Though a glass darkly – 10

Life in lock-down

We are back from Normandy. Except that we didn’t go there. This is the twelfth week of lock-down for us here in Edinburgh. It is the longest that I have been in the same city for as long as I can remember. Perhaps for ever. Since March 15th I haven’t been anywhere other than a walk round Arthur’s Seat, about an hour and a half every day; two cautious visits to a local shopping centre, to go to the chemists and the bank; and a return trip by taxi to take a funeral at the crematorium.

Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh

There are of course some good things about lock-down. There is scarcely any traffic on the Dalkeith Road. Reports from cities around the world speak of reduced carbon emissions and better air quality. Venice canals are crystal clear. You can now see the Himalayas from downtown Delhi. Though you have to be in Delhi of course to appreciate that. I saw vapour trails over Arthur’s Seat yesterday. You normally see planes circling out over the Forth on their approach to the airport, but now there are virtually no passenger flights arriving in Edinburgh. We travel relatively little compared with some people, but I am struck that we have already cancelled six flights since lock-down began; Edinburgh-London-Grenoble return, and Edinburgh-Jersey return.

Venice canal

There is no doubt that the painful consequences of the pandemic and of the consequent lock-down are not equally distributed. We have been told ad nauseam that the elderly and those with ‘underlying medical conditions’ are at increased risk. So, as a seventy-plus Type 2 diabetic, that means me. But when in future years the statistics are collected and analysed I suspect that what will emerge is rather different: that there will be major discrepancies relating both to ethnic background and to socio-economic status. We already know that BAME people have been disproportionately affected. And we know that NHS employees at all levels, doctors and nurses, cleaners and hospital porters, include a disproportionately high number of BAME people. Said to be 44%. Tragically, a lot of these people have died; 90% of doctors who have died are from BAME backgrounds.

What remains to be seen is how the deaths stack up in terms of socio-economic status. Amid some confusing messages from the government, there has been much talk of people being encouraged to work from home. I know a lot of people, including my own children, who are happy enough to work from home, doing a lot of stuff on line, and setting up Zoom meetings with colleagues as required. All of which requires a spare room to work in, a computer or tablet or smart phone, and a job that can be done at a distance. Which is easier for an accountant than a bus driver. So, we shall almost certainly discover that COVID deaths are higher among traditional working class occupations, bus and train drivers, shop-workers, delivery men, taxi drivers, doormen and security staff; none of whom can easily shelter behind a home computer. 

We live on the south side of Edinburgh, and I realise that I don’t know personally anyone who has contracted COVID nor anyone who has died from the virus. A neighbour’s father died down in London, and another neighbour’s best friend died here in Edinburgh, but these are not people that I know. So we just get on with our lives, trying to put some structure into days that are not easily distinguished one from another. Susie has joined a clarinet class, working on Zoom sessions with a teacher in Canada. And she does a lot of gardening, telling me where to dig holes and what to water. Apart from walking over the hill every day, I am trying to do some more serious reading. Though in practice I end up turning the pages of a lot of books that are going to the charity shop. And I have just, with help from a friend and neighbour, replaced the thirty-year-old lining in our pond, which involved finding temporary housing for a myriad of newts and a trio of frogs.

Worrying things: in the UK

The Cummings episode [it emerged that Dominic Cummings, principal advisor to No. 10 and an architect of the lock-down policy, had bent the rules to drive to Durham with his wife and child] was a nine-day wonder. The problem was not so much that Cummings, memorably described by David Cameron as a “career psychopath”, who dresses like a ten-year-old skate-boarder, had broken the rules. About which there is little doubt. And the problem  was not so much that Cummings was distinctly economical with the truth. His bizarre press conference in the garden at no. 10 concealed as much as it revealed. And his wife’s article in The Spectator, an account of their experiences in lock-down, omitted any mention of their drive north.

What is more shocking is that blustering Boris responded in a knee-jerk defence of his advisor. Without bothering to establish the facts. And sundry ministers including the slithy Gove were sent out onto the media to lie on behalf of their master. Claiming that Cummings was a man of integrity, who must be ‘allowed to exercise his own judgement’. Even Church of England bishops, not known for raising their heads above the parapet, were quick to protest at this flagrant obfuscation.  Most of the public assumed that it would now be OK for them to use their own judgement too, and the efforts of the police to enforce social distancing rules became more difficult. Barnard Castle, the attractive town to which Cummings drove his wife and child on Easter Sunday, “to test his eyesight” has experienced a sharp spike in tourist enquiries. BrewDog, a craft brewery in north-east Scotland, has launched its Barnard Castle Eye Test [‘dry-hopped for a juicy hit with pineapple, mango and hint of zesty lime’] with all profits going to support the NHS.  The first two batches are already sold out. It was all a gift for Have I got news for you, but Cummings remains in office.

Barnard Castle

We continue topray for the NHS, and we continue to clap for them on Thursday evenings. But there is an increased willingness to hold the government’s [mis]management of the pandemic crisis up to scrutiny. Testing and tracing is sad and complex story. Yes, we will. No, we can’t. Yes, we will. After a false start blustering Boris promised a ‘world-beating system’ [overseen by his friend Dido] by June 1st. It hasn’t come yet. Hastily-recruited tracers are said to spend their days watching Netflix. And there is no data available to show how much work has actually been done [‘waiting to verify the figures’]. A few thousand tests were sent to the States for analysis [Why ?], but it now transpires that half of them will need to be re-done. Meanwhile, Pretty Awful has announced that all people flying into the UK are to be required to self-isolate for two weeks. Soon. But there is no explanation as to why incoming flights weren’t checked three months ago, when other countries had more COVID cases than the UK. The new policy will be labelled Operation Stable Door.

The opposition have accused the PM of winging it. Boris swings between boasting, when the government has met some self-imposed target, and, more frequently, blustering when he doesn’t know the answer. The buffoon Rees Mogg wants to insist on all MPs returning to Westminster. Presumably to shore up Boris who is wilting severely at PMQs under forensic questioning from Keir Starmer. Stop press news is that Alok Sharma, a junior minister [no, I  didn’t know either], who was sweating into his handkerchief in the Commons earlier this week, may have tested positive for the virus. Which might mean the entire cabinet going into self-isolation.

Worrying things: around the world

So, the government is a bit of a joke. And there are still too many deaths and new COVID infections. But otherwise life at local level goes on quite smoothly. Which is clearly not the case in many other parts of the world. For the first time in twelve weeks the television news is starting to carry stories and pictures from elsewhere in the world. And some of it makes for grim viewing. 

The killing  of George Floyd has once again exposed the systemic racism that runs through too much of the United States. Friends both black and white have written about this more movingly than I can. It is a distressing truth that we have been here before all too often. Some twenty years ago Rodney King, a black construction worker, was gratuitously assaulted by fourteen Los Angeles police officers, who struck him with batons more than fifty times. The assault was caught on a camera by a local civilian and appeared on media around the world. When the officers involved were acquitted six days of rioting followed, during which 63 people were killed and more than 2,800 were injured. Something very similar had happened in the Watts neighbourhood of Los Angeles in summer 1965, following the arrest of the black motorist, Marquette Frye, for drunk driving. The disturbances which led to 34 deaths and an estimated $40 million worth of property damage were eventually put down by more than 4,000 national guardsmen. George Floyd’s killing suggests that little has changed in nearly fifty years.

Taking a knee

Even more distressing is the response of Trump. Who is patently unable to unite the country at this time. And who sees everything in terms of his personal popularity ratings. And whose aggressive twitter feeds are designed to play to his core supporters. Commentators have reached for the phrase, attributed to Sinclair Lewis: “When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” There is some doubt as to whether Lewis did in fact say this. But there is a character in Gideon Planish who says: “I just wish people wouldn’t quote Lincoln or the Bible, or hang out the flag or the cross, to cover up something that belongs more to the bank-book and the three golden balls.” The use of tear gas to disperse peaceful demonstrators in order to create a photo opportunity for Trump to brandish a bible in front of a church was a shameful act of desecration.

It is genuinely distressing to see one of the world’s most powerful countries tear itself apart. It is equally distressing to see what is happening in Brazil. And, worse, in the Yemen. Too many countries are run by populists who despise the people they govern. And while other countries are distracted, by the pandemic and by wars and race riots, China seeks to crush human rights protesters in Hong Kong with an iron fist. 

