a century and more.

The media are doing us a great service by this simple, respectful way of personalising death. They are helping us to honour people as individuals, not simply aggregate them namelessly into the swollen mass of the thousands of dead, as if they had died ‘like flies’. This is what I mean when I talk about the work we can and should do for the dead. We may or may not have a religious faith, but that doesn’t matter. Amid the welter of Coronavirus news we can take the trouble to read about a few of those who have died, and be alongside them in some simple act of the imagination, whether it’s recollection, mental embrace, lighting a candle, offering a silent prayer or simply speaking their name. It’s the least we can do to pay our respects to the departed in this way, take it upon ourselves to undertake a little ‘heart work’ for them.

The few minutes it takes to read a dozen tributes seems little enough. Yet to do it mindfully, trying to be present to people we do not know, could be a powerful act of human solidarity and reverence for life in the face of sickness and death. It’s a way of bearing witness, at least to ourselves, to the truth that we are one human family and are in this together. Lighting a candle, metaphorically or actually, feels like a sign of hope. What could be more important?

Requiescant in pace. 


I’d just published this blog when my wife drew my attention to this article in The Guardian,’How reading obituaries can humanise a crisis’. It’s well worth reading. 

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Chaos, the Virus and God

The thing about the virus is that it's pretty much beyond our control. Left to itself, it would run riot throughout the human race. Which is why we're doing everything we can to keep it within bounds, restrain it, put limits on its capacity to hurt and destroy us.

Most of us in the developed world have never before had this sense of a power beyond ourselves that threatens our very existence. My parents' generation did, living through the war. Survivors of the Blitz used to tell us as children what it was like to greet the morning with relief and gratitude at still being alive after a night of bombing. They learned to live from one day to the next, help one another through seemingly endless ordeals. It brought an awareness of the fragility, and therefore the sheer preciousness, of life.

In this pandemic however, the 'enemy' is far more elusive. We can't see it or detect its presence. It creeps upon us by stealth, lurking as an invisible threat that's all around us, maybe even within us, yet as an unknown, sinister presence to haunt our imaginations and stoke our fears. Not only that, but we can't even find strength and solace by facing this intangible foe by being physically together. There are no bunkers or air-raid shelters where we can hold one another through times of assault. In spite of our digital connectedness (which is a great benefit), we are more alone than we've ever had to be before, especially when we need one another so much.

I've been searching for metaphors and analogies that will do justice to what we are experiencing. To my mind, the image of warfare only takes us so far. But I found a different clue in a recent news item about the victims of the catastrophic floods on the Yorkshire River Don in February. Just as homes were beginning to dry out and repair works getting under way, the virus hit and lockdown was imposed. If you've ever been flooded, you'll feel for those poor householders trying to recover fromi a watery ordeal only to be overwhelmed by another kind of chaos that is putting a stop to so much everyday human activity.

Chaos is the idea I want to focus on. If you think about it, lockdown is how we always respond to chaos or the threat of it. Here in Tynedale, we became all too familiar with floodgates and sandbags in the floods of Storm Desmond in December 2015. As 'biblical rain' was bucketing down outside, I watched the water creep up the cellar stairs over a period of a couple of hours until it was two metres deep (yes, exactly that emblematic measure by which we now calibrate our social distancing). It was slow, it was silent, it was relentless - and it was sinister. How far would it rise? Would it invade the ground floor? That's when the image of chaos became a vivid reality. I was facing an invasion. The good order of my much-loved home was threatened by an enemy I could see (it's true), but could do nothing whatever to stop.

At once I was taken back to the Hebrew scriptures. The Psalms are full of references to keeping chaos at bay, mostly expressed in the language of the flood that was always threatening to overwhelm the dry land and civilised life. 'The floods have lifted up their voice; the floods lift up their roaring.' To the Hebrews, for all its life-giving benefits, water was a force to respect and be afraid of. They never forgot the defining myth of the global flood that had all but destroyed life on earth. So they needed again and again to reassure themselves is that there was a power that was greater even than they were, strong enough to banish the waters to their proper place and reimpose order. 'More majestic than the waves of the sea, majestic on high is the Lord!' (Psalm 93.4).

