Archive for May, 2020

Julian of Norwich and VE Day

Saturday, May 9th, 2020

On 8 May we celebrated Julian of Norwich and the 75th anniversary of VE Day. Both fell under the shadow of the corona virus.There’s a theme of opportunity and crisis which draws the three together.

Julian lived in a cell attached to the church of St Julian in Norwich. From one window she could watch the Mass being celebrated. Another window looked out onto the street from where people would come seeking her guidance and advice. She was writing in the early 1400’s but reflecting upon earlier visions during a time of plague which brought fear and huge upheaval in society and church. Incredibly, at this time, she wrote, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well”. She referred to God as the “ground of our beseeching”; God is the desire within us and the inspirer of our will. When she had her vision, all could not be well for people, many would die prematurely, businesses and farms would fail and priests were particularly badly hit, bringing comfort to plague victims. However, there were positive transformations: serfdom ended, as a consequence of labour shortages; and the church was renewed, especially in her convents and monasteries.

The end of war in 1945 also transformed society. So many had sacrificed so much and it was clear that health could no longer be the privilege of the monied classes and a basic standard of living was needed for all. As the pain was felt across the nation, so a new national social contract must emerge. Both the National Health Service and the Welfare State have their roots in the conflict with Nazi Germany. The horror of war necessitated the building of a just peace. “All shall be well”, not because the pain of grief and injury was to be forgotten, but because a new model of society emerged from the rubble and heroism.

Today, with the lockdown and disruption of the corona virus, we could be on a similar social cusp. There is fear for lives, jobs, education, mental wellbeing and future prospects. Also, the fear is different across the generations: older people are disproportionately at mortal risk; younger people have their education, job prospects, future pensions and ability to buy property profoundly impacted. This contemporary social upheaval may lead to greater equity across generations and communities or it can reenforce the privilege of those who are already secure. The proper recognition of our front line workers is a priority be they NHS, bus drivers, care home workers or food retailers. Could this also be a time to rediscover that: globalisation could be less about the market and more about health and the environment; that lack of opportunities among our young people affects the future of us all; and inequalities across our communities undermines the wellbeing of all the nation?

Can a parish with five livery halls, offer a model of community building on education, craft, association and charitable endeavour? A tradition which has weathered several plagues, can look beyond this pandemic with the gift of hope, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” The livery movement was reimagined after 1945, it can be part the reimagined future of us all.

The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us

Monday, May 4th, 2020

“Once I’m sure there’s nothing going on, I step inside letting the door thud shut”, wrote Philip Larkin in his poem Church Going. To the none believer, there is a strong draw to church buildings while, to the priest and community, these buildings are the custodians of memories, “once on an evening like this… a preacher caught fire and burned steadily before them with a strange light”, writes R.S. Thomas of an “ugly” chapel. Stones and timbers embody the memories of a nativity play with grandchildren, a funeral for a young soldier, the magic of bats flying through the Midnight Mass fumes of port and incense. But above all these places recall the loving nature of a God who “dwelt among us”. Buildings in the centre of their community, often for a millennia, recalling that “prayer has been valid”: in feast and famine; in joy and sorrow; and in pestilence and health.

So this Sunday morning, I went into St Vedast Church, which is on the same site as the Rectory, printed my sermon and then, sermon in hand, along with robes, vessels, books etc. went out side and celebrated the Parish Mass in my back garden/church courtyard against the outside wall of the church building. If I had been on the other side of the wall I would be going against very strong bishops’ advice not to celebrate even lone services in church buildings. What does this unusual celebration of the sacrament imply about our understanding of church and church buildings?

I stream the Mass as, following social distancing, we no longer gather around our altar to share bread and wine. But to the sadness of regulars and the incomprehension of the wider community, I am not able to stream within the church. Despite pictures in St. Vedast of celebrations with no roof, windows, or woodwork and the treasured possession of blackened and damaged communion vessels from the blitz, there is an assumption that now we need to withdraw from our building. At the very time when the church should be offering the generosity of the familiar, the assurance of being at the heart of our communities, we have withdrawn to kitchens and gardens. Although Easter incense wafted down Foster Lane from the open air Mass, unlike my Roman Catholic brethren I can’t say Mass in church nor offer last rites to a parishioner dying of covid.

In a Zoom nationwide conversation with priests, we noted how few funerals we were doing at this time of fatal pandemic. It appears that mourning families are not turning to their local vicar or wider church. Is that any wonder if we are not seen to be offering prayer in the places where communities have gathered for centuries, nor being present alongside health care professionals? Mass said in the home, in these circumstances, does not recall the early church gathering in houses, that was due to persecution and while church buildings were being established. Mass said in the home may imply a church on the margins unable to take a spiritual lead. John’s gospel, so familiar from Christmas services, recalls, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us”. We look forward to once again dwelling among our communities in our familiar buildings.

Keep you mind in hell and despair not

Saturday, May 2nd, 2020

The modern orthodox saint Silouan received the words, “Keep you mind in hell and despair not” directly from God. He understood this primarily as a call to humility as, if we lift ourselves out of hell, we become self reliant rather than God reliant. It’s the understanding of the 12 Step programme that there are times when we need to turn to something beyond us, a higher power, and avoid the addictive draw of despair. Silouan’s words apply to our time of lockdown.

In this context, hell may be understood as our current context. The fear, isolation and helplessness of these weeks. When lockdown started it was easy to work around this new context: Zoom kept meetings going; social media broke down isolation; news kept me in touch; new prayers gave me purpose. I soon realised that I had more Zoom meetings than previous physical meetings; social media kept me buzzing; news was forever streamed into my mind; and busyness in prayers kept me from God. My mind was not in hell but exhaustion was leading to despair, always doing and not being.

Now I try to stay in hell and despair not. My prayer life is sustainable and I give thanks for the simple repetitiveness of the Prayer Book office; newly rediscovered. As a parish priest I still offer intercession and Mass for the parish and its institutions but with rhythm and without despair, just holding before God. I periodically look at both the social media and the news avoiding the seduction of every “ping” on the phone. Allowing isolation to be a reality, but also ensuring that isolation leads to reflective solitude rather than crippling loneliness.

Sometimes, despair knocks at the door. Especially when I wonder if our Host Cafe will again be viable or consider the precariousness of jobs and vibrancy in the City. However, for now I am as stable as the Benedictine I once was. The Desert Father Abba Moses said, “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” We may not choose to remain in our house, flat or cell but we can choose to remain with the source of all wisdom.