Between Ascension and Pentecost churches around the world have been praying together Thy kingdom come. And I’ve been reading [trying to read] Jürgen Moltmann, who reminds us that –


those who hope in Christ suffer under reality as it is. “Peace with God means conflict with the world” . So, the Church must continue to work and pray for the realisation of righteousness, freedom, and humanity here in the light of the promised future that is to come. Too easily our faith can be eroded by the sin of despair. Sisyphus, Moltmann wrote, has become the patron saint of the mid-twentieth century; fully familiar with struggle and toil without any prospect of fulfilment. But more of that another time.

June 2020

Through a glass darkly – 8

Postcards from Normandy

We are in Normandy. Except that we’re not. We had rented a house at St Floxel, a small village in the Manche. It would have been half term week, and we were to have been sharing it with the children and grand-children. Getting there from Edinburgh was an interesting challenge. We had booked to fly from here to Jersey, and then to take the Manche Iles ferry to Barneville Carteret. But thanks to the COVID-19 epidemic, all travel is off. Which just leaves a few stray memories.

For me, and I guess for a lot of other people, Normandy has been a place for passing through rather than a place for going to. My earliest memory is of an Easter weekend trip at the end of the 1960s. David and I went to Paris with two girls, sisters, one of whom had a Mini. We took the Newhaven-Dieppe ferry, and the fan-belt broke on the outward journey We stayed the night in a cheap hotel in Gournay-en-Bray. I see that James Bentley in his book Normandy: A guide for the civilised traveller describes Gournay as ‘a lovely little town’ with old-fashioned Normandy houses and a stern, Romanesque, twelfth century church dedicated to St Hildevert, whose bones rest there. But I can remember nothing of the place. [For the rest of the weekend David and I stayed with my friend, Clive, at the Porte de Vincennes, and ate memorably, for the first time, at La Coupole, the period brasserie in Montparnasse.]  On our way back to Dieppe we had lunch on a Normandy farm, with a family for whom one of the girls had previously au-paired. And I was greatly impressed when it transpired that every delicious thing we ate and drank – crudités, chicken, assorted vegetables, tarte-aux-pommes, thick cream, cider, and calvados – was all produced at their farm.  

A year or two later I was back at Dieppe, returning from a holiday at Sarlat in the Dordogne. A. and I decided to eat before catching the night ferry, and ordered a big bowl of moules marinières. It wasn’t necessarily a bad idea, but it then transpired that we were sharing the boat with the annual outing of the Brighton and District Licenses Victuallers’ Association. It was a very long and bumpy crossing, and I’ve never eaten mussels since then.


Dieppe was a favoured Channel crossing for a time. It was the nearest port by road from Paris. When we lived in Paris in the 1970s for a few years we often used that route. More than once we missed the ferry by stopping for lunch at a roadhouse restaurant on the road up from Rouen. That was where we first encountered the trou normand; a small glass of Calvados taken after the main course which supposedly helps make space for the cheese and pudding to follow. The food was certainly good enough for us not mind at all missing the ferry.

A decade or so later I transferred my car-ferry allegiance to Southampton. Le Havre is unlovely, the centre almost entirely rebuilt in concrete after taking a pounding in the Second World War. I once arrived at a small hotel in Ste-Adresse to be met by the elderly, Polish proprietor, stalking the streets with a loaded shot-gun in search of a sneak-thief. One of the problems with that crossing was that driving to Paris involved crossing the dramatic 1959 Pont de Tancarville; 51 metres above the river and 1400 metres long. As someone who suffers from severe acrophobia, a form of vertigo, I became adept at negotiating the bridge very slowly with both eyes largely closed !

Pont de Tancarville

Staying with Francis and Madeleine

One summer in the 1990s we stayed on the way to Brittany with our friends Francis and Madeleine. Francis was a Paris dentist, who came back to faith after horrific crash on the Normandy autoroute which led to his being carried unconscious off the road by a passing lorry driver. They had a holiday house in Normandy, not far from Lisieux, all exposed beams and doubtful wiring.

Would we like to go to church with them on Sunday ?’ Yes, we would. So we drove south for the best part of an hour, and parked with difficult in a small village. There were lots of cars. And the church was very crowded. The priest was short-ish, with a monocle, and flanked by le Suisse with a large sword. The service was in a mixture of Latin and French, and the priest was incomprehensible in both languages. The congregation was part of the [then] Lefebvbre tendency [now known as the Society of Saint Pius X]. Many of the congregation made their way to the presbytery after the service with bottles of whisky as gifts. The priest’s name was Quentin Montgomery-Wright; and yes he was a nephew of General Montgomery. He came to dinner later in the week [the priest, not the general], accompanied by a young seminarian from Birmingham; and we ate and drank copiously before he roared off Mr Toad-like into the night in a large motor car. We never saw him again. I believe he was killed in a car crash a year or two later.

Claude Monet, The cliffs at Etretat

Other memories are just isolated fragments. A weekend in Rouen in the 1970s for the Congrês des Anglicistes, at which William Golding was the main speaker. A weekend in Bayeux in the 1980s for a book exhibition when the children were quite young, and visiting the Bayeux tapestry with them. An autumn day at Etretat looking at the chalk cliffs painted by Gustave Courbet and Claude Monet, and wondering where we might have a modest  lunch. Climbing a lot of steps up from the beach at St Valéry-en-Caux, where the 51st Highland Division surrendered in 1940.  A night in a hotel set back in the woods twenty minutes drive south of Caen. Was that at Goupillères ? Stopping at Falaise on the way south to look at the castle where William the Conqueror was born; the bastard son of Arlette, the local washer-woman. And climbing over another ruined castle at Domfront, set on a promontory above the river Varenne. Escaping from an extended summer heatwave further south into the cool sea mists of Cherbourg on the way back to the UK

The castle at Falaise

On the wish list

Compiling a wish list is always a bit optimistic when there are six adults and four small children. I’d like to visit the D-Day Landings museum at Arromanches, which [disgracefully] I’ve never seen. And relatedly I’d like to visit the grave of Henry Desmond Penkivel Minchin in Bayeux Cemetery. Desmond was a Lieutenant in the 6th Battalion of the KOSB, and was killed at the age of 21 fighting in Normandy. I spent a decade sitting next to the window which was his memorial in Christ Church, Duns. And periodically taking Home Communion to his elderly mother, Mrs Kathleen Winifred Minchin [née Molesworth] who lived at Cruxfield in Berwickshire.

And I’d also like to walk round the ramparts at Granville. And to explore a bit the west coast of the Cotentin peninsula, including Portbail where my friend Clive spent many summer holidays. And to go in search of lunch at the Auberge de l’Ouve, ‘miles from anywhere’ on the banks of the Ouve according to my Routard Guide, which specialises in eels and smoked ham in cider. I wonder if it’s still there.

I miss all this stuff in a time of lock-down. But I’m grateful for the memories. I think I’ll go and look out a bottle of Calvados and my recipe for coquelet pays d’Auge.

May 2020

Through a glass darkly – 8

The missing centuries

I only have two recurrent nightmares. One is about revisiting History Finals at Oxford. [I might share the other another time.] I am sitting in  a cafe or a pub with growing awareness that final exams are only a week or two away. And to my mounting horror, and initial disbelief, it is made known to me that there are several centuries of which I had not previously heard. Roughly the fourteenth to the eighteenth ! Quite a sizeable gap. About five hundred years in all.

There is some rational explanation for this. When I went up to Oxford in 1964 I thought I knew quite a lot of history. Or, to be more precise, I knew quite a lot about the coronation of Charlemagne on Christmas Day AD 800; and a bit about European history of the following four centuries. And I also knew quite a lot about the 1930s.And I had written what I thought was the definitive piece of work on ‘Anti-Fascism in the English Public Schools, 1933-39’. Sadly, when I left Oxford three years later, I didn’t know much more than that.

Which might explain why I am now reading EL Woodward’s History of England. A book that hadn’t passed my eyes since the 1960s. The book is now almost as old as I am [it was first published in 1947], but it does give me an overview of the missing centuries. And it is encouraging me to open a few other history books that are languishing on the shelves.