This idea is fundamental in the first creation story in Genesis. 'In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep' (Genesis 1.1-2). In Hebrew, tohu wa vohu describes the chaotic ocean where, in semitic mythology, malevolent demons lurked, presences that needed to be overcome in a primordial battle with the god before the world could come into being. In Genesis, the separation of light from darkness, waters above from waters below, dry land from sea hint at this mythological battle with chaos. It was all part of the Creator's programme of introducing shape and structure into the cosmos so that it could become a place where life would flourish. When Jesus stills the storm in the gospel story by addressing the turbulent sea as if it were a malign conscious presence, 'Peace, be still!', he is recalling this ancient theme in an act of new creation (Mark 4.39). No wonder his terrified disciples were in awe of him.

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I'm wondering whether we are experiencing the virus in this way, as a kind of flood that must be kept within boundaries so that its power to damage is limited. Most of us are locked-down in our homes, safe places that we trust are havens from the flood of infection. But for many they are also experienced as prisons where freedoms are drastically curtailed. Our health and care workers are armed (when they are) by layers of personal protective equipment (PPE) observing hygiene protocols that are as exacting as any sanctuary ritual. All these are necessary acts of defence against the chaotic threat we are not yet able to cure or immunise against. The watery analogy is especially apt when you consider the etymology of the Latin word virus. It means a fluid that has potency to change things, usually in the bad sense of a poisonous liquid or venom. Those who have experienced the effects of the virus in themselves or others describe the saturation of the lungs as akin to drowning. Which is to be overwhelmed by water.

There's an important consequence to draw from this. Water is good, wholesome and utterly essential - in the right place. It gives us life, keeps us clean, provides us with energy. But when it overflows its appointed bounds, it becomes a threat, even a danger to life. The point is that water isn't evil in itself. It's only when it becomes an uncontrolled chaotic power that it has the capacity to destroy. Similarly, without viruses life on earth could not have evolved in the form we know it, nor would we exist as human beings. However damaging viral mutations like Covid19 are to us, they are no more intrinsically 'bad' than water (or fire or storms or volcanoes or earthquakes or any other natural phenomena). They simply are. 

So we should be careful about our language. In particular, we need to resist attributing personality to the virus by calling it 'evil' or even 'the enemy' as if it had some devious moral purpose in being out to get us. It doesn't. It just is what it is. In a universe of accident and risk, the only kind where life can evolve and humans come into being, stuff happens. It's unbearably cruel at times. But we're not to take it personally. Nature is already 'red in tooth and claw' as Tennyson said, as capricious against itself as it is against us. It may be a cold comfort to realise that the virus is indifferent to our destiny, and is only being true to its own nature in finding hosts in human beings. Indeed, what we experience as ‘chaos’ is in reality merely following its own rules which can be understood and described, such as the behaviour of the virus in human populations or of floodwater flowing in particular environments. But it's not 'meant' in any ultimate, metaphysical way. We all tend to ask, when afflicted by pain or disease, what we've done to deserve it. But as the Bible's wisdom literature makes clear, it's not only unanswerable, it doesn't even make sense as a question because it misconstrues reality. When they asked Jesus whose sin had resulted in the man being born blind, Jesus' response was to challenge the very assumptions of the question (John 9).

But there's one more aspect to the flood analogy. Just as the chaos of flooding is the result of water violating its proper boundaries, we can say precisely the same about this virus. The science points to Covid19 having 'transgressed', that is, crossed over from one species to another. In the bat (or whatever animal life it was resident in), the virus did no harm as far as we know. In jumping across to human beings, it transmuted into a presence whose effects we are seeing all too clearly. It not only causes dreadful chaos and destruction to the human body, it's also capable of replicating that same chaos in our collective social and economic life together, not to mention our spiritual, mental and emotional health. The body corporate is as much a victim as our physical bodies. Like flood water, it's an alien intruder that has violated its proper bounds. (I'm aware that even this graphic way of putting it may invoke memories of the Alien films and invest the virus with personality and moral agency which it doesn't have.)

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What's the answer to chaos?

