Today is Trinity Sunday in the church’s calendar – part of Christians’ journey through the year, giving shape to the narrative of God’s engagement with people.

The Trinity is not merely a theological conundrum, dreamed up by weirdos for people with an interest in mathematical paradoxes, but rather relates to the whole of God and our common life in church and society. To put it simply (which, of course, begs a whole load of other questions), the mutuality of relationship between God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit depicts what has been referred to elsewhere as a network of mutual obligations that bind them together in a single, common life.

Mutuality is essential to our common life in the church. Why do we in the Church of England begin every act of worship with some form of repentance – holding up our hands and admitting publicly to hypocrisy, weakness and failure as individuals and as a community? Because we assume this relationship of obligation and compensation, and recognise that it imposes upon us responsibilities from which we cannot duck. We bring different gifts and contribute our unique limitations, too; but, together, we somehow hold together and serve the world we are in.

So far, so good. But, what does this say to a society that widely considers theological ideas to be esoteric, but of only private application to those who choose to be interested?

Without getting too complicated, I think the answer begins here. Human society in a contingent world can only thrive if the networks of mutual obligation are (a) recognised and (b) seen to transcend my individual preferences, needs and desires. The rest of the church’s year involves wrestling with the implications of this – not just for the church, but also for our public and political life nationally, and for the good of the world beyond our shores. That’s why we work through the Bible, being confronted by the difficult and discomfiting bits as well as those that reassure or comfort.

It is appropriate, then, to conclude this brief piece with an appreciation of a man who has challenged and encouraged both church and society to examine our assumptions and blind spots, to live out our common mutuality, and to live better together. The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, who retires today has inspired people to think bigger, to be encountered by the love and call of God, to take responsibility for our common political and ethical life, and to work hard for a better and more humane world. His personality, character and conviction will be missed – although I doubt it is about to disappear from our public life. We owe him a huge debt of gratitude and, as he would particularly want to affirm, give glory to God for all he has been and done in the name of Jesus in the power of the Spirit.

It feels like we are living between times again. Lockdown is giving way to an easing of restrictions – now thrown into chaos by the hypocritical shambles of Dominic Cummings’ breaching of the instructions given to the whole country (and the government’s defence of him). Enough on that for now.

Christians always live in what we might call ‘in-between times’. There is always a ‘not yet’ element to whatever is happening in the world. What is surprising is that people should still be surprised that provisionality is always the name of the game for mortal human beings living in a material and contingent world.

Last Thursday was Ascension Day – Jesus leaves his friends to get on with the job. It’s as if he tells them it’s time to get out of the audience and onto the stage, or out of the stands and onto the pitch. They have watched and listened to him during these last couple of years,  it now comes the time for commitment to the cause. It involves conscious choice.

If you read the narratives, these were a people whose lives were in turmoil. Having put their hope in Jesus being the one to liberate them, they then watched him bleed into the dirt of Golgotha, their faith draining away with it. Then they start experiencing his presence again in various ways, discovering that they can no longer hold onto him or possess him – and certainly not appropriate him for their own sense of security or prosperity. Then, just as they are getting their heads around that one, he takes them up a mountain and leaves them.

Now, if I was one of them, I might be justified in thinking that the promised Holy Spirit would come immediately and empower me/us to do what Jesus told us to get on with. No chance. There’s now another wait (and we don’t know how long this might be, if ever). So, we have to learn to let him go, live with ourselves and each other, wondering how we are supposed to do what he left us with.

Pentecost will come. The friends of Jesus will be empowered to speak of the Jesus revolution in ways that everyone can understand. But, for now, they have to live with the double-whammy of (a) having been given a commission whilst (b) living with complete uncertainty about the future.

We don’t know what the future will look like for our society, our economy, our politics, our church. But, we do know that we are called to be creative, bold and adventurous. Will we make mistakes, misunderstand the calling, head in the wrong direction at the wrong time? Probably. But, Jesus in the gospels shows little surprise when his friends mess it up. What we can’t do is just go back to the fishing grounds of the old certainties.

Ascensiontide – between Ascension and Pentecost – asks us if we are up for it? Before we know what’s coming.

