April 2020


When you get a bit Zoomed out (usually during a Zoom meeting, to be honest) distraction comes easily. For me it’s always songs that go around my head. It can be problematic.

Today has been complicated because there are two songs: one by REM and one by Bruce Cockburn.

’It’s the end of the world as we know it’ is the title of REM’s 1987 epic. It also chimes in with today and the uncertain future we all now face. I’ve always thought that obsessions with the end of the world are a clever way of avoiding the ending of lots of worlds – something that happens every day for someone somewhere.

What we are gong through now with Covid-19 is the ending of a way of life that we always assumed would just keep going and growing (like the economy). We can’t yet know what this death will give birth to because we can’t get to resurrection until we have done the loss of Friday and lived through the agonising emptiness of Saturday.  But, we will have to decide how to handle the disorientation of the ending of a world before we work out if or how to shape the world that might emerge from the ashes of our expectations.

This shouldn’t come as a shock. History tells us that the affluence of the West is abnormal and always precarious. Empires come and go, don’t they? Humility should trump hubris, but that might be wishful thinking.

Bruce Cockburn has been exploring the universe for decades and he has done so in the most beautiful poetry as well as the best guitar playing. (I know I keep banging on about him, but that’s just the way it is. Sorry.) yet, occasionally you get a bit of an oddity that is brilliant, but unexpected. One of these is ‘Anything Can Happen’ – a romantic tune, but killing words. Try this, the chorus:

Anything can happen
To put out the light,
Is it any wonder
I don’t want to say goodnight?

The verses rehearse some of the random and terrible things that might happen to anyone at any time. It is funny and sharp. But, it also questions our easy failure to face mortality and contingency – both fundamental to living in a material world which we can’t control.

This just makes the point that, despite our attempts at securing our security, we all actually live in the edge. Realising and accepting this is the beginning of human freedom. All the other questions then follow on.

It feels like the virus has compelled us to face what we otherwise suppress by busyness, distraction (“amusing ourselves to death”, as Neil Postman put it) or fear. (Today is also the 75th anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s death by suicide – ending a war and opening up a different future beyond the destruction and death. But, that’s for another day.)

I never met the great Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, but I did go to his funeral in 2003. I had just been ordained as a bishop (of Croydon) in May and he died on 4 August. I was asked to attend his funeral, probably because I was one of the few bishops available in London and not on holiday somewhere remote. It was a very long service on a very hot day, but I learned a lot and it was an honour to be there.

I had read some of Metropolitan Anthony’s writings, especially on prayer. I don’t have a great for epic quotes – and quickly forget what some books have to say, even when I have only just finished them – but, the line I never forgot was this:

To pluck a flower means to take possession of it, and it also means to kill it…

This is the sort of paradox that runs through real life and makes everything we do somehow ambiguous. I can’t look at flower arrangements now without thinking of this (and hay fever).

In these strange days of lockdown and questioning, it might just offer some encouragement to those who struggle with the feeling of helplessness. When we are used to endless activity, maybe confusing this with virtue, it is easy to ask what value I have to offer when I can’t do what I normally do. For clergy this can be particularly challenging – needing to let old patterns of pastoral care and teaching die (for a time?) before we can orientate towards creating something new that is untested and feels less incarnational, perhaps.

Plucking a flower kills the flower, cutting off its lifeblood and turning into a possession for my limited and temporary pleasure. It has become a utility rather than a living thing. And we are taught that commodifying living things is not something of which to be proud – especially when it involves killing them. But, we still do it. And one could argue that we cannot live without doing it. Even beauty cannot be cost-free.

This illustrates the messiness of the world and what it means to live in it. The biblical narrative tells us that God is no stranger to this sort of paradox. Not only are the Psalms riddled with expressions of bewilderment, exuberance and lament at the difficulty of all this, but the Jesus bit is all about God opting into the whole business of living with contradiction and not exempting himself from it.

Sometimes we just have to learn to live with it. To stop trying to resolve every conundrum. To be patient with those who are slower to fix or accommodate to it. To recognise the call to humility that (to mix my metaphors) swimming in this mortal pool inevitably provokes.

No wonder, as the apostle Paul acknowledged, that “the whole creation groans in anticipation” of the fulfilment of all things while the ‘not yet’ persists.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

I was once in the foreign ministry of another country asking hard questions of the deputy foreign minister. He was a little evasive and so we pushed harder on how a particularly challenging situation might be addressed, if not resolved. Eventually, he stood up, banged his fist on the table and said: “Sometimes it seems there is no light at the end of the tunnel. But, it is not because the light is not there; it is because the tunnel is not straight.”

Fair point, I thought.

And it’s not a bad image to hold onto during the current uncertainties. It is hard to spot the light when the bends shorten our vision.

But, today we celebrate the birthday – and, with remarkable symmetry, the death day – of someone who looked at his ‘now’ with a vision that has spanned centuries. William Shakespeare developed characters who couldn’t always see around the next bend or whose light turned out to be a source of violence rather than illumination. Think, for example, of Macbeth whose “vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself” blinds him to the tragedy he has already set in train.