In the Psalms, God's reign reintroduces order into the realm of chaos by subduing it, driving it back behnd its boundaries so as to contain it and recreate a safe place. Subduing the virus is what social distancing, quarantine, self-isolation and screening are all designed to do, 'flattening the curve' so as to contain within secure boundaries. At the same time, testing, tracing and monitoring help map the way this chaos is infiltrating the population and in time, please God, retreating to its proper place. A vaccine will probably not be the 'answer' to Covid19, but it will be a powerful tool to help curb its worst effects until it poses no further threat to us. (But it's imperative that we learn from this experience how to respond next time a pandemic strikes - which, the experts tell us, is not a matter of if but when.) 

We are not to look for a deus ex machina to rescue us from this or any other predicament that ambushes the human race. It's futile to pray that the virus will go away as a result of divine intervention. The chaos of this Coronavirus will not be subdued by divine fiat, only by natural processes such as the virus exhausting itself, or, more likely and certainly more swiftly, and at vastly less cost in human lives, as a result of concentrated human intervention. And theology wants to say that it's precisely through skilled human agency in ordering chaos that the hand of God is at work. I think this should be the clear focus of our prayers, alongside holding victims in our hearts and remembering those who care for them. And the very act of praying in this way begins to lay a template of good order over the chaos because it's fundamentally an act of love. It makes a real difference to the Zeitgeist, the sentient world of thought and feeling in which we experience our life together. It puts positivity and hope back into the system. We mustn't underestimate what this can do.

I think of St Benedict in the sixth century. He lived in the aftermath of the collapse of the Roman Empire, surrounded by the crumbling ruins of a great civilisation whose memory he held dear. It must have felt as though darkness was extinguishing every lamp of knowledge, culture, law and social life for which ancient Rome had been famed throughout the world. Just as the prophet had predicted of the holy city, it must have seemed as if the entire world was unravelling, reverting to that primitive chaos of Genesis, tohu wa vohu (Jeremiah 4.23).

How might the best of the empire be kept alive in these disintegrating times? Not the cruelty or love of display, not the lust for blood and sex, not the self-deceit and idolatry but all that was best in Roman civilisation as Benedict understood Christianity had transformed it: its nobility, its virtue, its public institutions, its art, its discipline, its sense of honour, its spirituality. His answer was to create monasteries, cells of men and women living under Rule, in which the light of civilised life, however precarious, could be cherished and safeguarded. He saw the good order of his communities, and especially the ordering of place and time through the threefold division of activity into prayer, study and work, as vital to a healthy common life. These local efforts at keeping chaos at bay may not have seemed much at the time. But it's hard to exaggerate their influence fifteen centuries later. It's not too much to say that the monastic vision and the movement it gave rise to kept European civilisation alive.

By kindling lights in dark places where people are overwhelmed and frightened, we 'bear witness' to the conviction that chaos does not have the last word. It's a mighty act of faith, of course. But it's the only antidote to despair that I know. We all have a part to play in affirming God’s good order in the face of the threat we face, indeed, helping to establish it in every aspect of our life together. It’s what I understand by the kingdom of God which, says the gospel, is already birthing within us.

Tuesday, 21 April 2020

‘The Road Not Taken’: a poem for our times

Radio 4’s Today programme has taken to poetry. Each day during the Coronavirus emergency, a presenter or reporter reads a poem of their choice and tells us why it’s become important to them. It’s a much-needed moment of respite from the relentless news of suffering that dominates the news just now. 

Today Justin Webb read Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’. Here it is, for any of you who don’t know it off by heart. (Note to self: memorise it for your personal knapsack of well-tried resources to bring out when you need them.)


Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

I was touched as I listened this morning. I knew the poem so well, but because my emotions were sensitised in this time of crisis and palpable fear, it seemed as if I was hearing it for the first time. In fact, I had discovered it when like the rest of the world, I read Scott Peck’s best seller The Road Less Travelled in the 1980s. Robert Frost I knew a little about, having read the biography of his friend Edward Thomas, the English poet who was killed in the Great War and whose story was told by his widow in two of the most moving books I’ve ever read, As It Was and World Without End. But the poem itself was a revelation. Not for the first time, I wondered today what it is that gives it such enduring appeal.

I tweeted my appreciation and voiced my question aloud. Justin Webb replied that it seemed Frost had written it to tease a friend, only to realise its power later (which happens sometimes - we speak beyond what we know or are conscious of, like Caiaphas in St John’s Gospel). That prompted another comment linking to an intriguing article about the poem by David Orr in the Paris Review, The Most Misread Poem in America. He castigates the view, typically American, that it’s ‘a paean to triumphant self-assertion’ and the power of individual agency in gaining mastery over our lives: ‘I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.’ 

