Wednesday, June 02, 2021

Mark 3:20-35 The Sin Against the Holy Spirit

Written for our weekly Diocesan reflection video. You can watch it on Vimeo here

Mark 3:20-35  (click here to read passage)

Most of us have had an experience where we wondered if a slip of the tongue has spoiled things. A job interview, a tricky meeting, maybe even a first date can all contain that fear of blowing it by saying something wrong.

The gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Mark 3:20-35) has prompted that thought for many Christians over the years. They have been troubled by Jesus’ words that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is an eternal sin and have then lived in fear that they might have blown their salvation by a slip of the tongue. And even if that isn’t your worry, it seems inconsistent with the rest of the teaching of Jesus that something might be unforgiveable. So, what is going on, and what did he mean?

First, this is addressed to scribes from Jerusalem, who are persisting in saying that Jesus’ words and actions come from an unclean spirit within him (3:22,30. In the Greek, the verb "say" is in the imperfect "were saying", suggesting persistence.). As scholars, they knew the scriptures better than anyone, and yet they had been persistently saying he was inspired by evil. We therefore need to understand this apparent harshness in that context. After all, we know that Jesus’ family were worried, and the crowd said he had gone mad, but only the scribes get this reproach. And even then, Jesus doesn’t directly state that they have already committed this terrible sin.

We also forget that Jesus sometimes speaks like one of the prophets of the Old Testament. Those prophets of old often seem to be foretelling doom and destruction, and yet the fulfilment of their prophecies aren’t always seen through those apparent predictions coming to pass. This is best illustrated in the story of Jonah, who reluctantly ends up in Nineveh to predict the demise of the city (Jonah 3:3-5), but they change their ways and the destruction doesn’t happen – much to Jonah’s disappointment (4:1-3). His prophecy was fulfilled, not by a prediction coming true, but by producing change in the hearts of the citizens of Nineveh.

I think we need to see Jesus’ words in that way here. I believe he is seeking change in the scribes – here his harshest critics - by confronting them in the role of a prophet.

Therefore, we need to turn this passage round. Rather than see it as a limitation, or a catch-clause in a kind of divine contract, we need to look at it differently and more positively. This is really about how difficult it is to escape the reach of God’s grace.

God’s grace, his love, his forgiveness, and his offer of reconciliation are available to everyone, always. In Jesus, that offer is made in person. The text indicates that the only way to place yourself beyond the reach of that infinite and inclusive offer would be to consciously, wilfully and persistently identify that offer with something evil to the very end. Only that can be described - in Jesus’ words – as eternal sin. This is not about a slip of the tongue, or a bad day at the office, or even a difficult spell that we all have in our lives; it is about being completely and permanently closed to receiving anything of the light, love, grace, forgiveness and reconciliation of God represented in Jesus.

A good panel at a job interview do not judge on one comment in isolation from everything else they know about you; they look at the whole picture. A relationship with real potential doesn’t crash with one wrong comment on a date – it works at it to understand. Likewise, our relationship with God doesn’t hinge on a slip of the tongue, a moment of doubt, a mistake in life.

I’ll conclude with some wisdom from Charles Cranfield, who wrote a classic commentary on Mark’s gospel:

“It is a matter of great importance pastorally that we can say with absolute confidence to anyone who is overwhelmed by the fear that they have committed this sin, that the fact they are so troubled by it is itself a sure proof that they have not committed it.” 

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Voter ID

It is interesting to see how the proposals for compulsory ID are unfolding. On the one hand, the point is made that there were only a tiny handful of cases which it might have prevented at the last election; on the other, it is advocated as a measure to prevent the possibility of widespread fraud at a future election. Other countries (and Northern Ireland within the UK) already require it, so what are the problems?

Not Everyone has ID

I used to be at a church in Morecambe, which is quite an economically deprived area. Local agencies regularly encountered people who found engaging with local services very challenging. Applying for what they were entitled to was a big hurdle - due to physical or mental health issues, lack of confidence with literacy, or just a suspicion of authorities, forms and institutions. No doubt quite a lot of them weren't even registered to vote at all, but even if they were (it is a simple form) getting additional ID would be a challenge.

Clergy have to ID people for weddings and also for DBS checks, and sometimes it was quite difficult for people to get the required documents required, so they will need something else for voting. I remember trying to do a DBS for someone who was married with kids, had lived at their address for some time, but they never had a need for a passport or driving licence. We had to scour through bills and other official correspondence to get the right combination of current paperwork even to do a DBS ID check.