The thirteenth century

What I may once have known about the thirteenth century has long since disappeared. So I struggled through Powicke’s book in the Oxford History of England series, The Thirteenth Century, 1216–1307 [ published in 1953].  The century began with Richard I [1189-99] better known as Coeur de Lion or the Lionheart, because of his reputation as a warrior. Richard was also Duke of Normandy, Aquitaine, and Gascony, and spent more time overseas, on crusade or defending his French territories, than he did in England. He died after being shot by a cross-bow at the siege of Chalus, in the Haute-Vienne, and his entrails are buried there. He was succeeded by his brother, John [1199-1216], whom Woodward describes, following AA Milne,  as “an able, bad man, violent and lazy by turns and always treacherous.” Under King John England lost Normandy and other French lands, which led to the collapse of the Angevin Empire and contributed to the rising power of the French Capetian dynasty.  The barons were anxious to assert their rights against the increasing power of the king. This struggle led to the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215. This technical document promised the protection of church rights, protection from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice, new taxation only with baronial consent, and limitations on scutage and other feudal payments. It is seen, rightly or wrongly, as a significant step in the evolution of the English constitution.

The difficulty of restraining royal power without resorting to rebellion is one of the main themes of the long reign of Henry III [1216-72]. But the rebellious barons were rarely united. The best known of the barons is Simon de Montfort, a fine soldier and a friend of the leading churchmen and scholars of his age. But Simon’s army was defeated at Evesham in 1265 by the king’s son, Edward, Simon himself was killed , and his supporters scattered.

Edward I [1272-1307] was on the way home from the Ninth Crusade when his father died. He was tall and handsome [except for a drooping eyelid], and a much abler man than his father. He dealt successfully with a rebellion in Wales led by Llywelyn ap Gruffyd, which effectively put an end to the chance of Welsh independence. The impressive, concentric castles at Beaumaris, Caernavon, Conway, and Harlech are a reminder of Edward’s Welsh campaigns, and a clear statement of his intent to rule permanently in North Wales. Scotland was a more difficult problem; the country was bigger and further away from the centre of English power. Since conquest and assimilation was not feasible, Edward tried rather to subordinate the king of Scotland to his overlordship. In 1292 the Scottish crown was awarded to his nominee, John Balliol, but the Scottish people forced him into rebellion. Although Edward defeated the Scots under William Wallace at the battle of Falkirk in 1298, he died in 1307 on his way northwards to put down another rebellion. [Within a decade an English army was defeated at Bannockburn in 1314.]

Caernavon Castle

The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries

The two centuries that followed the death of Edward I are an almost complete blank in my dwindling historical memory. My copy of the Oxford History of England, volume V, The Fourteenth Century, 1307–1399, by May McKisack [published in 1959] has gone missing. So I have been turning the pages of [my water-damaged copy of] George Holmes: The Later Middle Ages, published  in 1962. Instead of attempting to summarise these years, which would bore any surviving readers to death, I would like pick out three issues.

The Hundred Years’ War, 1361-1453

The Hundred Years’ War was an ongoing struggle between the kings of England and France. It lasted with long intervals for nearly a hundred years. The nub of the problem was that when William I became King of England in 1066, he was also as Duke of Normandy a vassal of the King of France. And, when in 1259 at the Treaty of Paris Henry III renounced his claims to the Duchy of Normandy, he was confirmed as the Duke of Aquitaine in south-west France, and continued to be a vassal of the king of France. The kings of England also claimed intermittently, at times of a disputed succession, that they were rightful heirs to the French throne.

English soldiers enjoyed two periods of overwhelming success in France under the warrior kings Edward III and Henry V in the years 1343-61 and again in 1414-22. But these victories were followed by periods of time in which the French kings regained control of their country and forced England into a defensive attitude.  In 1346 Edward III crossed over to Normandy with an army of about 7,000 archers, 1,000 lances, and 1,700 horses, sacked the city of Caen, marched north to the Somme, and defeated the French army at Crécy. It was a classic victory of archers over cavalry, and the greatest of Edward’s battles. Seventy years later an English army under Henry V, a tough, ambitious warrior king, landed at Harfleur in Normandy in August 1415, marched north and in spite of their depleted numbers, defeated the French army at Agincourt, less than thirty miles from Crécy. Henry returned home a military hero. But within two decades the situation turned again. Morale of the French armies revived, inspired by the visions and charisma of Joan of Arc, the sixteen-year-old peasant girl. In 1430 Joan was captured by the Burgundians, sold to the English, put on trial for heresy and burned at the stake. An outrage. The English armies crumbled. The French under Charles VII regained Normandy in 1450, and then successfully invaded Gascony in 1453.  The centuries of government by the Kings of England in France – the Duchy of Normandy, the Angevin Empire, the Duchy of Aquitaine, the claim to the French throne – were finally at an end. Apart from Calais, which they held for another century, the kings of England now ruled only in England

Laurence Olivier as Henry V, St Crispin’s Day

The Black Death

Those anxious about COVID-19 should skip this bit. The Black Death of 1349 was unmatched in its ferocity. But it began a long period ending only with the Great Plague of London in 1665 during which pestilence frequently recurred. The plague, which was carried by rats and had already ravaged much of Europe, probably arrived at Melcombe Regis in the summer of 1348. It spread like wild fire. Monasteries [closed communities] were sometimes nearly wiped out. In the enormous Diocese of Lincoln, just over 40% of the beneficed clergy died. In 1361 the plague returned as the ‘Second Pestilence’ or the ‘Pestilence of the Children’; it particularly attacked children and young people who had not acquired immunity in the early outbreak. And it recurred in 1368 and 1375.

It is estimated that in 1349 as many a third of the population may have died. And the plagues caused a long decline in population. England in the reign of Edward II [1307-27] had been a heavily populated country in which cultivable land was scarce. George Holmes comments: “it was probably not before the reign of Elizabeth I that as many people lived in England as had done in the reign of Edward II”. One of the consequences of the shrinking population was an increase in the importance of labour. Hired labour became twice as expensive. The king’s Council tried to fix scales of wages and prices, but medieval administration was never able to achieve uniformity.

The Wars of the Roses

The Wars of the Roses were”, Woodward insists, “less important than the contemporaries of Shakespeare believed”. Although they lasted a generation, fighting was intermittent and the armies were quite small, only about 4,000 to 5,00 men on each side in the battles. The wars occurred because there was more uncertainty about the rightful succession to the throne than there had been since the twelfth century. The starting point was Bolingbroke’s usurpation of the throne in 1399. Bolingbroke, who took the throne as Henry IV, was the son of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and grand-son of Richard II [1377-99]. When the Lancastrians showed themselves unfit to rule in the fourteen-fifties, there was an alternative claimant to the throne with a plausible claim.

This uncertainty would not have mattered to a strong king. Until 1454 the Lancastrians retained control of the government and avoided open war with York, but not without bitter opposition. In August 1453 Henry VI had his first spell of madness. In 1455 at the first battle of St Albans, often regarded as the beginning of the War of the Roses, the Yorkists were victorious, and Richard of York was again given the protectorate. In 1459 fighting broke out again; Yorkist armies captured the king, and the Duke of York for the first time claimed the throne for himself. But he agreed to accept the protectorship during Henry’s lifetime and the succession thereafter. In the following year, after further Yorkist victories, and Richard’s death, his son Edward, the new Duke of York assumed the Crown. as Edward IV.

The Wars of the Roses

The opening years of Edward IV’s reign [1461-83] are confused, as the king faced opposition from the Lancastrians and from his own brothers. When he died in  1483, his successor Edward V was only twelve. A minority always caused problems. The most powerful man in the kingdom was his brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who assumed the protectorate. Within three months of Edward IV’s death, Richard claimed that that the old king’s marriage had been invalid, that Edward V was therefore a bastard, and that he, Richard, was the rightful successor. Edward V and his younger brother were imprisoned in the Tower of London, and murdered soon after. He immediately took the throne as Richard III.

Richard’s seizure of the throne”, writes George Holmes, “was the most sudden and ruthless of all the revolutions of the Wars of the Roses”. But his reign only lasted two years. In 1485, Henry Tudor, a grand-son of Henry V’s widow, landed with an army in Pembrokeshire. He advanced through Wales and the Marches, and at the battle of Bosworth Field in August 1485, Richard III was killed and the new Tudor dynasty began.


