Tuesday, March 24th, 2020


Christmas Eve 2019, looking back from the ancient chancel of Ripon Cathedral towards the nave.

However, the interesting bit isn’t what you can see. Underneath my feet while taking the photo is the oldest stone-built place of Christian worship in England. Apparently. In the seventh century crypt you stand where St Cuthbert’s body lay en route to his burial in Durham.

So what? Just more old stuff – something Britain is full of?

Well, since that crypt was built in the 600s the world has seen quite a lot. The world has ended many times. The Norman invasion, plagues, the Black Death, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the English Civil War, the birth and death of an Empire, two world wars, and so on. People have lived their lives and died their deaths. They have wept with pain, been wracked by fear, and laughed at the absurdities of life.

We now live in times we consider to be unprecedented and fearful. But, the truth is that all times are fearful and, by definition, unprecedented. And after millions have lived their mortal lives, the cathedral still stands, the crypt bears witness to generations of chaotic people and sometimes-faithful communities. Still there. And so are we: still praying, still serving, still digging into the ancient wisdom of texts written by people who wrestled with the same existential questions as we do.

Old stuff gives us a sense of perspective. In the parish where I was a vicar from 1992-2000 – Rothley in Leicestershire – there is a Saxon cross in the churchyard. We drank wine out of an Elizabethan chalice. I baptised in a Norman font … and would look up at mediaeval windows and down at a Victorian floor. Hanging by the north door there was a wooden plaque which bore the inscribed names of all the vicars of Rothley going back to the eleventh century.

We are part of that continuum. One in which things change, but God seems not to. So, we do our best, try to be faithful in our generation, and hope to pass on to the next generations a world that will speak to them of faithfulness in unprecedented times. And speak to them of time.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought with Zoe Ball on BBC Radio 2 (but from my office in Leeds).

Do you know what it’s like when you get an entire soundtrack running round your head? I do. Maybe it’s got something to do with the strange times in which we live. It’s as if loads of the music in my memory now finds the space to peep out of the undergrowth and sniff the fresh air.

My kids will probably raise their eyes at this, but the loudest echo belongs to one Bruce Cockburn, a Canadian singer-songwriter very few people have heard of. He’s written all sorts of stuff over the last fifty years or more and some of it is fairly gritty. Then he does one with the great line: “Don’t forget about delight.” When you find yourself in times of trouble – as someone else once sang – don’t lose sight of the nice stuff, the delight.

It’s not a bad idea is it? Because it’s too easy just to hear the bad news and find the imagination heading in the wrong direction. What the poets and musicians do is tease us to look at a wider horizon – to expand the range of possibilities beyond the ‘now’. The thing about poetry is that, if you give a bit of time to thinking about words, it opens space for the imagination to get working.

I would say this, wouldn’t I? I read the Bible every day. It’s full of poetry and songs in which the writers express what lies deep within them. They don’t care too much about whether what they say is watertight morally all the time; they just get it out of their system and into the fresh air. Then readers can engage what being a human being looks and feels like to the poet – even if the poet lived and died three thousand years ago.

Most of us are going to need some routine during the weeks ahead. But, we also have a chance to do something new for which there normally isn’t time or space. Like reading a poem each day, for example. Or, how about trying to write my own? Get it onto paper and play with the words? Because when the news is not great, don’t forget about delight.