The Cost of ID

The cheapest way to get a UK adult passport is online (which means someone needs access to that). Charities (and the library) in Morecambe provided that for people with none, but inevitably it only benefitted people who were aware of the facility and willing to use it. The cost of the cheapest passport is £75-50. Driving licences are cheaper (and even free for a change of details) but driving costs considerably more!

If an ID card of some kind is to be introduced which can serve as voter ID, the process needs to be simple and free if it isn't going to discriminate against people struggling with money - let alone the challenges I mentioned previously. The Northern Ireland card is free, so that sets a precedent. The potential difficulty there is that free schemes can be harder to secure that ones which involve payment and generate an audit trail.

The Electoral Reform Society estimates that the voter ID proposals could cost up to £20 million to implement, and could affect up to 11 million potential voters. Even if those are exaggerated figures, the impact is highly likely to be significant.

The Impact on Voting Trends

One of the key points made by opponents of the voter ID proposals is that Labour tends to be stronger with precisely the people most likely to be disenfranchised by such a system. There were comparable allegations made in the United States about it favouring Republicans. Even if it were unwitting, the proposal is likely to favour Conservative voting at an election. 

Any proposal that is likely to reduce voter numbers is unwelcome; if it favours certain political interests, it is profoundly unjust.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Five Years On

The first anniversary of Debbie's death was inevitably a strange day, but I have to say that the date itself hasn't usually had a great impact on me in the years since. The more poignant moments are usually prompted - at least for me - by finding a photograph or a memento, hearing a piece of music, or even in visiting places that were significant for us. 

Debbie with Dino, our dog at the time.

Today marks five years since Debs died, and I found myself thinking about her and what happened a little more than usual. Perhaps 5 years is some kind of subconscious threshold, or maybe it is because bereavement feels quite current, as I took a funeral yesterday, we've had a death in the family, and there is a rather significant funeral on Saturday.

Whatever the reason, it prompted me to think a bit about the enduring impact of bereavement that I have seen in myself and in others over the years. One thing people often reflect on - especially when the person is younger - is what might have happened, or what might they have achieved. And I can understand the temptation to spend all your time and energy yearning for a kind of parallel universe where they are still with us.

However, if having a faith that believes in life beyond this means anything, it has to mean that whatever seems unfulfilled in this life, it does not remain so for eternity. The gifts we received from the person who has now died are not wasted; neither is their potential wasted, even if we won't see it in this life. It's hard to put exactly what I'm thinking and feeling into words, so I'll leave you with Nothing Good Is Wasted, a song by my good friend Rob Halligan.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Reflection for the Wednesday of Holy Week 2021: What was Judas up to?

Today's reflection is a little different. Imagine that Judas left a note behind which tried to explain what he was doing and why. What might it say? We can't know, of course, but there are some hints that might give us some clues. 

Meditation for Wednesday of Holy Week – Judas Iscariot

John 13:21-30

21 After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, ‘Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.’ 22The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. 23One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him; 24Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. 25So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, ‘Lord, who is it?’ 26Jesus answered, ‘It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.’ So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot.27After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, ‘Do quickly what you are going to do.’ 28Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. 29Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, ‘Buy what we need for the festival’; or, that he should give something to the poor. 30So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.


The character of Judas Iscariot is understandably regarded very negatively by the gospel writers, but Jesus himself maintains his relationship with Judas until the end. It is easy to demonise Judas - as the villain of the piece - but life is never that simple. All of us are a mixture of good and bad, and the narrative of Holy Week is full of people with mixed motives. Without wanting to try and justify his actions, I wonder what Judas might have written to explain what he did and why he did it.

They say history is written by the winners. The gift of hindsight gives everyone perfect judgment. So I wonder what they will make of me? Will it be that I was cold, calculating and evil? Will I be seen as unstable, irrational and unpredictable? Misguided, foolish and reckless? Time will tell and I won’t be there to see it.

You know, the biggest surprise was that he asked me to follow him. Simon the Zealot and I both had a bit of a reputation. Simon was very much one of the Zealots. I don’t know if he ever went out on a raid, but they actually do fighting with the Romans. Ambushes, assassinations, and that sort of thing. Terrorists the Romans call them. We call them freedom fighters. I guess it all depends from which side you’re looking at it. And I was known to have some sympathy with that – tired of this Roman occupation.