No doubt many people have read the poem in that way, though it’s a reading that’s never occurred to me. Maybe I have too much British self-doubt. For me, it’s a highly nuanced reflection on just how contingent our myriad life-choices are, how they hang on fragile threads of opportunity and chance. Every decision we make in life, big or small, could have gone another way. Every fork in the road presents us with a choice. Thousands and thousands of times. And because ‘way leads on to way’, the number of possible routes we could taken through life is almost infinite. Each time, we could have gone along a different track. But we happened to go this way, for whatever reason. Each time, or ‘ages and ages hence’, we had to recognise that it was what it was without regret and without self-justification. The cumulative effect has made us what we are today. That act of acceptance is what’s made ‘all the difference’. 

The poem reads as though it was casually dashed off on the back of an envelope, so artless is it, so unselfconscious. It may have started out that way: I don’t know. However, I have a hunch that in its final form it’s been worked up with great care. Frost’s internal dialogue with himself, the dilemma as to which path has the better claim (not much in it, really), whether he will ever return to this bifurcation (almost certainly not, and in any case he can’t step into the same river twice), what the consequences will be of making this decision rather than that (who can know, yet he has to choose one of them): this all makes acute psychological sense. It’s so well observed, rings true to the choices we have to make where the criteria are finely balanced, sometimes impossibly so, where either decision would make sense, be honourable and have integrity. 

As Kierkegaard famously said, ‘life must be lived forwards and understood backwards’. It’s only with hindsight that we can begin to see (if we ever can) the consequences of the choices we made, conjecture what our other lives might have been like if those decisions had been different. I think this becomes increasingly important as we grow older and are able to reflect on our life’s story and its possible meanings. As I’ve recently reached seventy, this is a key matter for me, not to indulge in regrets, still less self-defence, but to cultivate thankfulness for all that’s been life-giving and good.

It made me wonder whether this was an old man’s poem. The ‘yellow wood’ and fallen leaves suggest an autumnal take on life, the ‘ages and ages hence’ hinting at some kind of eternal perspective. I found out that in fact Robert Frost wrote it in 1916, almost exactly half way through his life. This image of a mid-life traveller brought to a halt in a wood because he doesn’t know which way to go immediately recalls the opening of Dante’s Divine Comedy. There, the pilgrim’s journey comes to involve a panoramic perspective on hell, purgatory and heaven, and - for surely this is the spiritual point of the work - a reorientation of his life in the light of what he has been shown. It’s fanciful to think that Frost was recapitulating in twenty lines Dante’s epic voyage, and yet the themes seem to resonate, at least to me. 

Jenny and I have been watching the new drama Devs that’s recently been shown on BBC2. Alex Garland has created a smart, intelligent story about the flow of time in a quantum universe. I don’t pretend to understand it all. But a central theme is the age-old dilemma of determinism-through-causality versus the freedom of the will. Are events, including our own decisions and actions, predestined through processes of causation which, could they be mapped, understood and analysed, would turn out to lead to inevitable outcomes? Does this mean that in principle the future is as fixed as the past and can therefore be predicted? And what about the possibility of other universes diverging from our own in which different choices are acted out and different stories told? 

‘The Road Not Taken’ doesn’t engage with these questions. But it seems to point to the paradox that whatever the metaphysics, our subjective experience is that the choices we make are real and that they matter precisely because they could have gone another way. Its relativistic world view (either path has its own validity as a frame of reference; neither ultimately has the ‘better claim’) seems to echo Einsteinian relativity theory that was taking definitive shape at the time it was written, just as the uncertain choice that faces the traveller reflects the parallel development of quantum theory. It’s very much a poem of the twentieth century, a poem for all of us who can feel overwhelmed by the complexity of the world in which we live and have to trace a path safely through its tangled ‘undergrowth’. But it’s also a deeply life-affirming poem that celebrates our participation in the adventure of living, the reality that is ‘now’. 

