We are well into Advent. Most people think of this as a count-down to Christmas and even within the church, this is now a large part of what it is about. However, originally it had a much more sombre feel. It was a time of preparation, for the end of time itself and also for our own end. Sermons focussed on the four “last things”, heaven, hell, death and judgement. Today in the church these get moved forward, to November and its emphasis on remembrance. But death is always with us. A recent survey has shown how quickly attitudes to death and, most especially, funerals are changing. Only 47% of those in the survey say that they want a funeral; the preferred option is a direct cremation with the money instead being spent on a party to celebrate the life of the deceased. Funerals are considered expensive but also gloomy. The first of these perceptions is true but, speaking as someone who buries people for a living, I do not recognise the “gloomy” bit. I do not think I have been to or lead a funeral where there has not been smiles and laughter at some point, alongside the tears. Those include both religious services but also those led by humanist celebrants, who are equally aware of the need to balance the need for space to grieve and bring closure with celebration and commemoration of a life. I always think that the funeral is not ultimately for the deceased; God knows that person and was with them at their end. Instead funerals are their for us, the living, to allow us to say goodbye to our loved one but then start the process of saying hello to them, as they now live in our memories and ultimately rise with Christ.
A new illuminated Bible, created by hand, has just been completed. This is the first time for 500 years such a Bible has been commissioned by a Benedictine monastery; in this case, St John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, in the USA. The project was first discussed in 1998, when a calligrapher, Donald Jackson, approached the community with a proposal for the book. It took 15 years for the book to be created. There is of course just one original, but 300 copies have also been produced and cost a minimum of $160,000 each. One is now in Lambeth Palace, the home of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Some may question the purpose of the project. I however am with the monks who commissioned the Bible, in order to “ignite the spiritual imagination”. Imagination is one of the defining marks of being human, it allows us to reach out, to see beyond the present into the realms of what-can-be, what we long for. Art, in all its forms, can take us to places words and logic cannot. Donald Jackson speaks of how he lets the inanimate materials he works with, paper, wood, glass, “speak from its own personality”, how he longs “to leave it more handsome than [he] found it”. He breathes “life, soul and rhythm” into letters. I love this vision. This is accessible to anyone, but for myself, as a Christian, it opens a window to God.
Dr Who is 60. We did not have a TV when the programme first came out and in any case, I am too young to have remembered the first Doctor, William Hartnell. I can just remember the second Doctor, Patrick Troughton and I recall being very scared by an episode I watched at my grandparents where he met up the with Yeti, the Abominable Snowmen. Reading about this on Wikipedia has renewed shivers. But it is mainly Jon Pertwee, the 3rd Doctor who I remember. I was entertained, but never especially scared and I certainly did think of the programme as being remotely spiritual. But that was then, now I’m a vicar and I do see many things differently.
The Doctor travels through time and space to help humanity and fight evil. Somewhere in this, there are connections with eternity, a reality outside of us and a sense that we need help to redeem ourselves. Doctor Who was written as children’s entertainment and for 60 years it has (mostly) succeeded, a remarkable achievement. But perhaps that is because it touches on some very deep themes that are timeless and relevant to people of every age. With periodic re-incarnations of the Doctor, it may owe more to Eastern religious thought than the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but perhaps unwittingly it does point to a wish for a saviour, human but somehow not human. Are you looking to Advent?
I recently read an extract from a talk given by Rory Stewart on the goal of politics. Stewart is a former Conservative MP and cabinet member; he stood for leadership of the party (and the job of Prime Minister) when David Cameron stood down. He resigned from the party over disagreements about Brexit. He is now an academic and broadcaster.
Stewart suggested that there are two competing visions of how politicians should work. One is typified by the 16th century thinker, Machiavelli, who believed that the first duty of any leader is to achieve and maintain power. If a politician never has power, they will never be able to lead. By contrast Stewart drew on older ideas, derived from Greek philosophers, who believed that the goal of any life was to pursue “virtue”. Here the politician is to prioritise doing what they believe is right, the greater common good, over the pursuit of power.
I suspect most of us borrow from both camps; I can play power games, albeit not very well. However, it seems to me that the Christian view must be that virtue trumps power; it is the former that should motivate us and our leaders, not the latter. You will have your own views on where current leaders, both in this country and abroad, stand on power versus virtue.
Who we chose to remember and why we remember them says a lot about ourselves and the society we live in. This weekend, Remembrance services will take place against the background of the horrible events unfolding in Israel and Gaza; let us not forget also conflicts in Ukraine, Yemen Armenia and Syria. There are conflicting voices about how those might impact on our own response to Remembrance; do we include them, are they a distraction, are they even a danger?