Anyway he just said ‘follow me’, and we did. We were fed up with the Romans ruling it over us, and we were sickened by the Jewish authorities and their two-faced attitude. Half the time they’re muttering and complaining about the Romans, until they’re handing out jobs, titles and cash and then it all goes silent. Funny that.

But Jesus wasn’t in the pocket of the Romans and he said some hard-hitting things about the scribes and Pharisees. He had integrity, and seemed a bit dangerous, and I liked that.

He wasn’t afraid of confronting the authorities; it was almost as if he looked for the opportunity. But he preached love and peace, and truthfulness. He talked about God as his father and told stories that showed up hypocrisy and stood up for the poor and the excluded. Sometimes he went further than I would with all that.

But I was getting frustrated. When would the revolution start? We had 5,000 men in a field, literally eating out of his hand – that’s an army. The Sermon on the Mount – they were ready to go. But no, there was no call to take what is rightfully ours.

It was when he entered Jerusalem that I cracked. Riding in was fine. The donkey was a nice touch – a conquering king coming in peace. And he turned over the tables. That’s more like it. Now, strike, I thought. Then he says render what is Caesar’s, render to God what is God’s. Looked like compromise to me.

I decided to force his hand. So I went to the authorities, took their stinking money and arranged to bring them to him at the crucial moment. I thought then he would finally get it and yell fight. But at the meal, he knew. He could see right through me, although the others hadn’t a clue. He shared bread with me – we dipped it in the same bowl, and he just told me to do what I had to do.

In the end I couldn’t take it, so I left early, brought the guards to him when he was praying, and they arrested him. “Put down your sword” he said to Peter. No bloodshed even then.

So here I am, with it all falling apart around me. I just wanted to make something happen, but not this. I threw the silver back at them, but it didn’t ease my conscience. Not that the other cowards are any better – Peter even lied about not knowing Jesus, at least I didn’t.

They say he’ll be crucified tomorrow. I don’t want to live to see that – I’ve made arrangements. What still rings in my ears is the last thing he said to me; the last thing he called me. Of all the words he could have used, only this one could pierce my heart. 

He said “friend”.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Reflection for The Tuesday of Holy Week 2021: Glory and Light

Tuesday of Holy Week 2021        John 12:27-36 (NRSV)

27 ‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ 29The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’ 30Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ 33He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. 34The crowd answered him, ‘We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains for ever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?’ 35Jesus said to them, ‘The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. 36While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.’


We had the first part of this passage on Passion Sunday– strictly speaking we should have had both sections at both services, but I split them and used half on each occasion to avoid a repetition.

I expect we have all had moments in our lives when we have wanted to escape whatever lies ahead. However, none of us will have faced a challenge on the scale of what Jesus faced before his trials and crucifixion. The scene has some parallels with the story of his baptism, told in the other gospels – Jesus resolves to do what he knows his Father wills, and a voice from heaven affirms him. This time it is not his identity as God’s Son that is being affirmed; it is what he is embarking upon.

I want to pick up on 2 words in this rather mysterious account: glory and light. As we saw yesterday, John’s gospel regularly uses the word ‘glorified’ to refer to Jesus being crucified, which on the face of it is rather strange. Is it glorifying death, or suffering, or even setting off on what must have looked like a suicide mission? Clearly that is not what is meant, although Jesus is conscious that the outcome will result in his suffering and death.

In the Old Testament, the glory of God was a shining presence which human beings were not usually permitted to see. In the book of Exodus, Moses meets with God on Mount Sinai to receive the law, and when he comes down, he is recorded as still having a kind of residual glow, such that they veil him for a while until it calms down (Ex. 34:29-35). He has spent time so close to God, that something of God’s glory has lingered with him. Glory and God’s presence are very closely related ideas here. If God is present, then his glory can be discerned, and it has a powerful effect on those who encounter it.