So as I read the poem, I’m prompted to pay renewed attention to the ‘sacrament of the present moment’. It’s both the place I inhabit (‘Where can we live but days?’ asks Philip Larkin) and the locus of every decision I make, big or small, of little consequence or of momentous import. Faith affirms that however alone we may seem to be in the face of the choices we make, there is nevertheless a deep magic, a Presence, a Spirit, a Providence that moves in mysterious ways through the changes and chances of this fleeting world. That’s not a metaphysical statement but a faith-based one that rests on the conviction that God is always with us. It may be wishful thinking to read that assumption back into Frost’s poem. Yet its heart speaks to mine in a way that’s reassuring. It may not strictly qualify as ‘religious poetry’. But I experience it that way. 

This is important when we try to ‘ understand life backwards’.  When we construct the story of our lives, we should look for hints of golden thread we can discern that makes connections and traces meaning and value in them. To do this ‘heart-work’ may be especially significant at times like these when we are learning that the days where we live will run out sooner or later. I’d like to think that when that time comes, I shall (God willing) be able to say, ‘For all that has been, thanks! To all that shall be, yes!’ 

And that will make ‘all the difference’. 

Saturday, 11 April 2020

Easter 2020: fear and hope in a landscape of death

Public was death, but Power, Might
But Life again, but Victory
Were hushed within the dead of night
The shuttered dark, the secrecy.
And all alone, alone, alone,
He rose again behind the stone

Alice Meynell’s poem is haunting me this Easter. ‘All alone, alone, alone’ is precisely how much of the human race finds itself during these weeks of Coronavirus lockdown. Despite all the ways in which we are digitally connected to one another as never before, this enforced isolation from physical human contact is still hard for many and for some, almost impossible to bear. We feel especially for those cut off in even more extreme ways because they are seriously ill, unconscious or facing death, and for those who love them. These are terrible times.

The poem underlines what’s said in all the Easter stories in the gospels, that no-one was there to witness Jesus being raised from the dead. All there was to show for it was an empty tomb from which the beloved body had gone. The resurrection narratives all begin there, not with joyful meetings with the risen Lord but with emptiness, bafflement and fear. They begin at the threshold of profound mystery, in a strange and disturbing place where nothing is quite as it seems.

The painting captures the paradox of Easter. It’s an extraordinary work of art from the same altarpiece I wrote about in Passiontide by Matthias Grünewald, the early sixteenth century German painter whose masterpiece this is. This resurrection panel is not as famous as the crucifixion but I find it just as remarkable. The colours for a start - this could have been painted by William Blake three centuries later. The way Jesus’ head seems to dissolve into the aureole of light surrounding it - that could be Turner. The beautiful curve of his diaphanous robes traced out by his rising up into the sky; the vibrancy of the risen Lord presiding majestically over a landscape of death with the wreckage of the rent tomb centre-stage: it all makes for a painting that’s as dramatic and compelling as anything in religious art. As an imaginative journey it takes us where no theologian would dare to tread.

I keep coming back to the aloneness of this risen Christ. Perhaps I wouldn’t have been tuned into it before we went into self-isolation. But I’m struck by how the painter pointedly does not include a heavenly panoply, a host of angels to celebrate the resurrection. Nor have the women yet arrived at the tomb. True, there are human figures in the painting, but the guards could not be more lifeless, strewn like broken toys across the foreground, When Lazarus stepped out of his tomb, his sisters and Jesus his friend were waiting to greet him. When it’s Jesus’ turn, there’s no-one. He is ‘alone, alone, alone’. Whatever has taken place on Easter night has happened out of sight, hidden from all human gaze.

The theological point is that the event of resurrection is unknowable. It can’t be witnessed or conceived, or even spoken about. It is a mystery, a work only God can do. ‘I trod the wine press alone’ says Isaiah, imagining a warrior returning after a great victory (Isaiah 63). He is bloodied but unbowed, triumphant, ‘announcing vindication, mighty to save’. Did Grünewald have this passage in mind when he tried to capture in paint the rending of the tomb and Christ the victor ascending in his gorgeous red robe, and his battle-scars, the marks of the nails, for ever branded on his hands and feet? ‘I looked, but there was no helper, so my own arm brought me victory.’