For those of my generation, one response is to focus on the individuals. I will not have personally known any of the fallen, but I often know their families; I am old enough to remember their parents or siblings and to have sensed their loss. I still remember the rawness when my great aunt, 60 years after the event, told me of how she and my grandmother heard the news of the death of great-uncle Ern, killed just a few days before the end of World War 1. He is not just a name for me on the war memorial in Ditton Priors church. By focusing on an individual, I find a personal connection between events far away, long ago. And even if I do not have that personal connection, there are now plenty of resources to tell the stories of the names that I can read and help me engage. And perhaps there is also a lesson to help us all respond to the current conflicts. A member of one of our congregations has recently shared her anguish over a friend, Mohammed Ghalayini, a Manchester civil servant now trapped in Gaza. By hearing his story, I find I can better respond, pray, for all those, Palestinians and Israelis, who are victims of the war there. Sometimes we remember best by getting personal.
I am sufficiently old to remember when Halloween was just a footnote in books of folklore and/or one of those funny things Americans did, like their peculiar football. At this time of year the great excitement was bonfire night; in particular the anxiety as to whether it would be dry so the bonfire would actually burn. It was all very exciting; building the bonfire with Dad, Mum making a Guy, usually out of an old pair of pyjamas and then the fireworks, all smartly packaged in boxes. I liked the rockets; always the exciting possibility that they might go down someone’s chimney on their return to earth.
For many reasons, the backyard bonfire night celebration is now a thing of the past, but the physical reality of fire; heat and light in a chill (and usually damp) November evening was an uplifting experience that I suspect no amount of fake cobwebs and pumpkins can match. It did of course have its darker side; when the bonfires were first lit in the early 17th century to give thanks for the discovery of the plot to destroy parliament, there were still memories of when it was not just effigies that were burnt on fires. We can celebrate that parliament was not overthrown by force, there is nothing admirable about the religious intolerance that played such a large part in the underlying events. So I understand why some do not mourn the way the celebration has changed. But the modern, organised displays serve to bring people together and today provide a safe reminder of the awe and beauty of fire. And perhaps through that, they can provide a connection with the why fire has spiritual overtones; in the Christian tradition, as the Holy Spirit that brings hope and new life to all.
A few weeks ago, I made a pilgrimage. It was one of my regular visits to the Gloucestershire and Warwickshire Railway, a preserved railway that runs beneath the escarpment of the Cotswolds from Broadway to Gloucester. This is a part of the world I first encountered almost 50 years ago, when I was a member of the walking club at school and we did the Cotswold Way. On my regular visits to the railway, I have always seen the signs to Hailes Abbey, which lies close to the line and the name resonated with me from the walking club days. I could actually remember very little about the site, but on this visit to the railway, I made the short diversion on my way home to visit it.
I have to say, first impressions were not favourable. I did wonder if it was really worth spending £7 when all that seemed to be standing were just four walls of the cloister, the quadrangle next to the church where the monks would study. But I did pay. What really struck me was not these walls, but the vast green space next to it, carefully marked out by the mower, that was where the church had stood. I followed what would have been the processional route, through the main door of the nave, beneath where the tower would have stood, to what would have been the high altar where the priest would have celebrated the mass. I tried to be devout, to imagine what it would have been like to lead Holy Communion, not with much success. There was something about just being in that space that seemed to be the really important emotion, not my own analysis.
In the weeks that followed, I have found my thoughts coming back to the vast green space; empty, tranquil and somehow special. In my mind, the place remains holy, even though the building has long gone; perhaps it has become even more the dwelling place of God now there are no walls and it is open to the sky and all sides. Given the present traumas all around us, I am grateful that it is place I can revisit in my mind, to refresh my soul.
And so the nightmare in Israel and Gaza continues. I really have no words that are adequate, perhaps a truly honest posting would finish at this point. But there is one detail this week that has lodged in my mind. Something that does not seem to have been reported in all the coverage about the terrible rocket attack on the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital is that it is administered by Episcopalian Church in Jerusalem; the Anglican (ie Church of England) church in the Middle East. It was founded in 1882 by the Church Missionary Society, the missionary society of the Church of England. At its core, are the Christian values of love and service, although it offers care to all, regardless of creed or nationality. Within the church, we often speak of ourselves being the “body of Christ”, the people who attempt to do the Christ-like work in the world, bring the Christ-light into the world. So often this just seems to be words; just ocassionally I can see it in happening.
Then the soldiers led Jesus into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint [Jesus]. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’
Over the last few weeks I have attended a number of events organised by our local churches that might be termed “social gatherings”. A coffee morning at Billingsley a month ago, a breakfast at the Down organised by Glazeley and Chetton churches, the harvest supper at Chelmarsh. None of these are explicitly “religious” gatherings; the nearest we came was when I said grace at the harvest supper. The coffee morning and the breakfast are to raise money for the churches; the harvest supper is simply to thank the local community for supporting the church. However, for me the most important thing that all these events do is to bring people together. It is always a pleasure to see new faces at them. For the most part, these people will not come to church and may have no formal religious faith at all. However, we welcome them as part of our community, no matter what they may or may not believe, following the insight of the Hebrew scriptures that we are connected as we are all made in God’s image. As a vicar, I believe that God is at work in these gatherings every bit as much in a church service. There are words (sometimes) attributed to the poet William Blake which speak to me about this; “I sought my soul, but my soul I could not see; I sought my God, but my God eluded me. I sought my brother, and I found all three”.