Of course, in the person of Jesus, people were encountering the presence of God all the time, and not necessarily knowing it. What Christians call the Incarnation – God fully present in Jesus – means that the presence of God was focussed in a special way, not in clouds on mountains or in sanctuaries and shrines, but wherever Jesus went. And in John’s gospel, that presence of God becomes evident in a way that impacts people at the very moment you would not expect – at his crucifixion. That’s why John records Jesus on two occasions (3:14 and 12:32) referring to being “lifted up”. Here he speaks of that drawing people to himself, earlier it is so that all who believe may have eternal life. And that is why the passage uses the term glorify – at that seemingly God-forsaken moment when Jesus is on the cross, God is actually most present, his glory is most on display, and He is working out his purposes in the world. There may not be flares of light, but that presence will transform and impact people. We might compare Mark’s gospel recording that the centurion in attendance says “truly this was the son of God”.

And I think that is important to carry into our lives too. We might feel tempted to think that God is most present in churches or sanctuaries, or in times of worship and prayer wherever they are. He is, of course, present there, but he is also present in the street, the refugee camp, the soup kitchen, in people’s homes, even in the workplace. Perhaps the lesson here is that he is also very present when people suffer, even though they themselves might perceive God as very distant or even absent.

Related to that are Jesus’ references to light. The glory of God had been perceived as light, but now he points to a more inner quality. He dares to speak of himself as the light of the world, and that light coming into the world works as a kind of judgment. When you shine a light on a situation, you reveal the truth about it. For some that is welcome; for others it is something to fear – and that is precisely what happens with Jesus in Holy Week. The powerful elite are threatened by his truthfulness about them, about God, and about himself.

It might seem surprising that Jesus also tells his disciples that they are lights for the world. The light (which is actually the source of true life that shines in his life) can even be perceived in those who follow him. Sometimes when I’ve been driving on the motorway – or over the moors to East Riding crematorium, my car gets pretty grimy. The lights sometimes need bit of a clean to stay efficient. Our light is often obscured too – with our own concerns, our own fears, our own agendas, our own selfishness. But Jesus encourages us to believe in the light that we may become children of light. Staying with him means something can rub off on us – rather like Moses’ face glowing in the days of old.

I have known a few people where, despite all that life had thrown at them, some light still shone in their faces. The light of Jesus isn’t a protection or insurance from the difficult challenges of life, but it is a reassurance. Not just a comforting word, but an inner strength that can sustain and carry us through thick and thin, if we stay open to receive his light. And I think that’s what happened with the people I think of  - the light shone into and through them, and by doing so brought light to others.

May we receive the light of Christ this week, and may we be clear enough lenses for others to receive light from us. Amen.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Reflection for the Monday of Holy Week 2021: Will the poor always be with us?


Monday of Holy Week 2021        John 12:1-11

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’

9 When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, 11since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus. (NRSV)

 “You always have the poor with you” says Jesus to Judas in response to his complaint about the extravagance of Mary’s perfume being used to anoint his feet. Some people have suggested Jesus is being complacent about poverty. There’s even a song called Stand Up for Judas by Leon Rosselson and Roy Bailey that suggests he had the right idea. A lot of Christians would find that idea offensive, but more importantly than my feelings; it completely misses the point of this passage.

The scene is the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus who we know are friends of Jesus. They are close friends, such that Jesus is recorded as weeping when he hears that Lazarus has died and then famously raises him from the dead. And the authorities clearly thought Lazarus was close to Jesus, as they planned to execute him – as if he hadn’t been through enough already. In this home setting, Mary gives this precious perfume to Jesus. It is hers to give, and she does it out of love and devotion to her friend. Perhaps there is also a suggestion of worship here too. The key point is that that the gift isn’t Judas’s to give – he wants to exercise control over something that isn’t his, and suppress the generosity of one friend to another. And, according to John, it was all hypocrisy anyway, as he had his fingers in the till. He was syphoning off funds for himself.

But there is also a problem with Jesus’ answer: “The poor are always with you” Is that how things have to be? Is Jesus saying we should be resigned to that? For example, there’s a verse we no longer sing in All Things Bright and Beautiful:

“The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high and lowly,
And ordered their estate.”      
Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895)

That suggests our social standing is ordained by God; we should be content with it.

No. In fact Jesus is quoting from the Old Testament – from Deuteronomy, one of the books of the Law:

 “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be open-handed towards your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land”.  (Deut 15:11)

It is a command to be open-handed, generous in spirit and in action. It is not suggesting complacency at poverty, but a communal obligation to be open-handed and not tight-fisted in the face of a poor neighbour. This was not just a plea for action by charitably minded individuals – it was the sacred law of an entire community, it was to be the culture of a community, and Jesus reminds them of it.