We’re struck by the purity of the risen Christ’s skin. In the crucifixion panel, Jesus’ body was terribly defaced by scars, boils and pustules; as I pointed out in the blog, this painting was commissioned for a convent whose vocation was to care for people with skin diseases. It was to reassure the sick that Jesus had suffered as they were suffering, identifying with them in their pain. But now, all this has been healed. Resurrection brings healing, transfiguration and beauty to our disfigured humanity. The sky may still be black and the landscape sombre, but the rainbow colours of Christ rising from death point to a transformation that is coming upon the world. Easter changes everything.

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I think this painting encapsulates where we find ourselves just now if we are Christians. Faith affirms that God raised Jesus from the dead. We profess it in the creeds and try to live by its promise. But like the altarpiece, our lived experience may take us into very bleak landscapes. The sterile ground may show no green shoots of spring, the dark vault of heaven may hold no hint of dawn. Our worlds may be strewn with wreckage and destruction. This radiant resurrected Christ gazes straight at us as if to say, hope against hope. A better future is promised. And we want to hope, desperately. We want to defy the despair we’re tempted to fall into. Even at the grave we want to sing ‘alleluia’. But the barren earth beneath us and the inky sky above seem to say: whatever this promise means, it is not for now. It is not yet.

Easter in lockdown may feel a bit like that. What hope does it bring to people who are lonely, frightened or very sick, or who have lost people they love? Or who are overwhelmed by worries about what the virus may mean for their homes, jobs and finances? Or who are burned out with the tasks of caring for others? Bring it close to home. Any of us could die in the next few weeks. Easter won’t make any difference in this strange and terrible year. Will it?

It would be easy for us to see Easter as the happy issue out of all our  afflictions, to allude to a prayer for the sick in the Book of Common Prayer. We want our tragedies to end in triumph, our tangled chaotic experiences to achieve resolution and come to rest. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t crave a good ending to all this misery. Or at least, could glimpse some light at the end of this long dark tunnel. ‘Easter brings us hope’ will be the message of every online sermon preached today. But what does it mean? What difference does it make?

Let me say what I think it doesn’t mean. Easter makes no promise that things will get better, or that we’ll pull through this crisis because we’re resilient. It really doesn’t. You don’t tell someone who’s been terribly injured or is terminally ill or about to lose someone they love that ‘everything will be all right’. We don’t know if it will. It may not be. Worst fears may be realised. It’s a pastoral mistake in my view prematurely to quote Mother Julian’s ‘all shall be well’ as if it neutralised suffering here and now. Indeed, she wrote: ‘He said not, “Thou shalt not be tempested, thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be dis-eased” but he said, “Thou shalt not be overcome”’.

When the desperately sick patients in the convent looked at Grünewald’s resurrection, I don’t think they necessarily believed that the risen Christ would cure their diseases and put everything right again.What did they look for then?

I think they found strength. That is to say, they were comforted by this luminous painting, given a strength that was not their own, resources with which to face suffering and death. Comfort isn’t a soft palliative word. It comes from confortare, to make strong, invigorate, en-courage. It’s about fortitude. Perhaps they recalled St Paul’s words about not being overwhelmed by trials beyond our capacity to endure, how God’s strength is revealed in human weakness. And surely they thought back to the words spoken by the empty tomb when the women were terrified, ‘do not be afraid’ (Matthew 28.5). And his final words in that Gospel, ‘I am with you to the end of the age’. The world’s age, yes, but my own too, whenever and however my life comes to its close.

I don’t underestimate the hope the painting’s message would have brought to the dying. The vision of God is at the heart of Christian faith and the resurrection opens a door on to our communion with ‘the love that moves the sun and the other stars’, to quote the marvellous last line of Dante’s Paradiso. The dying can feel very alone, especially when death comes because of this virus. As Jesus rises alone, up above the desolate landscape of death, his risen aloneness touches and transforms our loneliness. The rainbow colours of glory and the garland of stars promise that while there are tears in things, they do not have the final word.

That conviction could not be more comforting, more empowering. It imparts confidence, reassures me that my faith, fragile and faltering though it is, beset by ‘fightings and fears, within, without’, will hold whatever may come. Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was executed by the Nazis 75 years ago this month, said: ‘only the suffering God can help’.  When we read the resurrection painting in the light of the crucifixion, when we understand Easter in the light of Good Friday, we glimpse how suffering love is also the love that ultimately triumphs. We can be comforted, strengthened, by the truth that lies at the heart of all of life, amor vincit omnia, love overcomes all things. It feeds the hope that dares to imagine how things could be different for our world and for us all.