But, Shakespeare was a genius at imparting wisdom subversively. He never dumps moralising aphorisms on his audience. Rather, he lets the drama roll on, the language surprise, and the characters reflect back to the audience the truths about human nature and society that sometimes are uncomfortable to acknowledge. And he often does this while making us laugh.

Which makes Shakespeare a man for the moment. Steeped in the language of the Bible, he delved into the messy realities of human motivation and choices. His characters are never one-dimensional. And they pose questions four hundred years later that are pertinent as we look now to the post-pandemic future. Which motivations are noble and need to be held onto as we shape a different future? How, as the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures illustrates, might we as a society not lose sight of the gains and gifts this crisis has offered: togetherness, social solidarity, care for the marginalised, self-sacrifice, valuing people and jobs differently?

None of this is abstract. It invites a conversation – an argument, even – about how we want to be. I remember a business leader once telling me that the most important person in his business was the cleaner who had his office ready for him every morning. I asked if the cleaner’s remuneration reflected this value, but got no answer.

So, as some parts of the world now enter the maelstrom of infection and others think about emerging from the worst experience, the light at the end of the tunnel invites both hopefulness and realism about the nature of the task ahead.

They say that if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably isn’t true. In the same way, if a story sounds simple, it probably shouldn’t be trusted.

At the moment we are being presented every day with narratives about how the government is handling the coronavirus pandemic and its mitigation. The attempt to make control seem achievable and solutions seem almost within reach has the potential, however, to lead to later corrections and amendments – which then have the effect of reducing confidence because it all sounds too chaotic.

One example: why announce that a plane is bringing a huge volume of PPE back from Turkey when we discover hours later that (a) it hasn’t even taken off yet, (b) hasn’t got permission from the Turks yet, and (c) isn’t likely to bring enough supplies back anyway?

This isn’t to question individual decisions at a difficult time (although the post-pandemic reviews – especially comparisons with countries like Germany – will be challenging), but to question behaviours and narratives.

The best book I have read about Brexit is not basically about Brexit. It is by David Reynolds and is called Island Stories. What he does is take the historic mantra, repeated by Brexiteers, of “our island story”, which tries to reduce the story of Great Britain and Ireland to a simple and glorious character reference: in May 1940 we stood alone and defeated tyranny – that is who we [English] are. Reynolds’ book recognises that our history is a complex of narratives, even if complexity is not what people want to hear when asked to leave or remain in the EU. So, he looks at the historical streams that have led to the Britain we have now, examining among other things Britishness, Empire, Europe and so on.

Even though Brexit is now “done” (really?), this book tells how we became who we are as island nations. Only by acknowledging the complexities can we ever hope to deal with reality (rather than just rhetoric). So, it shines a bit of a light on the self-identification that seems to guide much of our current political activity and language – principally the need to reinforce the notion of British exceptionalism.

A quick final thought about how this relates to reading of narratives. I never tire of reading the biblical narratives. One reason is that they compel the reader to use some imagination in wondering how the stories might have been told by others involved in the events: the Egyptians caught out in the exodus; the Babylonians who benefited from exile and empire; the people Jesus met whose encounters are brief. For example, did the rich young man ever come back to see Jesus again after he had been told to give away his wealth, learn real dependence and only then go with Jesus and his friends?

Narratives always need to be interrogated. Not to do so is not to take them seriously.

I have been reading some pieces by famous people about to whom they turn when isolated or stuck. I turn to Bruce Cockburn.

In March 2011 he released Small Source of Comfort and, as usual, it seeped beauty in its poetry and musicianship. He is still the best guitarist in the world. On a great album there is one song that stands out to me and speaks into the unforeseen pandemic world we inhabit and explore now: ‘Each One Lost’.

The story goes like this. He was in Afghanistan in 2009 with a charity and, while waiting for a flight from Kandahar, witnessed the loading of military coffins into the planes that would take the bodies home. It was the dignity and the pity that got to him. And out of this experience came a song of simplicity and beauty – almost a lullaby for the young people now ‘asleep’.

Under the big lights
shadows stretching long
the ramp is lowered gently to the tarmac
and all of us, we wait
in this sea of gravity
for the precious cargo to appear

Here come the dead boys
moving slowly past
the pipes and prayers and strained commanding voices
and the tears in our hearts
make an ocean we’re all in
all in this together don’t you know

Each one lost
is everyone’s loss you see
each one lost is a vital part of you and me

And so it goes on. You can find it here.

Over 16,000 people have so far died in hospital in the UK of Covid-19. And, as we are daily reminded, each one is precious. Why? Just because the closely bereaved love and miss them? Well, yes. But also because amid the huge numbers we cannot let go of the trust that each one matters – each one, in the words of the Judeo-Christian tradition, is made in the image of God.

Being a society means that every loss is everybody’s loss.

The song is simple and beautiful. Grief rarely is. But, whatever the expression in words or emotion, each one lost is part of you and me.

In An Introduction to the Political State of Great Britain Samuel Johnson, commenting on the behaviour of British colonists in America, wrote:

No people can be great who have ceased to be virtuous.