Why? Why at this point. Well, Jesus is moving towards a very different act of generosity at the end of the week. He will give himself up to arrest, a rigged trial, cruelty and abuse, and finally a terrible execution on the cross. He will do it voluntarily, because he knows that the gift of his life is the way God’s love and reconciliation is to be manifested in the world. He will absorb rejection, hate, spite, and even death in the belief that ultimately love can triumph over it all. Offering up his life for the world will be an immeasurable act of generosity, and so he affirms someone else pouring out their most precious gift for him and asks for that spirit to be manifested here with his friends to all.

So, I won’t stand up for Judas here, although we will come back to him later in the week. He didn’t understand what was going on here. And Jesus isn’t calling for the status quo to be maintained; far from it. Instead, he calls for a world where everyone is open-handed, where generosity is the hallmark of everyone’s thoughts, aspirations and action. That’s what the church – the community that claims to follow him – ought to be like. 

I wonder what holds us back?


Wednesday, March 17, 2021

National Day of Reflection

 Tuesday March 23rd will mark one year since the Prime Minister went on television to announce that we were all to stay at home to save lives and protect the NHS. The anniversary of a lockdown might seem a strange thing to acknowledge, but it has been deemed an appropriate date to remember the many thousands of people who have died during this pandemic. It is being coordinated by Marie Curie and officially supported by the Church of England.

This Sunday. St Nicholas' in Beverley will be using our online worship to anticipate the day and to reflect on the impact of the pandemic and to pray for all of those affected.

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Reflections on a second lockdown

On Saturday night a priest posted that one hour after the new restrictions were announced, Anglican Twitter was looking for loopholes. It started me wondering why, and caused me to scrap what I was going to say in my All Saints' Day sermon and hastily put something else together. The problem (as with many arguments between clergy - especially online) is that several issues get bundled up together in one argument, and we sometimes talk across each other, rather than tease out a question. The same thing happened during the earlier lockdown, which I wrote about at the time.

This time around, I have noticed three themes cropping up regularly:

  • Churches need to meet for congregational worship (and many focus on holy communion here) in order to nurture the spiritual lives of their people. Suspending services will be detrimental.
  • A resistance to the government telling the church that it can't meet for worship, along with criticism of the C of E bishops for not protesting loudly enough. Faith leaders, including the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have now written a joint letter on this subject, which you can read here.
  • Concern that lockdown will have a damaging impact on all aspects of the well-being of our society. 
First of all, it is undeniable that these concerns are not trivial; they are real and substantial. As a parish priest I would much rather be in a context where we could be running a full range of services of worship, Messy Church, Toddler Praise, and our drop in tea and cake session for older people, etc. It would be great to see the cafes and pubs open and thriving, and people secure about their futures. I don't want to live in lockdown any more than some of my more vociferous colleagues, but unlike them, I do think it is a necessary evil.

Let's consider those concerns. Earlier in the year, churches went without meeting from mid-March until services began to resume in July. We missed some of the most important celebrations in the Christian year - Holy Week, Easter, Ascension & Pentecost. Here at St Nicholas' we maintained a weekly online worship, we emailed, phoned round, and also posted services, messages and prayers. We ran quizzes, prayers and courses on Zoom, and when we were able to come together again, our numbers were soon getting back towards normal, with a few vulnerable people staying in touch watching the recording of the service. 

This time around, the lockdown will cover 4 Sundays, unless circumstances require an extension, and the terms are somewhat less strict than last time. Clergy can still go into their buildings to record services, and funerals are permitted in our buildings. We can also continue to open up to enable people to pray. That is why I am struggling to see why this merits so much more protest than last time.

However, the problem now is that faith communities were not consulted, whereas during the first lockdown, the Archbishops saw cooperation as part of the national effort. That leaves me wondering whether 'this is not about that'. Perhaps the protests are less about the effect of suspending services per se and more about the lack of consultation, otherwise we should have been shouting much more loudly in March/April. I'll soon write some more about the issue of corporate worship and lockdown, but for now I would simply observe that faith communities proved very resilient during the long break. We share a sense that our security ultimately derives from something beyond ourselves and all of our activities or rituals.