There may be no-one in the world who has the time and patience to have read this far. But I am writing primarily for my own amusement in a time of lock-down, and partly as an act of atonement for reading not done some five decades ago. Whether it will significantly improve my dream life remains to be seen.

May 2020

Through a glass darkly – 7

Spotlight on dark happenings

I fear that I have something of a blindspot as regards child abuse. So anyone reading this who was abused as a child has all my sympathies, but may want to stop reading now. I spent nearly seven years at an English single-sex, boarding school in the 1950s and the 1960s, and I am very grateful that I was never the object of unwanted same sex advances. We were all aware that some masters were [almost certainly] ‘queer’; the word ‘gay’ had not yet been appropriated. And it was often said that at school choir camp [I was regarded as an unteachable non-singer] the trebles ‘smoked like chimneys, drank like fishes, and went to bed with the tenors and basses’. But I don’t ever remember hearing the words ‘paedophile’ or ‘child abuse’. In more recent times the world has moved on, and more than one former master from my old school is now behind bars for sexual offences. Including, sadly, a former school chaplain.

Sitting on a plane somewhere a few years ago I watched the American film Spotlight, and I have just been reading the book of the same name which was reissued to coincide with the launch of the film in 2015. Both book and film are based on a substantial report published by the Boston Globe in January 2002. The report was written by their investigative team, and it showed that hundreds of children in the Boston area had been sexually abused by Catholic priests. Shockingly the report also showed that the Catholic hierarchy had known what was going on in many cases. Instead of protecting the community that it was meant to serve, the Church exploited its powerful influence to protect the institution from scandal. Offending priests were referred to psychiatric units for counselling and ‘therapy’, and were then transferred to other unsuspecting parishes. Where the priests continued to prey on and abuse new groups of children.

It is a messy subject. Unfortunately it is also a messy book. There are a lot of tragic cases. Deviant priests made a bee-line for needy children; often boys whose parents or single parents were already struggling to cope with big families. But the timeline of the book is confusing. Many of the stories are very similar, and the ‘present’ moves between the 2002 report and the 2015 re-issue. And the narrative moves between the Archdiocese of Boston and similar cases in other Dioceses.

Two things strike me. One is simply the scale of the abuse. John J. Geoghan, known to his parishioners as ‘Father Jack’, was shunted between half a dozen parishes in Greater Boston over three decades. But an archdiocesan official had already labeled him as an incurable child molester, “a pedophile, a liar, and a manipulator”. By the time the report was published in  2002 more than 150 people had come forward with horrific childhood tales about how Geoghan had fondled or raped them. [Geoghan was eventually de-frocked by Pope John Paul II in 1998, and was sentenced to ten years imprisonment in 2002 for indecent assault and battery. In 2003 he was strangled by his cellmate, Joseph Druce, allegedly himself the victim of child abuse.]

The second shocking aspect is the lengths to which the Catholic hierarchy went to in order to cover up the abuse. Initially the Roman Catholic church sought to argue that serial predators like Geoghan and James Porter [of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts] were simply ‘rotten apples’ and isolated cases. But in January 2002 the Boston Globe revealed that the Archdiocese of Boston had already secretly settled sexual abuse claims against more than seventy priests over the past decade.”What they were protecting”, said one abusive priest, “was their notion that the Church is a perfect society. If the Archdiocese had really wanted to protect its other priests from the scandal, they would have gotten those of us who abused children out of there much faster.”  

It is difficult to distinguish between the culture of secrecy and deliberate deception.Thus Cardinal Bernard Law, already Archbishop of Boston for more than a decade,, wrote to Geoghan in 1996: “Yours has been an effective life of ministry, sadly impaired by illness … I would like to thank you  … The passion we share can indeed seem unbearable and unrelenting … We are our best selves when we  respond in honesty and trust. God bless you Jack”.

In April 2002, following the Boston Globe‘s public exposure of the cover up by Cardinal Law [and his predecessor Cardinal Medeiros] of scores of pedophile priests in the Boston Archdiocese, Law promptly committed himself to staying on as archbishop and addressing the scandal. But after a letter urging Law’s resignation had been signed by 58 priests, mostly diocesan priests who had sworn obedience to him as their superior, Law submitted his resignation as Archbishop of Boston to the Vatican, which Pope John Paul II accepted in December 2002.  The Boston Globe said in an editorial the day after Law’s resignation was accepted that “Law had become the central figure in a scandal of criminal abuse, denial, payoff, and cover-up that resonates around the world” Within weeks of his resignation Law moved from Boston to Rome, where he was appointed  Archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, a sinecure with only ceremonial duties. Some saw this an attempt to shield Law from potential criminal prosecution as his new position conveyed citizenship in Vatican City. He eventually died in Rome in December 2017 aged 86.

Personal vignettes

I don’t remember any mention of child abuse when I trained at Wycliffe Hall in the 1980s. When I went to a parish in the Scottish Borders in 1990, no-one bothered to tell me that the old man across the road who was a regular member of the congregation and who was frequently around the churchyard had been formally cautioned by the police for inappropriate behaviour with young children. [But no-one told me either about the man who liked to count the collection so he could filch some of it to spend in the pub.] One morning in the 1990s a young lad in the congregation arrived at The Rectory in tears; he was an assistant leader in the Air Training Corps and had been the object of an accusation of abuse of the cadets. At which point a Group Captain had come down from Edinburgh to do some insensitive questioning in the community. It was clearly malicious. I rang the Detective Sergeant in Galashiels who was conducting the enquiry to tell him who had most likely written the letter [I was right, and the accuser was subsequently brought to court, and found guilty]. The detective almost thanked me, and we agreed that the conversation had never taken place.

Two decades later Child Protection, now generally known as Safeguarding, is a significant part of church life.  In the [really quite small] Scottish Episcopal Church, the church website says that there are three full-time safeguarding officials, supported by seven Diocesan Protection Officers, several local co-ordinators, and the members of the Provincial Committee for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults. This level of regulation is a response to the Children’s Act of 1989, legislation which reflects the United Nations Convention [UNCRC] of the same year. As an elderly dinosaur, I sometimes think that legal frameworks are no substitute for knowing and trusting members of the local community. And I sometimes think that at least a part of the significant cost of implementing the current Safeguarding policies could be better spent on training Sunday School teachers and youth-workers. But I acknowledge that this is just a reactionary blast from the past.

More positively I am hugely impressed by the energies and creativity of a new generation of children’s workers and youth workers. Such as the husband-and-wife couple who work at the New Frontiers Church in High Wycombe which my daughter and son-in-law and grand-children attend. And again the couple who lead Family Worship at Holy Trinity, Brussels.

How can these things happen ?

How do we begin to understand what happened in the Boston Archdiocese ? There is no shortage of books about the incidence of sexual abuse by priests. But there does seem to be a shortage of reliable data. Are priests worse than any other profession in which adults work with children ? Teachers, for example. And why does this seem to be a problem that has predominantly plagued the Roman Catholic Church and not other denominations ? One obvious answer is celibacy. Although celibacy was valued from the early days of Christianity, and was first mandated in the fourth century, it was widely enforced only from the twelfth century. Defenders of celibacy describe it as a gift, a charism, a witness to sanctity. Though critics have suggested celibacy was enforced largely to prevent Church property from being passed from a priest to his children. Whatever its origins it seems clear that an all-male, celibate priesthood attracted men who were uncomfortable with their own sexuality. They responded by cutting off a part of themselves [metaphorically, not physically].And some of them then acted out their sexual maldevelopment in inappropriate ways.

If the imposition of celibacy was a major contributory factor, the problem was made far worse by a culture of secrecy and of clericalism, the notion that the clergy were a race apart Priests were thought to be ontologically different from other [lesser] people. And therefore not subject to the same rules and regulations. [A bit like some government ministers during the current COVID-19 lock-down. Only worse !] Not only did shame and embarrassment, and threats by their abusers, keep many victims from disclosing their abuse. But their families, often from a working class background and brought up with a deference culture, found it almost impossible to confront the parish priest, often himself a family friend. [Clericalism sadly is not limited to the Roman Catholic Church. CS Lewis once said, I think, that the Devil’s greatest achievement was to divide the church into two groups of people, clergy and laity, who neither liked nor understood each other. It was Will Storrar, a Church of Scotland minister now teaching at Princeton, who said: “The Church of Scotland are meant to worship God in Jesus Christ, but too often they worship the minister in the pulpit”.] The great danger of that clerical culture, and the high view of priesthood that goes with it, is that church leaders can easily be persuaded that the reputation of the institution is more important than the lives of individual men and women.