Well, I guess that depends both on whether you think virtue matters in the first place and what you think defines greatness. For Johnson, clearly, virtue was precisely what characterised those who achieve greatness. It had to do with character first and foremost.

I find this a little disturbing in the current context. I have spoken many times in the House of Lords and elsewhere about the need in a democracy for the people to be trusted with the truth. I might be naive here, but I actually think that people can be very forgiving of error and failure if it is confessed with humility and candour. At the very least, this sort of honesty allows attention to be paid to the substance of the matter in hand and not to the various ways of trying to avoid taking responsibility for it.

I am a little puzzled, then, about how the UK government is handling the coronavirus pandemic. Or, to be more precise, I don’t quite know how to judge the science around the catastrophe as I am not a scientist. My concern lies with the language, presentation and obfuscation we witness every day as ministers seek to show they are in control. For, they either can’t or won’t answer the questions put to them by journalists. Repeating mantras about how “incredibly hard” everyone is working or how “incredibly determined we are” to get sufficient PPE, extend protection to the care sector, expand testing to unachievable levels in too-short timeframes, does not begin to address the questions actually being put. We expect everyone to be working hard – that isn’t the point.

And here is the rub. The Prime Minister, we were told repeatedly, was “in charge”, running the government, leading the ministerial team … when it was obvious he could be doing no such thing from his hospital bed. But, he didn’t delegate the running of government to anyone else, apparently. Why not? Does he not trust them? Or is something else going on here? If he was in charge, then he has to be responsible for what happened; if he was not in charge (because he was too unwell), then what sort of leadership effectively leaves (or creates) a vacuum in terms of accountability? You can’t have it both ways.

It’s a bit like Donald Trump boasting about the strength of the US economy when there is good news, but blaming everyone but himself when something goes wrong with it. It is bizarre.

Now, this isn’t a party political point. After the complete absence of any credible Opposition during the last four years, politics and government have not been well served in any respect. Good government in a parliamentary democracy depends upon the sharpening of policy by accountability to a credible testing of argument. The demos is served by better policy making and implementation when governance and its articulation in the public square (especially the media and the academy) recognise that one day the history will be written and the truth will out.

So, why the feeling that in an effort to demonstrate authority and control we are being taken for fools? The quickest way to sow discontent or undermine the consistent messaging of public health officials and ministers is for people to suspect that “they” can’t be trusted. Holding the line then becomes harder as people decide to do their own thing and make their own judgement. In other words, why don’t ministers stop announcing ‘today’s’ great investment of billions of pounds and level with the public. Why not admit that mistakes were made early in the coronavirus pandemic that will have cost lives? Why not just tell the truth so that we can turn attention away from the past errors and place it firmly on how to get through the current challenges with as many people on board as possible?

Which brings us back to Samuel Johnson and the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures. Education is less about filling empty vessels with information or (even) knowledge, and more about building people’s character through the encouragement of virtue. At the root of virtuous living and speaking lies the need for truth telling and truth hearing. Both are vital. Both seem now to be in danger of neglect or dismissal.

If we want to secure a strong democracy for the future, we must start to demand virtue now, and to question the obfuscation that does not like to be held to account. It cannot wait until everything goes back to ‘normal’ – because it won’t.

Navigating our way through this current virus-induced catastrophe is not exactly a walk in the park, is it?

I went for an actual walk in an actual park yesterday evening and came across this:

I assume it once protected a path – an entrance to the garden of a long-gone house, maybe. Now it stands by the brook, next to a tree. And it serves no purpose other than to intrigue the imagination and make for a nice photo.

I also wonder if it is the sort of image that casts some light on our current predicament. Reports this morning (especially in the Sunday Times) do not point to a government in any sort of competent control of our national response to the virus crisis. Ideology, ambition and incompetence appear to be the drivers. Which makes the constant repetition of “the government has been absolutely clear” mantra by ministers at the daily press briefings even more bizarre.

The clarity of a message is gauged by how it is heard and received by the audience. The first rule of communication is that what is heard matters more than what is said. Saying we have been clear is not the same thing as actually being clear. It would do no harm for politicians to ban the use of the word ‘clear’ from their lips and use the time gained to work hard at how words might be being heard and understood.

And here is the challenge. There have now been so many flip-flops by government and local authority messaging that it is hard to keep up with what is the latest ‘guidance’. Clarity is sacrificed on the altar of expediency.

The gate in the photo is strong, resistant to the forces around it and clearly once had a simple and single purpose. Now it is a picturesque curiosity – a useless, redundant bit of historical architecture that serves no practical purpose. One can only wonder, in the face of reports of today’s rudderless leadership, whether the UK’s polity is the same.

In the Christian calendar today is called ‘Low Sunday’. Last week we exploded with joyful surprise at the resurrection and its impact on the disillusioned friends of Jesus. Today we settle down to the hard, sometimes tedious, job of carrying on with the journey, trying to work out what it all means for now and the future – for politics and economics, for public and private ethics, for my life and our lives together. The daily challenge continues.

And these questions cannot simply stand as a relic of some past purpose. A faith – just like a political settlement – that points only to some past glory is redundant. It is a mere curiosity – effectively pointless. Even if it makes for a nice photo.

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