Related to that is the unease a number of people feel about freedom to worship. A government banning gatherings for worship is not a comfortable scenarios, and in other contexts would be (and in some locations is) very sinister. However, despite my lack of trust in the Prime Minister in many ways, I don't think the elimination of faith communities is on his agenda. Places of worship are not being singled out here - lots of other clubs, associations, businesses and activities are also affected. The issue for us to watch is that, once the emergency is over, those freedoms are restored and full democratic accountability is back in place for this and future governments.

For me the biggest concern is the impact that lockdown will have on wider society. Businesses are in difficulty with jobs, livelihoods, and homes put at risk. Social life is effectively suspended, isolation inevitably follows, and with dark nights that is made all the worse. I fear that mental health problems will inevitably become more widespread as a consequence.

This latter point certainly merits some noise from faith leaders. There are some really good charitable efforts going on around the country to support people in all kinds of need at this time, including many originating in churches. However, it is government that can make the real difference - whether with meal vouchers, furlough, business support or boosting funding to mental health services. Holding our leaders to account for how they are sustaining our nation's life at this time is a crucial contribution we all can make.

For all my scepticism about the competence of our leaders, I am sufficiently convinced that infection rates are rising, and that without substantial action, the graphs for new infections, hospital admissions and ICU occupancy will go beyond what the NHS can handle. Lockdown is a very costly option, and whilst I think that action could have been taken sooner and for a shorter duration, I still believe that it is the best available choice in the circumstances. 

As I looked around my church on All Saints' Day I saw a lot of older people, some of whom have significant health challenges, and I was worried. Given the rapid rise in infection in our area, gathering them in a building was starting to feel like a risk we should no longer be taking. Yes - I'll miss us meeting together. Yes I'll miss sharing in communion. Yes, I'll find Zoom and YouTube poor substitutes for 'real' meetings, and yes I am worried for all the people who live in my parish. However, this may be the way to ensure that we are all around to meet again in a few weeks' time, when hopefully the risks will have reduced, and better measures are in place to detect and deal with infections.

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

Funerals, Churches and covid-19

You may have seen headlines about a letter written by Chris Loder, the Conservative MP for West Dorset, about resuming funerals in parish churches. It was signed by 35 of his party colleagues, and asks for the Bishops of the C of E to give permission for funerals to take place in church, in line with government guidance.

The first thing to say is that we would all like to be back to normal. I would rather have taken today's funeral in church than at the graveside. We want our buildings to be available to the communities they are there to serve. However, that can only happen when it is safe and practicable to do so, and pressure from a group of MPs is not a helpful contribution at this stage.

It's worth taking a look at the current guidance for managing funerals during the pandemic, which has been published by the government. It addresses a number of issues, including who should attend and the management of the 'venue'. The guidance (or are they really regulations?) make it clear that there are significant restrictions on who should attend, and that a series of hygiene and social distancing measures need to be in place at the venue.

Perhaps the place to start is about who can attend. Funerals are one of the few occasions when a small gathering of more than 2 adults can occur legally. The guidance says that numbers should be limited to ensure that 2 metres can be maintained between people:

"alongside the Funeral Director, Chapel Attendant, and funeral staff only the following should attend:
  • members of the person’s household
  • close family members
  • or if the above are unable to attend, close friends
  • attendance of a celebrant of choice, should the bereaved request this"
Round here, for practical purposes, that is being interpreted as 10 mourners at the crematorium or at the graveside (although in the latter case, I have spotted an occasional extra mourner standing at a significant distance in the cemetery).

I am told that some crematoria have security checking people on the gate, but thankfully that isn't the case where I am. However, there are full-time staff around if required to assist were there a problem. We have to anticipate the same scenario at a church door, should restrictions ease. Church buildings are often closer and more accessible to the bereaved than a crematorium, so more mourners might be expected to try and come. Someone has to enforce that at the door, and I don't relish the thought of anyone having to turn people away from a service in church - especially a funeral. I don't know who I would want to ask to do that. Funeral directors might oblige, but they are not members of or representatives of our church community, so if there was an issue about access, I'm not sure it should fall on them.

Then there is the issue of precedent. A blanket ban on all activity has the merit of being clear. Once the church doors are open for funerals, it inevitably begs the question as to why they couldn't be open for other services too. It is reasonable to argue a case for funerals as an exception to the rules, but it would increase disquiet about other services being blocked. Opening up churches has to be looked at as a whole, and not just on one specific issue.