So, my copy of Spotlight is joining a growing pile of books that are going to the charity shop. And I am going to read something that may well be more wholesome about the Scottish Episcopal Church in the nineteenth century. And anyone who happens to read these reflections is very welcome to tell me where I am going wrong.

May 2020

Through a glass darkly

The problem of suffering and evil

Exposure to too much COVID-19 stuff can induce compassion fatigue. Too many people dying, unevenly distributed here in the UK in terms of class and ethnicity. And too many deaths among people working in the NHS. The stories raise once again the age-long question of how we square our belief in a God who is all loving and all powerful with the existence around us of so much pain and suffering. The classic formulation of the problem is by the philosopher David Hume: “Is God willing to prevent evil but not able ? … Is he able but not willing ? … Is he both able and willing ?” This is the argument against God from evil. And for many people it is a compelling argument.

David Hume

So, I’ve been using part of this locked-down period to look again at Tim Keller’s 2013 book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. Keller is a New York pastor and church planter, who moved to Manhattan two decades ago to found Redeemer Presbyterian Church. [I’d like to say that I make a point of hearing him preach whenever  we are in New York. But the truth is that I’ve only once been in New York once on a Sunday, and we were fortunate enough to hear him preach at Redeemer Upper West Side, not far from our hotel. He was very good. He spoke about the importance of reconciliation and forgiveness, in a practical and challenging way.] Tim Keller has written a number of books, writing as a practising pastor rather than as a theologian, and I think he has recently stood down from church leadership to concentrate on training pastors and on the City to City programme.

Keller insists on the reality of unavoidable suffering. In ministry he found that pain and suffering were the main reason for people to turn away from God. He points us to CS Lewis: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain.” Peter Berger says all peoples long to “bestow meaning on the experience of suffering and evil”. Every religion and every society must provide a discourse through which people can make sense of suffering. But modern secular culture provides no such tools.  In our contemporary secular culture the meaning of life is to be happy; and suffering has no meaningful part. Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Susan Jacoby claim that a secular view of life eliminates the ‘problem of evil’, and frees people to concentrate on making the world a better place. But Keller demonstrates that in the face of tragedy our society turns instinctively to God and to faith. Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist who survived the Nazi death camps, observed that many secular people turned to religion in the camps. And he adds: “when we have no meaning beyond personal happiness, suffering can lead very swiftly to suicide

Tim Keller

Many objections to God’s existence are not philosophical, but visceral. We don’t want to believe in a God – who allows such dreadful  things to happen. We object to God because of things that offend against our strong moral and ethical instincts. But where do these instincts come from ? CS Lewis is the most famous example of what Keller calls ‘the boomerang effect’. “He came to realise that evil and suffering were a bigger problem for him as an atheist than as a believer in God.” Similarly, Andrea Palpant Dilley wrote in her 2012 book, Faith and Other Flat Tyres: Searching for God on the Rough Road of Doubt: “I left the church in part because I was mad at God about human suffering and injustice … And I came back to church because of the same struggle … To talk about justice, you have to talk about objective morality; and to talk about objective morality, you have to talk about God.” 

CS Lewis

Biblical perspectives

In the second part of his book Keller embarks on a long survey of what the Bible teaches us about suffering. He points us to some key aspects of Christian teaching: the doctrine of creation and the fall; our expectation of final judgement and renewal; and, crucially, the incarnation. Peter Berger comments: the essential Christian solution is that “the incarnate God is a God who suffers”. Keller is at pains to emphasise that, while Genesis 1-3 teaches us that suffering is the result of sin, the original sin of turning away from God; individual suffering is not the result of a particular sin. Bad people do not have worse lives than good people. Which brings us back again to Job, a good and upright man who suffered grievously. Many people have a desire to believe that ‘people deserve what they get and get what they deserve’. But the Bible totally rejects this view. Paradoxically we believe that God is sovereign, but that he exercises his sovereignty in such a way that human beings are responsible for their own actions and for the consequences of those actions. Don Carson comments: “It must be the case that God stands behind good and evil in different ways, that is, he stands behind  … them asymmetrically”.

Job and his comforters

Keller is critical of many churches today who teach that God will make you happy, healthy, and prosperous. Contemporary secular culture is resistant to the idea that suffering can be useful. But Keller enlists contemporary psychologists Jonathan Haidt and James Davies who have evidence to show that suffering produces character, endurance and hope. Which is something that the Bible assumes. Where many therapists today encourage us to meet problems by turning away [and concentrating on e.g. popcorn and pina colada], Haidt and Davies both encourage us to confront suffering by walking steadily through the experience. The Bible teaches us that God uses suffering to build us up: to humble us and remove excessive pride; to change our relation to the good things in our lives [that is, to change our priorities]; and, thirdly, to strengthen our relationship with God. Again we hear that dictum  from CS Lewis: ‘God whispers to us in prosperity, but he shouts to us in adversity’. Suffering encourages us to pray. And Keller insists that the best preparation for suffering is a rich prayer life. 

There is of course a gap between the theory and the practice. John Feinberg [now a distinguished Professor of Theology] was a theological student who had written his thesis on the book of Job. But when his wife developed Huntington’s Chorea he wrote: “I had all these intellectual answers, but none of them made any difference as to how I felt.” Don Carson writes how Christians may have some theoretical idea of suffering, but when something jolts them to the core, it is not that those beliefs are irrelevant, but “the Christian must now learn how to use them”.

Practical steps for facing affliction

In the third part of the book, Keller provides some practical steps for facing affliction. We are all aware of [and sometimes sceptical about] the American fondness for Self-Help manuals. And in fairness Keller is anxious to underline that this is not that kind of book. I don’t want to explore this part of the book here.These are not discrete steps to be followed in the prescribed order. They are more some practical suggestions as to how we walk with God in our lives, particularly in the difficult times. Some suggestions as to how we try to orient ourselves so that suffering changes us for the better rather than the worse.


Reading this book reminds me that thirty-plus years ago, as a student at Wycliffe Hall,  I was attached for a year to Michael Sobell House, a hospice attached to the Churchill Hospital in Oxford. It was an instructive time for me, as I am always a bit scared of hospitals and blood [especially my own]. During my time at Sobell House I met Simon, a man of 53,  who was dying of Motor Neurone Disease. He was a photographer, not a Christian, with his mental faculties all intact. But his body was giving up on him; and he got severe burns on his chest when lighted cigarettes fell from his mouth.  He was anxious to engage in conversation with me about my faith. At the same time I was writing an Old Testament essay: ‘When God answers Job out of the whirlwind, is his answer satisfactory ?’ Sadly Simon died before we had our promised conversation. But at the time I was aware that it might be difficult to find an answer that would satisfy Simon.

As deaths from COVID-19 in the UK push above 27,000, and as many commentators move towards discussion of the easing of the lock-down and start allocating blame for the political mishandling of the pandemic,  I sense the absence of Christian voices in the public arena. Local church congregations have been doing great things with zoomed services and delegated pastoral care, but there seems to have been no public expression of faith. Nor of lament. 

I’m not wanting Christians to have neat explanations for what is happening. Job’s three friends make long speeches in which they explain [justify] what had happened to him. Job knows that they are wrong; but he refuses to curse God and reject him as unjust. And when God does appear, he tells Job’s friends that their legalistic, self-justifying, retributive theology is simply wrong.

Pastoral care can be better expressed through sympathetic silence than by theological explanations. Something that I was pleased to learn.

Close to the end of his book, Keller says this is the most important thing: that the Bible tells us that God is “near to the broken-hearted” [Psalm 34:18].  God’s silence about Job’s sin is a wonderful declaration of love. Francis Anderson says: “This is the final answer to Job, and to all the Jobs of humanity. As an innocent sufferer, Job is the companion of God”. As Simon Ponsonby told the ICS [Intercontinental Church Society] Conference last week, our primary task at this time  is to know the love of God. And to share our knowledge and experience of that love with those around us.