So my Easter prayer is that God may look with mercy on his suffering world and be close to every human child. That God will give us strength to persevere through this crisis, endure suffering, care well for one another. And that we hold on to our hope for the time we long for when ‘all shall be well, and shall be well, and manner of thing shall be well.’ And that the risen One who rose ‘alone, alone, alone’ will bring comfort to us all by reassuring us that because of Easter we are never alone.

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

A Birthday Appeal


It’s my birthday soon, my seventieth. It will fall just inside* the Easter season, so modest rejoicing will be permitted (but no partying), alongside the inevitable reflection on attaining this personal milestone. 

Cue introspection? Not now: this blog isn’t about me. I’m writing because this special birthday falls right in the middle of this terrible Coronavirus emergency as it’s hitting us here in the UK. We are holding so many people in our hearts during this crisis: the sick, the dying, the dead, the bereaved, all who are caring for others in these times, our leaders, those who maintain the fabric of our society. 

But we also know that this pandemic is global. Many communities are exposed to very great risks in places where healthcare is so much less developed than here in the UK. So to mark my three score years and ten, I’d like to ask you to join me in helping Oxfam respond to Covid19 across the world. 

Oxfam is deeply involved in helping to contain the spread of the virus worldwide, and in supporting victims and communities that have been badly hit by it. As many of you know, I volunteer each week in the Oxfam bookshop in Hexham here in North East England. I love this involvement for so many reasons, but the principal one is that it helps Oxfam make a difference to some of the neediest people in the world. So perhaps I can appeal particularly to people who support the charity by visiting Oxfam shops and who are missing them (as I am) during this lockdown? If I single out book-lovers especially, well, you’ll understand why as one of them myself.

We all share anxieties about how Covid19 is affecting everyone whether they are far away, closer to home or among our own families and friends. The impact is being felt across the world, especially where people are living through conflict, disaster and poverty. What could happen once the virus takes hold in less developed countries hardly bears thinking about. Bangladesh, for instance, about which I saw a report recently, where critical population densities in towns and cities make any prospect of social distancing, let alone isolation, impossible. In time there will be antiviral drugs and wholesale testing. But by then it will be far too late for many, many people.

Oxfam’s humanitarian staff and partners are working hard to help stop the spread of Covid19 by providing vital support like handwashing facilities, clean water, toilets and soap in many of the world’s most vulnerable communities.Work like this has helped contain deadly disease outbreaks in the past such as Ebola and cholera. It will help protect people against this virus too. 

Oxfam is also able to provide vital equipment in some places to healthcare facilities and hospitals that urgently need support. And it’s helping people who are losing income or at greater risk of domestic abuse because of restrictions on movement. Supporting the world's poorest communities is more important than ever right now.

You don’t need me to explain all this. One of the good things to come out of this emergency is that it’s heightening our awareness that we are one human family. Locally, we are learning how to look after one another better, love our sick, elderly or vulnerable neighbour in practical ways that make a difference. 

But my neighbour is every man, woman and child in every part of God’s world. At times of crisis when it’s tempting to look inwards, I need to make a conscious effort to think about people far away who are facing threats I can barely imagine. Each of them is my neighbour too. I know that in theory. But loving my neighbour isn’t a matter of theory but of developing a feeling for humanity that’s summed up in words like sympathy and compassion. They both have at their core the idea of suffering-with. In my last two blogs I explored what this might mean in this season of the year when we reflect on the Passion and cross of Jesus. For me, the thought that he continues to suffer in every suffering human child is at the heart of what Holy Week and Good Friday mean.

Which is why I’m asking if you’d be willing to join me in being part of this great effort if you can. I’ve made Oxfam’s Coronavirus appeal my birthday fundraiser on Facebook. You can give via my Facebook page. Please use this if possible. The post is public so you don’t have to be a member. But if you prefer, you can give directly to Oxfam though it won’t be included in the total raised by my personal appeal. You can find Oxfam’s Coronavirus giving page here.

Thank you. Stay safe and well. I hope and pray that this season of Holy Week and Easter brings health, peace and blessing. 


*To clarify, because some have speculated, my birthday falls on the Ides of April.