Lockdown means working back through the films I thought we’d seen often enough. The other impetus is that we have a young Austrian student friend living with us and most of these films are new to her.

Last night I couldn’t find what I was looking for, so we watched Shadowlands, the beautiful film about CS Lewis and his relationship with Joy Davidman. I am not an easily weepy man, but the final scenes have me blaming the hay fever again.

The story shows how a cerebral man, an intellectual apologist for Christian faith, comes up against experience and finds that tidy rationality – even in matters of faith – is inadequate when confronted by love and pain and loss and uncontrollable grief. The unarticulated inhibitors of emotional freedom, displaced into the secondhand living-through-literature (which is not to diminish it), slowly dissolve into helpless exposure of weakness and need. Lewis finds that he has been found by love.

We know from what followed that Lewis’s apologetics were humanised – fired in the fulcrum of loss. A Grief Observed remains one of the most beautiful accounts of the power of grief and the uncontrollable experience of powerless submission to raw truth.

A bit like coronavirus, grief can’t be “fixed”or “defeated” or “controlled” – it has to be lived with and gone through and accommodated. And at the end of it all lies what Christians call grace – being found by love.

Lockdown is a challenge. But, for me it also allows space for some conversations that might usually get squeezed between meetings and then forgotten.

Yesterday I had two. Both ran around how the current situation impacts us now and might do in the future. My question (or one of them, at least) is this: when life and its routines are disrupted or taken away, which wells do we draw from to sustain life and meaning? While everything changes above the surface and the shape of the future is uncertain, can we locate the underground streams that keep flowing anyway?

There is probably a better way of putting this. But, in a really stimulating conversation with a BBC friend yesterday morning we were wondering if this crisis has revealed the shallowness of many of our cultural or personal wells. It’s a question, not a statement.

For me, as a Christian, the wells – the underground streams – go back a very long way. The creation narratives in Genesis speak of order being brought out of chaos. The Exodus has a people’s settled world being ruptured and them being driven out of the familiar into the strangeness of a desert where they had to lose before they could gain – to lament the loss of a world before being in a position to reorientate towards a different future in a different place. (It took forty years.) Later the people get exiled from the land of promise (twice, in fact – in the eighth and sixth centuries BC) and take time to live with their loss … before settling in the strange land … and then, generations later, having to leave again. They return ‘home’, but discover that home is no longer what they remembered.

I could go on. The Christian tradition lives and feeds from these narratives of leaving and moving and settling only to be disrupted and moved again. And this experience is rooted in an acceptance of mortality and contingency and what goes with the freedom of living in a material world.

But, we don’t usually transition straight from one world to another. We have to stay with the loss, lamenting what has been lost, grieving for a world (or way of life) now gone. People will take a shorter or longer time to live with this. There will be anger, powerlessness and disorientation. And while this is going on some people will accept the new reality and start orientating towards creating a new world.

So, what are the narratives or assumptions that keep us nourished while all this goes on around and above us?

Christian faith does not assume a life (or world)of continuous security and familiarity. It is fed by scriptures that speak of transience, mortality, provisionality, interruption and leavings. But, they also whisper that the endings are always beginnings – the leavings open a door to arrivals that could not have been experienced otherwise. In other words, the loss can be seen as a gift – what Walter Brueggemann calls ‘newness after loss’.

So, as I have suggested to clergy in the Diocese of Leeds, we might be helped in articulating this by asking four questions: (a) what have I/we lost that we need to regain in the weeks and months ahead? (b) what have we lost that needs to remain lost – left behind in another country? (c) what have I/we gained that we need to retain in the future? (d) what have we gained recently that was useful for this season but needs to be lost if we are to move forward?

We might feel sometimes that we don’t have much to go on. The photo below is one I took on a visit to a farm in Gweru, Zimbabwe, back in 2007. During a drought and amid economic collapse, someone had planted a rose in arid ground and watered it each day. It was a prophetic challenge to the desert; it was an act of hope, of prophetic imagination. Today is not the end.

You have to watch it to the end.

 

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.

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.