May 2020

Through a glass darkly

Bouquets and Brickbats

A friend wrote to Susie to say that she heard I was blogging ‘to make sense of this COVID pandemic’. That’s not true. I am not able to offer a synoptic view. But, as we move into Week Five of the great lock-down, inspired by Piers Moron of the Daily Mail {probably the first time that phrase has been used in the English language ever, by anyone], here are my awards for inspirational behaviour over the past few weeks. And also a few, all too predictable, brickbats for people who have done stupid or shoddy things. Let’s take that latter group first and get them out of the way. Apologies to both my overseas readers; it is a very British list.

  1. Robert Jenrick

Robert Jenrick has been Tory MP for Newark since 2014. He is apparently the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities, and Local Government [no, I didn’t know before either]. He is, predictably, a commercial lawyer who, according to his website, makes money from advising businesses in London and Moscow. After being wheeled out on the tv as government spokesman to tell people to stay at home, he then drove 150 miles from his London home to his £1.2 million Herefordshire home [apparently that is only two of his three homes]. And he then drove a further 50 miles to visit his parents in Shropshire. And seems to have lied through his teeth when being  questioned about this.  [He claimed to be delivering food and prescriptions which had already been  delivered by their neighbours.] Another cabinet minister who thinks that the rules are only for other people.  I know the Chief Medical Officer for Scotland did something similar. But she resigned the same day as the news broke.

2. Tim Martin

Tim Martin is a British businessman, best known as the founder and chairman of Wetherspoons, a pub chain in Britain and Ireland. He owns 33.7 million shares in that company. He was a prominent Brexiteer, and was photographed with a pre-PM Boris Johnson as they both stood behind a bar pulling pints. He was reportedly £44 million richer after the Tory election win. As soon as the COVID-19 pandemic arrived he fired all his staff, apparently by text message, without apology or compensation. The unspeakable Philip Green of Arcadia did much the same. Shameless behaviour. Deux véritables salauds !

3. Jacob Rees-Mogg

Jacob Rees-Mogg is a pin-striped Tory politician, currently serving as Leader of the House of Commons and Lord President of the Council. No-one ever mistook him for a Man of the People. Private Eye refers to him as the ‘MP for the 18th century’ He owns 15% of Somerset Capital Management, which reputedly earned him just over £1 million last year. Mark Asquith, the Fund Boss of Somerset Capital, is telling his investors that they can ‘make a killing out of the pandemic’. More deaths means fatter profits. This is despicable behaviour, even by the standards of the Tory Party and of end phase capitalism.

4. Joggers

I walk round Arthur’s Seat every day, exchanging brief greetings with fellow walkers as we circle round each other. It is a lovely park right on our doorstep. The only menace are lycra-clad joggers of both sexes, who jog past within eighteen inches of my elbow. Invariably they have speakers in their ears making them deaf to any rebuke. And many of them have a strange, self-obsessed look on their faces, as if they are managing an unusually large bowel movement.

5.  President Trump

There’s not much left to say. The USA has the largest number of COVID-19 cases in the world, and a President who is patently out of his depth. His initial response was to worry about his re-election prospects. He then used racist language to label it as “that Chinese virus”. And he then gave his idiot son-in-law specific responsibility for dealing with it. Shades of Caligula and his horse.


1.The staff of the NHS

No quarrels about this. The NHS have been doing a great job, not always helped by shortages of testing kits and of PPE. We have prayed every morning for the past several weeks for the people who work in the NHS; remembering specifically a son-in-law and a daughter-in-law both working at Stoke Mandeville hospital, and a niece who started work as a nurse in Bristol two weeks ago. It has been good to stand and clap on Thursday evenings with the neighbours down our street.  

2.  Sainsbury’s delivery drivers

Lord Sainsbury never struck me as a philanthropist. [Is it true that British supermarkets operate with a substantial higher profit margin than their  equivalents in France or Belgium ?] But Sainsbury’s staff have worked hard throughout the crisis.  We have been grateful for their on-line delivery service and the cheerfulness of their drivers. And I guess that goes for our postmen and a whole lot of other delivery drivers.

3. The Queen

The Queen’s unprecedented broadcast to the nation last week was a perfect example of how to do these things. It was measured, affirmative, concerned, and not too long. She didn’t need to lick her finger to turn the page [Dominic Raab]. Nor did she attempt to deflect difficult questions to someone else [Matt Hancock].But then, as she acknowledged, she has been doing these broadcasts since 1940, since before they were born.

4.  Gareth Malone

Gareth’s afternoon on-line singing lessons have apparently picked up 150,000 followers. He is gifted, enthusiastic, and encouraging. The sessions are a perfect antidote to the government briefings, which go out at much the same time. I’d pick Gareth any day. And Jamie Oliver’s simple cookery recipes which turn up at odd times on Channel Four are equally positive. He too gives you the feeling that you can just got away and do it.

5.  The Titfield Thunderbolt

This bouquet really belongs to the Controller of BBC 2, for scheduling a series of classic Ealing comedies in mid-afternoon in Passion Week. I know the timing was a bit tricky, but that’s why we have the I-Player facility. The pick of the bunch, for me, may have been The Titfield Thunderbolt.

TEB Clarke’s script, about a group of villagers attempting to keep their railway line open after British Rail want to close it down, was apparently  inspired by the story of the Talyllyn Railway in Wales. My maternal grand-father worked for the GWR, and as a child I spent all my school holidays on a small station between Swindon and Kemble Junction.  And some of the scenes were filmed around Freshford and Limpley Stoke, close to where my grand-parents lived in retirement. Watching these elderly steam trains against the Somerset scenery was a great delight.

6.  Emily Maitlis

Emily Maitlis is a television journalist and regular presenter of Newsnight. She seems to be the first person to have disputed publicly the lazy assertion that COVID-19 is something that afflicts us all equally. That we are ‘all in his together’. “They tell us coronavirus is the ‘great leveller’, it’s not, it’s much, much harder if you’re poor…this is a myth which needs debunking,” she commented. “Those who have been on the front line right now, bus drivers, shelf stackers, nurses, care home workers, hospital staff and shopkeepers are disproportionately the lower paid members of our workforce. They are more likely to catch the disease because they are more exposed … …  Those who live in tower blocks and small flats will find the lockdown tougher. Those in manual jobs will be unable to work from home. This is a health issue with huge ramifications for social welfare, and it’s a welfare issue with huge ramifications for public health.”.

7. Jacinta Ardern

Jacinda Ardern is the New Zealand prime minister. It may well be easier to introduce social distancing in that more thinly populated country. But from a long way away it looks as if New Zealand’s elimination strategy, based on rigorous  quarantine testing at the borders, early adoption of social distancing and travel restrictions, and major investment in both testing and contact tracing, has been remarkably successful. The decisive and humane leadership of Ardern seems to have been a key factor in this policy. And she and members of her government are now taking a 25% pay-cut in solidarity with many who have lost their job and their income.

Going forwards

Will the COVID-19 outbreak significantly change our society ? Gloomily Matthew Parris thinks that nothing will change as a result of this pandemic. Peter Frankopan argues that the Black Death was a catalyst for social and economic change; that in the following decades of the fourteenth century urban wages rose, leading to better diets and better general health. It would be good to believe that a similar pattern may emerge. Archbishop Justin Welby has called, in recent days, not only for a different way of being church, but a different way of being society; for a more caring, and a more generous, and a fairer world. I guess that is something we could all be praying for. And perhaps an additional prayer that Boris will pick up a copy of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett;’s book The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone as he and Carrie convalesce in their comfortable second home.

April 2020

Though a glass darkly

Dem bones, dem bones: the Easter message

My first ‘grown up’ Easter was in Paris in the mid-1970s. We went to church on Easter Day in the Eglise Réformée in the rue de l’Ouest in the 14th arrondissement and heard a visiting African choir sing A Toi la gloire, words by Edmond de Budry, music by Handel. It is a great Easter hymn, confidently proclaiming the risen Christ, and has become almost the go-to anthem of the French Reformed Church. The choir sang with smiling faces and with great conviction. And then we went and had lunch at the Brasserie Zeyer at Alésia, almost certainly eating gigot d’agneau.