The current regulations themselves lay down a whole set of conditions for the funeral ceremony venue, which all make a lot of sense. These include:
  • "mourners who attend should be signposted to the advice on social distancing and that they should not attend the funeral if they are unwell with symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19)
  • venue managers should ensure that handwashing facilities with soap and hot water and hand sanitiser are available and clearly signposted
  • venue managers should ensure that processes are in place to allow a suitable time to clean and disinfect the area in which the service has taken place both before and after each service, paying attention to frequently touched objects and surfaces, using regular cleaning products
  • venue managers should consider how to manage the flow of groups in and out of their venues to minimise overlap between different groups and allow for adequate cleaning
  • venue managers should maximise ventilation rates of the premises by opening windows and doors where possible."
A minority of C of E churches will be able to cope with this fairly well - especially churches which are physically large, have a good set of loos, and paid staff who can police, usher and clean. But for many parish churches, that is a set of obligations they would struggle to fulfil.

For example, many church buildings don't even have windows that will open, or sinks with hot water (a cold tap in the vestry is sometimes all they have!). Smaller churches often have narrow aisles which will make getting in and out a slow and laborious process. Furthermore, the people who volunteer to assist at funerals as vergers, wardens and organists (and cleaners) in many churches are over 70 and so should be at home while the infection is in wide circulation (as well as those with health conditions). 

I am sure that some easing of restrictions on the use of church buildings will gradually come through over the next few weeks. That may include funerals, and managing expectations in the midst of all of that will be a significant challenge for clergy and church councils. Some churches will probably be able to do more than others for periods as we transition from where we are now to whatever the new normal will look like. We will also have to carry out thorough risk assessments on all of our activities (including services), asking questions that we never thought we would need to ask. 

The false assumption in the MPs' letter was that churches aren't already asking the questions as to how long these arrangements must persist. We ask them every day, but we also know that we have a duty of care for every gathering in our buildings (often of a vulnerable demographic). Church of England ministers are taking funerals in these strange circumstances every day, so we are painfully aware of the difference between this and what used to be normal. I've been impressed by how bereaved families have not only coped with, but fully understood and accepted the current situation. In all 6 funerals I have dealt with since lockdown, the families have been very helpful, cooperative and appreciative. But I wish I could have done more, and I wish the church building could have been an option, but it can't and shouldn't be until we know the risks have been reduced to a minimum.

Perhaps if Mr Loder and his friends had a chat with some of their local clergy, they might find it helpful in learning more about the challenges we all face in moving forward as lockdown eases, and a little more understanding about why the current measures are in place.

Album Sleeve Challenge Day 8

Today we visit Motown. There are so many Motown compilations, but this is one I was given in the late 70s, and I still have it. All collections of this kind have gaps, of course, but this is a pretty decent set of 20 tracks, including Grapevine, Reach Out I'll Be There, Dancing in the Street, etc.

Back in 2001, we were visiting good friends in Dearborn, Michigan, so being that close to Detroit meant a visit to Motown Studios was irresistible. That part of town was still very much an African-American area.  The museum itself was surprisingly modest, with no official car park and very little signage, except for the one immediately outside.

By Blob4000 at English WikipediaLater versions were uploaded by FuriousFreddy at en.wikipedia. - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain,

When we got inside, there were only a handful of people there, and it was only a few dollars to go in. We were immediately identified as Brits, of course, and the man who guided us round told us that quite a few of their visitors were from the UK. David Bowie had dropped in a few weeks ago, and Paul McCartney had also visited in his time.

The whole place is remarkably small and modest, yet all the amazing classic hits from 1958 to 1970 were recorded there, so the atmosphere was amazing. We were also showed the flat upstairs, where artists such as Diana Ross would pack records into boxes between sessions to be mailed out to record shops. In the 1960s in the US, racial barriers were still very real obstacles even in the music industry. 

Oddly, despite the UK having plenty of racism of its own, the artists of Motown found it a very receptive place for their music, although things went slowly for the bus full of Motown stars working its way around the country in 1965. However, after national TV exposure on a Ready Steady Go special on TV, the chart hits started to follow.

I think my love of Motown come not just from the music and the memories of it being on the radio as a kid, but it also connects with a long-term interest I have had with the civil rights movement in the US, and the struggle for equality that these artists had to endure.

And it's a rare example of music that [almost] makes me want to dance...