In spite of the confident celebratory tone of Easter hymns, Easter can be a difficult time in church life. Christmas is a much more straightforward, more accessible event; lots of people are coming together for family gatherings, and many of them are pleased to sing the familiar Christmas carols. It is a well-known fact that the church Carol Service attracts both regular members and visitors, and it can be the latter group who complain more loudly when their favourite carol is omitted. Or when it is sung to ‘the wrong tune’. [O little town of Bethlehem is the usual candidate for this.] Easter by comparison has a more ambivalent feel about it. Regular church families are quite often away. Visitors may find it difficult to buy into a sermon that plunges them into unfamiliar waters; the sadistic awfulness of the Cross and the difficult notion of Resurrection life. And Easter promises to be an even more difficult event this year, with church buildings closed and the fact of COVID-19 dominating our television screens and fuelling our fears.

When I was a relatively new vicar [I was never a young minister; I was ordained in my 40s] I used to think it was my job on Easter Day to convince those who were in church, congregation and visitors, of the truth of the resurrection of Jesus. Which I would do by rehearsing the story of that first Easter and by marshalling the evidence. I was no doubt helped by Michael Green’s little book The Day Death Died. In that book Michael Green, the energetic and persuasive one-time Rector of St Aldate’s in Oxford [whose daughter once passed on to us two incorrectly sexed baby rabbits] lays out very clearly the evidence.The rolling away of the stone. The empty tomb. The message of the [one or two] angelic young men. The evidence of the Roman guards. The fragmentary testimony of Mary in the garden, and of the couple walking on the country road to Emmaus. The transformation of the disciples from a frightened rabble into, in John Drane’s words, ““a strong band of courageous witnesses and the nucleus of a constantly growing church”

As the years rolled by it dawned on me that this approach was not wholly satisfactory. Easter was not the day to argue people into the Kingdom. What was needed was something that connected more closely to our own lives and the world we inhabit. Preferably linked to a news item. So I think I once preached in Duns from a newspaper story about a badly burnt cat that had rescued her kittens from a house fire at great cost to herself. [No, I didn’t descend to talking about Easter bunnies; not as far as I can remember.]  If I were preaching this Easter I would certainly want to make reference to the COVID-19 story from Italy; the parishioners clubbed together to buy a ventilator for their elderly priest in hospital, and he gave it away to a younger patient. And then died.

A tour of bones

One of the most interesting Easter-themed books that I’ve come across in recent years is A Tour of Bones, a book by an American woman, Denise Inge, from a Mennonite background. One day she goes down into the basement of her house in Worcester [the Bishop’s Palace, her husband is the Bishop of Worcester]; then further down through a trap-door and finds herself surrounded by bones. “There are no neat bones. Instead, there is notbing here but the chaos of death; bones heaped upon bones in disarray, indignity upon indignity, jaw upon pelvis, femur upon cranium …” For this is an Anglo-Saxon charnel house.

Living in close proximity to all these skeletons causes Denise to ask a number of questions.  Why are we so bad at talking about death ? Even those who spend part of their professional lives sitting at hospital bedsides ? Why are clergy sometimes so inept at taking funerals ? Her friend Rachel, a consultant in palliative care, tells her: “Death … takes place more and more in hospitals and less in homes. Therefore people, children included, have less experience of death and dying; it becomes something that happens behind closed doors – and what we don’t see, we fear.”

And this becomes not just a philosophical/cerebral but a physical journey. As Denise sets out to visit four European charnel houses; all in places that are unfamiliar to her: Czermna, in Poland, in former Silesia; Sedlec in the Czech Republic; Hallstatt in Austria, a place where salt has been mined since the 2nd century BC; and Naters, an Alpine village, near the Simplon Pass in Switzerland. 

This is not the time or place to summarise the entire book. But the journey provokes significant questions.  “The power of the new, the shocking, the astonishing”, writes Stephen Cherry, in his book Barefoot Disciple, “is that it gets past our defences and starts to trouble us.”  Inevitably given her Christian background, Denise Inge starts to think about resurrection, wondering just what resurrection life might be like. Many people today who speak of ‘life after death‘ mean a life that follows immediately after bodily death. But this is not what it originally meant.  Scripture tells us rather that resurrection means ‘new life after a period of being dead’. In all these debates lies the basic tension between continuity and transformation – how much of the old is to be retained ?

Each of the sites visited provokes different questions. At Czermna the question is: Are the broken parts of your deep self being healed ?  At Sedlec: Have you found a lasting hope ?  At Hallstatt: What are the things for which you will be remembered ? These are not  questions which allow quick or easy answers. This is not the simple crossword puzzle. These are questions to live with. “The journey into bones has become a journey into the interior.”

When the travelling stops two things happen. First Denise’s father dies, of cancer of the liver. And then the baby she and her husband are going to adopt is taken from them. And then Denise herself is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Inoperable. Her questions about dying and living are thrown into a new and urgent perspective. 

For me the book is a poignant reflection on both dying and living. “During my travels bones have become for me a metaphor for the enduring and the essential, the deep things that remain once all the skin and the muscle of life is gone.” Paul Tillich has written about modern man’s fear of meaninglessness. “What I have been surprised to discover,” Denise Inge writes, “as these questions chase and wash over me is that preparing to live and preparing to die are in the end the same thing.” This book is not a sentimental tract. Nor is it an unambiguous declaration of faith

Fellowship this Easter

Like everyone else we won’t be doing any travelling this Easter. But thanks to Zoom, of which I had not heard just a month ago, we shall be able to join with Christian congregations in a variety of places. I was encouraged by Tim Keller’s message from New York this week, an exposition of Peter’s sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2. I was pleased to share in a virtual eucharist with Bishop Ian Paton and Carrie Applegarth from St Andrews on Maundy Thursday. And another with John Wilkinson and Paul Vrolijk later the same day from Holy Trinity, Brussels. We much appreciated the All Age Worship led by Natalie Jones in Brussels on Good Friday morning. We hope to look in again this Easter at Trinity, Lyon. And we hope to join in with St Marc’s, Grenoble, on Easter Day. I think Alan Golton will be preaching. And I’ll be praying for him and everyone else preaching that day, for the Easter message to be proclaimed with confidence and with imagination.

Easter Saturday, 2020

Through a glass darkly

Cold Turkey

Turkey doesn’t mean much in our life other than Christmas lunch. So Susie and I were pleasantly surprised to spend six wintery weeks in Turkey at the end of last year. I was locum chaplain at St Nicholas of Myra, the Anglican congregation in Ankara. But I soon learnt not to introduce myself with those words as lokum means Turkish Delight in the local language. For us, it really was Turkey for Christmas.

St Nicolas is a small, cosmopolitan congregation, which meets in an attractive chapel in the grounds of the British Embassy. It is a very security conscious country, and entrance to the embassy grounds is through an airport-style security gate. Those attending Sunday services need to register by the previous Wednesday, and all passports have to be checked at the gate. Last year there were some unfortunate tensions within the sizeable Iranian diaspora which had formed a substantial part of the Sunday congregation. As a consequence all Iranians were banned from the compound and the congregation shrunk dramatically. Numbers at Sunday services were quite small, a nucleus of British, South Africans, Dutch and Poles, all grown-ups, all staying afterwards for coffee and cake. There were more people at a family-friendly service on Christmas Day. And during our time there three different Ambassadors worshipped with us, which doesn’t happen here in Edinburgh. There was also a very moving afternoon service with the Iranian refugees held in the chapel in the former French Embassy. We sang in both English and Farsi, which may well have been the language of the Magi, the visitors from the east in Matthew 2.

Ankara is very much not a tourist city. It was just a tiny village, basically a railway junction, called Angora, until it became the capital of the infant Turkish Republic in 1923. Now is an enormous city, all built since 1926, currently somewhere between 5 and 6 million people, and is is extremely hilly. Our apartment was in Çankaya on the south side, quite high up, and with views north across the centre of the city. There are rolling waves [hills] of pale coloured, modern, apartment blocks; bisected by four-lane urban highways.There is much building going on. Where the ground is too steep to build there are vacant plots of grass and stones, often inhabited by big, wild dogs.

We took the high-speed train down to Istanbul for a few days. Just long enough for a trip up the Bosphorus and visits to Hagia Sophia and the enormous, sprawling Topkapi Palace. I was last there in 1964 as a hitch-hiker before university. In those days it was a faded, black-and-white, run-down city with a population of roughly 1 million.  It is now a huge, vibrant metropolis of between 15 and 16 million. My accompaniment in Istanbul was reading Orhan Pamuk’s melancholic, but seductive, memoirs of growing up in the city, Istanbul: memories and the city. He was born in 1952, so the dilapidated Ottoman city which he describes is more-or-less the city that I dimly remember.

Susie and I also managed a day trip to Konya, on Turkey’s other high-speed train; a couple of hours across the feature-less Anatolian plateau. It was a bitterly cold day as we travelled there at speeds of up to 250 kph. Konya is the Iconium visited by Paul and Barnabas in Acts 14, but there is little trace of its Christian history. It is better known as a place of pilgrimage for the Muslim world, a city that is dear to the hearts of pious Turks. It was the adopted home of Celaleddin Rumi, the 13th century Sufi mystic known as the Mevlana [the Master], and founder of the Mevlevi sect, better known as the Whirling Dervishes. Possibly because of the closeness of the word dervish to the word devilish, Susie and I were predisposed to be unsympathetic to the whole place. But the stone buildings were very dignified; a circular hall used for worship, surrounded by a latticed gallery, and a collection of pleasing, smaller mausoleums. And the extracts from Rumi’s writings spoke of an ascetic, prayerful rule of life, not unlike, say, the early Cistercians.

Back in Edinburgh our trip encourages me to read a few things. I started with Norman Stone’s Turkey: a short history. Stone was a Cambridge historian, an alcoholic, and a Thatcher apologist. [Question: Which was  his redeeming feature ?] It is short, an old-fashioned narrative history, enlivened by some striking phrases [Selim was a “cross between Moloch and Puck”]  and some entertaining diversions. I then ploughed through Atatürk: the rebirth of a nation, a lengthy biography of of the soldier-statesman Mustafa Kemal, who dragged his country from the Middle Ages into the 20th century. It is a favourable, but not uncritical account. Patrick Kinross notes his ambivalent attitude to women; his drinking habits; his intolerance of opposition.

And now I’ve just finished reading Giles Milton’s Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922. [Giles Milton is the brother of Guy Milton, of Holy Trinity, Brussels.]This is a readable, well-paced, detailed account of the events that unfolded at Smyrna in September 1922. Smyrna was a prosperous, civilised, very cosmopolitan city. The city included European, Greek, Armenian, and Turkish quarters, and survived the 1914-18 war intact. But the Greek army, with the support of Lloyd-George occupied Smyrna in 1919, and then invaded Anatolia with the view of creating a Greater Greece. When the defeated Greek army fell back on the coast in 1922, Turkish troops and irregulars fell on Smyrna, slaughtered tens of thousands of Greek and Armenian refugees, and set fire to the city. It is an appalling story. From which  few people emerge with credit.

Now I’m going to look at Meander: East to West along a Turkish River by Jeremy Seal. According to the blurb, [the great] Robert Macfarlane says “This is a wonderful book by a wonderful writer”. So I think I’ll take that as a recommendation.

April 2020

Through a glass darkly

The daily round

Arthur’s Seat is the volcanic plug which we can see from our house on the south side of Edinburgh. I walk round it most days during this time of COVID-19 lock-down. These photos were taken on Saturday, March 28th 

  1. Arthur’s Seat from our garden

2.  Dalkeith Road – no traffic on Saturday morning

3.  The entrance to Holyrood Park

4.  Swans keeping their heads down at St Margaret’s Loch

5.  Dunsapie Loch looking south

6.  Dunsapie Loch looking north-east

7.  The jetty, Duddingston Nature Reserve

8.  The city of Edinburgh looking north-west

The daily round, the common task,

will furnish all we need to ask …

with apologies to John Keble

Through a glass darkly

Have we been here before ?

Susie gave me Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: a new history of the world for my birthday. It’s a dense book of 600+ pages, so I’m reading it one chapter at a time. I’ve just reached the mid-14th century. As Frankopan tells the story, the Mongols had rapidly overrun the ancient Middle East and vast swathes of Asia, and had spared Europe only because there were richer pickings elsewhere. The Mongols were militarily dominant and politically astute. Under the Mongols trade blossomed: slaves, silk and cotton, frankincense, ambergris, glass, pepper and all kinds of spices, silver and other precious metals all flowed down the trade arteries. But something else also entered the bloodstream: disease. 

The arid and semi-arid landscapes of the Eurasian steppe were the perfect breeding ground for the bacterium Yersinia pestis. Plague was most effectively spread by animal hosts, sometimes camels, but more often by rats. Transmission to humans is most often the result of fleas vomiting bacilli into the bloodstream before feeding. Bacilli flowed to the lymph nodes, in the armpit or the groin, and produced swellings [buboes]  the size of an apple. Other organs are infected in turn leading to internal haemorrhaging and death. During the 1340s the plague flowed out of central Asia through Persia, the Middle East, the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt and Europe. The trading routes that connected the rest of the world to Europe became lethal highways of infection. A Mongol army laying siege to the Genoese post of Caffa on the Black Sea were struck by the plague and lobbed their corpses into the besieged city, It was an early example of biological warfare.

There was a widespread sense of coming to the End Times. Three-quarters of the population of Venice were killed by the plague. A French chronicler reported that “it rained frogs, snakes, lizards, scorpions and many other poisonous animals”. The King of England, Edward III, turned to prayer and fasting, and ordered his bishops to follow his example.  It is estimated that a third of the population of Europe died, some 25 million out of a population of about 75 million.This plague, commonly known as the Black Death, is sometimes labelled the worst single disaster to befall mankind since the Flood. 

Just over 30 years ago, as an Anglican ordinand, I was asked to write an essay: ‘AIDS is a manifestation of God’s wrath on present moral standards.Discuss. As a virus previously unknown, manifesting itself in previously obscure, opportunistic diseases, for which there was [then] no known vaccine or cure, AIDS was a phenomenon tailor-made for conspiracy theories. The Globe, an American tabloid, ran a lengthy cover-story in 1983 solemnly claiming that AIDS was part of King Tut’s curse, having followed a tour of Tut’s treasures to the United States in the late 1970s. Less fancifully we now think that AIDS was the product of a hitherto unknown virus from central Africa. As such it was not an unprecedented phenomenon. The American historian William McNeill has surveyed the history of infectious disease,, demonstrating the dramatic consequences of a ‘new disease’ circulating in human affairs. Writing at the end of the 1960s McNeill offered a prescient warning: “even without mutation, it is always possible that some hitherto obscure parasitic organism may escape its accustomed ecological niche … and expose the dense human population to some fresh and perchance devastating mortality”. Within a decade of his writing that, Dr Grethe Rask, a Danish surgeon came home to Denmark to die after working for four years in the primitive hospital of Abumonbazi in northern Zaire. She died of PCP in December 1977; almost certainly the first European to die of AIDS.

Are there lessons to learn from history ? About isolation ? The first public regulations for controlling the Black Death were only issued at Reggio in 1374. Only in 1383 did Marseille introduce a 40-day quarantine period; a period chosen for Biblical reasons. When the AIDS virus struck in North America, everyone said that “of course the gay bath-houses should have been closed earlier … of course the blood banks should have tested for blood sooner”. But by the time everyone agreed this, it was far too late. And about transmission ? The Black Death was carried by infected fleas and rats on a network of shipping throughout Europe. Improvements in ship design had made all-year-round sailing normal for the first time. The AIDS virus most probably originated in central Africa, as a mutant of an animal retrovirus. Its rapid global spread thereafter was made possible by the growth of inter-continental air travel. As Anthony Burgess noted at the time: “the world’s airlines are the great carriers of the disease”. Air travel is not only bad for the environment. It can have fatal consequences both for the passengers and for those with whom they come into contact.

Perhaps we do learn lessons from history. But, as Eric Morecambe famously said in another context: “not necessarily at the right speed or in the right order”.